The Rattle of the Bones (2002)

On February 27, 2002, a train filled with Hindu pilgrims returning to Gujarat from Ayodhya after a religious ceremony at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid was stopped at Godhra station. Within fifteen minutes, coach S-6 of the train was allegedly set ablaze by Muslims, causing the deaths of fifty nine Hindu karsevaks. Riots broke down and violence followed causing mass destruction and engulfing Ahmedabad in a veil of terror.

Following the attack on the train, the Vishva Hindu Parishad called for a statewide bandh and although the Supreme Court had declared such strikes to be unconstitutional, no action was taken by the state to prevent the strike. The government did not even try to stop the outbreak of violence across the state. The then Chief Minister of Ahmedabad, Narendra Modi was widely accused of turning a blind eye to the violence and a police officer even said that the Gujarat government had authorised the killing of Muslims after the riots.

While the burning of the train caused the deaths of 59 pilgrims, at least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the riots that swept through Gujarat the ensuing days.

Seventeen years have passed since but politics and violence in the name of religion continues. In the following excerpt from Under Something of a Cloud, writer and poet Dom Moraes recounts the horror of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

In the first week of April 2002, when the Gujarat riots were already a month old, I landed in Ahmedabad, the state capital. The air was thick and heavy, and smelt of burnt houses. About 500 people, almost all Muslims, had already been slaughtered. The Hindu mobs had used choppers and iron rods, but had incinerated several victims in their own homes, having first looted them. The taxi driver asked, quite civilly, if I was a Muslim. For the sake of truth and safety, I said no.

The dusty streets on the way to my hotel were deserted apart from policemen and army reservists. Even at its best, Ahmedabad isn’t a pretty city; though perhaps this is not a fair remark. All my trips there were connected to calamities. In 1969 I covered older, milder communal carnage that had occurred, in hindsight, for clearer reasons. In 1998 I came to the city with Sarayu. This was after Hindu fundamentalists attacked an architectural college because ‘the students behaved in a Westernized way’. We were back three years later, in 2001, after an enormous earthquake exploded under Gujarat, killing hundreds of peasants, and making thousands more homeless. The Hindu fundamentalists who now ran the state had proved unable to help the people, many of whom, a year later, were still homeless and had not been paid any government compensation as they had been promised. Everyone had forgotten them, and now the riots had dwarfed their miseries and made them part of the past.

In January and February 2002, the name of Ayodhya was once more heard in the hinterland. The RSS ordered the building of a Ram temple on the site of the Muslim shrine destroyed in 1992. Many people travelled northward from Gujarat to stand by in Ayodhya. They changed trains at a junction called Godhra, near the Madhya Pradesh border.

Godhra has a population which is sixty per cent Bohri Muslim. They have the reputation of being quick to anger. (Amongst other Bohri Muslims, hot-headed and intemperate people are known as Godhris.) The food vendors, cigarette sellers, and small shopkeepers around the station are nearly all Muslims. Trainloads of RSS and VHP workers came through Godhra. They are said to have argued with the shopkeepers about prices, and insulted their religion. It remains unclear why.

On February 27, a train pulled out of Godhra, headed north. A few miles beyond the station it was stopped and surrounded by a mob of Muslims. They attacked the train with firebombs, and in one carriage, fifty-eight people, including women and children, were burned alive. What seemed curious was that the state police arrived during all this and made no effort to disperse the mob or rescue the victims.

Most of the burnt bodies were Hindu, though only a few of them had been RSS workers. But next day, the RSS ordered a state bandh. This was an invitation to violence. The chief minister, Narendra Modi, also an RSS leader, did nothing to stop the bandh or the sequence of events that followed.

All over Gujarat, Hindus fell upon the heavily outnumbered Muslims. Ahmedabad in particular became a killing field. The police apparently stood by in silence and watched. Modi declared that he had always been in control, despite the long casualty lists and the people flocking into refugee camps, and that the riots were officially over.

‘Nobody disputes that he was in control,’ classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai said angrily, ‘but in control of what?’ I had a lunch appointment with her, in her ancestral house.

The Sarabhais are an old, famous Gujarati family. Their house is situated amidst gardens. As I walked towards it, in the trees overhead, parakeets, doubtless ancestral, disputed my right of way. It was peaceful inside with her and her family, and Yasmin Begum, her Muslim woman friend whose home had been looted and burned. She had taken refuge with the Sarabhais. ‘The strangest thing,’ she said, ‘was that the people who looted our houses weren’t poor people. They were rich people; they came in cars to carry our valuables away. Then the poor people came, took whatever was left, and burnt our houses.’ She was very calm, but exceptionally tired.

Mallika said, ‘The fundamentalists have used Gujarat as a laboratory to see if their concepts of life in India can work. It’s been going on for years. It’s as though we were watching Hitler experiment on how far he could go with the Jews before the world started to protest. It sounds silly, but it’s true. I’m involved in two refugee camps. I’m going to visit one after lunch.’ So were her mother, the great dancer Mrinalini, and Yasmin Begum, though the camps they were bound for were different.

All the women at the table spoke English naturally, in accents acquired at convent schools. All their reactions were those of Western liberals. They were all doing and feeling what one expected them to do and feel. They were the kind of people my parents, and Sarayu’s, were like. It was comfortable to sit with them and talk. They were not at all like the killers who lived outside their gates and gardens; the killers were Indians also, but from a different India.

I was already slightly debilitated by the heat and knew I had a long afternoon ahead. My mind was soothed by all these gentle, compassionate voices, the smell and movement of women around me. But an image of India was made for me that day by the wooden wheel in the centre of the table. It was flanged, and each of the compartments created by the flanges carried a different dish. An option appeared in front of you, but if you didn’t know how to operate the wheel, each one, with a slight rumbling sound, slid away. For many Indians, successive options had slid out of reach over the years. Random killing was now the most reachable.


I am now in the interior of an afternoon that resembles a blast furnace, with two Muslim leaders in their forties, Iqbal Tadha, a businessman, and A.A. Sayyed, a lawyer. We are in Sayyed’s office. All the other offices in the building are locked. Tadha has a gaunt, distinguished and haunted face; Sayyed wears an affluent look. He is slightly rotund, the kind of person who, in better times, might tell me funny stories he has carefully culled from paperback collections, and play golf as a status symbol. They want to drive me round the city, but insist that we need press stickers for our cars. ‘Otherwise we may be in danger from the police.’

After several phone calls, I discover that an old friend from Patna, Bharat Joshi, is chief reporter at the local Times of India office. He agrees to supply us with press stickers. He isn’t supposed to. ‘But,’ he says thoughtfully, ‘I am not convinced the trouble is over. Anyway, come to my office.’ Tadha and Sayyed talk to me on the way there. For generations their families have lived in Gujarat. ‘In the last ten years, as the BJP became more and more powerful, strange things started to happen. Our Hindu friends avoided us. Business contracts stopped. Once our wives used to shop with Hindu wives. That stopped. The kids started to have trouble at school. Even shopping became hard in certain localities. We started to develop a ghetto mentality. We became afraid of shadows. See, even now we have pestered you to get us press stickers before we drive.’

At the newspaper office, Bharat Joshi says, ‘I’ve been posted in five different cities all over India in the last few years. I have never seen anything quite like the deliberate polarization of the communities that has happened here.’ He eyes the Muslims with a kind of detached pity, as though they were lost astronauts from another planet, and asks where we are going. As we leave, he says, ‘Take care.’

We drive through an area of Muslim shops, all of them burnt down to shells. Here it is as though the city has been eviscerated, its blackened entrails exposed. Tadha points to a gutted hotel. ‘The mobs knew that the hotel business is mostly in the hands of Muslims.’ Here and there amidst the charred ruins a few houses remain, like teeth left in a skull. ‘Those are Hindu shops. They were left alone as you can see.’

We drive on, the burnt smell harsh in our nostrils in the afternoon heat. Presently we reach a more affluent part of town. ‘This is where the richer Muslims lived,’ Sayyed explains. ‘Here the way the police behaved was different.’

The mobs had swept through the poorer parts of town, irresistible, like the wall of brown water a cyclone sweeps across the sea ahead of it. Thousands of people had beaten drums and screamed war cries as they came. ‘They butchered the people and burnt the houses,’ Tadha says. ‘The police were there in great force, but they simply stood by and let it happen. Some officers now say that they were under direct orders from the chief minister not to intervene.

‘But here, in the wealthier areas, the police warned the residents that the mobs were coming and they should leave. This was at very short notice. The police also warned them that if they didn’t leave they couldn’t expect to be protected. The options were limited; most people left very quickly.’

We trudge through some of the burnt houses. They had been solid, middle-class homes, with gardens and lawns, now destroyed and strewn with charred bricks and chunks of masonry. Inside, also, staircases had fallen down, the walls were blackened, rubble filled the otherwise empty rooms. ‘The looters took everything,’

Sayyed says. ‘Furniture, TVs, refrigerators, even clothes and books.’ The shells of incinerated cars stand outside some of the ruined houses.

We pass on. Occasionally I glimpse groups of Muslims, some weeping over the charred ruins of their former homes. ‘The looters have left nothing inside the houses,’ Sayyed says, ‘and these people have nothing left inside themselves.’

Flapping from a blackened wall, I see a poster for a circus. An image rises to my mind of Gujarat as a circus clown. Grotesque and tormented, staggering around a floodlit arena, it flails its arms for balance. A huge, astonished audience watches its agony. Its face is daubed with saffron, its body dyed red with blood.

In a refugee camp I encounter a bearded boy who sits propped against a pillar. His limbs are bandaged and his face is swollen. One side of it is scalded. ‘All my family is dead,’ he says. ‘I tried to fight, but they were too many. They took all our property from our house. Then they set fire to it. There was so much noise…. They beat me with sticks, then they threw me in the fire.’

A harassed doctor tries to attend to him. He partly raises the bandages on the boy’s arm so he can look underneath. All round us the room smells of unwashed bodies and human waste. This stench is now added to by a peculiar smell: like decayed fruit. I remember it from Vietnam. ‘Gangrene has set in,’ the doctor tells me.

He says kindly to his patient, ‘I don’t have the facilities to look after you here, chhota bhai. You’ll have to go to hospital. I’ll arrange it.’ A look of terror twists the boy’s scarred face, and he starts to shake convulsively all over. ‘No, no,’ he says in a shout. ‘I can’t go outside! How can you send me out? The streets are full of Hindus!’ This is a war, and I hear the same atrocity myth that has circulated in every war I have ever covered. A pregnant woman has her belly ripped open. Both her unborn child and she are killed. In some versions she is raped first. At least six people in the camps tell me they saw it. But Amina, whose husband and two small children were murdered last week, says she hasn’t heard of any event like this.

Her eyes, the colour of smoke, are wide and puzzled. She says, ‘My neighbour had a beautiful daughter, about sixteen. When the Hindus came, she begged them not to rape her daughter. She said she had twenty thousand rupees hidden, she would give it if they spared her child. She gave it. They raped her and the child. Many men used the child.’

She starts to cry, and says in an indecisive way, as though she isn’t certain I will understand, ‘Many men also used me.’

In the same room, a man sits with his five-year-old daughter lying across his lap, face down, asleep. She wears what may once have been a pretty dress, yellow, but now ripped and stained. His large work-worn hand mechanically strokes her small dishevelled head. ‘She does not speak,’ he says. ‘Since it happened, she has not said a word. She only cries. She cries and cries. I don’t know what to do.’

He pulls up her dress. Her back is purple with bruises. Blood and fecal matter encrust her buttocks. From time to time, though she doesn’t wake up, her body quivers and she utters plaintive, indistinct sounds. She is having a nightmare. ‘Maybe she can still be married,’ her father says. ‘I was anxious that she should marry well. But they took all the money I saved for her dowry. And now she can’t speak.’

Read More:
Judgement Day, Tracing Chain of Command Responsibility for 2002: Zakia Jafri Case​
Gujarat 2002 violence “a natural, uncontrollable reaction”: Modi to ex-DGP
Forgive not, Forget not – 16 years since the Gujarat Riots