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India marks 10th anniversary of Gujarat riots that killed hundreds

February 27, 2012 |  8:57 am

India

REPORTING FROM TRIVANDRAM -- India marked the 10th anniversary Monday of sectarian riots that killed hundreds in western Gujarat state with candlelight vigils and hopes that religion-inspired violence is largely a thing of the past.

In 2002, a train filled with pilgrims returning from a Hindu temple was attacked by a Muslim mob and set fire, killing 59 people. In a retaliatory move, a mostly Hindu mob killed hundreds of Muslims over several days, burning houses -- often after ensuring their occupants were inside, witnesses claim--– and displacing thousands.

Over the ensuing decade, 11 people have been sentenced to death and 20 handed life imprisonment for their roles in the riots. A decade on, however, cases involving many others still haven’t been settled, given political sensitivities and India’s creaky judicial system.

The fact that a broad cross-section of Indian society has sharply criticized the Gujarat riots should serve as a check on extremist groups fomenting violence, said Meena Radhakrishna, a sociology professor with the Delhi School of Economics. “So the answer is no, a repeat of Gujarat kind of political violence is unlikely in the near future,” she said.

Still unclear is the exact role in February 2002 of Narendra Modi, the top elected official in Gujarat then and now, who is mentioned by his supporters as a future prime minister. While he has won plaudits for improving Gujarat’s administrative efficiency and introducing pro-business policies, critics continue to blame him for deliberately standing by and allowing the anti-minority riots to blaze for days, charges he has denied.

Activists also accuse him of protecting perpetrators and subverting justice. “The 2002 violence against Muslims in Gujarat persists as a dark blot on India’s reputation for religious equality,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Gujarat authorities have engaged in denial and obstruction of justice.”

R.B. Sreekumar, a former police official in Gujarat, said he saw crowds attacking Muslim houses and shops as police stood by. “Modi wanted to convert that incident for Hindu mobilization,” he said.

At a dedication for a new jail Sunday, Modi blamed a “handful of Gujarat bashers” for attempting over the last decade to defame the state, “poison the society” and disrupt peace. “I can guarantee you that, despite their millions of efforts, they will never succeed,” he said.

Modi has enjoyed strong support from right-wing Hindu groups, including Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Shiv Sena. On Monday, in an annual exercise, Vishwa Hindu Parishad rallied its supporters to commemorate the burning of the Sabarmati Express train by marching to the railway yard where the burned-out coach is kept.

Bhuwanachandran, head of the Hindu right-wing party Shiv Sena in southern India, said the reputation of Hindus had suffered significantly since the riots, even as public support for police, patriotism and traditional values has eroded. Bhuwanachandran, who uses a single name, added that sectarian violence was still possible, particularly if fanned or instigated by Pakistan’s spy agency.

For Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist with Jawaharlal Nehru University, however, any future outbreak will be sparked by forces closer to home, namely Indian political parties trying to exploit the electorate’s fear of “the other” to garner votes and power. “Communal riots are created in political hothouses,” he said. “These political gangs usually pick soft targets. It’s easier to live for a cause than die for a cause.”

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-- Mark Magnier

Photo: Women light candles during a ceremony in Ahmedabad, India, on Monday marking the 10th anniversary of the country's worst sectarian violence in recent years. Credit: Ajit Solanki / Associated Press

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