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India: Gujarat - Waiting for remorse

Tuesday 16 October 2012, by siawi3

JS Bandukwala

Source: Indian Express
October 12, 2012

Martha Nussbaum’s article ‘When is forgiveness right?’ (IE, October 9) was excellent. As a victim of the 2002 Gujarat tragedy, I have struggled with the dilemma of forgiveness for over a decade. Godhra and the post-Godhra riots will prove to be defining moments in India’s evolution as a democratic, secular, progressive state. But it will take time. The process has been most traumatic for the thousands who suffered. The best way to heal, as laid down by Gandhi himself, would have been introspection and remorse by the larger Gujarati Hindu community. This could have led to a genuine forgiveness by the victims, which in turn could have led to communal reconciliation and true peace in Gujarat. But this was not possible for many reasons.

For one, political factors made introspection and apology impossible. The Narendra Modi of 2012 is very different from the Modi of 2002. Prior to the Godhra train burning, he was politically weak. He had barely scraped through in the assembly by-elections held just before the incidents. Keshubhai Patel was the real power centre in the party and within the RSS in Gujarat. It is believed Modi tilted the scales the other way by allegedly giving the VHP and Bajrang Dal cadres a free hand during the riots. The police and bureaucrats, it is alleged, were instructed to let these cadres run amok.

The political benefit to Modi of the events of 2002 was huge. Suddenly, he became the darling of the saffron forces, not just in Gujarat but all over India. He emerged as the hero of Gujarati NRIs settled abroad. He won the December 2002 assembly elections with ease.

No wonder there was hardly anyone around to introspect and express remorse. Even Sabarmati Ashram locked up its gates to prevent peace marchers from entering. Shockingly, this was done by old Gandhians who administered the ashram. Yet we tried repeatedly to reach out to intellectuals, the media, industrialists and finally godmen, who flourish in Gujarat. In my own case, after the complete destruction of my house, I asked for a residential quarter in the university where I worked. I was assigned an apartment in a block of four. All the other apartments were occupied when I moved in. But soon, the occupants of all three left. In spite of a housing shortage at the time, no one was willing to move into my block. I stayed alone for three full years.

My last hope was a statement by a prominent godman, saying that what had happened was wrong and shameful. I arranged for a public meeting at the boundary between Muslim and Hindu localities in Juhapura, Ahmedabad. He did address the gathering, just yards from the high wall known as the “border”, and near a gate called the Wagah crossing. I had expected that the backdrop, combined with the knowledge of the horrors, would lead to introspection from one widely known as a Ram bhakt. But he just did not have the moral courage to say that the killings had shamed Gujarat and Hindus. That day, I gave up on the Gandhian path of remorse and introspection by the aggressor. At the same time, I developed a huge admiration for the Mahatma and his courage during the killings in Bihar, Kolkata and the Noakhali.

Nevertheless, the Muslim community had to come out of the trauma it suffered from if it was to improve its educational and economic prospects. In 2007, I urged the Muslims of Gujarat to grant unilateral forgiveness to the killers. I explained that this was essential for us to move on and focus on our own uplift. Sadly, the community felt I was going too far for Modi. They declined. It was a very bleak moment for me, for I could see no signs of justice being set in motion. Then finally, the Supreme Court stepped in. The role played by many outstanding civil society activists turned the tide.

For the RSS, 2002 will always remain a black mark. Their ideology can never develop the critical support to rule over India. As for Indian Muslims, 2002 will be ingrained in their psyche. But there are substantial gains from the tragedy. I doubt there will be another Gujarat 2002 in India. Muslims at the grassroot level have also realised that they must be an active part of a plural society. They can practise their faith, yet they are also Indian citizens and must be proud of a larger heritage.

The writer retired as professor of physics from MS University, Baroda. He is president of the Gujarat chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties