Lessons from the riots in Gujarat

The role of civil society, media in the violence is the single most important fact of this and all other Indian riots.

Aakar Patel February 25, 2012

Tomorrow, February 27, is the tenth anniversary of the violence in Gujarat. In March of 2002, the Editors Guild of India sent a three-man team to investigate the role of the media in the riots. The team comprised of BG Verghese, Dileep Padgaonkar and myself.

We filed a report whose finding was that much of the local (Gujarati language) media was prejudiced against Muslims. It played not an insignificant role in keeping the violence going. The tone that newspapers should have adopted during a period of violence was found rarely, and sometimes there was also incitement. All this was fine with its readership, and these papers have since thrived.

Two aspects to the violence in Gujarat have stayed with me.

The first was the understanding that a riot happens in India when the state steps aside. This happens willfully, because the administration sees benefit in allowing the violence to continue. The reason for this is that often the political party in power during a riot is rewarded with a return to power if elections are around the corner. The former bureaucrat Harsh Mander said that the British had left us a system of neighbourhood policing through which law and order could be imposed within 48 hours. That this had not happened in two of Gujarat’s cities, Ahmedabad and Baroda, indicated that the state was complicit.

The second reason for the state to step aside is when its constituent elements, by which is meant the police force, the administrators, the district magistrates and the judiciary, are part of the same civil society that is violent. They take sides in the violence without instruction from above. There is reason to believe that the latter happened in Gujarat in 2002. We can speculate this because the Supreme Court moved some riot cases out of Gujarat and to the Bombay High Court. There is reason to believe that the deliberate withholding of the state’s ability to stop violence happened also, but to me that is the less disturbing element. Once the administration signals its passiveness, normalcy leaves the neighbourhoods and the killing begins.

The second aspect was the participation of civil society in the violence. The state could have prevented the rioters, true. But why were Gujaratis killing Gujaratis in the first place? This difficult question must be confronted. This role of civil society and media in the violence is the single most important fact of this and all other Indian riots.

The reason given here was provocation. That is to say, if the train had not been set alight in Godhra by Muslims, the killing across the state would not have happened. This justifies collective punishment and civic violence. If one is unable to accept this reasoning, then it is difficult to move on from the savagery.

I was struck by a couplet in a poem Bollywood lyricist Gulzar wrote on the riots: “Sar nahin katey they, topiyan kati thi ke jin mein sar they” (They didn’t cut off heads, they merely cut off caps in which heads were present).

Ten years after the riots, we in India soothe ourselves with the thought that the violence has not recurred. But whether the state and its constituents will behave differently next time, and whether the population will be less wrathful are questions that lurk, and will not go away easily.

There was one aspect to the events in Gujarat that was not immediately obvious.

This was the first communal riot where the violence was shown live on television, over an entire week. This made the event transformational. More people (2,700) were killed during the riots in Delhi in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s murder and more again (over 2,000) in 1992-93, after the demolition of the Babri mosque. In Gujarat 790 Muslims and 253 Hindus were killed, and about 250 more are missing, presumed dead. Despite the smaller number, the impact of the Gujarat riots was deeper than the previous two because of television. The violence was shown in a vivid manner, and the bestiality was remembered. It has produced a fiercely secular national media in India that has pushed Hindutva back in the last decade.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2012.


harkol | 9 years ago | Reply

The lessons from Gujarat 2002: 1. A Democratically elected govt. isn't always right. 2. People do vote on xenophobic consideration, even when they are in majority & should feel safe 3. Leaders like NaMo focusing on Guj votes, will get weighed down by Gujarat 2002 4. India is too complex and diverse country for a single virulent, extreme ideology to spread 5. With all Extremist Hindutva push, BJP can win Gujarat. But, it'll loose India. 6. People of India have learnt how cynical politicians can exploit situations. Many bomb blasts, terror incidents after 2002, didn't revoke an backlash and a riot.

Hopefully People of India have matured.

Deb;India | 9 years ago | Reply

As an Indian, I feel ashamed by what happened in Gujrat 2002. I know it counts for little, still I beg forgiveness to all those whose life were affected one way or the other by and because of the evil deeds of those who have no respect for humanity. Hope and pray justice will be done.

At the same time, I am proud of the Indian media (both print and electronic variety), many NGOs and a horde of intellectuals,op-ed writers,social workers and individuals who has worked and todate working towards a reconcilliation and justice.

Lessons from the riots in Gujarat? 1.Democracy is not mobocracy. 2.Democracy is not merely a 'rule by majority', far less of a 'rule of majority' and certainly not 'tyranny of the majority'. (It might take most of us,Indians and Pakistanis as well, another couple of hundred years to understand the nuances.) 3.Rule of law and a fair (and robust) justice system is the way forward.

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