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Violence continues in Gujarat as government starts whitewash operation

New Delhi, March 4: Despite marked improvement of the situation in Ahmedabad, rest of Gujarat, especially rural areas, continue to burn for the sixth day. The official tally of victims has gone up to 572, including those killed in the train attack last Wednesday. But unofficial figures say that the tally crossed the one thousand mark in any case. This may be understood in the light of the fact that there are about 150 (Muslim) bodies rotting in the open in Ahmedabad with no one daring to come out of their homes or shelters to bury them. Hundreds of other bodies have been lifted by government and private bodies and cremated although the majority were Muslims. Scores more are being recovered from wrecked homes and shops every day and police say the toll is likely to rise. According to unconfirmed reports, at least 6 persons have been burnt alive in Navaseshan village of Sabarkantha today.

In Surat police fired at riotous mob in the Limbayat area this morning as violence continued in this South Gujarat city known for its bustling diamond and textile industry. One person was stabbed in Limbayat area last night and his condition is said to be criticial.

In the heart of the city’s Golwad area, Army is maintaining a vigil over mounting tension following the death of a 15-year-old boy who was stabbed three days back. “The situation is on the boil”, a senior police official said. Curfew was relaxed on Monday in some areas of the city but nearly 70 per cent of the industries are still closed because the workers are afraid of venturing out, said a spokesman of the South Gujarat Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Violence was reported today from several north Gujarat areas, particularly Sabarkantha and Banaskantha, where mobs were targeting Muslims till late tonight. Trouble also broke out in Halad and Danta towns of Banaskantha and Vijaynagar in Sabarkantha, Anand, Kheda, and Dahod where the police had to open fire on violent mobs. There is marked trouble in the districts of Sabarkantha, Banaskantha, Panchmahal and Himmat Nagar according to sources in Ahmedabad reached by IOL by telephone from New Delhi. The same sources said that Muslims of Ahmedabad are yet to recover and many are lodged in temporary shelters away from their homes. Many of these homes have been burnt down in any case. 

As the tension eased to some extent in Ahmedabad, a large number of migrant population has started leaving the state of Gujarat. Migrant workers, mainly Muslims from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan are leaving. "We remained safe this time, but may be tomorrow we could be attacked. So we have decided to leave Gujarat," said a sobbing Zareena, mother of two. The exodus started with a large number of factory workers, whose units were razed. 

Overnight, two persons were killed in Vijaynagar and six in Halad and Danta. The situation was still very tense this morning, when last reports came in from that area. The central Gujarat districts of Anand, Kheda, Panchmahals and Dahod were also very tense following fresh incidents of violence. In Ahmedabad, too, three stabbing incidents were reported from Shahpur, Naranpura and Kalupur areas.

One person was killed when the police fired 15 rounds in Santrampur, about 50 km from Godhra, on Monday afternoon. Three persons were injured in the firing, police said. Godhra district, where the communal violence first ignited with the burning of the Sabarmati Express on Wednesday last, continued to be at its nerve’s end. "Curfew was relaxed for 30 minutes on Sunday from 3.30 p.m. Just 45 minutes later, a man was stabbed and curfew was re-imposed," said a police officer.

The Gujarat mayhem threatens to stoke tensions between India and Pakistan in the middle of a mighty military standoff. Pakistan has demanded India do more to protect its Muslim minority, prompting India's foreign ministry on Monday to accuse Islamabad of trying to capitalise on the Gujarat incident. Other countries, like the US, Germany and Canada, too have voiced concern at the unchecked bloodletting in Gujarat.

Union Defence Minister George Fernandes is camping in the state while Home Minister LK Advani, who is member of Parliament from Gandhinagar in Gujarat, found time only yesterday to visit the state. As soon as he came, the home minister gave clean chit to the Gujarat government where his close confidant and party leader Narendra Modi is chief minister. Advani rejected the demand for handing over the state's commercial capital to the army. He also denied that the police played a passive role in the communal riots in Ahmedabad and other places since they had resorted to "effective firing to check the violence" that had erupted in the wake of an attack on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra last Wednesday. Referring to the opposition demand that the state should be handed over to the Army, he said it was an irresponsible statement particularly when the Army has been positioned to protect the borders. 

Advani joined Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in condemning communal violence and said: "It was definitely a blot on the nation.'' The communal flare-up in Gujarat spoilt the good track record of the coalition government at the Centre, he claimed. He added that the Godhra train incident "seemed premeditated….it was certain that there were some other elements behind the incident''. 

Prime Minister Vajpayee too has joined the efforts to camouflage the extent of the violence in Gujarat which has surprised the whole world and placed a question mark on India's aspirations to be accepted as world power with a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. A day after his televised address to the nation regretting the "disgraceful" violence in Gujarat, Prime Minister Vajpayee told a group of concerned citizens that the media was presenting an "exaggerated" account of the situation in the state. According to members of the citizens' delegation, Vajpayee told them that it was incorrect to suggest that the whole of Gujarat was burning, when the violence was limited to a few places.

According to writer and activist Sonia Jabbar, who was part of the delegation, Vajpayee said the media has not played a constructive role by showing scenes of carnage; and that instead of complaining to the government, the delegation should ask the media to play a better role. 

The Opposition, on the other hand, united over the Gujarat situation, today mounted a scathing attack on the BJP Government in the state accusing it of "abject failure" to protect the people and demanded immediate deployment of the army "effectively and adequately" to stop the violence. "The state government has abjectly failed in protecting the lives and properties of the people and we are of the view that without the criminal negligence, if not connivance of the state government, such dastardly events could not have happened", Opposition parties said in a joint statement after a meeting convened by Congress President Sonia Gandhi. 

Mrs Gandhi, in a letter to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, sought early arrangements for sending an all party delegation to visit affected areas of the state. She said that in the meeting of Opposition leaders convened by her today the need for sending such a delegation was expressed "strongly and unanimously". 

Parliament member Shabana Azmi on Sunday drew parallels between the ongoing riots in Gujarat and the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 and demanded that the state government led by Mr Narendra Modi be immediately sacked. Ms Azmi, who was part of a delegation of Opposition MPs that had gone to Gujarat, said: “They are an exact replica of the Mumbai riots.” She alleged that the Opposition MPs were not allowed to visit any place in Gujarat except the civil hospital in Ahmedabad. She alleged that "what has been happening in Gujarat is a case of 100 per cent complicity of the state through which the BJP is aiming to consolidate its votebank."

Ms Azmi said while state chief minister Narendra Modi was claiming to them that things were normalising, the delegation was receiving frantic calls for help on the parallel telephone lines. “When we told him about this, his mere reply was, "Chut put to hoga hi," (some small things are bound to happen) she said.

“We want that the government led by Mr Modi be dismissed immediately. Even a recent report of the National Commission of Police stated that even a worst communal riot, if not controlled within 48 hours, implies that there are orders from the top,” the MP said. 

In another development prominent citizens today accused the Indian administration of "conniving with fundmentalist forces of the majority community in brutalising the minorities."

"The state connived with fundamentalist forces of the majority community, that is brutalising and vandalising the minority community," prominent citizens, including former Central Minister YK Alagh, said in a joint appeal to President KR Narayanan and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Alagh told reporters here that the appeal was drafted after deliberations by at least 300 prominent citizens including people from all walks of life and communities at a meeting at Sabarmati Ashram on Sunday.

"In fact, the state took the view that the anger of the majority community was natural and backlash was obvious," the appeal said. Quoting the draft, Alagh alleged the state "abdicated its most primary responsibility of being objective protector of all citizens." Alagh alleged that the Sangh Parivar outfits backed the VHP Bandh call and "supported organised mobs who had unleashed brutal violence on minorities and violated human rights."

In a separate meeting, here in Delhi yesterday, a group of senior Muslim representatives, who included the Imam of the Delhi Jama Masjid and the head of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind, appealed to Muslims to maintain unity and to the government to immediately stabilise law and order in Gujarat. It also resolved to have a delegation meet the President, the Chief Justice of India and the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, in this regard. Besides, it has asked for generous compensation to the kin of those killed. 

Another group of citizens from different religions, met Prime Minister Vajpayee to request a number of measures to stop the spreading cycle of violence and despair. They asked for the dismissal of those responsible for allowing the collapse of law and order in Gujarat, an immediate and impartial probe into what happened and how and to ban groups creating communal tension in Ayodhya. The PM, they said, was polite, but didn't quite agree with the recommendations.

Opposition leaders met today and issued a joint appeal to the government to protect life and property in Gujarat. Among those who attended the meeting included Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Somnath Chatterjee of the CPM and former prime minister of India Chandrashekar. 

Briefing newspersons after the meeting, Roop Chand Pal (CPIM) said that the leaders have demanded that a joint delegation of MPs should be immediately sent to Gujarat and arrangements be made to help them proceed in Gujarat, unlike the four member Lok Morcha team which had to return from Ahmedabad.

Defence Minister George Fernandes today suggested imposition of hefty penalties on villages, in an attempt to check the spread of communal violence in the rural areas of Gujarat. The state government in Gujarat should also consider taking legal action against those found to be involved in fomenting violence, he said. 

Gujarat police today came up with the idea that there are 'strong indications' of Pakistani military intelligence, ISI, may be involved in Godhra massacre. Talking to newsmen in Godhra, the DIG (Anti-Terrorist cell) Vipul Vijay referred to the possibility of ISI's involvement in the attack but refused to give details. 

According to a report in the Asian Age newspaper today, even senior police officers belonging to the Muslim community do not longer feel safe in Ahmedabad. Four IPS officers who live in a Muslim society in Navranpura here have had to arrange for six to eight policemen for the protection of their families. The society was attacked by a mob on two occasions but the policemen on duty managed to disperse it. Another Muslim, additional commissioner of police M.O. Khimani, who lives in a society in Paldi area, said, “Every time there is communal violence, the shops on the roadside of this society are attacked and looted.” The shops in front of the society were attacked, looted and burnt this time as well. One person was killed in police firing. Mr Khimani said that after the latest attacks his wife has developed hypertension and she had to be hospitalised for a day. The family also decided to shift to another location for a day.

In fact, all IPS officers are provided with Class-1 officers’ accommodation but these minority community officers have decided to live among Muslim families for safety reasons, leaving the comfort of government housing behind.

Congress Party for the first time on Sunday alleged that the state government had completely failed to check the communal riots in the state. The violence and deaths were escalating because of “shoddy deployment of armed forces,” alleged Gujarat in-charge and secretary of All India Congress Committee, Mr Kamal Nath. 

Addressing the media on Sunday, Mr Kamal Nath, who was on a visit to the Gujarat state with a delegation of senior Congress leaders, informed that the death toll in the state has gone up to 806 since the Godhra massacre because the government had failed to assess the sensitivity of the situation and deploy the Army accordingly.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, on the other hand, wants judicial probe for Godhra violence only and not for the subsequent anti-Muslim riots in all parts of his state with the blessings and connivance of his administration. He received support from the visiting Home Minister Advani in Ahmedabad on Sunday when he said that "these two are separate matters, they should not be linked together". Mr Modi is on record as saying that the subsequent violence was a result ("backlash") of the Godhra massacre.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who had announced a judicial inquiry into the Sabarmati Express tragedy in Godhra, is said to be looking for a retired or sitting Gujarat High Court judge to probe the matter but it has been made clear to the prospective candidates that the riots in Ahmedabad and rest of Gujarat would not be a subject of their investigation. At least one of the judges approached by Modi is understood to have asked the chief minister clearly whether the riots after the Godhra incident would also be covered by the inquiry commission. The reply was in the negative. 

A thorough probe of the so-called 'backlash' will expose aspects like the BJP’s support to the VHP’s bandh last Thursday, the soft approach towards the rioters on the first two days. This is precisely why the Modi government does not want an all-encompassing judicial probe to open a can of worms which will explode in its face. However, judicial intervention is likely sooner than later in the form of public interest litigations which may also call for a full-scale probe.

Violence has spread to the Uttar Pradesh city of Aligarh which is famous for its Muslim University. Curfew was clamped on the old city of Aligarh on Sunday after police fired in the air to disperse a violent mob protesting the killing of a vendor belonging to the Muslim community. 

Muslim groups on Monday warned they may not be able to control their followers if religious violence continued and urged the government to ban hardline Hindu organisations. The group of about a dozen Bombay-based Islamic organisations also called for the sacking of the local government in Gujarat. "We are now pleading with you (the national government) to immediately control the violence in its totality in every part of Gujarat and elsewhere before it is too late," group spokesman Maulana Musanna Miyan told reporters. In Delhi, too, leaders of Muslim organisations staged a sit-in today to press for their demands to sack the Gujarat government and order for a judicial probe.

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