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When guardians of Gujarat gave 24-hour license for punitive action
By Sujan Dutta

Ahmedabad, March 9: The riots in Gujarat in the wake of the Godhra train carnage on February 27 were not only tacitly backed by the state administration, but chief minister Narendra Modi’s government also gave the VHP/Bajrang Dal stormtroopers 24 hours to do the job.

While it cannot be reported that the government set a deadline, investigations by The Telegraph over the past week reveal that the top men in the government moved in a fashion that made it clear to the VHP/Bajrang Dal that “turant jawabi karvai” (quick punitive action in the words of the Bajrang Dal) must be taken by the evening of February 28. 

In the event, much of the vengeance — if that is what the systematic pillage, looting and killing can be called — spent itself out within that time, but the violence spilled over to the districts, villages and smaller towns. It continues in small pockets more than a week after the Godhra burnings.

That the VHP and the Bajrang Dal have organic linkages with the current rulers of Gujarat is public knowledge. Even so, the pointman between the administration and the VHP leadership was the person entrusted with the peaceful running of the state: state home minister Gordhanbhai Zhadapia, himself a secretary of the VHP for six years before moving on to electoral politics and the BJP.

The Modi government’s decision to support the “jawabi karvai” was conveyed to the VHP/Bajrang Dal on the evening of February 27 in Godhra itself. That day, chief minister Modi, home minister Zhadapia, health minister Ashok Bhatt, VHP state joint general secretary Jaidipbhai Patel and VHP state organising secretary Arvindbhai Patel were in the town.

They met and talked several times: in Signal Falia where the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express was torched, in the collectorate, in the hospital, in the run of things. It was not a formal, structured meeting in which the decision was made clear to the VHP. It was conveyed to them on-the-fly, as it were, but with the warning that a spiralling of violence could mean deployment of the army by midnight Thursday-Friday (February 28-March 1). 

Till late in the evening of February 27, the VHP leadership was anxious to get support from the BJP for the statewide bandh on February 28, the day following the Godhra killings. The decision to call for a bandh was taken by the afternoon of February 27, and across Gujarat, the VHP/Bajrang Dal cadre interpreted it as a call to action. 

The decision was taken mostly in mobile-phone consultations between the VHP office-bearers in Godhra and Ahmedabad, state VHP general secretary Dilipbhai Trivedi, who was going to Delhi from Ayodhya on the Saryu-Yamuna Express, VHP international division chief Praveen Togadia and Gujarat BJP president and MP Rajendra Sing Rana, who was in New Delhi for the Parliament session. 

The formal decision of the BJP to support the bandh call was announced through a press note issued around 8 pm. The VHP/Bajrang Dal took that as an endorsement of its stand. The BJP did agonise over the decision to support the bandh call chiefly because the state police intelligence chief, additional director-general of police G.C. Raigar, had warned of its consequences.

Even by the afternoon and the early evening of February 27 — the Sabarmati Express was torched in the morning — violence was breaking out. The BJP was also hopeful of a more strident condemnation of the attack on the Sabarmati Express from secular forces.

The Telegraph quotes from a conversation with Kaushik Mehta, one of the two joint general secretaries of the VHP in Gujarat. The conversation took place in the VHP office in Ahmedabad on March 7 and was an hour long. 

Mehta wanted the conversation to be kept off the record. But The Telegraph did not make a commitment.

Mehta: “Let me tell you something off the record. The violence would not have taken place if the secular parties had strongly condemned the attack on the Ram sevaks. In particular, till the late-evening of the 27th, we were expecting a condemnation of the attack from the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid. But that did not come.

“Then it was decided there should be a model for reprisals. It was important to teach a lesson that could be emulated…. We had also sensed that once again the Centre was moving towards blaming the ISI for perpetrating the Godhra attack. All the 2,000 men, women and children could not have been ISI agents.”

What followed was a pogrom. People were targeted irrespective of standing and political colour. Asked if violence would not beget violence, Dilip Trivedi, state VHP general secretary said: “We hope not. We hope that after what has happened, a lesson will have been learnt.” (The Telegraph, Calcutta 10.03.02)

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