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One-way ticket: my take on the Godhra tragedy when it happened

There is something profoundly worrying in the response of what might be called the secular establishment to

the massacre in Godhra. Though there is some dispute over the details, we now know what happened on the railway track. A mob of 2,000 people stopped the Sabarmati

Express shortly after it pulled out of Godhra station. The train contained several bogeys full of kar sewaks who were on their way back to Ahmedabad after participating in the Poorna Ahuti Yagya at Ayodhya. The mob attacked the train with petrol and acid bombs. According to some witnesses, explosives were also used. Four bogies were gutted and at least 57 people, including over a dozen children, were burnt alive.


   Some versions have it that the kar sewaks shouted anti-Muslim slogans; others that they taunted and harassed Muslim passengers. According to these versions, the Muslim passengers got off at Godhra and appealed to members of their community for help. Others say that the slogans were enough to enrage the local Muslims and that the attack was revenge.


   It will be some time before we can establish the veracity of these versions, but some things seem clear. There is no suggestion that the kar sewaks started the violence. The worst that has been said is that they misbehaved with a few passengers. Equally, it does seem extraordinary that slogans shouted from a moving train or at a railway platform should have been enough to enrage local Muslims, enough for 2,000 of them to have quickly assembled at eight in the morning, having already managed to procure petrol bombs and acid bombs.


   Even if you dispute the version of some of the kar sewaks - that the attack was premeditated and that the mob was ready and waiting – there can be no denying that what happened was indefensible, unforgivable and impossible to explain away as a consequence of great provocation.


   And yet, this is precisely how the secular establishment has reacted.


   Nearly every non-BJP leader who appeared on TV on Wednesday and almost all of the media have treated the massacre as a response to the Ayodhya movement. This is fair enough in so far as the victims were kar sewaks.


   But almost nobody has bothered to make the obvious follow-up point: this was not something the kar sewaks brought on themselves. If a trainload of VHP volunteers had been attacked while returning after the demolition of the Babri masjid in December 1992, this would still have been wrong, but at least one could have understood the provocation.


   This time, however, there has been no real provocation at all. It is possible that the VHP may defy the government and the courts and go ahead with the temple construction eventually. But, as of now, this has not happened. Nor has there been any real confrontation at Ayodhya - as yet.


   And yet, the sub-text to all secular commentary is the same: the kar sewaks had it coming to them.


   Basically, they condemn the crime; but blame the victims.


   Try and take the incident out of the secular construct that we, in India, have perfected and see how bizarre such an attitude sounds in other contexts. Did we say that New York had it coming when the Twin Towers were attacked last year? Then too, there was enormous resentment among fundamentalist Muslims about America’s policies, but we didn’t even consider whether this resentment was justified or not.


"Have we become such prisoners of our own rhetoric that even a horrific massacre becomes nothing more than occasion for Sangh parivar-bashing?"

   Instead we took the line that all sensible people must take: any massacre is bad and deserves to be condemned.


   When Graham Staines and his children were burnt alive, did we say that Christian missionaries had made themselves unpopular by engaging in conversion and so, they had it coming? No, of course, we didn’t.


   Why then are these poor kar sewaks an exception? Why have we de-humanised them to the extent that we don’t even see the incident as the human tragedy that it undoubtedly was and treat it as just another consequence of the VHP’s fundamentalist policies?


   The answer, I suspect, is that we are programmed to see Hindu-Muslim relations in simplistic terms: Hindus provoke, Muslims suffer.


   When this formula does not work -- it is clear now that a well-armed Muslim mob murdered unarmed Hindus - we simply do not know how to cope. We shy away from the truth - that some Muslims committed an act that is indefensible - and resort to blaming the victims.


   Of course, there are always ‘rational reasons’ offered for this stand. Muslims are in a minority and therefore, they deserve special consideration. Muslims already face discrimination so why make it harder for them? If you report the truth then you will inflame Hindu sentiments and this would be irresponsible. And so on.


   I know the arguments well because - like most journalists - I have used them myself. And I still argue that they are often valid and necessary.


   But there comes a time when this kind of rigidly ‘secularist’ construct not only goes too far; it also becomes counter-productive. When everybody can see that a trainload of Hindus was massacred by a Muslim mob, you gain nothing by blaming the murders on the VHP or arguing that the dead men and women had it coming to them.


   Not only does this insult the dead (What about the children? Did they also have it coming?), but it also insults the intelligence of the reader. Even moderate Hindus, of the sort that loathe the VHP, are appalled by the stories that are now coming out of Gujarat: stories with uncomfortable reminders of 1947 with details about how the bogies were first locked from outside and then set on fire and how the women’s compartment suffered the most damage.


   Any media - indeed, any secular establishment - that fails to take into account the genuine concerns of people risks losing its own credibility. Something like that happened in the mid-Eighties when an aggressive hard secularism on the part of the press and government led even moderate Hindus to believe that they had become second class citizens in their own country. It was this Hindu backlash that brought the Ayodhya movement - till then a fringe activity - to the forefront and fuelled the rise of L.K. Advani’s BJP.


   My fear is that something similar will happen once again. The VHP will ask the obvious question of Hindus: why is it a tragedy when Staines is burnt alive and merely an ‘inevitable political development’ when the same fate befalls 57 kar sewaks?


   Because, as secularists, we can provide no good answer, it is the VHP’s responses that will be believed. Once again, Hindus will believe that their suffering is of no consequence and will be tempted to see the building of a temple at Ayodhya as an expression of Hindu pride in the face of secular indifference.


   But even if this were not to happen, even if there was no danger of a Hindu backlash, I still think that the secular establishment should pause for thought.


   There is one question we need to ask ourselves: have we become such prisoners of our own rhetoric that even a horrific massacre becomes nothing more than occasion for Sangh Parivar-bashing?

 (I wrote this column for the Hindustan Times in 2002 right after the train was burnt and was widely criticised for it.)


  • Dr. Saroj Kumar 24 Dec 2022

    My salutes. You are a brave and honest journalist

  • Shashank 03 Aug 2015

    u raise valid points and must be appreciated.
    However, i would like to ask, you have been part of media establishment, ( at top level ) for last 13 years, Could you name one show or program or debate on the channels with which you were associated that carried this view ?

    Not One.

    You were in a position of influence and could have helped clear the air but did/could not. History only judges you by the actions you take when you are in a position of power, not of weakness.


  • ch. srinivas 07 Feb 2014

    My respect for you have increased after reading this article

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