2002 Gujarat riots: 20 years on, wounds remain fresh

Twenty years ago, on February 27, 2002 a coach of the Sabarmati Express was returning with passengers from the Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya when it was set ablaze near Godhra railway station by a mob consisting of people from the Muslim community
In the aftermath of the unabated violence that lasted for about three days before the army troops intervened and brought the situation under control, the Supreme Court set up a special investigation team in 2008. (HT Archive)
In the aftermath of the unabated violence that lasted for about three days before the army troops intervened and brought the situation under control, the Supreme Court set up a special investigation team in 2008. (HT Archive)
Updated on Feb 28, 2022 06:55 AM IST
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ByMaulik Pathak, Ahmedabad

Latifa Yusuf Giteli is keeping a close watch on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, worried about the fate of a dear student, who is pursuing a medical degree and is stuck in the ongoing war.

The student was one of hundreds who have graduated from Giteli’s school, which she started in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, one of the worst communal clashes in India that left at least 1,000 people dead and left thousands injured. Now 60, Giteli said the violence pushed her to work for better education in her community.

Twenty years ago, on February 27, 2002 a coach of the Sabarmati Express was returning with passengers from the Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya when it was set ablaze near Godhra railway station by a mob consisting of people from the Muslim community. As many as 59 Hindu devotees, including children, were charred to death in the train attack. The incident triggered communal riots across Gujarat.

How the events unfolded
How the events unfolded

Latifa Yusuf Giteli is keeping a close watch on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, worried about the fate of a dear student, who is pursuing a medical degree and is stuck in the ongoing war.

The student was one of hundreds who have graduated from Giteli’s school, which she started in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, one of the worst communal clashes in India that left at least 1,000 people dead and left thousands injured. Now 60, Giteli said the violence pushed her to work for better education in her community.

Twenty years ago, on February 27, 2002 a coach of the Sabarmati Express was returning with passengers from the Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya when it was set ablaze near Godhra railway station by a mob consisting of people from the Muslim community. As many as 59 Hindu devotees, including children, were charred to death in the train attack. The incident triggered communal riots across Gujarat.

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“I visited a relief camp near Godhra where some of my relatives were seeking refuge after the communal violence. Some of them were beaten up, some were separated from their children, their houses burnt down. I also lost some of my relatives in the riots. I was shaken from the core and decided to do something to uplift the community,” said Giteli, who started a school for poor families and a training centre for women to earn a living.

The school which collects a nominal annual fee of 100 per student, initially saw enrolment of 8-10 students. Today, there are about 400 students at United Economic Forum Public School that teaches in English and Gujarati.

“Education has been one of the biggest drawbacks in our community. In the last twenty years, the biggest change in the post-Godhra scenario is education. Not only boys, today Muslim girls are taking up careers as doctors and physiotherapists. One of my students is stuck in Ukraine where he had gone to study medicine,” said Giteli who studied only till Class 7.

Mukhtar Muhammad, a businessman who turned into a social worker after the communal riots, agreed. “Education has certainly become very important and the Muslim leaders have also been of that view after 2002. The community has been living under heightened and constant fear ever since,” said Muhammad, who escaped a mob attack at Kalol in 2002.

He lived in a Hindu dominated society then where his was the only Muslim family. “I lived with Hindus then and did not have many Muslim friends. My car was attacked by a mob while traveling with my family and this is when I decided to move to a Muslim society,” he said. He now lives in the Juhapura area in Ahmedabad that has emerged as a big Muslim ghetto with a population of about 500,000.

Then there are others like Nadeem Jafri, founder and chief mentor of Hearty Mart, a retail chain whose success has become a case study at premier B-schools.

“There are two views. Some feel there is alienation of Muslims after 2002 and this is seen today not only in Gujarat but across India including Karnataka. But there is also hope and my story is about that. Back then, Juhapura did not even have a bank. Today it houses upmarket residential schemes and people from other communities come here to dine at the number of outlets that have opened here,” said Jafri who set up his first neighbourhood store at Juhapura in 2004.

In the aftermath of the unabated violence that lasted for about three days before the army troops intervened and brought the situation under control, the Supreme Court set up a special investigation team (SIT) in 2008. The SIT investigated nine major cases, including the violence at Naroda Patiya, Naroda Gaam and Gulbarg Society case.

Incidents of communal clashes were however reported from various parts of the state for the next three to four months.

In the 12 major Godhra and post-Godhra riots cases, about 600 persons were accused, of which close to 200 have been convicted, over 150 being served life sentences. They include the nine post-Godhra cases that were ordered for reinvestigation by the Supreme Court-appointed SIT, Godhra train burning case and Bilkis Banu and Best Bakery cases.

The trial courts have given their verdict in eight of these cases, but their decisions have been challenged in the Gujarat high court and Supreme Court.

Among the most high-profile cases taken up by the SIT was the Naroda Gaam case, where 11 people were burnt alive by a mob on February 28. “It has been twenty years and their families are still awaiting justice. The final arguments are on,” said Shamshad Pathan, a lawyer representing the victims’ families at a trial court in Ahmedabad.

Naroda Gaam is less than three km away from Naroda Patiya, where 97 people were killed by a mob in one of the most gruesome incidents of violence. One of the accused in this case was former state minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Maya Kodnani who was found guilty by the trial court and sentenced to 28 years of imprisonment in 2012. Another 32 people were convicted

The Gujarat high court acquitted her in 2018, citing that none of the witnesses against her were reliable. The high court upheld the convictions of 13 people, including Babu Bajrangi a former Bajrang Dal leader, and convicted three more while acquitting 18 of the 32 people convicted by the trial court. Bajrangi is out on bail on health grounds.

The SIT also investigated the Gulbarg massacre case, where 69 people were killed in a housing society during the rioting. Those killed included Congress MP Ehsan Jafri whose wife Zakia Jafri alleged wider conspiracy in the riots.

Jafri and activist Teesta Setalvad’s organisation, Citizen for Justice and Peace, blamed then chief minister Narendra Modi and about 60 others for their alleged inaction during the Gujarat riots. In 2012, the SIT gave a clean chit to Modi and submitted it to the local magistrate’s court, which accepted the report. Jafri challenged the report and sought reinvestigation, which was rejected by the court in October 2017. The matter is now being heard in the Supreme Court where Jafri has challenged the SIT report.

A special court in June 2016 found 24 people guilty in the case. 11 were convicted for murder, and 13 were found guilty of lesser offences, including rioting. The court acquitted 36 people.

In 2019, the Supreme Court awarded a compensation of 50 lakh to Bilkis Bano, who was gangraped in Dahod district of Gujarat on March 3, 2002. The court also directed the Gujarat government to provide her a government job and accommodation as per rules. In May 2017, a court in Mumbai upheld life sentence to 11 people for raping Bano, who was pregnant.

“There were 18 cases of post-Godhra riots in Panchmahals and Dahod in which I was involved to get justice for the victims. Except for the Bilkis Bano case, all the accused have been acquitted in the other cases,” said Mukhtar Muhammad.

In September 2008, the Nanavati Commission, appointed by the Gujarat government to probe the train burning, said the fire was not an accident, but a conspiracy and that the coach was set ablaze by a mob.

“If the fire had occurred as a result of an accident, then in that case the passengers in coach S/6 would have got out of it through all the four doors of the coach. As a matter of fact all of them except three had got out of the coach on the yard side. If it was a case of an accidental fire, the windows of all the coaches on the left hand side would not have been found closed nor the windows of coach S/6 would have been found in broken condition. The accidental fire would not have led to such a high casualty or extensive damage to the coach. The persons who had gathered on the left hand side of the train, would have come there after seeing the fire. If they were merely onlookers then they would have tried to help the passengers,” according to the panel’s report.

In October 2017, the Gujarat high court commuted death sentence of 11 convicts to life imprisonment and upheld life imprisonment of 20 convicts awarded by the trial court.

In August 2018, a special court in Ahmedabad awarded life imprisonment to two people convicted in the 2002 Godhra train burning case. Last year in February, the key accused – Rafiq Hussain Bhatuk – was nabbed from Godhra town. He was part of the core group of accused people involved in the conspiracy, according to the state police.

“The Muslims have been marginalised since 2002. The Godhra and post-Godhra violence changed the political scenario in Gujarat. The rival Congress was not committed to secular politics and it showed as they did not take any firm stand on Godhra. From 1981, Congress has been playing to the gallery,” said Ghanshyam Shah, a retired professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

He said though communal clashes have historical roots, their nature, modus operandi and scale have changed since the 1960s.

“They have been largely engineered for mobilising marginalised communities by invoking insecurity, communal consciousness and patriotism,” according to Shah.

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Monday, June 27, 2022