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The 2002 riots in Gujarat was one of the most searing events in post-Independence India. Rightly, books on the event have continued to be published and the latest is Scarred (Experiments with violence in Gujarat) by Dionne Bunsha. A journalist with a fortnightly news magazine, Bunsha, based in Mumbai, travelled often to Ahmedabad, during and after the riots to follow up on what was happening there.
Excerpts from the interview:
What is happening in Gujarat now?
Although everything seems to be back to normal, there are a lot of refugees who are unable to go back home. There are a lot of witnesses who are unable to file their statements because the police is unwilling to take down names of people who have been responsible for the riots. Police officers are unwilling to challenge the authorities. The only person who has actually spoken out is Additional Director-General of Police R.B. Shreekumar and he has been harassed. He said Chief Minister Narendra Modi had called a meeting where he said the Hindu rioters should not be stopped. But nobody has taken that forward. It is a state where people live in fear.
You said the riots etched deep faults in Gujarat’s social landscape. Can you elaborate?
The cities are ghettoised, in terms of housing. There are lots of Muslim children who cannot go to school outside the ghettos. People are denied jobs purely because of their religion. After the riots, there was a kind of social and economic boycott of Muslims and that still exists. There is no attempt to bridge the divide in any way.
What is the psyche of the Muslims?
They want to live a normal life, without any restrictions. They are constantly reminded of who they are.
Do they want to take revenge?
No. They just want to get on with their lives.
What is the mindset of the Sangh Parivar?
They have an in-built prejudice against Muslims. I have interviewed the leaders, the actual planners, of the riot, and ordinary people who comprise the crowd. And each one is different. People in the crowd are just normal human beings, who are just pawns in the game. For the leaders, the violence had a political agenda, because the Assembly elections were close at hand.
What was the reaction of civil society to the riots?
Within Gujarat, there were a lot of organisations that got together under the banner of the Citizen’s Initiative and provided relief. The national media played a very important role in alerting people to what was happening in Gujarat and even got a lot of international attention to the issue. But within Gujarat, on the first few days of the riots, the Gujarati press was very provocative. They had played this role in earlier riots, also.
Are Gujaratis communal minded?
Not at all. Of course, you provoke people but you use communalism as an excuse.
What happened to Zahira Sheikh?
Many people accuse Zahira Sheikh [of the Best Bakery case] for turning hostile. But the pressure, not to testify, which is put on any witness, is immense. All of them receive threats and it is very difficult to live facing that. Yet, there are so many witnesses who have testified, despite all the pressures. For the Best Bakery case, the stakes became too high for the Gujarat government, and Zahira got caught in the middle. She is just a pawn. It is easy to pass judgement by saying she sold out. But considering the odds under which she was operating, and the powers that she was fighting, it became too difficult.