A BLIND EYE TO BIGOTRY
Five years ago this week, across the Indian state of Gujarat, the stormtroopers of the Hindu right, decked in saffron sashes and armed with swords, tridents, sledgehammers and liquid gas cylinders, launched a pogrom against the local Muslim population. They looted and torched Muslim-owned businesses, assaulted and murdered Muslims, and gang-raped and mutilated Muslim women. By the time the violence spluttered to a halt, about 2,500 Muslims had been killed and about 200,000 driven from their homes.
The pogrom was distinguished not only by its ferocity and sadism (foetuses were ripped from the bellies of pregnant women, old men bludgeoned to death) but also by its meticulous advance planning. The leaders used mobile phones to coordinate the movement of an army of thousands through densely populated areas, targeting Muslim properties with the aid of computerised lists and electoral rolls provided by state agencies.
Much of the violence unfolded with the full collaboration of the police. In some cases, police fired at Muslims seeking to flee the mobs. When asked to help a group of girls being raped on the roof of a building, police officers demurred, explaining: “They have been given 24 hours to kill you.” Subsequent investigations confirmed that police knew in advance of the pogrom and had been instructed not to interfere with it.
Indian and global human rights organisations have singled out Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), as the principal culprit. As a result of his alleged complicity in mass murder, he was denied a visa to the US and cannot visit Britain for fear of arrest.
Yet Modi remains chief minister and has become not only the BJP’s most popular figurehead, but also a poster boy for big business, foreign and domestic. Gujarat, which contains 5% of India’s population, now boasts 18% of its investment and 21% of its exports. At this year’s Vibrant Gujarat conclave, the showpiece of the BJP regime, the great names of Indian capitalism – Ambani, Birla, Tata – sang Modi’s praises, echoed by delegations from Singapore, Europe and the US. Anxieties about dealing with a politician accused of genocide have been allayed by the appeal of Gujarat’s corporation-friendly environment, not least its labour laws, which give employers hire-and-fire rights unique in India.
Five years on, Muslims in Gujarat still live in fear. About 50,000 remain in refugee camps. Most of the cases filed by victims of the violence have never been investigated. Witnesses have been intimidated. No more than a dozen low-level culprits have been convicted. None of the major conspirators has been brought before the courts.