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 quicker.
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 angry villagers.
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.