Everyone remembers the moment when they came to know about the
burning of people in a train at Godhra station. Rather like, ‘Where were you
when the planes flew into the World Trade Center building on 9/11?’, or, “What
were you doing the day Kennedy was assassinated". Some of us older persons
will remember partition, Gandhi’s assassination and the 1962 invasion by
China. We remember the incident and define ourselves by the
way we came to know about it.
Dr Betty d’Souza, nominated Anglo Indian Member of Parliament
and Samata Party member, came to my office space at George Fernandes’ residence
on 3, Krishna Menon Marg around lunchtime of February 27th 2002.
She was deeply upset after the ugly skirmish that took place in Parliament when
the House was informed of the tragedy of 59 persons being burned alive in a
train. BJP members had protested loudly at this atrocity. They were highly
agitated. She told me that Prime Minister Vajpayee , the BJP, and other
components of the NDA had pleaded for an unanimous resolution from Parliament
condemning the incident. Betty had a good rapport with women members of
Parliament from opposing parties and worked together with them on matters
concerning gender empowerment. When she also pleaded with members of the
Congress to condemn the tragedy, Margaret Alva and others crossed their arms in
firm refusal saying , ”You are making enough noise for all of us”. Loud
comments from various quarters, including a section of the media , that the
victims werekar sevaks and therefore deserved what they got
instigated the opposition enough to maintain silence if not rejoice.
Condemnation was not on their agenda. The only editorial that challenged the
idea of justifying the grisly attack merely because they were kar
sevaks came from Vir Sanghvi in the Hindustan Times. It
appeared that the people’s representatives sitting in the opposition in
Parliament found nothing untoward enoughthat needed statements to ensure there
was no ugly reaction.
As the VHP-declared bandh was the next day (28th February)
, the country watched in silence. In the meanwhile NDTV and others had begun
their hysterical commentary and looped footage of the burned train and bodies.
This fueled anger in Gujarat. How could such a thing happen and no one in the
country condemn it?, they thought. When it did not stop (remember February had
only 28 days), Narendra Modi faxed a message to the Prime Minister calling for
army deployment. The recalling of troops urgently from the Rajasthan border (
28th night) and the Raksha Mantri George Fernandes’ personal
presence along with the troops by the very next morning could not have been
I have been associated with many small towns and villages of
Gujarat since 1979 when I worked as a Design and Marketing Consultant for the
state handicrafts agency. Apart from that, I had travelled across
Gujarat as a Samata party activist campaigning for elections for
panchayats, and assemblies. I knew from my experience of over 25 years that the
people of Gujarat were not communal. While visiting villages for relief work
after the earthquake many villagers told me the demography along the border
with Pakistan had changed and that strange people came across and
settled there with the help of corrupt forces on either side. Some did not want
to be rehabilitated at their old locations for fear of their unrecognizable
neighbours. I too noticed many unknown and unfriendly faces in
villages where I had known everybody for years.
During the rioting , DGPs, ministers and civilian officials had
responded quickly and positively to calls of help from our party President
Praveensinh Jadeja and others for those who were in trouble. This moved me to
write articles which were published then in the Indian Express about
the basis fabric of Gujarat being secular, and another on Remembering 1984,
saying the Congress had no moral right to attack the state government for
inaction after their horrific pogrom in Delhi. Of course, counters in the form
of articles attacking me even in the title came fast, but they were mostly from
people who did not live in Gujarat or those who liked to believe only in
their own truths.
Because of my articles, when the NDA government decided to send
an all-party delegation to Gujarat to visit Godhra, the hospitals, camps and
victims, and meet with civilian and police officials, the late Pramod Mahajan,
who was in charge of this, invited me to be part of the group, representing the
Samata party, one of NDA constituents. Many rumours had started flying by then
about bodies being disposed of without identification, hospital care being
shoddy etc. The delegation was to let senior political representatives see
things for themselves and even question the law and order machinery.
Sonia Gandhi, SS Ahluwalia among others like myself from various
parties flew to Gujarat round 8th March and went first to
Godhra. The young woman deputy collector was calm, competent and well in
control as she explained the reasons why she had preferred to send the charred
bodies away from Godhra.
She had no complaints about the support of the state leadership. In Ahmedabad
we went to the main government hospital and were taken around by the late Ashok
Bhatt, Minister for Health in the Govt of Gujarat. He had been a socialist in
earlier times, and was a man of sensitivity and action. One burn survivor from
Godhra kept in isolation was charred beyond measure. He could barely speak and
his body was entirely black. On various floors victims of the riots were
divided according to injuries, and not by religion – burn victims on one floor,
gunshot wound victims from police firing on another floor, broken limbs in
another section etc. I personally spoke to all of them. They said
while the first two days were bad and chaotic, now they were being cared
for well and were satisfied with the arrangements and help by the
government. The doctors showed us arrangements for mobile vans going out
for on-the-spot treatments. They were eaxmining DNA samples of the dead to
identify and connect victims and their living relatives. Sonia Gandhi went
around quietly and did not engage much.
The next visit was to the Municipal Hospital controlled by the
Municipal Corporation under the Congress at that time. It was filthy. ( The
municipality is now under BJP leadership and considerably better maintained).
Interestingly, Congressmen had lined up here on both sides of the pathway like
a guard of honour, with their pure white caps and kurtas, and garlands for
their leader. “Sonia Gandhi zindabad” rent the air. It seemed
incongruous and out of place. Some of us loudly commented that it was uncouth
to politicize and divide a humanitarian fact finding visit. Buoyed by her party
workers, Sonia Gandhi was more visibly engaged with the patients, almost as if
they were her special Congress victims for whom she had to show concern. Some
photographers had been conveniently brought in.
We were also taken to three or four relief camps run by
different institutions, groups and parties. Provisions and problems were same
for Hindus and Muslims. We noted their problems and passed them on for action.
At our meeting with police and civilian officials, I personally
felt their responses reflected they had not been able to anticipate the level
of aggression in society, nor the intensity of the rioters. For some years
Gujarat had been riot-free. Perhaps they had become lax. As far as I know, some
officials were changed later. No one stopped us from asking probing questions
about their efforts to contain the killings. At one place they said
two policemen with only lathis had to face a mob of 20,000
From day one, till today, despite all the rumours that became
more vivid by the day, I never came across anyone who properly corroborated the
horror stories subsequently put out by vested interests in Gujarat.
Having worked from ground zero from day one for three long
months providing protection, relief and rehabilitation to 3000 Sikh families at
Farash Bazar Camp across the Yamuna in Delhi after the one-sided pogrom against
the Sikhs in 1984, I was well-acquainted with the psychological state of
victims. The true and most traumatic experiences come out first. Later the mind
calms down and tries to forget some nightmares. All those victims I cared for
and heard from the first night of the attacks till some days later when we
began gathering affidavits did not change their story. All the stories were
also the same, corroborating the orchestrated nature of the attacks.
There were no afterthoughts and embellishments as days passed.
In Gujarat 2002 it seemed to be the reverse.
Despite central government figures showing numbers of both
Hindus and Muslims killed in the rioting, and film clips showing both
communities attacking each other, stories of Hindu atrocities, genocide,
fascism, Hitlerism, Teesta Setalvad’s special tales, and even “proof from
the mouths of the perpetrators“ in the form of tapes and hidden cameras by
those famous peddlers of untruths - Tehelka and their twin, Cobrapost.com, came
out as late as on the eve of the second assembly elections.
Rajdeep Sardesai had called me a few weeks after all the noise of the riots and
said he was going for an investigative trip to Gujarat for 3 weeks. I told him
he must find out the exact details of that "tearing the
foetus out" story to provide evidence and get back to me if there
was anyone or any fact he could find to prove it. If the criminals could be
traced they should get exemplary punishment but one could not go on rumours and
hearsay. L.K Advani had also asked him to do the same so that the guilty could
be punished. I emphasized that this horrible tale was doing the rounds
internationally and had to be proved before allowing it to spread further.
Rajdeep came back with nothing. Some other newspaper later claimed that the
woman concerned could not be identified and her father, who supposedly was at
the scene, fainted so he couldn’t describe anything or name any perpetrators.
If there were any truth to this there would have been some action and furor
from the Congress but it seemed no one wanted to investigate this further since
a rumour was so much more useful.
About three weeks later, George Fernandes and I were among those
who led a big peace march of prominent Gujarati citizens organized by the
Chamber of Commerce. Over 7000 people marched through the streets (a CNN
figure announced by Suhasini Haider who was present). Many old and young
Muslims along the way joined in. Narendra Modi met the marchers at the end and
thanked them for their efforts at bringing peace to Gujarat. Interestingly, The
Statesman the next day had a headline saying, “Fernandes and
other marchers walk over dead bodies in Ahmedabad”. Later I found a
picture in the Economic Times of a family carrying their
belonging being assisted by two army personnel in escaping trouble. Another
newspaper used the very same picture, but edited out the army personnel and
just captioned it ‘”People fleeing”. I related all this at a Freedom of the
Press Day function at the India International Centre later that year to shocked
silence from the audience.
When Tehelka came out
with their secretly taped sting conversation - just before the 2nd Gujarat
assembly elections - claiming to have the thug who tore out the foetus from a
pregnant woman’s stomach boasting about it on tape, even the Congress
in Gujarat did not run with this issue. Strangely, it had zero effect. I
phoned Narendra Modi asking if he needed any assistance in tackling the Tehelka
tapes as I was the "expert victim". He thanked me and said their
sting was gaining no traction even with local Congressmen and was dying a
natural death so we probably need not say anything.
Not a single soul has ever corroborated that story and even
Rajdeep had admitted on his return that he could not find anything.
All these incidents display the true nature of those who are
terrified of a politician who is honest, hard working and effective. I know
from my own experience with the Tehelka matter that the Congress wants to drag
on ugly allegations but never get to the truth. They want to create instances
where the “crimes” of their political opponents obliterate their own. They want
to accuse those of corruption who would otherwise expose theirs. Now they have
chosen to use the sheild of Aam Aadmi party's fight against corruption to muddy
the waters further. Let us hope the people of India see through this pollution
of politics and insist on clearing the air with the truth.
Posted on April 12, 2014