Gujarat riots 10th anniversary: Revisiting the symbols of genocide

By Shiv Visvanathan

The history of violence in modern India has been marked by certain images. Perhaps the most haunting in collective memory is the train.

The train to Pakistan is the unforgettable symbol of the Partition. The train enacted the everydayness of genocide, the reciprocity of violence between Lahore and Amritsar. Sadat Hasan Manto immortalised it with that simple line, “The train to Amritsar was seven hours late.” Just that glancing reference to the lost time was sufficient to convey the mayhem that accompanied the event.

The train rears its head again with Godhra. The Sabarmatri Express in 2002 carrying kar sewaks from Ayodhya was burnt at the station leaving 59 dead. In retaliation, Hindus went berserk and went on a riot which lasted over two months and left over a 1,000 dead.

On the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, the lingering question remains: could the tragedy have been anticipated? There is enough evidence to show that intelligence reports were aware of the impending violence. But the gap between intelligence as information and politics as judgment would prove a costly one. The chief minister's use of the law of physics to explain the gap, claiming “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” revealed bad taste, bad physics and bad politics.

A picture of this Indian Muslim man begging to be rescued from Hindu rioters became the lasting image of the Gujarat carnage of 2002. Reuters

Killing as a collective act needs technology. First, there was the train, and then two lethal instruments of murder. Two everyday objects. The dharyu, an agricultural implement used by farm hands became a tool to disembowel bodies. More dramatic was the use of the humble gas canister to blow up houses. The cooking gas became a binary weapon, both as a domestic convenience and a destroyer of homes.

Yet what made the riots even more macabre was the use of two other technologies. One was the use of the mobile phone to create a connectivity among the rioters, and second was the deliberate use of chemicals during arson. Survivors speak of the use of numerous tiny bottles of foreign import which not only ate into the skin but scorched the walls indelibly.

There are other images of the materiality of riots. Walking through the slums, one sees the lari (the hand cart on cycle wheels), inverted, piled one against the other, like strange sculptures, as if in tribute to the missing. Each empty lari represents a lost livelihood. Of the 13 districts for which we have state data, 70,000 people have not returned to their homes in Gujarat.

It's a myth that life returns to normalcy after a riot. Ordinary people are not allowed to return to their livelihoods. Often a man parking his lari in his usual space on the street encounters the goon or the Bajrang Dal enthusiast who prevents any return to his usual livelihood. There are also reports that show how Hindus wanting to sell their houses to Muslims were prevented from doing so through sit-ins and social pressure.

Riots are too simplistically viewed as a communal problem. Constructed this way, riots are seen as occasional bursts of emotion, episodic outbursts against a particular community. But riots in India appear to be more systemic.

A Muslim informant, an experienced activist told me that riots appear to be an act of economic leveling, that whenever Muslim communities build through their enterprise, a riot emerges to level their hard work. But beyond this, riots seem a part of planned urbanization. They set the stage for an urban cleansing equivalent to an ethnic cleansing. When homes are emptied, real estate is born. The sudden upsurge of urbanization in various parts of Gujarat like Naroda Patia makes one wonder if riots consciously or unconsciously are a part of a deeper plan.

Studying the materiality of loss makes me wonder if riots are, in fact, a form of economic warfare. Today, riots along with dam projects have become a major cause for large-scale, collective displacement.

In fact, the idea of development is used to implicitly condone riots. Many middle-class people seem to think that the past should be forgotten so we can focus on the more important task of development. In fact, the plea for development allows the erasure of the memory of riots.

While riots create urban real estate in one part of the state, they also serve to ruthlessly exile minorities to another. Anyone who doubts this should visit the camp at Citizen Nagar in Ahmedabad. Ironically dubbed a 'transit' camp, it clings to a huge garbage site. The dump was a small one in 2002. Today, it is a gigantic structure, a mountain of waste, smelling of garbage and chemicals, acrid with smoke, the delight of birds of prey.

Here then is the question: What kind of urban planning would locate a group of survivors near a dump site of this size? The very act juxtaposes two allied forms of waste – urban waste and urban survivors wasted by riots. It is a damning symbol of the indifference of the Modi regime to normalcy, survival and justice; of the deliberate destruction, symbolically and materially, of a group that is culturally different.

The train, the waste dump, the gas cylinder, the dharyu, the mobile phone are the new material mnemonics of genocide in Gujarat. The city becomes a museum of its own violence unconsciously commemorating a drama it cannot erase.

Shiv Visvanathan is a Social Science nomad.

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