The Government of India has banned a BBC documentary from social media platforms. This documentary examines the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 and concludes that the then-chief minister of Gujarat was “directly responsible”. He was the head of the state government after all. He is the prime minister of India today.
To many who had observed, reported and followed the aftermath of the 2002 violence, the documentay does not necessarily reveal anything dramatically new. Those who complain that talk of the complicity of the then chief minister in the violence is far-fetched should remember that just a few months ago – during the campaign for the elections to the legislative assembly in Gujarat – the home minister of India (and closest ally of the prime minister) boasted that in 2002, the “rioters” were “taught” such “a lesson” that they have not been able to raise their heads again. This has resulted in “permanent peace” in Gujarat, he said.
It was not difficult to decipher the hidden message in this dog whistling. ‘Rioters’ in the Hindutva lexicon always means Muslims. Hindus can never be violent and are certainly not rioters. They are always “forced to retaliate” when faced with violence. So the intent of the home minister’s statement was clear. He himself was reminding the Hindus of Gujarat about what was done in 2002 and taking pride in it – and was also obliquely threatening the Muslims.
Whatever the case, the home minister’s statement meant that the Gujarat violence of 2002 took place or was arranged to “teach a lesson” to the Muslims, after which they would not be able to raise their heads. In this way, when the home minister of India makes a statement glorifying the 2002 violence in Gujarat, he is also taking responsibility for it.
The BBC documentary also wants to say this – but through evidence. This is not new. Nevertheless, after its release, there was excitement in the official circles of India. The spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs was particularly agitated when asked about the allegations that the film makes and called it an example of the ‘colonial mentality’.
Not that there is nothing new in the film. What is particularly damning for the then chief minister, who occupies the chair of the PM today, is the information that at that time the British government had conducted its own investigation into the cause of the Gujarat violence and found Modi “directly responsible”. This report was kept confidential for obvious reasons. This report somehow fell into the hands of a BBC producer and his colleagues, prompting them to investigate the violence.
There are people in India who are upset and ask what right the British government had to investigate an incident of violence in India. Is this not a violation of India’s sovereignty, they ask. Do the British feel that they are still ruling India? But Jack Straw, who was then Britain’s foreign secretary (minister) clarified that British citizens of Indian origin had made representations to the government and the inquiry was conducted to respond to them.
In an interview with The Wire, he said, “There were also people I knew whose families were directly affected by these inter-communal riots. They were making representations to us and that is one of the reasons why the then (British) high commissioner ordered this investigation.”
So the British government did not turn away from its responsibility towards its citizens, as the Gujarat and Indian governments did.
The question regarding colonial arrogance or some hidden anti-India mentality remains. Around two years ago, the BBC made a film on the Bengal famine which occurred during British rule and held the then British prime minister, Winston Churchill, responsible for it. What kind of ‘colonial mindset’ blames the British PM for the deaths of lakhs of Indians?
The BBC documentary on the 2002 Gujarat riots seeks to answer the question of one of the three British nationals who survived the violence. What happened to his two relatives, and if they were killed, then why, and how? What kind of violence were they killed in? Who did it and why didn’t the government take effective steps to stop it? Was the violence spontaneous or was it planned?
Have our official investigative agencies answered these questions satisfactorily? Has the answer been found as to how the S6 coach of the Sabarmati Express caught fire? Why was it assumed that the fire was started by the Muslims of Godhra as part of a ‘conspiracy’? Why didn’t the then railway minister Nitish Kumar consider it necessary to investigate it? How did the then chief minister of Gujarat come to the conclusion that some naradhams (murderous people) had started the fire? Who were those naradhams? And why use this theory to virtually justify the subsequent pogrom, by calling it a ‘reaction to action’ – as in Newton’s law of motion?
Even if we assume that the fire was started by Muslims, why was the subsequent violence allowed? Why was permission given to take out a procession in Ahmedabad with the bodies of the kar sevaks killed in Godhra? Why was the police not only passive but also involved in violence against Muslims? How was a former MP, Ehsan Jafri, despite his repeated calls to the chief minister and senior officials, not provided security and eventually killed by the mob? Why did the chief minister say that Jafri himself was responsible for this because he had fired on the mob? Why were the eyewitnesses of that time dismissed outright?
Why was there no further investigation on the statement of Haren Pandya, former home minister of Gujarat, before a citizens’ tribunal that the Gujarat chief minister had a meeting with top officials encouraging violence? Why was the murder of Haren Pandya also pinned on an improbable conspiracy involving even more improbably ballistics? Is there any connection between the statement he made and his murder? Why was the charge made by Pandya’s family that the chief minister was responsible for his death not investigated?
It is argued that since the Supreme Court of India has decided that the chief minister of Gujarat need not face any more questions, the matter should be deemed closed forever. But if the judiciary is to be believed, then no one was responsible for the demolition of Babri Masjid. Did that crowd of lakhs gather on its own? Did that mob bring down the Babri Masjid in a moment of excitement?
In the case of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the court acquitted the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party who were accused of conspiracy and complicity. They owned the crime and boasted about their role publicly but the court could not find any evidence to convict them. Similarly, in the case of Gujarat violence, the court-monitored inquiry committee decided the Gujarat government and the then chief minister had no reason to be subjected to a trial. Was it credible?
The BBC film, 20 years later, reminds us once again that we as a nation are not interested in truth. In fact, truth repels us. And we are also careless about the pursuit of justice. We Indians can fight cases of property matters for 20 years but do not believe in fighting for justice when collective injustice is meted out. That’s why be it the 1984 anti-Sikh violence or the 1989 anti-Muslim violence in Bhagalpur, or Nellie or Mumbai, we did not try to find out what was at the root of mass killings.
We may believe that we are all Indians, but we do not feel the pain of our compatriots, leaving them alone in their quest for justice. Rather we get angry with them for their stubborn desire to get justice. It is the moral weakness of Indians, and the Indian state, that mass murder is ignored. Or do we turn a blind eye to all these incidents of violence because we all know who had planned them, and we consider them as our own?
Sadly for Modi, the world consists of people other than Indians too. They care for justice. The desire for justice is a special human trait. Many in India, especially the ‘Hindutvavadis’ among us, might treat it as disposable but modern human communities cannot imagine a life without justice. This is what is behind the BBC documentary and not a ‘colonial mindset’. Only if we understand that we need not own the murderer because his name sounds like ours, will we be able to relate to this search for truth and justice.
Crimes should not be forgotten because more often than not, they tend to get repeated. Blood spilled on the roads must not be ignored and dishonoured. It has its own way of coming back to us, reminding us of our task as humans, as the poet Sahir Ludhianvi once wrote:
तुम ने जिस ख़ून को मक़्तल में दबाना चाहा
आज वो कूचा ओ बाज़ार में आ निकला है
लाख बैठे कोई छुप-छुप के कमीं-गाहों में
ख़ून ख़ुद देता है जल्लादों के मस्कन का सुराग़
साज़िशें लाख उड़ाती रहीं ज़ुल्मत की नक़ाब
ले के हर बूँद निकलती है हथेली पे चराग़
The blood you wanted to confine to the slaughterhouse
Today has come flowing to the bylanes and markets
The blood itself gives us a clue about where the executioners dwell
Each drop emerges with a lamp on its palm….
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.
This article was first published on The Wire.