INDIA IS reeling from the worst communal violence for ten years. On Wednesday 27 February in the town of Godhra in Gujarat, a train carrying Hindu nationalists was attacked with petrol bombs. The train caught fire and 58 people were killed. On Thursday, Hindu nationalists across Gujarat responded with violent riots which have so far left around 70 dead. The epicentre of the violence has been Ahmedabad, state capital of Gujarat, where 35 Muslims have been burned in their own homes, and at least 150 have been injured.
A Swedish student in Ahmedabad, gave us this eyewitness report:
“The rioting passed by about five metres outside our school. We heard the Hindu mob which rushed forward and screamed every time a shop was set alight,” she said.
“A big part of the Old City, where we go shopping, is completely destroyed. The Old City is largely populated by Muslims, and there Hindus have burnt down shops and homes. People are afraid that Muslim groups may respond tonight or tomorrow.
“Our school, National Institute of Design, is in the Paldi district, and in the neighbourhood around here about 20 Muslim owned shops have burnt down. Across the entire horizon we can see thick plumes of smoke rising into the evening sky.
“Hindu families, mothers with small children, looted the shops before they were set aflame. They filled their saris full of groceries. The police came, looked, and gave a ‘high five’ to the leader of the mob who had started it all”, she added.
“The police do nothing, they most likely sympathise, and the army won’t do anything unless the President gives the order. And we all know what the President thinks of Muslims, she continues, who thinks the army will intervene only when Muslim groups retaliate.
“Our school has direct contact with army to relieve the situation if something happens here. We have guards outside the building and there doesn’t seem to be any direct threat to us. It all seems unreal, like watching televsion at home in Sweden but with live explosions. Apocalyptic, with screams and shots,” she says, pointing out that all the schools and offices in Ahmedabad will be closed on Friday in an attempt to thwart further rioting.
The background to the violence is the religious or communal tensions which have increased in the last two decades. During the 1980s, Hindu nationalist parties such as the BJP, VHP and Shiv Sena grew – parties on the extreme right with fascist features. A question of great symbolic importance for these parties has been the temple at Ayodhya, which Hindu groups regard as the birthplace of the god Ram and which has seen pilgrimages for hundreds of years. In the year 1528, Muslim Moghul rulers built a mosque – the Babri Mosque – on this, for Hindus, holy site. The extreme nationlistic Hindu parties seized upon the question of the Ayodhya mosque in the 1980s, and in 1991 the BJP managed to win the state elections in Uttar Pradesh, which includes the town of Ayodhya.
This gave a powerful impulse to Hindu extremism which in 1992, culminated in the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque and a resultant wave of communalist violence across India in which 2 to 3,000 were killed. Both the BJP, VHP and Shiv Sena took part in the demolition of the mosque. The present interior minister, BJP member L. K. Advani, is regarded as one of those who masterminded this action. In 1996 the Congress party suffered is biggest election defeats ever and the BJP emerged as the single biggest party in India. In 1998 the BJP formed a coalition government under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who since then has balanced between the more extreme Hindu nationalist forces in his own party and his coalition partners. Prior to the state elections in Uttar Pradesh in February 2002, Vajpayee and the BJP declared that they would not sanction the building of a Hindu temple on the site in Ayodhya. The more confrontational VJP declared that, as in 1992, they would take matters into their own hands and, on 15 March, start building a temple.
In recent weeks the VHP has gathered temple builders in Ayodhya who have begun assembling walls, statues, pillars etc. At this moment there are a reported 20,000 Hindu nationalists at the holy site. Fighting has broken out at railway stations en route where VHP activists are reported to have taken food and other merchandise from Muslim vendors withour paying. It was just such a train which was attacked on Wednesday in Godhra.
On Thursday 28 February a curfew was imposed on 27 cities in Gujarat and the army was mobilising to take control of Ahmedabad and other cities. A 10,000-strong paramilitary force was reported to be on its way to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The question is whether this will be enough to stop the violence spreading to Uttar Pradesh and other parts of India. Even if Vajpayee, in fear of completely losing control, has appealed for law and order and urged BJP activists not to go to Ayodhya, the BJP led state government in Gujarat supported yesterday’s day of protest. The VHP has also called for national day of protest on Friday. In Ahmedabad and other parts of Gujarat the situation was completely out of control on Thursday and this could spread. Vajpayee has dispatched one of his ministers, Rajnath Singh, to Ayodhya to negotiate with VHP representatives who have given some indications that they may retreat on their plans to build a temple on 15 March.
The BJP’s chauvinist propaganda and war mongering against Pakistan did not prevent it from losing all four state elections which have been held this year. In the biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, with 170 million inhabitants, where Ayodhya is situated, the BJP only managed to win one-third of the seats in the assembly. BJP rule has been shaken by at least as many corruption scandals as previous governments and has encountered massive protests against its neo-liberal policies such as privatisations.
Vajpayee’ government’s survival depends on his ability to stop the violence rom spreading. Total chaos threatens to engulf India, the effects of which will increase the risk of war with Pakistan, of greater instability in Kashmir etc. Vajpayee is now compelled to try to rein in the Hindu chauvinist monster he himself helped create.
by Peter Lahti, CWI-Sweden