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Blood, threats, toil and tears
Time For Some Real Sadhabhavana' screams a headline in TOI's Ahmedabad edition of February 28, 2012. But such real sadhabhavana can never come with Narendra Modi around. True, the special investigation team (SIT) has not found him guilty for any act of commission in the post Godhra riots. And nobody has been able to prove whether or not he actually said that "the Hindu reaction" to Godhra should be "allowed" - at a meeting with top cops on the evening of February 27, 2002. But can Modi ever absolve himself of any acts of omission? As one who lived in Ahmedabad then, and had a ringside view of events, I will say no.
The line given by Modi and his friends is that the post Godhra riots were a spontaneous reaction to the now-infamous Sabarmati Express carnage in which 58 people perished. Was it? February 27, 2002 was a hectic social evening in Ahmedabad: McDonald's was opening its first outlet in the city and Jagjit Singh was singing live at the upmarket Karnavati Club. Both functions were full to capacity. The audience milled about with merriment, picking up their favourite snacks from food stalls put up at the Jagjit show. The resulting ruckus disturbed the maestro, and he said so. Mind you, the Godhra train carnage had happened twelve hours before, so everybody was familiar with what had happened.
It is difficult, therefore, even in hindsight, to think of the murderous riots that broke out next morning as a spontaneous affair. Police personnel were conspicuous by their absence. Even Ahmedabad's traffic cops were missing on February 28 as marauding crowds roamed the streets indulging in mayhem. At Gulberg society, where ex-MP Ehsan Jaffri and many others were brutally killed, the ghastly incident actually occurred after a visit by the joint commissioner of police in the afternoon, which appeared to have been taken as a signal by the riotous crowds that the cops would not return. A sitting high court judge was also targeted. Two ministers even parked themselves at the police control room. Yet for all this 'incompetence', Modi did not pull up the serving police commissioner P C Pande. Pande was later promoted to DGP too.
Defence minister George Fernandes, despatched to Ahmedabad by the centre, revealed to me in the course of a long conversation on March 4, 2002 that he had heard said that the rioters had been "given three days", and asked me if I had any clue about this. The riots, which raged for a few months, ultimately came to an end only when even Modi's backers in Delhi got fed up with him and sent K P S Gill to control the troublemakers. Gill famously remarked that he was disturbed by the lack of a 'Kalinga effect' (the allusion being, of course, to the remorse Mauryan Emperor Ashoka suffered after shedding much blood conquering what are now parts of Orissa).
In Gujarat there is no remorse seen even ten years later. Modi, who was told by Atal Behari Vajpayee in the middle of the riots to adhere to the tenets of "raajdharma" (Modi, in turn, snubbed the hapless Prime Minister) has refused to publicly say 'sorry' to the riot victims. Privately, however, he once thumped his chest and told me: "aapko pataa nahin Musalmano ke liye dil mein mera kitna dard hai (You can't imagine how sensitive I am to the plight of the Muslims)".
Gujarati society remains as polarised as it was ten years ago. A recent report describes how a Hindu was forced by agitators into not selling his house to a Muslim in Bhavnagar. In Ahmedabad, different enclaves are clearly marked out for Muslims. Even if they have the means, rich Muslims cannot buy or rent a house in the western (and more modern) part of the city. Yet many Muslims, especially the upper middle classes, have made their peace reconciling themselves to their compromised status. They take encouragement from the widespread belief that the worst happened in 2002, and that the global condemnation Modi has attracted since is insurance enough to prevent an encore.
Modi, realising he can never quite remove the stains of 2002, has been assiduously pushing rapid industrialisation to gladden the hearts of Gujarat's citizens. This is why he offered incentives estimated to be a whopping Rs 20, 000 crore to Tata's Nano project. For industrialists, their eyes on profit alone, Gujarat is the place to be, where besides fast clearances, attractive incentives are also on offer. Little wonder then that some of them have repeatedly pushed for Modi as a possible prime minister. It does not matter that this is a man whom the US refuses to give a visa to.
Modi has been re-elected twice since the 2002 riots due to India's skewed 'first past the post' (FPTP) electoral system that allows a minority of votes to convert into a majority of seats. Ironically, it is this very system that will trip up Modi on a national level. In effect, the FPTP system requires a party to just get 30 per cent of the vote for victory. India's 15 per cent of minority votes will always go against a party that plays up Modi. The opposing party can always look pick up another 15 per cent and romp to power. This is largely why the saffron colours of Gujarat can never become the united colours of India.
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