HERE’S LOOKING AT US
Ten years of Gujarat saw a frenzy of reportage in the English press. That was only to be expected. Ten years of the Mumbai riots had seen the same in December 2002-January 2003.
Reams were written about the Muslims who were hunted down and butchered across the state following the burning of Coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002. Reports were filed mainly from Ahmedabad, but also from Vadodara, Surat, and even villages where massacres had taken place. The Indian Express’s Ujjwala Nayudu’s piece was important in reporting on the vulnerability of witnesses in far-flung areas of the State where massacres had taken place and cases against the accused were on.
While most of the stories were predictable in recounting the lack of justice to the victims, a couple of reports stood out. The Hindustan Times’ Mahesh Langa’s report on the refusal of Hindu Gujaratis to rent out a flat/bungalow to a Muslim IIT professor, even after the institute offered to rent it in its name, brought home the enormity of communal hatred among well-off Gujaratis even a decade later.
A more positive story was by Gopal Kateshiya in the DNA, about a Hindu-Muslim marriage that had happened only because of the 2003 violence. A Hindustan Times report departed from the norm by quoting Muslim victims who wanted to move on; two of them were actually doing better than earlier, despite their properties having been burnt down in 2002.
But, in all this, something was missing. The year 2012 marks 10 years of suffering for another group of victims too – the Hindus whose families were burnt alive in Coach S 6, the incident that was used by the ruling party in Gujarat, the BJP, to set off the retaliation. Fifty-nine passengers perished in that fire.
Where were their stories?
Across five newspapers read in Mumbai, I found six stories. The Mumbai Mirror’s Zahid Qureshi and Aditya Kant, travelling on the Sabarmati Express’s Coach S-6 on the night of February 26-27, reported the terror felt by the coach’s only Muslim passenger, as VHP activists at Godhra station shouted slogans. Fellow passengers, all Hindu, had not even noticed the significance of the journey.
Satish Jha and Bhupendra Rana of the Indian Express described the train’s arrival at Godhra on February 27, the same day on which the coach had been burnt ten years ago. Travelling on the train this time was Janak Panchal, who had been a passenger then too, and had lost his 21-year-old cousin and a 19-year-old neighbour in the fire. Every year, Panchal makes this trip to Ayodhya and back to Godhra, booking himself on the same coach. A VHP supporter, Panchal was greeted with slogans by the VHP activists at the station this time. The reporters observed that the sloganeering at the dead of night annoyed the other passengers. Both reports reinforced the fact that it is only the BJP and its affiliates who exploit the burning of the coach; the average Hindu has to be reminded about it.
Naturally, the VHP took out an even bigger rally this year than theydo on February 27 every year in Godhra, addressed by no less than the VHP International General Secretary, Pravin Togadia. The agency report announcing the rally was carried by all newspapers, but only the DNA's Jitendra Dave reported Togadia’s inflammatory speech and his defiance of police orders at the rally.
Like Janak Panchal, Satishkumar Mishra also took the Sabarmati Express on February 27 this year, reported Sachin Sharma in The Times of India, despite having lost his wife on it in 2002. He was no VHP activist. The Mishras were an ordinary family who happened to be caught in the fire. The father and daughter survived. Mishra was now travelling to his UP village for the daughter’s wedding. Unfortunately, the report said little else, leaving the reader to imagine the pain the father-daughter must have felt on this special occasion.
Mumbai Mirror’s cover story, “Memory, Remains”, on Gujarat by editor Meenal Baghel also had a para on Gayatri Panchal, who lost both parents and two sisters in the burning coach. So did Hindustan Times, in a story about victims on both sides who wanted to move on.
From a remote village in Sabarkantha district, TNN reported that an RSS member, 50-year-old farmer Lakhubai Makani, among those burnt alive then, was to be remembered on February 27 with a Rs. 50,000 marble bust being installed in his honour. “The village has been decking up for the function”, said the report. About 2000 people, including VHP office bearers and sants, were expected.
Just these six reports provide enough emotional and political drama. Imagine what more such stories of the Sabarmati victims would have meant for the reader. NDTV’s Shai Venkatraman and CNN IBN’s Rajdeep Sardesai traced them. Why couldn’t the English press? It didn’t have to go far. Many of them live in Ahmedabad.
This lopsided treatment was a reflection of the way the English press had behaved in 2002 too – meagre coverage to the Sabarmati’s Hindu victims, extensive coverage to the victims of the anti-Muslim pogrom that followed. At that time, many justifications were given: the retaliation was so swift and widespread, it didn’t leave any time to follow-up on the Sabarmati victims’ families; the pogrom lasted for weeks, it just couldn’t be ignored… But this time, newspapers had been readying themselves for the 10th anniversary of Gujarat for weeks.
They had had enough time to find the victims. If Indrajit Hazra of Hindustan Times could trace out, 10 years later, the man with the saffron headband who became the face of the aggressor in Gujarat, surely the victims of the burnt coach could have been found. Why weren’t they?
At that time too, the victims had been left to the VHP alone. Non-BJP politicians, who had rushed to Gujarat, hadn’t bothered to meet them. Trying to find them a month after the incident, I had been forced to take the VHP’s help. The secular NGOs out on the field then were of no help; they neither knew nor cared where these victims were.
When I met some of the Sabarmati victims last year, days after the verdict on the train burning case was delivered, it became clear that the VHP had abandoned most, though not all, of them. But ironically, now, 10 years later, it was again only the VHP that paid homage at the burnt coach in Godhra. The secularists were out in full force in Gulbarg Society and Naroda Patiya (the DNA’s Roxy Gagdekar described it as “Day 1 of Riot Tourism’’) and even Mumbai. And so was the English press. What must have gone through those victims' minds as they read the English press? Perhaps they don't.