21 December 2002

State actors in a pogrom

December 21, 2002 - January 3, 2003
Volume:19 Issue:26


State actors in a pogrom


Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy edited by Siddharth Varadarajan; Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2002; pages 459, Rs.295.

THE complicity of state actors in violence inevitably leads to two kinds of literature on all riots. The first is the official account, in which the nature of the violence is reported to be sporadic and the count of dead is lower than that in most unofficial accounts. The role of the state actors in supporting the riots is either overlooked or taken up in a cursory manner. Such accounts are commonly found in official inquiries. The lack of adequate government documentation leads to the creation of a second set of literature on riots - unofficial investigations, which look into direct and indirect violations by government institutions during the days of violence.

In the case of the Gujarat riots where the issue is of the massacre of a minority community, the implications of the second set of literature assume vital proportions. The Gujarat riots raise questions that trouble sociologists, anthropologists and political theorists.

The volume under review belongs to the second set of literature. It is a compilation of published and unpublished articles by journalists, anthropologists and members of civil networks that are active in Gujarat and elsewhere. It is obvious that the contributors and the editor of the volume have set themselves to the task of recording the horrors of the post-Godhra riots lest they should remain ignored in official records and inquiries.

The volume has three sections - the violence, its aftermath, and essays and analyses. The articles are based on both original and secondary sources, including the writings of scholars, the reports of official and unofficial commissions of inquiry, newspaper columns and magazine articles, and personal research. All these in one form or the other have been arranged and structured according to categories and formats consciously or unconsciously employed by the authors.

The section on violence is a detailed and rounded documentation of what `exactly' happened during the riots. The pattern that the seven chapters share is in interpretive reading of news and other reports published by organisations such as the People's Union of Civil Liberties. This section gives details of the riots - their duration and phases, the identity of the participants and victims, the nature of the violence, the extent to which they were planned, and the actions of State government officials. Some of these topics are comprehensively dealt with by anthropologist Nandini Sunder in her article on the pattern of the violence. The chapter goes into the aspects of police collusion, hate mobilisation and the demography of the violence. In subsequent chapters, some of these topics have been touched upon by other contributors.

A very interesting point often cited, but not elaborated on by Nandini Sunder or any of the other writers, is the role of non-participants in the riots. Nandini Sunder writes that in areas where the riots did not take place, BJP activists sent boxes of bangles to its local party leaders. Although it helped to activate non-participants to join the rioting in some places, at others it did not achieve its objective. So how can the silence of the non-participants be interpreted in Gujarat? Was their silence an approval or a disapproval of the riots? This question is especially relevant in the case of Gujarat where riots followed one another in waves, with some localities reporting a few days of violence followed by peace and then riots.

Also of interest is the chapter `Adivasis and Dalits', written by the Director of the Tribal Academy in Gujarat, Ganesh N. Devy. It examines the persecution of Muslims in the tribal areas of Gujarat and questions how much of it was a measure of the BJP's success. The answer lies in the financial incentives and the local political issues that were used to instigate Adivasis to participate in the rioting, more than their belief in Hinduism as a religion, says Devy.

In the chapter on the role of the media in the riots Siddharth Varadarajan makes an interesting point. He highlights the need to identify the victims of riots by their religion, as "Hindus" and "Muslims", in news reports so that it can be seen which community is being targeted. At the same time, he emphasises that "care should be used to describe the identity of the attackers in news reports". He rightly asks: "By what logic can a politically instigated mob that enjoys the tacit backing of the State law enforcement machinery be labelled as a `Hindu mob'?" In the same section, Rajdeep Sardesai, who extensively covered the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, takes on the Gujarat government's charges against the media and says that the media did not ransack shops or participate in the rioting in Gujarat.

Legal researcher Vrinda Grover shifts the focus to the First Information Reports (FIR) filed during the riots. She exposes how the law-enforcers not only tacitly supported the riots by `looking away' but also ensured the dismissal of riot-related cases at the trial stage by recording inexact FIRs. She has collected details of omnibus FIRs registered by the Gujarat police, where instead of registering separate FIRs, the police recorded a single FIR for several cases. In others, they have deliberately omitted the names of the accused persons. Yet another common feature in the FIRs is that they are prefaced by a detailed account of the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra.

The importance of this volume is that it has accomplished the task of bringing across eyewitnesses who have compiled reports on the riots. Where news reports have been used, their texts have been supplemented by interpretive analysis. In the entire book, the emphasis is on recording events as they took place. In doing this an attempt has been made to place the tragedy of Gujarat beyond the personal, and in a wider explanatory framework. There is a need for as many such accounts as possible, not only to help understand Gujarat better, but also to address the challenge of curbing communal riots in India.

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