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Religious Violence Between Hindus and Muslims in Western India

May 29, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Gujarat is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. At the center from where he plotted India’s independence in the early 20th century, schoolchildren today sing about nonviolence and peace. (Children singing)

But it’s been anything but peaceful and nonviolent in Gujarat recently. Violence erupted in February in the village of Godhra when a group of Muslims set fire to a train.

Stories differ on what sparked the incident, but in the end, 58 Hindus– most of them women and children– were burned alive. The train was carrying Hindu activists returning from Ayodhya. It’s the site of a long-simmering dispute over ground claimed as sacred by both Hindus and Muslims.

The assault triggered one of the worst cycles of violence in what’s often been a bloody relationship between the nation’s 850 million Hindus and at least 130 million Muslims.

Today, some 110,000 of the Muslim minority live in relief camps in Gujarat’s capital, Ahmedabad. They tell stories of rape, murder and torched homes that followed the train incident.

MUSLIM WOMAN (Translated): Tell us, where can we go? They burned our homes; they took our Koran, threw it in the street and pissed on it. They tell us to get out of this country. We were born here. Our men fought for this country. Where can we go?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: A few miles away, a family mourns the loss of a son and brother killed by a Muslim gang. He was a youth activist for the World Hindu Council, a Hindu nationalist group. “He was a martyr for the cause,” they say, “and that cause will continue.”

Central to their cause is Ayodhya, 800 miles away from Gujarat. It’s the site where this 16th century mosque stood. It was built by the Moguls who reigned here before the British colonized India. Hindu nationalists insist the Muslim ruler, Babar, destroyed a Hindu temple to build the mosque, and that the site is the birthplace of the Hindu God, Ram.

In 1992, Hindu militants tore down the mosque. Hundreds of Muslims and Hindus died in violence that followed across the region.

Throughout the ’90s, the BJP, a party allied with nationalist Hindu groups, rode the issue to election success, campaigning to build a new Hindu temple on the disputed site.

In power now with more moderate coalition partners, the BJP has tempered its stance. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee now says the courts should decide whether the temple should be built. As India’s supreme court grapples with the mosque versus temple issue, Hindu forces have been active through the impasse, building the temple, they say, just waiting to erect it.

Not far from the disputed site, hundreds of pillars and columns of sandstone have already been carved. Pilgrims and activists visit each day, admiring the stonework, chipping in a few rupees for the temple project.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Today, the dozens of their number who perished on the train last February have been called martyrs; their deaths sparking a campaign of retribution against Muslims on a scale Ahmedabad Police Commissioner P.C. Pande says he’s never witnessed.

P.C. PANDE, Ahmedabad Police Commissioner: We have dealt with several such situations. It’s not the first time. But we don’t expect people to come out in hundreds of thousands. We don’t expect that. That is what had happened.

And that’s why, I mean, on the very first day, on the 28th of February itself, realizing that the forces would not be adequate, the army was called in by the state government.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In many Gujarat cities, every Muslim business was set on fire. By the time army troops had been called in, the official death toll had exceeded 800; most of them Muslims.

Media reports put the toll in the thousands. Many bodies, like the relatives of 14-year-old Naved, have never been found.

NAVED (Translated): My mother, my father, brother, sister, plus an auntie and her family, we all lived together. On February 28, our house was burned. My hands and legs were burned. I ran to my employer, who took me to the hospital.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The stories and rumors of atrocities on both sides abound. It’s not often that one can walk in the middle of the street in a big Indian city.

Ahmedabad has five million people. But weeks after the orgy of violence that claimed thousands of lives, there continues to be sporadic outbursts of violence fed by the rumor mill, so police routinely impose curfew on neighborhoods like this one at night. Even with the police and army patrols, there are almost daily clashes and dozens of fires.

And the toll continues to mount– more than a dozen deaths during our own three-day visit. To many critics, the failure to contain the violence proves the complicity of the Gujarat government, a legislature in which the BJP has a majority. Siddharth Varadarajan is an editor with the Times of India, a top English language daily.

SIDDHARTH VARDARAJAN, Times of India: The killings which followed the train massacre were not spontaneous. They were not the result of mass anger on the part of Hindus. But it was an orchestrated, organized, calculated pogrom, which took place because the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has state power and was able to use that power to essentially give a free hand to its party activists to indulge in this kind of criminal behavior.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The BJP’s allies in Gujarat blame Muslims, what they call Islamic terrorism.

HINDU ACTIVIST: Here in Gujarat, Hindus are victims of Islamic terrorism.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Praveen Togadia is president of the World Hindu Council, which has led the campaign to build a temple in Ayodhya.

Many Muslims, he charges, think of themselves as Muslims first, not Indians. Many Indian Muslim leaders say the overwhelming majority of their community should not be judged by pronouncements of a few.

Abid Shamsi is a retired English professor in Gujarat.

ABID SHAMSI: I believe that the voice of sanity is not heard. There is such a large, large scale and widespread rule of fanaticism where you can’t go and talk reason.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Shamsi says aside from a few movie stars and industrialists, India’s Muslims are poorer and less literate than most Indians.

Far from being fanatics, he says many chose to live in a secular democratic India instead of a Muslim Pakistan.

However, Syed Shahabuddin, who publishes the weekly magazine Muslim India, fears events in Gujarat are exactly what breed extremism.

SYED SHAHABUDDIN: We cannot control the motivation of individuals — an adolescent who has lost his entire family, who has seen his mother and sisters being raped and who has seen his fathers and brothers being butchered. If he becomes a terrorist, what shall you tell him? What can you tell him?

Yes, I go on telling them, please have fortitude, have faith in Allah. I might teach them, I might try to keep them from the path of violence, because, as I told you, I see the redemption of India, and I see the future of the minorities in this country — not in their own effort, singly — but in cooperation with the huge mass of this country, which is tolerant, which is good, which is peaceful.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Months into the Gujarat violence, however, the forces of moderation have yet to rise.

There was one person we spoke to yesterday that said it will just take time and fatigue to bring peace to Gujarat.


FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Do you agree with that?

ABID SHAMIS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And this time it’s going to be a long time.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many Indians take heart from the fact that the religious violence hasn’t spread beyond Gujarat.

Others, however, fear that it will be a struggle to keep Gujarat, the birthplace of Gandhi, from becoming the graveyard of the secular nation he helped found.