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Guest Column
Bilal Zuberi

“Please don’t say this was a riot. It was genocide, pure and simple.” --Mukul Sinha, a Hindu lawyer in Gujarat, India.

The tragedy that erupted in the Indian state of Gujarat in February 2002 left over 2000 men, women and children dead in just over a week, mostly Muslims -- brutally killed, axed and burned in front of their loved ones. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims fled their houses and even today, more than 100,000 Muslims reside in the refugee camps of Ahmedabad. For the survivors of the massacre, there is a thin dividing line between memories and nightmares. They have visions of their loved ones being dragged out of their homes, raped, tortured, axed and put to fire. Stories, images and tales of sorrow from the witnesses and survivors remind this generation what the world may have witnessed during the Holocaust in Europe -- and all this in the largest democracy in the world!

Today, India is trying to recover from the wounds it inflicted upon itself in the way of communal hatred and violence. It remains a secular state but the secular fabric of the country is under attack -- and not from the outside but from within. The fear that grips Indian minorities is that a secular India will evolve into a tyranny of the majority Hindus.

It is now well documented that what Gujarat witnessed was not a riot, but a terrorist attack: a planned massacre of the Muslim minority community at the hands of militant mobs representing the Hindu fanatic groups. Clearly, the political leaders, the police and the civil government failed to protect its people, but why? Ashish Nandy, a scholar of South Asia, writes that “brutal killings and atrocities take place when the two communities involved are not distant strangers, but close to each other culturally and socially, and when their lives intersect at many points. When nearness sours or explodes it releases strange, fearsome demons.” The Gujarat massacre, in many ways, reminded historians of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, where communities living embedded into each other’s lives turned into bitter enemies and exorcised their collective being. A train mob incident triggered the catastrophe, but demographers of riots say it was for a long time coming. The fascist Hindu extremists exploited the vulnerability of the frustrated urban youth, much the same way al-Qaida recruited its volunteers. Hate campaigns against the Muslims were launched and the youth were mobilized in a Mafia-like manner and made ready for street violence. So it comes as no surprise that when violence erupted, the murderers took to the streets in no time.

The scars of the tragedy are still visible all over Gujarat and the rest of India. But what do we do now? It is important that everybody looks beyond the tragedy and develops a preventive strategy for the future. Unfortunately, it is the Muslim world that has been the quietest among all the observers. They are so tied up in their own struggles against extremism, and many of them so busy subjugating their own people, that they have by and large chosen to ignore the murder of thousands of their brethren in India. Luckily, individuals and communities in other countries, including Indians, have taken a stand for the human rights of minorities in India. It is this small but resilient voice that can prevent future atrocities. The global community needs to strengthen this voice and provide support at all levels.

The biggest fear is that no proper strategy has been drawn up as yet by the Government of India to prevent a future massacre from taking place, or to prevent the seeds of this brutal violence from spreading into the rest of India. We have recently witnessed another terrorist attack on a temple in Gujarat, and if the political observers are correct, a lack of severe action at the national and international levels will be disastrous. The attackers on the temple belonged to a previously unknown group called “Movement for Revenge in Gujarat,” clear evidence that seeds of violence are brewing in the local communities. Having lost trust in the police, the minorities are preparing to protect themselves with weapons. In the meantime, the Hindu fanatics continue to spread hatred across the country. So what can be done to prevent a future disaster?

First, there is a need for the judiciary in India to make sure the perpetrators of this organized crime do not go unpunished. The criminals who participated in this genocide should be handed over to the International Court for all humanity to learn from. Similarly, it is well documented that these riots in India were not spontaneous, and the politicians who fueled (and continue to preach) communal hatred and violence should be contained. There is a need to look at the government, to weed out the criminal hate-mongers that have infiltrated the government ranks. It was at the level of local councilors and police officers that security was breached and burning victims were told “We have no orders to save you.” In fact, the police are known to have misguided attacked minorities straight into the hands of rioting mobs. Emergency response teams need to be mobilized nationwide. Ultimately, the agenda for growth, development, and social, economic and political justice has to prevail.

It is hoped that the Government of India will be questioned for allowing innocent lives to be plundered in the streets of Gujarat and steps will be taken at the national and international level to prevent escalation of fascist Hindu militancy. The motivation is not to destroy India’s image around the world, but to protect democracy, freedom and rights of minorities in a country, which, with all its faults and problems, is still the largest democracy in the world. If religious minorities cannot be protected in a secular India, little hope remains for many other parts of the world.

Bilal Zuberi is a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry.