6 March 2002
The Times of India
Carnage in Gujarat
Telling Silence, Mr Vajpayee
By Siddharth Varadarajan
Prime Minister Vajpayee's attempt to blame the people of Gujarat – and their supposed lack of “harmony” – for the mass killings in their state is a disingenuous maneuver aimed at absolving himself, his party colleagues and the state machinery they control, of any responsibility for the crimes.
Instead of using national television to tell the people of Gujarat that the genocidal mobs would be put down with a firm hand – and that policemen failing to protect the life and liberty of all would be punished – Mr Vajpayee delivered a sermon on the need for religious tolerance.
Considering that it took him two whole days and over 300 deaths to come up with such tepid fare, he might at least have used his poetic skills to compensate for the lack of political will. Who knows, if the poet Amrita Pritam could have delivered her 'Waris Shah' on television in 1947, she might have shamed a killer or two into dropping his weapon. Sadly, our Prime Minister could not even do that much. Though he has described the violence as a “blot on the nation”, there was little passion or feeling in what he said, no words of succor for the victims, no anger or opprobrium for the killers. If Vajpayee the statesman failed the nation, Vajpayee the poet fared no better.
Like Rajiv Gandhi in November 1984 and Narasimha Rao in January 1993, Mr Vajpayee will go down in history as a prime minister who preached the virtues of tolerance even as his cohorts turned a blind eye to the massacre of innocent citizens. Had he gone on television to denounce those using the Godhra incident to justify attacks on Muslims – including chief minister Narendra Modi, who said, “Har kriya ki pratikriya hoti hi hai (Every act produces a reaction)” – he would have alienated a handful of fanatics but earned the gratitude of the entire nation in return.
One Arab and one Sikh were murdered in the US following the terrorist massacre of over 3,000 people at the World Trade Center and the public outcry forced president Bush to state that anyone attacking Muslims and other minorities would be severely dealt with. In India there was mush self-righteous anger when a Sikh in the US was 'mistakenly' killed for being an Arab. In Gujarat, however, more than 450 Muslims have been hunted down and murdered after Godhra – that too by elements inspired by his own partymen with complicity of the state government and police – yet Mr Vajpayee could not bring himself to say as the leader of India, that he would not allow anyone to attack Muslim citizens, as Bush did in the US context.
There have been communal massacres before but never has such an attempt been made to destroy not just a minority community but its economic foundations as well, Already, more than 450 Muslims have been killed. Tens of crores of rupees worth of property has been torched, and when the ashes settle, it may well be that no Gujarati Muslim business – from the smallest tea stall to large hotels and film studios – will have survived. Muslims from all walks of life have been targeted and even prominent members of the state and ruling apparatus – sitting high court judges, senior police officers and politicians – have not been spared. The fact that the BJP government in Gujarat devalued Muslims lives in Gujarat is well known, but by offering one lakh rupees per riot victim as compared to two lakhs rupees for the Godhra victims, Narendra Modi has arithmetically quantified his bias.
Ever since the hijacking of IC-814, the prime minister has become something of an expert in the fine art of capitulating to blackmail. Today, his government is indulging in 'negotiations' on the Ayodhya issue with a group that is responsible for the pogroms of Gujarat and openly flaunts its contempt for the law. Press reports are piling up by the day that the mobs were led and orchestrated by local leaders of the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Whether the ban on the Islamic group SIMI was justified or not, there was certainly no incriminating evidence against it of the kind that is publicly accumulating against the VHP. If suspicion and intent were grounds to ban SIMI, why is the Union government unwilling to move against a group that is a walking advertisement for mass violence?
Asked by a citizen's delegation last week why his government could not ban the VHP when General Musharraf had managed to ban several religious extremist groups in Pakistan, Mr Vajpayee is said to have replied, “(Musharraf) is a dictator and can ban anyone. We are a democracy”. This appeal to 'democracy' has an uncomfortable resonance with the controversial remark Mr Vajpayee made last month during the final phase of campaigning for the Uttar Pradesh elections. Speaking at a rally in Allahabad, he urged Muslims to vote for his party but added that BJP was going to win even without their votes. Though Mr Vajpayee subsequently went out of his way to stress that he did not mean to say the BJP wasn't interested in Muslims votes, the import of his message to Indian Muslims couldn't have been clearer. You are either with us or you are against us. It could have been interpreted as a velvet-gloved threat, which the Bajrang Dal and VHP in Gujarat have come good on.
Even at this late stage, Mr Vajpayee can work to retrieve the situation. First, he must use his party channels to dismiss Narendra Modi as chief minister and replace him with a man who will arrest those leaders, political activists and police official who through their action, inaction and incendiary speeches have led to so much carnage. Second, the law of the land must be made to apply to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and all other organisations, which are involved. Far from giving the VHP respectability, the Centre should state unequivocally that there is no question of giving in to blackmail over Ayodhya, now or in the future.
Finally, the prime minister must realise that what has happened in Gujarat is not abstract, amorphous Muslim citizens with tacit backing of the state administration. Godhra was a terrible crime but the government at least did not help the murderers; what happened afterwards, however, suggests official complicity. Unless the guilty are punished, the Central government will have relinquished its moral right to hold office.