”Can you get us some help beta? Some money? Everyone has forgotten us.”
The predicament of Shantaben Patel (54), sobbing before this reporter in her two-room home in the dusty Ahmedabad suburb of Amraiwadi, is common to many families of 59 ram sewaks (servants of Ram) burned alive during a riotous attack by a Muslim mob on coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002, in Godhra.
As a special court prepares to deliver on Tuesday its verdict on Godhra, the first of nine Gujarat riot cases overseen by the Supreme Court, Hindustan Times tracked down some of the families: Facing penury with the death of earning members, most felt abandoned by a government that cashed in on the killings, sweeping Narendra Modi and the BJP to an unchallenged reign of Gujarat since.
The BJP and its ally, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), paraded charred bodies through the streets, and Modi said on February 27, 2002: “It (the burning of coach S-6) was a preplanned act. The culprits will have to pay for it. It was not communal violence. It was a violent, one-sided, collective act by only one community.”
Was the burning, as the police story goes, a “pre-planned conspiracy” or a spontaneous riot? This is the crux of the case being heard since May 2009 by designated judge P R Patel at his high-security courtroom in the Sabarmati Jail.
Whichever way the judgement goes, the resentment of the families and the VHP, which stays in touch with many of them, will remain.
VHP members interviewed were deeply resentful of Modi, but they did not want that resentment made public. All that VHP president Pravin Togadia said was: “The VHP is committed to Hinduism and so we have distanced ourselves from the BJP.”
The VHP and the Bajrang Dal, its fellow cousin in the Sangh Parivar, the union of Hindu outfits, played a key role in the anti-Muslim riots that claimed more than 1,200 lives after Godhra. Many VHP members got BJP tickets in the assembly elections that followed in December 2002.
Relations soured when more than 2,000 footsoldiers of the VHP and Bajrang Dal were arrested after hundres of riot cases were reopened by Modi’s government on orders from the Supreme Court.
During the 2007 elections, all the VHP men who got tickets in 2002 were dropped, among them Haresh Bhatt, the Godhra MLA who was swept to victory in an anti-Muslim tide. Bhatt has since dropped out of politics and the Congress has now won Godhra.
“We were used by Modisaab, used!” said an angry office bearer of the VHP, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Now that he has cemented his position, he wants to be seen as pro-development. He has abandoned those who died for him in Godhra. Who will support their families?”
“It is like we have been wiped out from Modi’s memory,” said an angry woman who lost her father and brother at Godhra. Speaking on condition of anonymity from her two-room home in the district of Anand, she said she worked as a seamstress for Rs 1,800 a month. “Has he forgotten the votes he got from our pain?”
In Amraiwadi, Shantaben explained how hard it was to survive on the Rs 2,000 her husband, Isswarbhai Keshavji Patel (58), is paid as a shop assistant. Above her is a garlanded photo of her son, Chiraj, who was a copper worker. “If he was alive,” said Shantaben, as she wiped her tears with her frayed saree. “He would have been our crutch.”
Sabarmati Express fire and after