Why a Bhil farmer burned abandoned Muslim houses in the 2002 riots

23 December 2018

On 27 February 2002, the burning of a train near the Godhra railway station in Gujarat killed 59 people, most of whom were Hindu kar sevaks, or religious volunteers. The incident triggered riots in the state, in which at least 254 Hindus and 790 Muslims were killed. In her debut book, The Anatomy of Hate, the journalist Revati Laul documents the stories of those who perpetrated the carnage—in particular, she notes that right-wing groups affiliated to the Vishva Hindu Parishad stoked tensions among the Hindus, leading them to attack Muslims. In this excerpt, she recounts the story of Dungar, a farmer from a tribal community in a village in Gujarat, and explores the latent tensions and complexes that led him to participate in the destruction.

In a hilly, corn-growing village far from the flames of Naroda Patiya, Dungar felt a tightness in the air, as if a pressure cooker was on the boil. Did a train burn, what had Muslims done? Some people said they raped a Hindu girl in the neighbouring area. That last bit of gossip spread faster than anything else, because it was the worst possible thing to imagine. Dungar’s small black eyes became slits, his large nose flared as he declared, “I knew there was going to be a riot.” Looking back, he could see that the anger rising in him was a convenient outlet for long-held envy.

There was a part of Dungar that was always ashamed of not having a pucca house with a marble floor like the ones he had seen some Muslim traders build for themselves. Now was the chance for that long-suppressed rage to merge with the tidal wave sweeping across Gujarat. Anger with a purpose. He was a member of the VHP, a Hindu revivalist group that was designed to harness anger. Dungar explained, his voice in a high pitch, “We were told again and again at meetings that Muslims belong in Pakistan. This is Hindustan. Hindustan is for Hindus.” He was not sure how things would improve for him if Muslims were pushed out of the country, but for now there was something to soak up all his anger, and that was purpose enough.

Dungar’s village was a long distance from Godhra. The main road was some distance away, so people were not plugged in to the news like they were in other parts of Gujarat. Electricity was in short supply and hardly anyone in the area owned a TV. Only half the inhabitants were literate, so newspapers were almost entirely absent, except as wrappers for tobacco or sweets. Rumours were the most immediate way for news to get around. They were like the local intoxicants that got headier with each successive hit. That is where an insider in the VHP, like Dungar, could play arbiter. “…At meetings our leaders were preparing us for the election that was going to take place later in the year,” Dungar explained. Everything was building up to move the Bharatiya Janata Party—the BJP, an ally of the VHP—towards a win.

Revati Laul is a journalist.

Keywords: Vishwa Hindu parishad Godhra riots Gujarat Bharatiya Janata Party communalism