A week of mayhem by Hindu terrorists that erupted on February 27 left at least 700 people officially dead, most of them Muslims, in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Eyewitnesses, including western journalists, have put the death toll at three times this figure, with many deaths from remote villages not being recorded at all. Among the dead were Ahsan Jaffrey, a former Congress party MP, and 19 of his relatives, including several young children. They were doused with kerosene by a Hindu mob and burnt alive after being dragged out of their home in Ahmadabad, the main city of Gujarat. Jaffrey's desperate pleas for help, made on his mobile phone to the police, fell on deaf ears. By March 5 the Hindu-led anarchy had resulted in the destruction of Muslim properties worth at least US$600 million; at least 30 mosques have also been destroyed and turned into makeshift Hindu temples.
The situation elsewhere in Gujarat was little better. The Bharatiya Janata Party government, headed by Narendra Modi, openly encouraged the Hindus to 'exact' revenge on Muslims. In many instances the police looked or joined the killers to 'teach' the Muslims a lesson for their insolence in attacking and setting fire to a train at Godhra that was bringing Hindu volunteers from Ayodhya. Various reports have mentioned the train fire at Godhra, in which 58 Hindus died on February 27, but few have explained what led to the Muslims' seemingly irrational behaviour. However, two reporters - Anil and Neelam Soni, working for the Gujarat Samachar newspaper - have provided detailed accounts of the events that provoked the Muslims' anger.
The trouble started when scores of Hindu militants refused to pay for tea and snacks consumed at a stall on the platform of Godhra railway station. This they had done at other stations along the route as well. At Godhra, an elderly Muslim stall-owner's insistence on being paid enraged the Hindu mob. They started to beat him up, pulling his beard while shouting 'Mandir ka nirmaann karo, Babur ki aulad ko baahar karo' ('start building the temple, throw out the sons of Babur'), a reference to the Hindu campaign to erect a temple on the site of the Babri Mosque, from where the Hindus were returning. Startled by the noise, the stall-owner's 16-year-old daughter rushed out, pleading with the mob to spare her father. The mob seized her and pulled her into a compartment as the train was about to leave. The girl's screams and her father's pleas for help moved two other Muslims, who managed to board the train as it left the station. They pulled the emergency handle, halting the train about a mile away. When the Muslims banged on the carriage where the girl was captive, the Hindus, armed with sticks and chains, descended and started to attack them.
The noise attracted Muslims from the surrounding areas, who started to fight back. Some Muslim youths then ran to get gasoline and diesel from nearby garages in the Signal Fadia area of Godhra, and torched one compartment; a second carriage also caught fire, leading to the deaths of 58 Hindus. When news of the train-attack spread, members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the group that led the campaign to destroy the Babri Mosque and has vowed to erect a temple on its site (the temple construction date, set for March 15, was postponed as we went to press), ran amok in Godhra. Muslim-owned garages (gas stations) were torched in Signal Fadia, and the Badshah Mosque at Shehra Bhagaad was destroyed. Then Hindu gangs, now thoroughly roused by the Muslims' 'insolence', went about burning them alive wherever they could find them.
For a week (February 27 to March 5) they went from one Muslim locality to another. With the connivance of the local police force and government, the atrocities were repeated in Muslim localities throughout Gujarat. About 1,200 Indian troops were sent in, but not until after three days' mayhem, when the official death toll was already more than 300. A week later places like Ahmadabad, scene of the worst violence, had been brought under control, but rural areas continued to suffer the wrath of the 'non-violent' Hindus.
The recent spate of anti-Muslim violence can be traced to the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1989. More specifically, the issue that provided the spark was the destruction, on December 6, 1992, of the sixteenth-century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by a Hindu mob of 300,000. It was led by such leaders of the BJP as L K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti, all now ministers in the Vajpayee government; Advani holds the important portfolio of home affairs, which is in charge of internal security. Gauri Advani, Advani's daughter-in-law, has confirmed that the destruction of the Babri Mosque was planned by her father-in-law in 1991. After the destruction of the mosque, Hindus rampaged against Muslims because the Muslims dared protest the sacrilege; it is estimated that 3,000 were killed, especially in the commercial city of Bombay, where Muslims own many businesses.
The Hindus claim that the Babri Masjid site is the birthplace of their god Ram. Several eminent Hindu historians and scholars have dismissed the claim, pointing out that Ram was not a real person, merely a mythical figure depicted in Valmiki's literary creation, Ramayan. That, however, has not deterred the Hindus. Some have even alleged that a Hindu temple existed on the site before the masjid was built there. This claim has been dismissed by both the Indian Historical Society and the Archaelogical Society of India. Furthermore, three other temples in Ayodhya also claim that Ram was born at their site.
The case is before the Allahabad high court (in UP state, where Ayodhya is located) but no verdict has been handed down yet. It is clear, however, that Hindu zealots, with active support from leading members of the BJP, with which they are politically allied, are determined to press ahead regardless of the court's verdict. Last month the BJP government told Muslim representatives to rebuild the mosque away from the original site, yet little attempt has been made to make the Hindus desist from their destructive policies. 'We have not given any undertaking that we will abide by any verdict given by the court,' Acharya Giriraj Kishore,the VHP vice president, has said; they have only undertaken to maintain the status quo for now, he added.
Excavations carried out by archaeologists and historians, most of them Hindus, have established conclusively that no temple existed at the site of the Babri Mosque. The recorded history of the area also confirms this, but the VHP insists that if history does not accord with its myths then history must be changed. The VHP has also laid claim to 3,000 other mosques throughout India, where they allege that temples existed before the Muslims demolished them to build mosques. The Mughal emperor Babur (after whom the Babri Masjid was later named) was not known for his religious zeal, and there is no evidence that he demolished temples in order to build mosques in their place. Indeed, his advice to his son, Humayun, who succeeded him C that Humayun should not destroy temples C suggests that Babur understood that harmony between communities must be cultivated in a country of many religions. This is further borne out by the continued existence and maintenance of famous Hindu temples throughout the 800-year Muslim rule in India. It is one of the characteristics of Muslim conquests that they rarely or never destroyed other peoples' places of worship.
Muslims in India find themselves in a difficult predicament today. Advani, the man responsible for their security, is also a Hindu fanatic. The Babri Mosque demolition campaign received its greatest boost during Advani's presidency of the BJP. It was he who initiated the infamous Rath Yathra (Chariot Caravan) in 1990 from the historic Somnath temple to collect 'holy bricks' for the Ram temple in Ayodhya . Hindus around the world have joined this campaign, with gold bricks being contributed in North America, Europe and the Middle East, including workers in the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The regimes there have been largely silent about the murders and massacres of Muslims in India.
All religious minorities in India are feeling the heat. Sikhs, Christians and Dalits (lower-caste Hindus) have all suffered at the hands of Hindu fascists. At least 250,000 Sikhs and 200,000 Christians have been killed over the years. The Indian government's record of brutalizing its minorities is horrible, yet it gets away with everything by claiming that it is a 'secular' state. Yet one can imagine only too vividly the worldwide furore had Christians or Hindus been murdered by Muslims anywhere at all.