Twenty years ago, at the end of February 2002, we were in Palo Alto with our daughter, towards the end of a successful lecture tour organised by friends – to build a coalition of groups and voices prepared to stand up against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
It was with horror and disbelief that we watched on the news, the unfolding of the tragic events starting February 27, into the first week of March… from Godhra to Ahmedabad and across the state.
The burnt train at Godhra – the incendiary speeches and broadcasts
The fires, the killings, the mayhem
The deliberate targeting of all those belonging to one community
The brutality of rapes and murders of Muslim women
A state and a people gone mad with blood lust
The inaction of the State Police
The deliberate delay in calling in the Army Units who had been flown in but remained in their barracks for the crucial 48 to 72 hours before being ordered to “restore peace, law and order”.
Were these indeed images of our land and our people? That too in Gandhiji’s Gujarat?
Being many thousand miles away was the toughest of all – what to believe – what to dismiss as exaggerated reports? This was before the WhatsApp pandemic had hit us.
Then slowly as calls and eye witness accounts started trickling in – the dreadful reality slowly began to hit home, and we could no longer escape from the numbing truth that this was indeed true - for the most part, it was deliberately organised violence leading to communal carnage. The world began calling it a Pogrom, and worse - Genocide.
I did the only thing I could do at that time, which was to write an anguished letter to my Prime Minister – Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee – one of the hardest things to do. I am sharing extracts herewith:
“My Dear Prime Minister Vajpayee ji,
“It is indeed with a heavy heart that I write to my Prime Minister at this time. The recent happenings in Gujarat have completely shaken my confidence in the Government and its capacity to uphold and protect a democratic and secular India.”
“The entire nation is shocked at the callousness and inefficiency displayed by the law and order machinery of the Government of Gujarat, which not only failed to perform its duty to its citizens, but also stood by and in several cases actually incited what can best be described as a pogrom.”
“The democratic and secular traditions of India have been severely endangered by the recent events. In addition, the carnage in Gujarat has created an increasingly negative image of India among people in many parts of the world.”
“I joined the Navy at the age of fifteen just a few months after Independence. My growth in the Navy has coincided with that of the country and I rose to head the Indian Navy from 1990 to 1993. We have had many distinguished servicemen from the minority communities who have reached the highest ranks in the service.
To name a few: Field Marshal Manekshaw, Marshal of the Air Force, Arjan Singh, Air Chief Marshal Idris Latif, Admirals Cursetji, Pereira and Dawson - all Chiefs of the Indian Navy; the Keelor brothers of the Air Force who both won the Mahavir Chakra; Brigadier Usman, decorated posthumously with the Mahavir Chakra, Lance Naik Albert Ekka ñ Param Vir Chakra (posthumous), and men like my own steward, M.Ali, who served me faithfully while I was commanding INS Beas in the 1971 operations”
“The Indian Armed Forces have always been one of the strongest pillars of our secular democracy. They have maintained their political neutrality and have respected civil authority since Independence despite trends to the contrary in our immediate neighbourhood. They represent a microcosm of the diversity of India which has always been its strength. Over the years India has witnessed the steady process of communalization and politicization of our bureaucracy and the police. It would be a tragedy indeed if these processes were to affect the Armed Forces of this land. This could herald a potentially disastrous and unmanageable situation where our uniformed personnel could find themselves in opposing camps with all its attendant dangers.”
Here are a few among the list of recommendations sent to the Prime Minister Shri Vajpayee.
Constitute a Commission of Enquiry by a Bench of three sitting judges from the Supreme Court of India to look into the entire sequence of events beginning with the tragedy on the train to the subsequent massacre of minorities in Gujarat.
2. Bring to book all the guilty persons including politicians, bureaucrats and police personnel who have been directly responsible for dereliction of duty.
3. Ban extremist right wing organizations like the VHP, Bajrang Dal, and the RSS, as has already been done with SIMI.
4. Set up camps immediately for those dispossessed; initiate a rehabilitation programme with necessary resources; and equitable compensation to families of all victims.
As a former Chief of the Indian Navy, and as a concerned citizen, I can no longer remain a silent observer of what is tantamount to ethnic cleansing and genocide of our own people. I urge you to steer the nation firmly away from the path of extremism and fundamentalism of all shades.
Unfortunately, I am out of the country and cannot therefore meet you in person to share this with you.”
Needless to add, there was no acknowledgement let alone a response. This has, sadly been the fate, for the most part, of many of the letters and statements addressed to either the Honourable President and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, or indeed to the Prime Minister. But of that, another time.
To return to the tragedy of Gujarat… The letter from America was dated March 11, 2002. We returned home to India by end of March – but were part of the ongoing, intense debates and discussions that accompanied the public outrage and shock following the events in Gujarat.
Inter Faith Fact Finding and Peace Mission – April 2002
In early April of 2002, a number of us, representing many sectors and faiths, decided to make a visit to Gujarat. Many of us had known each other and worked on peace and conflict issues earlier. We had been in continuous touch with each other ever since the terrible events of Feb 28 – March 2 when the Indian Army was finally provided the necessary facilities and invited to provide ‘aid to civil power’.
Although the worst of the carnage was over by the time we visited Gujarat a month later – it was clear that the people, especially the minorities, were both insecure and faced continuing harassment and abuse.
Our purpose was simple and clear – to gather facts from a variety of sources and to try to restore a sense of confidence among the people. Hence the composition of people from all faiths. These included the late Nirmala Deshpande who led the delegation; the Late Swami Agnivesh; John Dayal, Navaid Hamied; Admiral Ramdas – to name a few…
Knowing that a special Army Unit had been deployed to Gujarat, I decided to call on the General in charge and apprise him of our mission and our presence in the city. It was a pleasure to meet Lt Gen Zameeruddin Shah, and receive a briefing. I remember very clearly that this was an era before the mobile phone had become popular – and my wife had thrust our newly acquired phone into my pocket just before I left for Gujarat. I mention this in light of subsequent events.
Nirmala Didi’s colleague and friend had generously offered to accommodate the group in ‘Eswar Bhavan’ where he lived. No sooner had we moved in, we were virtually ‘gheraoed’ – by elements who clearly knew who we were.
One could guess their political affiliation, when we were told to “send out the Muslim members of the group” or else face arson and attacks on the entire group. How much more brazen could they get?
After a quick consultation we decided to move to the well-known Sabarmati Ashram, so as not to embarrass or endanger our well-meaning host.
But the unrelenting mobs followed us to the Ashram – with loud demands that we could only stay ‘if the Muslim members of the group were sent out’! At this point I realized that things may get worse, and the Sabarmati Ashram may itself be threatened.
I therefore decided to call the General, popularly known as “Zoom” Shah, and explained our predicament. He said don’t move sir, we shall do something very soon. Sure enough, in about ten minutes two jeeps with mounted Machine guns appeared from either side of the road, no sooner were they sighted, the members of the “Goonda Mob” scurried away. Just shows the effect of the mere presence of the ARMY. And yet it is a point to ponder seriously and ask the question why it took three days before the Army was deployed on the streets of Ahmedabad and elsewhere?
In 2018, on the occasion of the release of Gen Shah’s book called ‘Sarkari Mussalman’, I remember being distressed to read that some senior officers of the Army had expressed concerns about “Zoom” aka an officer named ‘Zameeruddin’ being tasked with leading troops for this sensitive mission. It was good to hear that Gen Padmanabhan, then Chief of Army Staff, did exactly what I had myself done in 1971 – disregarded the voices of dissent and suspicion, and told ‘Zoom’ to proceed on this mission. As Captain of the INS BEAS in the 1971 operations, I was cautioned likewise about my steward Ali. Needless to say, I rejected the idea outright and sailed through the 1971 war against Pakistan with Ali by my side.
I am proud of officers like Gen Padmanabhan and Lt Gen Zameeruddin Shah who bring credit to our fine syncretic service traditions. But these were also early signals of how communal prejudice was already present and active in the majority community, including our Armed Forces. Alas we did not take these warnings seriously enough.
Why talk about Gujarat today? What lessons have we learned?
Having managed to locate this letter after two decades – I have been in a further dilemma – as to whether or not to bring this up again at this time, twenty years after the tragedy of Godhra and Gujarat. My wife Lalita and I have agonised over this for some time. We both concluded almost simultaneously, that silence was not an option. We are senior citizens – who have lived through partition and its horrors. My wife has seen at first hand the brutality of the 1984 Pogrom and worked for nearly two years with the survivors of the Sikh community. We are witness to similar incidents of growing intolerance and communal violence across the country. That these are happening, with impunity, in the land of Buddha, Mahavira, and Mahatma Gandhi is disturbing to say the least.
Therefore, our decision is, that as a former head of one of our Armed Forces, I should continue to try to speak Truth to Power – which is the one lesson my training in the Navy has taught me.
I have always believed that the Armed Forces represented the uncompromising commitment to the Constitution and its values. We have been clear that there is no way our Services can allow the influence of intolerance, religious bigotry and divisive communalism to infect our secular fighting forces. And yet we have almost helplessly watched the toxin of xenophobic politics relentlessly being injected into the life blood of our democracy.
Despite our Constitutional vision and Dharma so to speak – this is being eroded and weakened – and it is troubling to large numbers of us – possibly the silent majority. We draw attention to these personal and anecdotal events – because it is from the strength of one’s personal experiences that one builds convictions and value-based principles which are essential in our varied and complex societies.
There are a few other troubling issues which must be highlighted in the lessons learned
- The role of Media which is no longer able to call a ‘spade a spade’ – someone rightly described Gujarat-02 an “archetypal post truth event”
- Lack of accountability and liability – many fact-finding missions and investigations later – the only ‘fact’ being quoted is that the then Chief Minister was cleared and given a “clean chit”
- Time and time again, leaders of many political parties, who pour hate and invective and instigate violence, have literally managed to get away with murder! In a recent article, Cherian George, an academic, refers to this as “predatory populism” – which turns into a story of self-defence instead of pre-meditated mass murder. This often leads to “decent citizens baying for blood”.
- Again, to quote Mr Cherian George - we are facing a situation of ‘Think Global and Kill Local’ – the assaults on Human Rights and on Democracy are virtually ignored or condoned by the international community because of the imperative of geo-political and economic interests over so-called concerns about Human Rights.
So, as we approach the twentieth anniversary of the Tragedy of Gujarat – this is a call to the Conscience of all those who still believe in Humanity and Insaaniyat and who will continue to speak up and speak out on behalf of all the injustice, the deaths and violence wrought on thousands of innocents. Let us not forget that few have been arraigned or brought to book – whereas 32 accused of bomb blasts, again in Gujarat, have been recently awarded the death penalty.
Our struggles to uphold our Constitution must continue with renewed fervour. We reaffirm our belief in Justice, Equality, Freedom, Fraternity and Secularism, as the guiding principles of our Republic. Then alone can we proudly sing:
“Saare Jahaan se Achha Hindustan Hamara” – Jai Hind – Jai Jagat!
*While Admiral L Ramdas is the Former Chief of Naval Staff, Lalita Ramdas is a peace activist and one of the most inspiring and vocal members of Indian civil society.