Ten years have passed since a blistering storm of hate in Gujarat extinguished more than 2,000 lives, and destroyed countless more. It was a moment which altered the course of innumerable lives, including even my own.
I look back on those years with sorrow, with anger, but still also with hope. Ten years ago as a serving officer, I wrote of my anguish at the sheer cruelty of the slaughter in Gujarat, the complicity of my then colleagues in the civil and police administration in the massacre, the refusal of the state to even establish relief camps, and the blinding social and political climate of hate.
Today much of that grief persists, because of the many great failures of these 10 years after the massacre: the profound social failures of reconciliation and forgiveness; the legal failures of justice; and the political failures of democratic accountability. Those responsible for mass crimes and continuing persecution of minorities stand unpunished and defiant. I mourn also that leaders of industry, political parties, even social movements, celebrate the administration in Gujarat. They claim that the ‘bigger picture’ is of economic growth, administrative efficiency and alleged financial probity, rendering insignificant the ‘smaller picture’ of mere massacre and profiling.
I have not met a single survivor who has been able to regain the levels of living which they enjoyed before the carnage. Memories of how life was before the storm haunt them each day; of all that they lost that can never be reclaimed. Around half the 200,000 people who fled murderous mobs and burning homes 10 years ago can never return to the lands of their birth. Entire villages have been ‘cleansed’ of their erstwhile Muslim residents.
Around 30,000 persons subsist in small bare tenements in relief colonies built by mainly Muslim organisations as temporary settlements of refuge, but now their permanent homes. Others who could afford it have moved into the safety of numbers in crowded Muslim ghettoes. They were forced to sell their lands and properties at distress rates to their Hindu neighbours. The state remains openly hostile to these Muslim settlements, and discriminates in basic public services like drinking water, roads, electrification and sewerage.
For those who could return to their homes, life after the storm is one of segregation, isolation and penury. They live as second-class citizens, shunned by their neighbours. They are no longer welcome at weddings and funerals. People employ them only when there is no one else available. And yet, such is the resilience of the human spirit, that although they suffer hate, injustice, betrayal and loss, they still soldier on. The ache is always there, but survivors immerse themselves in the simple struggles of everyday living.
Their wounds could heal with demonstrations of remorse and justice. But the original slaughter is matched by the determination — sustained for 10 years — of both the state and their neighbours to block the efforts of the victimised people to rebuild their old lives; to refuse to express regret; and to strenuously subvert justice. Chief minister Narendra Modi refuses — even risking his political future — to apologise even once for the carnage. The only men in khaki who are punished by the state government are those who bravely strive for justice.
A widow has petitioned the highest court of the land to prosecute the CM for complicity in slaying her husband. A police officer testifies that the CM instructed his officers that the mass violence should be permitted to continue. Just the fact that the massacre and arson persisted for many days, even weeks, is in itself complete evidence, proving beyond doubt the complicity of the state at the highest levels. I have observed and handled many communal riots in my years as a civil servant, and I am certain that no riot can continue even beyond a few hours unless the political and administrative leadership wants that it should continue. And there are few crimes as great as to betray one’s duty to protect people from violence targeted at them only because of their identity.
Many of us have stood these many years in solidarity with the survivors who choose to fight for justice in the country’s courts. Even so, most criminal cases eventually collapse, and the men charged with rape, arson and mass murder walk free. Impunity remains the norm in communal violence. Police investigations are artfully slipshod, public prosecutors behave more like defence attorneys, witnesses and complainants are openly intimidated and coerced sometimes even in the corridors of the courts, and judges often do not hide their sympathies for the accused.
On the other hand, for nine of the 10 years since the train burned in Godhra, the men charged with setting the compartment ablaze languished in jail, until they were finally acquitted because there was no evidence against them, even by the much looser standards of anti-terror laws. Freed after incarceration for nine years for no crime, their families, their lives, their spirit are permanently destroyed. Perhaps they were more fortunate than those who were killed in fake police encounters, including a 19-year-old girl.
Yet I am still able to hope more than I did those 10 years ago. Few expected them to do so, but the people of this country have shown the wisdom and humanity to reject the politics of hate nationally, although they did not in Gujarat. Even during the carnage, many more people saved lives than those who took them. Gujarat abounds with heroes. Police officers, journalists, writers, artistes, judges at every level, and peace and justice workers, have fought hatred and injustice incessantly these 10 years. And most of them do not belong to the community which was targeted. Each stood tall, often at great personal cost, bravely defending our Constitution and our collective humanity.
It is because of them that I still hope. Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies. The views expressed by the author are personal.