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Lessons from the riots in Gujarat

Tomorrow, February 27, is the tenth anniversary of the violence in Gujarat. In March of 2002, the Editors Guild of India sent a three-man team to investigate the role of the media in the riots. The team comprised of BG Verghese, Dileep Padgaonkar and myself.

We filed a report whose finding was that much of the local (Gujarati language) media was prejudiced against Muslims. It played not an insignificant role in keeping the violence going. The tone that newspapers should have adopted during a period of violence was found rarely, and sometimes there was also incitement. All this was fine with its readership, and these papers have since thrived.

Two aspects to the violence in Gujarat have stayed with me.

A candlelit vigil to mark the 10th anniversary of the Gujarat riots as photographs of riot victims stand in the foreground in Ahmadabad, India, Friday, Feb. 24, 2012. AP

The first was the understanding that a riot happens in India when the state steps aside. This happens willfully, because the administration sees benefit in allowing the violence to continue. The reason for this is that often the political party in power during a riot is rewarded with a return to power if elections are around the corner. The former bureaucrat Harsh Mander said that the British had left us a system of neighbourhood policing through which law and order could be imposed within 48 hours. That this had not happened in two of Gujarat’s cities, Ahmedabad and Baroda, indicated that the state was complicit.

The second reason for the state to step aside is when its constituent elements, by which is meant the police force, the administrators, the district magistrates, are part of the same civil society that is violent. They take sides in the violence without instruction from above. There is reason to believe that the latter happened in Gujarat in 2002. We can speculate this because the Supreme Court moved some riot cases out of Gujarat and to Bombay High Court. There is reason to believe that the deliberate withholding of the state’s ability to stop violence happened as well, but to me that is the less disturbing element. Once the administration signals its passiveness, normalcy leaves the neighbourhoods and the killing begins.

The second aspect was the participation of civil society in the violence. The state could have prevented the rioters, true. But why were Gujaratis killing Gujaratis in the first place? This difficult question must be confronted. This role of civil society and media in the violence is the single most important fact of this and all other Indian riots.

The reason given here was provocation. That is to say, if the train had not been set alight in Godhra by Muslims, the killing across the state would not have happened. This justifies collective punishment and civic violence. If one is unable to accept this reasoning, then it is difficult to move on from the savagery, and the dehumanising of people.

I was struck by a couplet in a poem Bollywood lyricist Gulzar wrote on the riots:

Sar nahin katey they, topiyan kati thi ke jin mein sar they (They didn’t cut off heads, they merely cut off caps in which heads were present).

Ten years after the riots, we soothe ourselves with the thought that the violence has not recurred. But whether the state and its constituents will behave differently next time, and whether the population will be less wrathful are questions that lurk, and will not go away easily.

There was one final aspect to the events in Gujarat that was not immediately obvious, but has emerged in time.

This was the first communal riot where the violence was shown live on television, over an entire week. This made the event transformational. More people (2700) were killed during the riots in Delhi in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s murder and more again (over 2,000) in 1992-93, after the demolition of the Babri mosque. In Gujarat 790 Muslims and 253 Hindus were killed, and about 250 more are missing, presumed dead. Despite the smaller number, the impact of the Gujarat riots was deeper than the previous two because of television. The violence was shown in a vivid manner, and the bestiality was remembered. It has produced a fiercely secular national media that has pushed Hindutva back in the last decade.