Sabarmati Ashram: The Ides of March
The notion of the Ides being a dangerous date was purely a theatrical invention and didn’t signify anything special in itself. But I do have my reasons to be wary after what I witnessed at the Mahatma’s ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati more than 15 years ago.
Hriday Kunj, Mahatma Gandhi’s refuge on the banks of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad, wore a deserted look as mob violence continued unabated across Gujarat in the initial days of 2002. The few Gandhians and secularists who had gathered at the Sabarmati Ashram appeared stunned by the turn of events after the Godhra incident.
“We will take out a peace march and we are prepared for worst consequences,” Chunibhai Vaidya, an octogenarian Sarvodaya worker told the few media persons gathered at the Ashram in the first week of March.
The rally proved of little consequence amidst the mayhem.
The medieval and macabre dance of death had begun in Gujarat a day after the Godhra train coach was set on fire on 27 February 2002. Reports of armed mob attacks on Muslims were pouring in from different parts of the state.
There was carnage everywhere.
I found Chuni Kaka in a state of shock a fortnight later, after his second attempt at organising a peace rally was marred by violence inside the Ashram premises. He was trembling with rage.
“Thugs sitting in Gandhinagar have vitiated the atmosphere in Gujarat,” he said of the hoodlums who had gate crashed at the Ashram and hounded out social activist Medha Patkar. “She would have been cut to pieces. The mob was baying for her blood,” Chuni Kaka told me.
When journalists rushed to the Ashram after hearing of the attack on Patkar and her fellow activists, the police mercilessly beat up many of them. This was not the first or the last time that journalists were at the receiving end during the riots in Gujarat.
I had a few providential escapes on the streets during the riots. But it was easy to adopt a disguise for print journalists. Not so for television journalists moving around in complete gear. They were easy targets and had borne the brunt of the police stick at the Ashram.
“We cannot allow the likes of Patkar to abuse Gujarat,” explained a prominent leader of the youth wing of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, justifying the storming of Gandhi’s ashram. Many of us refused to accept his apology for the police attack on journalists, having witnessed peace itself being banished from the Mahatma’s abode.
Veteran Gujarati journalist Digant Ozha did not blame the ‘Gandhinagar thugs’ alone for the state of affairs. “What were the Gandhians, secularists and the voluntary agencies doing all this while (since violence broke out)? If Gandhi was alive he would have gone on a fast as penance for the violence,” he said.
Ozha handed me photocopies of a speech by Ambalal Desai, chairman of the reception committee of the 18th session of the Indian National Congress at Ahmedabad in 1902, where he had said: ‘Unless we sink our differences and speak in one voice, take intelligent interest in political matters, assemble more and more responsible people given to ventilate grievances of constitutional nature by parliamentary ways and cultivate such a system requiring knowledge, cooperation and restraint, we will soon lose what we get’.
To no state of the country could these words apply than to Gandhi’s Gujarat at that point of time in 2002, with no let-up in sight to the organised violence during the coming days, weeks and months.
The acts of revenge for the Godhra tragedy were being carried out with military precision; the bestiality and barbarity of the initial phase of violence that lasted for 72 hours had shocked the world. It was being followed up by sporadic killings and low intensity violence now.
Each day brought in fresh reports of carnage from different parts of the state. The charred human remains continued to pile up as the entire nation watched in horror.
I had met Congress veteran Jeenabhai Darji at the height of violence near the Ashram. The frail-looking 82-year-old man was best known for floating the famous socio-electoral alliance of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims (KHAM), which had won the Madhavsinh Solanki-led Congress a record 140 of the 180 legislature seats in Gujarat in the 1980s; a record even Narendra Modi failed to break with his militant brand of Hindutva.
“Nobody in my party seems to have the courage to take on the Sangh Parivar,” Darji lamented. He was shocked that no senior functionary of the party had rushed to the aid of the victims of the carnage. He said little else. But the distress evident in the weakened voice of Gujarat’s ‘master of social engineering’ was enough to explain the Congress’ helplessness in the midst of it all.
It was no more the Congress of Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru or Sardar Patel, Darji recalled. During the 1946 communal riots in Ahmedabad, two young Congressmen, Vasant Hegiste and Rajab Ali, had been killed on the streets of Jamalpur while trying to prevent a Hindu-Muslim clash. A disturbed Gandhi had asked Morarji Desai, then home minister of the erstwhile Bombay state, to rush to Ahmedabad.
Desai’s account of the situation in Ahmedabad was telling on the role of Congressmen during the 1946 violence: ‘After I went to my Ahmedabad residence, I called in five prominent Congress colleagues and said to them plainly, You are paying some people to arrange for retaliatory action and this is coming in the way of restoring peace. What you are doing is wrong as nobody can justify a Hindu assaulting a Musalman in one locality because some Musalman attacked a Hindu in some other locality. You should stop… If you do not promise to stop such actions, I shall have to send you to jail’.
The threat had worked then. Alas there were no stalwarts of the stature of Gandhi and Patel left in Gujarat. Desai, who went on to become the country’s prime minister, was long forgotten, his final resting place near the Sabarmati Ashram long ignored by the state’s people.
The martyrdom of Vasant and Rajab was now part of the folklore on communal amity in Ahmedabad, memorised by the NGO or voluntary sector during troubled times. But the atmosphere in Gujarat was so vitiated during the initial days of violence in 2002 that there was perhaps little Gujarat’s voluntary sector could do.
My calls to a few vocal individuals from the activists fraternity in Ahmedabad and Baroda, were met with cautious responses: ‘The situation is too bad, lets speak later’, ‘We do not want to be quoted’ or ‘We are NGOs and have little to do with politics’.
I called Sophiya Khan, a lawyer-activist and a Muslim active in the voluntary sector. She was not home and called me back to relate her first-hand experience of the riots.
Past midnight on March 16, one of her cousins was injured in a mob attack in Shahpur area, where they lived. She called the officer on duty at the local police station and arranged to take him to hospital along with some other injured persons. Two of her cousins accompanied them.
The next morning she learnt that the police had picked up the two youngsters on charges of rioting and attempt to murder. “On paper they were shown arrested red-handed on the streets. All I could do was to get them out on bail,” Sophia said.
A senior police officer told her: ‘When you burn wet wood, the dry sticks get burnt too’.
Sophia was very disturbed and said to me: “Can you imagine my helplessness (as an activist), it seems our entire NGO movement has been reduced to a few dry sticks”.
It was often said that the state of Gujarat had pioneered the non-government movement of the country. Gandhi began the first voluntary effort in 1915 by his work to uplift the Dalits and tribals. Till the late 1980s, it was mostly Gandhian organisations, various Jain sects and the Agha Khan Foundation, which ran voluntary agencies in the state.
The present-day NGOs of Gujarat had entered the scene in the 1980s. “They do not necessarily subscribe to any particular political ideology and instead lay stress on techno-managerial aspects of social intervention,” Ahmedabad-based scholar-activist Achyut Yagnik explained to me.
These NGOs, who had come forward with the best technologies for re-building houses in quake-affected areas in 2001, had gone into hibernation when reports of Dalits and tribals killing and terrorising Muslims began to emerge.
More than anybody else it was the human rights movement working for the rights of the Dalits and tribals in the state that was silenced by the atrocities committed on Muslims.
“The Gandhians and other social workers paid little attention to the social and political mobilisation of the Sangh Parivar. None of them ever raised their voice sufficiently against trishul-dikshas (the ceremonial distribution of tridents, the symbol of militant Hinduism) held in the tribal belt of Gujarat,” said Yagnik.
Since the mid-1980s, when the BJP came to power in Gujarat, the Hindutva movement had consciously added muscle power by recruiting Dalit and tribal youth as its cadres. In urban areas like Ahmedabad, Baroda and Surat it was the Dalits and other backward castes. While in rural parts the tribal youth served as the vehicles for militant Hindutva.
The most telling comment came from a close friend in the NGO sector: “You get lots of funds for techno-managerial solutions post-earthquake. But when it comes to post-riot social interventions funds may be difficult to come”.
Add to that the fact that many NGOs were already in partnership with the state government for earthquake rehabilitation.
The riots had forced nearly a lakh Muslims into refugee camps across Gujarat. The government machinery lent no support to set up these camps. The NGO banners still fluttering atop relief camps across quake-hit Kutch too were conspicuous by their absence in riot-affected Gujarat. It was left to the Muslim community organisations to organise relief work.
Narendra Modi announced a compensation of Rs two lakh to each of the victims of the Godhra massacre, and Rs one lakh to those killed in the subsequent riots. Provisions of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) were invoked selectively against Muslims arrested in the Godhra train-burning incident.
The state government was forced to backtrack on both these decisions due to pressure from all quarters including New Delhi. It was hailed as a moral victory by lobbyists from the voluntary sector of Gujarat, who then started making noise.
Individual activists and agencies came alive, quoting the United Nation convention on genocide and the declaration on the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities.
This was followed by independent inquiries by retired judges and wannabe activists, who authored voluminous reports and also launched legal aid activities that led to long court battles, for which press conferences continued to be held at regular intervals. The noise made during all this certainly made an impact nationally and internationally.
The awards, for individual activism and acts of bravery, followed.
On the ground, the right-wing Hindu nationalists continued to call the shots. A chain letter was being sneaked into the drawing rooms in the folds of the morning newspaper in Ahmedabad, as also in many other parts of Gujarat. Written in Gujarati, it invoked the curse of gods on those who did not make copies and propagate it.
In the chilling message, a true Hindu patriot exhorted his brethren to pledge never to eat at a Muslim hotel, never to buy from or sell to a Muslim, never to see a film of a Muslim actor, never to employ or work under a Muslim, and never to teach or learn from a Muslim.
It further said: Such a strict economic boycott will throttle these elements. It will break their backbone. Then it will be difficult for them to live in any corner of this country.
Physical violence subsided some months after Godhra, but the real battle had just begun in Gujarat, out to engulf the entire nation in the decades to come, with no end in sight…