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Rubble-rousers

A numbing spiral of violence has once again gripped Vadodara in Gujarat, a city that was brutally torn apart by the mass murder of segments of its citizens in 2002.

india Updated: May 08, 2006 00:24 IST

A numbing spiral of violence has once again gripped Vadodara in Gujarat, a city that was brutally torn apart by the mass murder of segments of its citizens in 2002. Large parts of the city are engulfed by the tense unquiet of curfew. The streets are emptied of people, except clutches of homeless families to whom no curfew can apply. Instead, convoys of security forces manoeuvre the roads, and bleary-eyed policemen have established pickets in a belated claim to guard the people of the beleaguered city.

Yet the faith of many citizens in the will and capacity of the state administration to protect them and to restore peace and secure justice is completely decimated. More so because the violence was provoked and stoked directly by the openly sectarian and provocative actions of the municipal and police administration.

The dispute was over the declared resolve of the local government to demolish a dargah of Sufi saint Hazrat Rasiuddin Chisti. The newly elected city council, with an overwhelming BJP membership, voted for its removal, claiming that it was an ‘encroachment’ and obstructed traffic.

The worried leaders of the Muslim community tried to negotiate with the mayor and councillors. Realising that they were adamant, they agreed to demolish substantial parts of the structure and the dargah’s canopy themselves, and retain only a small structure over the actual grave. However, their conciliatory offer of compromise was rejected and the council decided that it would settle for nothing less than a full demolition.

Immediately thereafter, the mayor, accompanied by BJP leaders notorious for their role in the 2002 massacre, municipal authorities and a large contingent of armed policemen both in uniform and civilian clothes, descended at the dargah with bulldozers. Local Muslim youths quickly mobilised a peaceful resistance in the form of a sit-in around the site. The mayor and the mob raised inflammatory slogans. The crowd of Muslim men soon found themselves pelted by stones, and the police started to shoot at them.

Television cameras recorded how policemen shot at the retreating crowd at point-blank range, aiming at their heads rather than their feet. Two men died of bullet injuries of the head and many were injured. All rules that regulate the use of force against civilian populations were
disregarded. There was no advance warning, no lathi charge, no water cannons, no rubber bullets, no shooting at the feet. There was only firing to kill. We later inspected the site and found bullet marks on walls more than five feet above the ground and deep inside the lane where they were chased as they fled.

The municipal administration and the mob then demolished the Sufi shrine and immediately built a tar road drive over it. Their triumphant mood revived memories of the Babri masjid demolition and that of the razing of the Wali Gujarati dargah in Ahmedabad in 2002 — except that this operation was openly planned and executed by the state administration itself.

The widespread dismay and outrage that followed was countered by authorities, who described the demolition as part of a routine administrative exercise to widen roads and ‘beautify’ the city. It was claimed that several temples had similarly been peacefully demolished with no protest and the Muslims, by implication, were painted as being violent,  regressive and opposed to development. This communal subterfuge was uncritically relayed by large sections of the media and remains the popular perception of the violent events in Vadodara, because it fits and fuels prevailing communal stereotypes.

What the authorities hid was, first, that the Hindu temples that were demolished were mostly ‘deras’ or tiny private temples built in recent years. We took photographs of at least 20 temples, mostly in the vicinity of police stations or the municipal headquarters, that indeed blocked the roads, and one inside the office premises of the police commissioner. But there was no demand to demolish these temples. Further, at least eight much more substantial Muslim shrines had also been demolished, with no protests by the Muslim community.

Further, there is evidence that this dargah is several hundred years old, and probably predates the city of Vadodara itself. Therefore, by no definition can it be described as an encroachment. If at all, it was the city that encroached on the shrine. There are records of a city survey undertaken in 1912 by the erstwhile Gaekwad ruler, copies of which we acquired that clearly show presence of the shrine. An Act of Parliament passed after the traumatic demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992 lays down that the status quo cannot be altered of religious structures that existed in 1947. This makes the officially sanctioned demolition not only communally motivated, but also in violation of the law of the land.

Finally, the dargah did not actually obstruct traffic, as it was close to the pavement. In any case, the traffic was constrained by the adjacent narrow Champaner Darwaza. Despite this, in the interests of peace, Muslim leaders agreed to drastically reduce the structure. But once again the authorities refrained from disclosing this offer.

Tension mounted further when a young man, Rafiq, was cruelly burnt alive in his car by crowds that gathered unobstructed by the police despite curfew. Television footage records ghoulish celebrations as the young man is slowly burnt to death. Repeated entreaties on telephone for protection to police officers were ignored. A retired police officer testifies that he lay down on the road before a passing fire engine to persuade it to douse the fire in the car, but the driver refused and drove away in reverse gear.

In a gruesome replay of the tragic events in 2002, mobs gathered under the cover of the police to stone and burn Muslim homes and properties. We passed scores of desolate charred shells of hand-carts and shops. In the hospital, we met around 15 working- class Muslim youths who testified shockingly to being shot by policemen at point-blank range. This time round, there was some retaliatory violence against the Hindu community, and two youths were stabbed to death — one the only bread-earner of his family. Fortunately, widespread television coverage and the firm stance by the central government (for the first time by the UPA government in the context of the continuing injustice in Gujarat) mercifully helped avert a full-blown recurrence of the events of 2002.

It is important to understand that this is not a stray event. It is the outcome of the fact that the police, the municipal and civil administrations in Gujarat have progressively allowed themselves to be reduced to become the extended arm of militant Hindutva politics since 2002. Earlier, rioting mobs had tried to dismantle the shrine, but it was always rebuilt, reportedly mainly by Hindu devotees. This time, the state administration itself demolished the shrine. Earlier, rioters killed each other. Now policemen do the killing with impunity and escape all punishment for their crimes.

We are witnessing in Vadodara just one glimpse of the wages of the state becoming the willing active agency of the politics of hate. If we do not reverse this, it will destroy the ancient and precious secular fabric of this land, and the faith and hope of its vulnerable people.