It was not only the spread of the violence that was staggering. Nor was it the precision and planning behind each of the incidents evident in the actions of the mobs that carried out their task. Neither was it the kinds of weapons used – gas cylinders as improvised bombs, a white chemical powder that incinerated human flesh, trishuls, agricultural implements, even guns.

It was the calculated brutality that reduced human bodies to dismembered pieces of crumbled flesh where babies did not look like dead babies, nor women dead women nor men dead men.

They had been reduced – whenever they had not been burned to ashes – to a grotesque and pathetic sight that are a haunting reminder of the depth of hatred and intense dehumanisation generated by a politics of exclusiveness.

Close to 20 years later, in December 2021, when the brazen call for a genocidal killing of Indian Muslims has been met by a crude silence of India’s ruling political leadership, it would be wise to trace the lineage of this bloody public legacy to the Gujarat of 2002 and even further beyond.

The trigger

Twenty years ago, on February 27, 2002, the burning to death of 58 persons aboard the S-6 Sabarmati Express when it arrived at the Godhra railway station five hours behind schedule, about 7.50 am, provided the overt trigger for hate. But for years before 2002, the people of the street had been fed all manner of hate propaganda from the traditional street parchas to booklets and pamphlets.

Even classrooms were not immune as the content of state board social science texts reflected the fissures being carved within communities. Borders and divisions were being carved within Gujarati society and state, in homes, staff rooms, the classroom, the advocates rooms, marketplaces and shopping plazas. Dissenting voices became outsiders for family and state.

The ghastly deaths in Godhra fanned these flames already raging, albeit at lower temperatures, all over the state. First, the charred and decomposed bodies of women, children and men were laid out on the railway platform for hours that day as post-mortems, contrary to the law and procedure, were allowed to take place in the wide open.

A little-known but unambiguous rule in the Gujarat Police Manual prohibits any photographs of decomposed or charred or damaged bodies to either be taken or relayed to the public, a violation of which holds the Superintendent of Police liable. This rule and many other laws were violated with impunity as several versions of the photographs of the Godhra dead became the readymade arsenal to justify revenge.

Not only were no attempts made by officials to contain the obvious and predictable communal or sectarian fallout of the Godhra train burning, the administration’s stance in permitting a man affiliated to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to escort some of the bodies of the dead to Ahmedabad in a motor cavalcade did not just violate the rulebook – it was an act conceived to fan the flames.

Blood with blood

The first recorded incident of reprisal violence took place within hours of the Godhra deaths by burning when a man, a Muslim, was assaulted and killed near Vadodara station; another Muslim man was also assaulted in Anand. The acts accompanied the Sabarmati Express as it left Godhra (minus the burned coaches) and continued its journey via Vadodara and Anand to its destination – Kalupur railway station, Ahmedabad.

“Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge” (we will avenge blood with blood) were the loud slogans heard by officials of the State Intelligence Bureau as the train arrived at Ahmedabad. Through the day on February 27, there were already 14 incidents of criminal assault on Muslims in that city.

Eventually, this violence, reaping a harvest from the hatred sowed for years before Godhra, encompassed 19 of Gujarat’s 25 districts and continued in a semi-intense form till early March 2002 (when senior police official KPS Gill was sent down as advisor to the state government to quell it) and claimed approximately 2,000 lives (though the official figures are half that number).

Apart from the killings there was targeted and selective economic destruction: 18,924 seriously damaged, 4,954 homes completely destroyed. As many as 10, 429 shops burned, and 1,278 ransacked. Lost to arson were 2,623 larri gallas or hawkers’ carts. Muslim homes, properties and businesses valued at Rs 4,000 crore were done to dust.

Religious and cultural shrines were a special target: 285 dargahs, 240 masjids, 36 madrassahs, 21 temples and three churches damaged/destroyed (totalling 649). Of these, 412 were repaired by the community themselves, though 167 remained damaged for several years.

Two of the state’s largest circulating Gujarati dailies added fuel to the fire. The Sandesh was particularly virulent and has been called out by the National Human Rights Commission, the Editor’s Guild and even officers of the Gujarat government itself (Rahul Sharma, former SP, Bhavnagar) and RB Sreekumar (ex-DGP, Gujarat) who recommended that the publication be criminally prosecuted.

The banner headlines of the issue of February 28, 2002, above colour photos of the charred corpses of the Godhra victims screamed, “15 Hindu women dragged away from the railway compartment by a fanatic mob.” The Gujarat police denied that any such incident had taken place.

Worse still, when mob attacks were reported at all, this newspaper did not mention the identity when the victim belonged to the minority community. Again, on March 1, 2002, Sandesh falsely ran front page report with a prominent headline claiming that the “dead bodies of the kidnapped young women from Sabarmati Express, have been recovered with their breasts chopped off” when in fact no such incident had taken place. The police denial of any such incident finds no mention in the report.

A significant portion of the report of the Editor’s Guild, authored by Dilip Padgaonkar, BG Verghese and Aakar Patel (Rights and Wrongs, Gujarat 2002) lists the inflammatory headlines of Sandesh.

Fanning the flames

Besides official media channels, print and television (The Peoples Union of Civil Liberties, Vadodara, had documented in detail the incendiary impact of some of the electronic media coverage in 2002), both the National Human Rights Commission and the Editors’ Guild showcased pamphlets – at least three dozen or so – authored and published by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (with its official address) and a few that were anonymous. These provided the much-needed provocative justification that the mobs needed.

I sourced and published over a dozen such examples of hate material in an issue of Communalism Combat (March-April 2002) titled Pamphlet Poison. One proudly authored by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Ahmedbad, exhorts readers to kill, “Your life is in danger – you might be killed any time! Lord Shree Krishna told Arjun: ‘Lift your weapons and kill the non-religious.’ The lord wants to tell us something also… Give the traitorous Muslims a taste of patriotism by boycotting them socially and economically.”

Advocating socio-economic boycott and exhorting young Hindu men to arm and guard the population against Christian “missionaries” and Muslim “jehadis”, this finds space in Vishwa Hindu Parishad-Bajrang Dal literature.

These kinds of brazen exhortations to violation and gloating about brutal gender and sexual violence against Muslim women had resulted in the violent eruptions of 2002.

These pamphlets we had tracked and published 20 years ago in the 150-page March-April 2002 of Communalism Combat. Before that, too however, hate literature in Gujarat was widely available. In the five cover stories that I authored for Communalism Combat, (October 1998, Welcome to Hindu Rashtra, January 1999, Conversions, October 1999, How Textbooks Teach Prejudice, April 2000, Face to Face with Fascism, January 2000, Split Wide Open) this insidious othering of sections of Gujaratis has been meticulously documented.

Four years before the violence, in August 1998, a team of activists from Gujarat, Mumbai and Delhi had visited Randhikpur and Sanjeli (in the Panchmahals) where they had found, “In all the places we visited, an active circulation of literature announcing: ‘When Hindus Rise, Christians run away.”

We gathered several leaflets and hand-outs saying, “Jai Shri Ram. We all are Hindus. Let us unite and stop the bloody tendencies of the Christians”. There is no dearth of such literature against Muslims too.

Forcible evictions

In that year, in the month of June 1998, in the same district that saw the brutal gang rape of Bilkis Bano four years later, 300 Muslim families had been forcibly evicted from their village and compelled to live in makeshift tents during the monsoon till some interventions assured their return.

In 1,200 villages and at 350 locations in the cities, we had recorded the welcome hoardings that cocked a thumb at the Indian Constitution: “Welcome to Hindu Rashtra” they read.

Three hundred copies of the New Testament had been burned inside the IP Girls Secondary School, Rajkot, a 103-year old Christian Institution and the All India Catholic Union had documented three dozen attacks on Christian persons all over the state.

Young people marrying across the Hindu-Muslim divide had been targeted as the first whiff of anger about the “love jihad” conspiracy theory was whipped up and Muslim rickshaw drivers in Surat attacked. The National Minorities Commission under James Massey had even sent a team to investigate the violence against religious minorities –both Christians and Muslims – in the state.

Recalling this aspect of the build-up to the Gujarat genocidal carnage is particularly crucial and relevant in the India of today. Hate is now a state project where the political formation in power, its vigilante organisations and cadres are mentally and physically armed through hate propaganda to violently harm religious minorities, women and Dalits.

The four stages prior to genocide – Prejudiced Ideas, Acts of Prejudice, Discrimination, Violence – have been breached. If early warning signs are what guard and warn a state and society against the outbreak of targeted violence, carnage or genocide, we have had more than our fair share of these coming to us for decades from Gujarat.

The author is secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace, an organisation that provides legal aid to survivors of the Gujarat carnage of 2002. She is also co-editor of