Stephanie Nolen


Crouched beside her husband waist deep in a rooftop water tank at 2 in the morning, Anjuman Bano listened to her Hindu neighbours debate. Would they smuggle the pair to safety? Or toss them to the mob howling for Muslim blood below?


Compassion prevailed. The fugitives were spirited to temporary shelter, and Ms. Bano cached in a storeroom while her husband plotted their escape. He wasn’t fast enough: The mob burst in and dragged him away, hacking at him with a sword.


Nearly 2,000 people, almost all Muslims, died that night in 2002 and in the days that followed, as a spasm of violence convulsed the state of Gujarat. Another 200,000 were displaced; many lost all they owned and more than half still can’t go home.


“Gujarat” – as the attacks are known in political and human-rights circles here, the state’s name inextricably tied to the bloodbath – was a seminal moment in the modern history of India. It was the worst such conflict since partition in 1947, and reignited fears the country would always be plagued by sectarian violence.


There has been nothing like it since – but as the country marks the 10th anniversary of the riots this month, the anguish of victims brought into stark relief how little real progress has been made. The religious lines drawn by the violence have not been bridged. The victims have not been compensated. Few cases have gone to court. And Narendra Modi, the long-serving chief minister of Gujarat who stands accused of sanctioning and overseeing the attacks, has emerged as a leading candidate to become India’s next prime minister.


“Strong evidence,” says Human Rights Watch, ties the carnage to the Modi government which, having come to power five months before it began, has been “subverting justice, protecting perpetrators and intimidating those promoting accountability” ever since the killing ended.


The international watchdog group has found that not only did rioters have detailed lists of Muslim residents and businesses, they were incited by phone calls and door-to-door campaigns conducted by officials of Mr. Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and right-wing organizations affiliated with it.


“The state had evidence, it had machinery. It had the strength to control it if they wanted to. This is irrefutable,” says Harsh Mander, who had a senior post in the central government and was in Gujarat when the killing began. He resigned over what he calls the complicity of his colleagues, and has spent the past decade supporting victim efforts to end the impunity seemingly enjoyed by officials – and their leader.


“By international law standards, under the internationally recognized principle of command responsibility, Mr. Modi is completely guilty,” he says.


Despite this, Mr. Modi, 61, has emerged as one of India’s more powerful political figures; he went on to win two more terms as chief minister and quashed opposition in the state. Figures as diverse as anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare and India’s most respected industrialist, Ratan Tata, heap praise on him.


Whether he can be elected to lead a country that is home to 117 million Muslims will hinge largely on the ability of a grimly determined group of survivors such as Ms. Bano, and the human-rights activists and lawyers who back them, to hold him to account for what his supporters call “that unfortunate episode.”


Muslim complicity unproved


That “episode” began when a car from a train carrying participants in a pilgrimage organized by Hindu nationalists to a famous – and disputed – religious site in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh was set alight. Fifty-eight people were burned alive.


The attack took place 140 kilometres from Gujarat’s capital, Ahmedabad, and was blamed on a Muslim mob. Two government inquiries failed to confirm this allegation, and last year those accused of committing the atrocity were acquitted for lack of evidence. But news of the burning spread to the capital within hours and set off a vicious campaign of retaliation against Muslims – Ms. Bano and her husband Hussein Qarar among them.


Listening through the door as a Hindu mob hacked at her husband, she was sure they would kill him. They didn’t, although not for lack of trying. When the crowd moved on, after burning their house and shop to the ground, a Hindu neighbour brought Mr. Qarar’s bloodied body to Ms. Bano, who dragged him to a government hospital.

Told that Muslim victims would receive no help, she called a family member who took them to a private clinic, where Mr. Qarar was saved. Months later, when he could travel, the couple fled Gujarat with their children (sheltered that night by a relative) to Mumbai, leaving all they owned in ashes.


A few days ago, Ms. Bano relived those events at a public event to mark the anniversary. Her family is newly returned to Gujarat; as impoverished refugees, they never found their feet in Mumbai. But coming home, she says, has been difficult: No one has ever been punished for attacking them, they have received no compensation and, she says, she doesn’t feel safe.


Men are usually the victims of religious violence in India, but the mobs in Gujarat sought out children and women, who were raped and then burned alive. The investigative magazine Tehelka secretly filmed a man bragging of how many Muslim women he’d assaulted, as his wife sat beside him nodding her approval.


And while all this went on – the rampage was in full force for more than two weeks and took four months to die out completely – the state did nothing. Muslims poured into police stations begging for help to protect their property, and their lives. Human Rights Watch has documented how police abandoned them or simply replied, “We have no orders to save you.”


This question of orders is critical because the accusations against Mr. Modi hinge on the testimony of officials who were with him early in the killing spree and say he gave instructions that police were not to intervene, a charge he denies.


However, the chief minister joined a right-wing Hindu organization as a teenager, makes no secret of his sympathies and has never expressed regret for what happened. In fact, when speaking Gujarati, the main language in the state, he boasts that he was “the only one ‘man enough’ to stand up to ‘them.’”


To his supporters, Mr. Modi is a kind of miracle worker. Under him, Gujarat has posted double-digit economic growth, built new infrastructure from roads to ports to telecom networks, established a business-friendly environment that has wooed the powerful Tata Group and many others to set up operations and, so the story goes, nearly wiped out government corruption.


“Gujarat is the most developed state in India, because of the very able leadership of Modi,” says S.V. Zala, head of political science at Gujarat University. “He is very dynamic and visionary and without any fear.” Opinion polls suggest that 90 per cent of Gujaratis – about the number of Hindus in the state – share that view.


The BJP, now the national opposition party, is poised to mount a serious challenge in national elections in 2014, but it has elderly and uncharismatic leaders and will need someone new at the helm. Many view Mr. Modi as the best candidate, and he does not hide his ambitions.


In fact, other states have posted higher growth rates and adopted anti-corruption and pro-business legislation sooner, but he has proved deft at managing his image, notes Zoya Hasan, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi formerly on the government’s National Commission for Minorities.


“He has succeeded in polarizing Gujarati society on Hindu-Muslim lines – when faced with criticism from outside, he presents it as an attack on Gujarat.”


Yet despite his best efforts, the events of 2002 haunt Mr. Modi. The United States has twice denied him a visa. (Canada, in contrast, was a major sponsor of a “Vibrant Gujarat” event he held to woo business last year.) “There is a silent discomfort” on the part of other parties, whose co-operation he would likely need in this era of coalition politics, Prof. Hasan says. They know that, if nothing else, supporting him would cost them Muslim votes.


Justice delayed, then denied After being pressed to act, the police finally laid charges in the attack on Ms. Bano and her husband. The case dragged through the courts for seven years, with the judge openly expressing sympathy for the accused and eventually acquitting them.


It’s a common story. Ten years ago, Yusuf Mansuri, 33, cowered in a police station with his family while their home was levelled and his neighbours murdered. Afterward, he insisted on an investigation, saying he knew the names of many of the attackers, but was sent away.


When he persisted, he and his father were arrested and accused of killing the one Hindu among the 112 who died in their neighbourhood, the only case on which police took action. Eventually, he got out of jail, left his job as a bus conductor and put himself through law school to continue the fight. “We will get justice,” he vows.


Ms. Bano is less convinced. “Modi did it – he’s the one,” she says with a shrug. “But he won’t face justice.”


Mr. Mander, the former administrator, shares her skepticism, but sees a bigger picture: “The Chief Minister’s guilt in enabling the violence is beyond doubt, whether or not he sees the inside of a jail. But the important thing for me is that he is being held to account by the people.”


Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail’s correspondent in New Delhi.


(Saturday’s Globe and Mail Published Friday, Mar. 16, 2012. Globe and Mail is Canada’s National Paper)


[Three photographs including one by Ajit Solanki of Narendra Modi with ceremonial headwear are not being reproduced)

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