Life Itself Is a Celebration...Unless You're Killed in a Pogrom

March 1, 2010

The Gujarat state government website features a smiling Chief Minister Narendra Modi touting how “life itself is a celebration” in his state.  Wow, this sounds to me like a swell time to be had by all in Gujarat!  But I guess someone forgot to tell that to the thousands whose lives were irreparably harmed during the pogroms against Muslims in the state in late February and early March 2002. Exactly 8 years ago.

On February 28, 2002, large scale violence erupted throughout the western Indian state of Gujarat shortly after a fire on the Sabarmati Express killed 58 Hindu activists (known as kar sevaks) at the Godhra railway station.  Following this incident, mobs of Hindus, encouraged by elements of the state government apparatus, reigned terror on Muslim neighborhoods throughout the state.  These mobs set fire to houses and mosques in the state.  In a particularly notorious incident, mobs targeted the Gulbarg Society housing complex in Ahmedabad, where a former Member of Parliament lived.  He repeatedly called the police and government officials asking for assistance.  No help arrived and he and 69 other people living in the neighborhood were killed in the ensuing violence, many hacked to death by mobs of people allied to Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s main opposition party and the political party of Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

The Gujarat government, led by a new Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, called the violence a “spontaneous reaction” to the Godhra incident.  But, according to human rights groups in India, as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there is widespread evidence that the government as well as right-wing Hindu groups such as the VHP and the Bajrang Dal planned this violence.  The mobs were directed by computer printout and businesses were attacked based on the whether they were owned by Muslims or Hindus.  Narendra Modi’s government blocked police protection of Muslim neighborhoods in Ahmedabad (Gujarat’s largest city) and other cities in Gujarat.  It was only when the Central Government deployed the Indian Army to Gujarat did the violence abate.

The government estimates that 1,044 people were killed in the violence (Muslims and Hindus).  An additional 98,000 Muslims were in “relief camps” guarded by some of the very people implicated in the violence that led them to flee their homes.

Justice has been exceedingly slow in the 8 years since the pogroms.  The Indian Supreme Court has repeatedly ordered the state police to reopen investigations into the deaths and has launched investigations in several police officers for their alleged involvement in the riots. A recent Special Investigative Team set up recently and headed by a former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation has come under criticism for its slow work.

The many victims of the pogroms in February and March 2002 will rightly feel that they have been abandoned by law enforcement.  They must mourn their loved ones who lost their lives, suffered grave injury, victimized by rape or otherwise traumatized.  Narendra Modi, however, must feel that “life itself is a celebration”, having won two straight elections and being feted as the longest serving Chief Minister of Gujarat in history. Until the perpetrators and ring leaders are brought to justice, life will indeed be a celebration for him and his cronies.  Never forget what happened.