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.

“Otherwise why were VHP people being taken in trains from Gujarat, for what?” Dungar asked. They had created a fictional account of Hindu victimhood, telling Hindus everywhere they had to unite to save themselves from people and parties that appeased Muslims. The Hindu right said that the Congress party, which had been in power for six decades, favoured Muslims even though they made up only 14 percent of the Indian population, because Hindus never voted as one bloc. So far, their votes had been stratified—each sub-group, caste and sub-caste had voted differently. Anger and an imagined oppressor were uniting them—and thus potentially their votes—for the first time ever.

The VHP’s Ayodhya campaign had led to the destruction of the Babri masjid in 1992. Ten years later, it was time for a second wave. For Hindus to rally around and build a temple at the site of the desecrated mosque. This is the campaign VHP volunteers had travelled on the train for. Now, 59 of them were dead. And as a VHP member, Dungar felt duty-bound to help the village figure out what to do next. But this was also harvest season in corn-growing country. Row by row, one cob at a time, everyone was counting their crop. Figuring out if they were sunk or could get a decent price in the market. Revenge for Hindus who died in Godhra was the farthest thing from their minds. One of the three main Hindu institutions that made up the Hindu right or the Sangh Parivar, the VHP was populated with middling and aspirational Hindus. If Dungar did not act, he would lose the credit built up over time. On the other hand, he had been raised to live in constant fear of the police. What if he acted against Muslims and got caught later?

The Sangh had perhaps figured out his dilemma; it knew that this was a region where loyalty was proclaimed loudly but practised selectively. So, the VHP’s district head, who was also the elected representative of the BJP, called a meeting of all Sangh Parivar members. At the meeting, Dungar was among a select gathering of troopers with their leader positioned in front of the temple dedicated to Lord Meghnad—the warrior god who fought Lord Ram. The leader towered over everyone in the village because of his political clout and booming voice, moustache twirled into upright position. “If even on a day like this, you can’t act against Muslims, then go home and put on some bangles,” he thundered to his audience of 200. “You have one day,” he declared. “Burn those Muslims.”

The leader’s words were like a commandment. But once the speech was over and the crowds dispersed into little communal huddles to discuss the matter, it was a lot more complicated. Dungar was a Bhil, as were a significant number of people in his village. They were one of the largest tribal groups in Gujarat with a century of oppression behind them, which made fear their singular driving force.

“My mind was drifting,” Dungar said. “I thought, what will these big leaders from the Sangh Parivar do later, a year from now. Will they abandon us?” His family had settled into the relatively comfortable status of mid-level farmers with a few acres of land after two generations of migration from one part of Gujarat to another. He had to find a way of balancing his fear of the Sangh with his fear of the police. Shouting in solidarity was one thing; acting on it, quite another.

His scepticism was echoed by others in the village. Despite their leader’s rousing speech, no one was convinced that they had to set anything or anyone on fire just yet. The provocation for that came a day later. It was evening, and Dungar and his friends were sitting idly at the village bus station. They saw [a former Muslim resident] headed in their direction in a tempo-truck. Like the other Muslims in the village, he had fled with his family to an area with a predominantly Muslim population. Since there had been no violence in the village so far, he had made a quick trip back to retrieve important items from his abandoned home.

As soon as he spotted Dungar and his friends, he panicked. “He must’ve thought we were going to attack him, even though we weren’t. We were just sitting there,” Dungar clarified later. The man turned to his companion and whispered something. Before Dungar knew it, his companion had taken out a gun and fired in the air. Bam! Bam! The audacity of it made Dungar’s barely controlled anger spiral out of control. That Muslims like this man, who ought to have been taught a lesson for the train burning, had actually taken it upon themselves to strike first was too much to bear.

That evening, the tide had turned. The next day, Dungar called everyone to a meeting at the Ram Pir temple. About forty people turned up to set fire to the twelve Muslim houses in the area. “If any Muslim had actually crossed my path that day, I would have cut him to pieces and burnt his body,” Dungar said, looking back.

The action began the following night, on 2 March. Roads leading in to the village were blocked. The target homes were completely empty. But a strong message needed to be sent out: that the Muslims would not be able to return home.

Revati Laul is a journalist.

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