Has Gujarat really moved on ten years after the terrible violence of 2002? The answer depends on who the question is asked to. Chief minister Narendra Modi, for example, claims to have moved on to the point where he refuses to take questions on the past.
In February 2002, Modi was a relatively low profile RSS pracharak-turned-chief minister with no administrative experience. The riots transformed him into a tough-talking ‘saviour’ of the Hindus; he even undertook a Gujarat ‘gaurav’ yatra, though one is uncertain what was the ‘pride’ involved in failing to prevent the deaths of more than 1,000 Gujaratis, apart from exploiting religious sentiment to garner votes. Today, Modi has undertaken a ‘sadbhavana’ yatra, has marginalised the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), is seen as a potential BJP prime ministerial candidate in 2014 and is a chief minister with a formidable reputation for good governance.
Travel through the riot-hit areas of Gujarat and on the surface it appears that 2002 is a distant memory. In Halol town of Panchmahals district, which saw mass killings with dozens of homes burnt, a gleaming General Motors factory now stands, part of a special economic zone and another potent symbol of Modi’s ‘Vibrant Gujarat’. In Godhra, where the S-6 compartment was burnt, Hindu and Muslim traders are striking partnerships that reflect the quintessential Gujarati ethos: “Gujarat’s business is business,” they tell me. In Vadodara, a cricket camp is being held not too far from the Best Bakery massacre site: young Muslim boys here dream of becoming the next Irfan Pathan.
In Ahmedabad, there is an unmistakable sense of optimism in the air. Recent surveys have placed Ahmedabad as India’s most liveable city. The Ahmedabad Bus Rapid Transport System is a role model for urban transport while the airport has a spanking new look. The city looks cleaner than ever before, the slum encroachments along the Sabarmati river bank have been cleared with China-like precision, the malls are crowded and the hotels are full. Amitabh Bachchan’s high profile Gujarat tourism promotion drive has seen a 40% rise in tourism, and corporates are scrambling to climb onto the Gujarat growth engine. At a business outsourcing centre, the young professionals insist there will never be a repeat of 2002. Ask them who their role model is, and you know just why Modi is favoured to win another term in office later this year.
And yet, step away from the bright lights, the question ‘Has Gujarat really moved on?’ acquires another dimension. In Godhra’s Signal Falia basti where most of the accused in the train burning incident lived, the young tell me they are jobless because no one will give employment to Muslim youth with Signal Falia as the address. The fact that a majority of those who were arrested have since been acquitted has only added to their sense of grievance at being labelled ‘terrorists’. Families of kar sevaks who were charred to death are equally emphatic: no mercy must be shown.
In the crowded bylanes of Shahpur in Ahmedabad’s walled city, where Hindus and Muslims have lived cheek by jowl for years, physical proximity can’t hide the mental scarring. Even today, the slightest provocation can spark off a mini-riot here. Those who can afford it have moved out. Ahmedabad perhaps has fewer mixed neighbourhoods than any other city of its size; Muslims are not welcome in Hindu areas and vice-versa. Inter-religious marriages are virtually unheard of.
In Naroda Patiya, an Ahmedabad suburb, where 95 people were killed, the riot-affected families are still fighting for justice. No one has been convicted yet, and many of those allegedly responsible for the killings still roam around freely in the area. Justice seems elusive, with a distinct lack of faith in a law enforcement machinery that is seen to be biased against minorities. “We will still fight,” a pint-sized lady who lost eight family members and is now a prime witness in the Naroda case, tells me. I wonder how ordinary people can show such extraordinary courage in times of adversity.
It is this indefatigable human spirit that stands out everywhere. In Citizen Nagar, a resettlement colony for riot victims on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, the residents live near the city’s biggest garbage dump. Gujarat isn’t ‘vibrant’ here: the tin shed rooms, and the dirt and squalor would make a Mumbai slum seem palatial. The area appears to have literally fallen off the map, there are no schools, medical facilities or basic sanitation available here. As one spirited lady puts it, “We may be living in Citizen Nagar, but we are after all, second-class citizens!”
It is this sense of a growing chasm between two Gujarats that is worrying: one Gujarat which is aspirational and upwardly mobile, the other that is angry and alienated. The Modi government’s recipe to bridge the gap has been to relentlessly focus on the ‘development’ mantra: double digit growth is seen to be the only balm to heal the wounds of the past.
But high growth without the human touch can never really achieve true reconciliation between communities. At Sabarmati Ashram, home to the greatest Gujarati ever, I meet with Dara and Rupa Mody, a Parsi couple who lost their teenage son in the Gulberg society massacre. Their son’s body has never been found and they still grieve for him. In the last decade, not once has the chief minister or anyone from the government even visited them to share their tears. It’s the same story for almost all riot victims. It is this absence of remorse or any sense of compassion that reduces Modi’s attempts at image makeovers into little more than made for television photo-ops.
‘Sadbhavana’, as Gandhi saw it, is ultimately about kindness and compassion that rises above religious divides. It’s a spirit that Gujarat needs to rediscover to bring a genuine closure to the horror of 2002.
The views expressed by the author are personal