In the years since the reporting I did in Gujarat, I have received many death threats and threatening phone calls. Anonymous letters have been delivered to my home. In these letters, faceless, nameless men (they must have been men because these sorts seem always to be men) claimed that they knew where my children went to school, that they had been following me, that after Gauri Lankesh, who had been murdered in Bangalore, it was now my turn.
Between 2010 and 2014, and then again between 2017 and 2018, I lived with round-the-clock security cover, provided on both occasions on the recommendation of the Supreme Court-appointed SIT. I was told by the police personnel who protected me to never follow a predictable routine, to leave home at a different time every day and to avoid taking the same road daily.
Worse than having to live with a Damoclean sword hanging over my head, was living with the bestial stories I had heard from these men. The images of children being sodomised and murdered, women raped, whole families burnt alive.
Violence alters your imagination.
I had a six-month-old daughter when I went undercover in 2007; the pain of the victims felt unbearably raw.
And while the intensity of the trauma has receded over the years, there are still times when I tuck my young girls into bed at night and my mind travels to Naroda Patiya and Gulbarg Society – to the wailing of small children, the powerlessness of the parents, the terror they must have felt, the sound of all those fires…
Over the last fifteen years, I have told the Gujarat story in a fragmented, piecemeal way, in magazine stories, on TV programmes, in court depositions, in statements made to the CBI and SIT; some of it is in the public domain, but a lot of it is not. Most of all, the Gujarat riots seem to have faded from the collective memory. When the riots are brought up in public conversation, it is usually in bad faith, twinned now to 1984 and other communal riots, to prove some twisted point that we are all as bad as each other.
But I had always believed that, at some point, I would have to tell the full story of what I witnessed in Gujarat. Even though I went there a few years after the events of 2002, the riots have always been a reminder to me that an ideology built on hate can persuade ordinary people to become part of a murderous mob, can get them not only to kill but to kill with relish and then justify it as a long overdue assertion of communal power.
When western Uttar Pradesh erupted in a communal frenzy in 2013, I thought the time had come for writing this book. But that was when I embarked on my own political journey. I fought a parliamentary election, ran the campaign for the Delhi assembly elections, and became enmeshed in the running of a Delhi government think tank.
Then, in the last week of February 2020, riots broke out in northeast Delhi, the largest eruption of Hindu-Muslim violence in the capital since Partition. An eighty-five-year-old woman’s house was surrounded by a mob and set on fire, and she was burnt alive, like so many Muslims in Gujarat eighteen years earlier. A group of rioters created a WhatsApp group called “Kattar Hindu Ekta”, where they bragged about killing Muslims and dumping their bodies in open sewers.
They offered to supply fellow fanatics with weapons so that they too could kill Muslims. Between the afternoon of 25 February and midnight of 26 February, men from this WhatsApp group bludgeoned nine Muslims to death. They would stop passers-by and ask for identification, so they could confirm if the person was Hindu or Muslim; the latter would be forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram” and then be battered anyway.
The 2020 Delhi riots left fifty-three people dead, most of them Muslims, and hundreds grievously injured. A Muslim doctor who attended to injured victims at a private hospital in Delhi described the horror before a citizen’s tribunal: “One man’s legs had been ripped apart. Perhaps that was beyond the limits of brutality. Anger and hatred are one thing. Brutality is another.”
I knew then that I needed to write this book. That I had to begin straight away.
There is a price to pay if you stand up for human rights, if you believe in the notion of justice.
As the years go by, those who champion the causes of others, particularly those of a demonised minority, will find themselves accused of being prejudiced, of having an agenda, of seeking to advance their careers, and of “playing politics”. And if you insist on making something like an investigation into the 2002 Gujarat riots part of your life’s work, you will repeatedly, aggressively, be asked: “Why won’t you let bygones be bygones? Why won’t you let people move on? Why do you have to be so negative? Why don’t you first talk about 1984 before you discuss 2002? Why don’t you write about the riots during the Congress regime? Do you know the history of Gujarat? There have always been riots in Gujarat, don’t you know that? The Muslims did this in 1947. The Hindus did that in 1984. The Muslims did this in Godhra in 2002.”
Every riot, every act of violence we have worked so hard to ignore, to “get over” without a moment’s reflection or any attempt to seek understanding and reconciliation, has made us more debased as a society. The mob now believes it can act with impunity. Not only will the rioters be protected, they might even be rewarded for their actions. Heinous acts become more and more normalised. The once malevolent is now unexceptional.
After watching a particularly vile Delhi election campaign by the BJP in 2020, the Delhi riots were so much déjà vu, a replay of events in Gujarat. Communal speeches, followed by hate slogans, followed by riots. Select law officers appointed as special public prosecutors. A compromised bureaucracy in which the compliant rose to power and prestige, while the upright were hounded. A communal police force and a biased administration. An insipid media. A placid judiciary. If a judge dared to ask questions, he was immediately shunted out.
The Delhi riots show the dangers of never learning from our past.
The dangers of decades of complacency, of feeling that we were an inclusive, multicultural nation proud of our diversity and openness, until one day we woke up to find out we were actually small-minded, resentful, parochial and violent. Because we do not remember, we repeat; because we do not look evil in the eye, we are always looking over our shoulder.
The Gujarat playbook is now the India playbook. Surprise – it has nothing to do with good governance, prosperity and economic development, it is about sowing hate, division and anger. About picking on minorities and making a crude, poisonous rhetoric the vernacular of the national conversation.
“I am not so naïve as to believe that this slim volume will change the course of history or shake the conscience of the world. Books no longer have the power they once did. Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow,” wrote Elie Wiesel presciently in his book, Night. I am not writing this book because I think it will change how people see the present times. It is a book to say, as much to myself as to you, that I was there and this is what I saw. It may seem as if it is a book about the past. But I hope that, by the time you finish reading it, you will be as convinced as I am that it is a book about our present and our future.
Excerpted with permission from “The Introduction” to Undercover: My Journey into the Darkness of Hindutva, Ashish Khetan, Context.