Release of Bilkis Case Convicts Opens Old Wounds of Gujarat Genocide

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A blot on India, the saga of 2002 Godhra riots needs to be brought in the public domain because a generation has grown up unaware of the untold atrocities perpetrated on an entire community.

Syed Ali Mujtaba

THE 11 men convicted of rape and murder in the Bilkis Bano case were feted and garlanded when they came out of Godhra sub-jail on Monday, August 22, 2022. Commenting on their release, a BJP MLA from Godhra said they are Brahmins and have good sanskara (manners). The character certificate given to the rapists is not only shocking but appalling. The Muslim community is shocked at the developments.

Bilkis Bano, then a 20-year-old mother, was five months pregnant when she was gang-raped when she and her family were fleeing the violent zone in the 2002 Godhra riots. Her three-year-old daughter was one of the seven being murdered.

What happened in Gujarat some 20 years ago is a blot on India. This story needs to be told to those who want the people to forget it and move on. This story also needs to be told because a generation has grown up unaware of the atrocities committed during the Gujarat riots against Muslims in 2002.

This story further needs to be told because those who raised their voices against the Gujarat riots victims like human rights activists Tessta Stelvad, and police officers Sanjiv Bhatt Sree Kumar are behind the bars, while the accused in the crime have got a clean chit  and they have become the rulers of the country. This is ‘Post-Truth India- The Brand New Republic’ where the accused are innocent and the victims are made accused.

Summary of Gujarat Genocide

In one of the bloodiest massacres in the history of modern India, the Gujarat riots of 2002 stand tall. Violence continued unabated for three days — February 27 to March 1 — and more sporadically throughout Gujarat till mid-May. The worst-affected area was Ahmedabad, the state’s largest city.

Gujarat erupted in communal violence in February 2002 in response to a train fire in Sabarmati express at Godra railway station alleged to be the handiwork of the Muslims where 58 Hindus perished in the charred railway coaches. In retaliation to this, an estimated 2,000 Muslims were massacred and over 100,000 were displaced during the riots that lasted for three months. There is no count of how many women were raped in the violence directed against Muslims.

Human Rights Watch

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigated and concluded that the Gujarat government had planned and orchestrated the attacks: “What happened in Gujarat was not a spontaneous uprising, it was a carefully orchestrated attack against the Muslims,” said Smita Narula, senior South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of the report.

According to the HRW report, Hindu mobs systematically targeted Muslim addresses of businesses and residences and their places of worship, obviously with assistance from government officials.

“The 2002 violence against Muslims in Gujarat persists as a dark blot on India’s reputation for religious equality,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of prosecuting senior state and police officials implicated in the atrocities, the Gujarat government engaged in denial and obstruction of justice,” said Ganguly.

The Indian National Human Rights Commission report also found evidence of premeditated killing by members of Hindu nationalist groups, with complicity by state government officials, and police inaction. The INHR commission report states; “the attacks were planned in advance and organized with extensive participation of the police and state government officials.” There was “a comprehensive failure on the part of the state government to control the persistent violation of rights of life, liberty, equality, and dignity of the people of Gujarat.”

Horrors of the riots

Some of the Gujarat leaders who made significant confessions on hidden camera included then Gujarat Shiv Sena president Babu Bajrangi, Godhra BJP MLA Haresh Bhatt, VHP convener for the Sabarkantha district Dhabal Patel and Gulbarg Society massacre accused Madan Dhanraj Chawal are here for perusal.

“We slit open her abdomen (of Kauser Bano), ripped out the fetus, and threw it out in Naroda Patiya. We showed them what we can do. I called up the then minister Gordhan Zadafia and VHP general secretary Jaideep Patel and informed them. Zadafia immediately told me to escape from Gujarat,” the tapes show Babu Bajrangi as saying.

Godhra BJP MLA Haresh Bhatt claims: “Modi told me I’ll give you three days. Do whatever you want, you will not be touched. No other CM could have done this.”

VHP convener for the Sabarkantha district, Dhabal Patel claims: “We made explosives with dynamite and we manufactured a very large number of them. The cops helped us.”

Madan Dhanraj Chawal spoke about the hacking of former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, “We chopped off his hands, then his legs and put the limbs and the body on fire.”

Complicity of the state

The Gujarat government and the police were criticised for failing to stop the violence and in some cases for participating in or encouraging it. NGOs reported that police were implicated directly in many of the attacks against Muslims, and in some cases, NGOs contended, that police official encouraged the mob.

Human rights activists reported that the Gujarat police received specific instructions not to take action to prevent a possible violent reaction directed against the Muslims for their alleged role in the Godhra train fire. In some cases, police were merely passive observers. But in many instances, police officials led the charge of murderous mobs, aiming and firing at Muslims who got in the way.

The police were directly implicated in nearly all the attacks against Muslims that are documented in the 75-page report of Human Rights Watch. Quoting eyewitness accounts, HRW reported that assailants frequently chanted “the police are with us.” It further said that much of the violence was planned well in advance of the Godhra train incident and was carried out with state approval and orchestration.

“Under the guise of offering assistance, some police officers led the victims directly into the hands of their killers. Panicked phone calls made to the police, fire brigades, and even ambulance services generally proved futile.” Several witnesses reported being told by police: “We have no orders to save you.”

Action against whistleblowers

As HRW report makes it obvious, no justice whatsoever has truly been served: “Modi has acted against whistleblowers while making no effort to prosecute those responsible for the anti-Muslim violence. Where justice has been delivered in Gujarat, it has been in spite of the state government, not because of it.”

One of HRW’s reports released in 2012 to mark a decade of impunity for the Gujarat Genocide noted that recent revelations from the whistleblowers in Modi’s administration say the attacks followed direct orders from Modi.

Sanjeev Bhat and others

After the Godhra train tragedy in which 64 people charred to death, a Gujarat cadre Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Sanjiv Bhatt alleged that Chief Minister Modi in his presence instructed the police to “allow the Hindus to vent their anger on Muslims.” 

In 2010, Sanjiv Bhatt spoke at the National Consultation on Human Rights Defenders, a conference in New Delhi, to expose Modi’s culpability in the attacks on the Muslims during the Gujarat riots.

In April 2011, Bhatt filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that he, along with other high-ranking officers, was present at a February 27, 2002 meeting at Modi’s residence in which the chief minister ordered the police to treat Hindu rioters with kid gloves. In September, Sanjiv Bhatt was arrested after his former driver filed a complaint alleging that he had threatened him into signing a false affidavit on February 27, 2002.

Similarly, a police officer, R B Sreekumar, was denied a promotion in 2005 because he criticised the Modi government for its failure to order prompt action that could have prevented the riots. He is currently in jail.

Similarly, the Gujarat government, in August 2011, filed a chargesheet against a police officer, Rahul Sharma, for passing on riot-accused and BJP Minister Maya Kodnani’s and VHP leader Jaideep Patel’s telephone records to the judicial commission inquiring into the violence during the Gujarat riots. Both the accused are now out of jail.

Bhatt’s revelation on Haren Pandya’s murder

IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt Bhatt was arrested immediately after filing another affidavit implicating Modi in the murder of former Gujarat minister Haren Pandya. The Hindu newspaper reported: Bhatt’s arrest comes within 48 hours of his having filed another affidavit, this time in the Gujarat High Court, alleging the indirect involvement of the chief minister and his former minister of state for home, Amit Shah, in the murder of Haren Pandya.

Bhatt had claimed that Modi and Shah had repeatedly asked him to destroy some “very important documentary evidence” regarding Pandya’s murder, but he refused to oblige them, following which he was transferred from the post of Superintendent of the Sabarmati Central Jail. He was kept without any posting for over two and half months in November 2003.  The government responded by arresting him even though Bhat’s allegation has never been disproven.

The government’s treatment of the whistleblowers like Sanjiv Bhatt, R B Sreekumar, and Rahul Sharma is a repression of the voice’s consciousness. These police officers are targeted because they blew the whistle against the state government’s failure to safeguard the life of the riot victims.

Role of Narendra Modi

The extent of the then chief minister Narendra Modi’s involvement in orchestrating the Gujarat riots is well-summarised in the documentation made by the Human Rights Watch. It alleges that “there are strong pieces of evidence to link the Modi government in Gujarat to the carefully orchestrated anti-Muslim attacks there. Rioters had detailed lists of Muslim residents and businesses, and violence that occurred within the view of police stations only suggests that this had the government’s complicity. As chief minister Narendra Modi could have ordered the Gujarat Police to halt the bloodshed, but he didn’t and that led the fatal casualties to sore.

The HRW report says the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi personally told Ahmedabad police officials on February 27 to allow Hindus two days’ time to react “peacefully” to the Godhra incident. The police reportedly told Muslim victims “we don’t have orders to help you”.

In another report, HRW noted how not only did Modi defend his state police forces’ use of indiscriminate firing to massacre Muslims, but that what was originally construed as “mowing people down” was, in reality, execution-style murders at point blank.

“During the first two days of violence, chief minister Modi defended the actions of his police stating that they had ‘mowed down people’ to quell the violence.”

According to The Indian Express report, “one such incident Modi was referring to occurred on February 28 and March 1 near the Bapunagar police station, where 40 were killed in the firing. According to post-mortem reports, it has come to light that all 40 were Muslims; most of them were shot in the head and the chest. And 36 of them were between 20 and 25 years of age.”

An independent media organisation, Tehelka, used hidden cameras to capture some of the accused speaking openly of how the attacks had Modi’s blessings. The admission of many top VHP and BJP officials that Modi openly assisted their bloody campaign were made public in 2007.

CNN-IBN reported: “Important VHP and BJP functionaries admitted on hidden camera that Modi had told them to do whatever they wanted for three days. One of the main accused of the Naroda Patiya massacre, Babu Bajrangi, said Modi advised him to leave his Ahmedabad home and even arranged his refuge in Mount Abu.

Conclusion

The postscript on the Gujarat riots is the Supreme Court in 2022 upheld the Special Investigation Team’s (SIT) report and gave a clean chit to 64 people, including PM Narendra Modi, in the 2002 Gujarat riot cases. The apex court observed that the pleas were devoid of merit and dismissed the petitions. The landslide electoral victory of the BJP turned around the narration and the accused whose hands are stained with the blood are at the helm of affairs in the country.

Against this backdrop, it’s construed that Indians have two choices that are diametrically opposite paths, one that is currently underway, a ride over the Hindutva juggernaut, and the other to change the course of Indian politics that rests on hate against Muslims. The second can happen only through a decisive political mandate. But will the course correction happen when the EVMS are rigged and MLAs are bought over in India? This is an imponderable question that begs answers.

_________________________

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He is the author of the book Post-Truth India- The Brand New Republic. The views expressed here are author’s personal. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba2007@gmail.com.

Cover photo: The convicts in the Bilkis Bano rape and murder case being welcomed with sweets after their release from Gujarat jail


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