How trust in interfaith relations avoided riots after the Akshardham terror attack in 2002

An eyewitness details the refusal of the head of the sect to provoke retaliation or violence.

BAPS was severely tested on 24 September 2002. What would later be classified as one of the worst terrorist attacks on a religious place in modern India engulfed the heart of BAPS. Its renowned Swaminarayan Akshardham, a 23-acre cultural complex dedicated to Bhagwan Swaminarayan in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, was besieged by two terrorists at 4:45 pm. Armed with AK-47 guns and hand grenades, the terrorists randomly and mercilessly killed 31 innocent pilgrims, including a sadhu of BAPS, and seriously wounded 70 others.

The attack was strongly condemned. National and international religious, political, and social leaders expressed their pain and solidarity. Volunteer Nishit Acharya recounts the horror of that night, “The intermittent sounds of gunfire and grenades kept the whole of Gandhinagar awake. It felt like being in a movie.”

The massacre, the attempt to blow up the main shrine, and the holy halls strewn with dead bodies and blood created a nationwide panic. Special National Security Guard (NSG) commandos arrived at 11 p.m. “Operation Thunderbolt” lasted till 6:45 am. on 25 September, when the terrorists were finally killed in the open.

Overnight, Gujarat sank into a state of shock. Only recently, it had been torn by the Godhra train-burning and the resultant riots. There was a great feeling of outrage against this unprovoked attack and some people sought “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” response. Many right-wing groups declared protests and marches.

One religious leader, unnamed to preserve anonymity and avoid incitement, said, “If such an attack had happened to our shrine, we would have changed the map of Gujarat.” Certain leaders vehemently pressured Pramukh Swami Maharaj to voice strong protest and harsh anger. I heard them urge retaliation.

However, Swamiji stayed calm and composed amid this turmoil. He walked the path of prayer and forgiveness. The attack resulted in perhaps the most widespread nationwide bandh (closure) independent India has seen. While debates, allegations, and anger mounted, Pramukh Swami Maharaj guided the crisis towards a peaceful outcome.

On that fateful night, I was at Akshardham. Nothing could have prepared us for such horror. It was a nightmare. No one knew what was happening. I began helping the commandos understand the layout of the huge complex. I vividly recall Swamiji constantly encouraging me over the phone to remain calm, to contain my hurt throughout the night: “Place a block of ice on your head. Anger is not the answer; peace is. Be careful with your words. So many have died, do not provoke more damage by irresponsible sentiments and statements.”

There were pilgrims trapped in the main monument and more than a hundred huddled in the theatre. While terrorists – two, four, five… no one knew how many – freely roamed and fired wantonly from above the colonnade, panic thickened the night. Then things became worse. Sadhu Parmeshwardas came out to call me back inside as I was near the podium with police officers. Amidst random gunfire he was shot dead, right before my eyes. I was too shattered to react.

Even then Swamiji telephoned to comfort me, saying, “I know it hurts you, but contain your pain. Do not make a hue and cry. Be responsible. Years back in 1969 an injury to a sadhu had fanned religious riots in Ahmedabad. So keep things quiet. Do not declare it in public. We cannot allow religious strife to inflame and take more innocent lives.” Swamiji silently swallowed this terribly unbearable event and prevented the news and images of the death of a Swaminarayan sadhu from spreading, lest they fan rage and riots.

Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s emotional stability and a larger sense of responsibility to society kept BAPS together. In the days to follow, despite suffering a fever, Swamiji visited the Civil Hospital to comfort the injured and meet the families of the deceased. He sanctified the entire Akshardham complex and organised a public prayer and condolence assembly. All throughout, his actions did not seek sympathy, but ensured stability and spiritual maturity.

His message to the people on the same night of the attack was broadcast nationally and internationally. It focused on peace and prayer, wherein he appealed “to all the people of Gujarat and India to maintain peace and unity in the wake of this national tragedy”.

Even to individuals who called on Swamiji privately, his message of harmony remained unwavering. When Ramjibhai Patel, an industrialist of Kampala, confessed, “I am so horrified by the attack on Akshardham by Islamic terrorists that I have decided to sack all Muslims employed by me,” Swamiji instantly pacified him, saying, “It would be totally wrong and inhuman of you to do so.” He patiently explained that terrorism had no religion.

Two things really struck me. Until today, Swamiji has never asked me or anyone the name, origin, or religion of the terrorists. Moreover, while blessing all the places of death and destruction in Akshardham, he asked me where the terrorists had died. I painfully pointed out the spot where they had been shot and saw him sprinkle sanctified flowers there, praying: “May no one think of attacking anyone, any place, or any religion. May the world be freed from thoughts of terror.”

When I informed Swamiji that reporters were inquiring whether BAPS would preserve its memory by constructing a memorial of the attack, Pramukh Swami Maharaj simply instructed us: “We should forgive and forget. Keep no traces or memories of the scars and hurts. And open Akshardham to the people within a few days.” It was reopened on 7 October 2002.

In the prayer assembly on 29 September on the open lawns of Akshardham, which was attended by religious, political, social, and community leaders along with over 25,000 people, there were no speeches or slogans – only bhajans and prayers. Only religious leaders were on the platform. No aggression. No protest. No communal bitterness.

President APJ Abdul Kalam noted the societal significance of the response: “Pramukh Swamiji showed magnanimity by not indulging in any blame game or imputing motives… The attack was meant to stir communal riots and tear apart the fabric of society. But the sthitaprajna [a spiritually enlightened person who possesses perfect equilibrium and total control over the mind and senses] Pramukh Swamiji defeated those nefarious designs of the terrorists by not reacting to the provocation designed to elicit a backlash…. Swamiji encouraged his followers to pray, not punish.”

If ever there was a time when things could have snapped, this was it. But Pramukh Swami Maharaj did not allow divisions, rumours, or revenge to rule. His ideal of peace and pluralism won over, not just the moment or our movement, but the masses. His response of equanimity, forbearance, forgiveness, and respect generated a feeling of trust among many religious groups.

They came forward in sympathy and support for BAPS, met Pramukh Swami Maharaj, and strung up banners of harmony in the streets. When leaders, experts, thinkers, and officials were predicting a backlash of riots and revenge, heat and hatred, Gujarat remained peaceful, primarily because BAPS, the religious organisation that suffered, pledged peace.

Excerpted with permission from the chapter titled “Terrorism and interfaith relations at Swaminarayan Akshardham in Gandhinagar’, by Sadhu Brahmaviharidas, from Swaminarayan Hinduism: Tradition, Adaptation, Identity, edited by Raymond Brady Williams and Yogi Trivedi.

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