Conflicts & War

Communal tension drags on 20 years after anti-Muslim riots in India

By Mikaela Viqueira

New Delhi, Feb 27 (EFE).- Tensions between the majority Hindu community and the Muslim minority in India persist 20 years after the communal riots in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in the western state of Gujarat, then governed by the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The riots that lasted for several days erupted after a train caught fire on Feb.27, 2002, resulting in the death of 59 Hindu pilgrim travelers in the village of Godhra in Gujarat.

It led to the indiscriminate killing of Muslims blamed for the train fire.

Radical Hindu mobs attacked Muslim neighborhoods, leaving hundreds dead and wounded. Women gang-raped. Mosques and Muslim houses destroyed.

The authorities and the police were blamed for inaction and allegedly supporting the “premeditated” violence by allowing the mob to run amok.

The accusations, never proven in courts, even pointed to Modi.

Moreover, far from hurting his political career, the Hindu leader won successive victories in both state and national elections and is into his second term as prime minister, enjoying a brute parliamentary majority.

“Modi is where he is today because of what happened in 2002,” Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who has penned a biography of the Indian leader, told EFE, adding that if the Gujarat riots did not occur, he would have never become prime minister.

On the other hand, the biographer noted that since the massacre, the condition of Muslims has only worsened as they are now more “isolated and alienated than ever before” in Gujarat.

While the judicial process against those involved in the train fire in which Hindu pilgrims died was rapid, convictions against the killings of Muslims have been few and slow, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported a decade after the riots.

Some 30 Muslims, in two sentences in 2011 and 2017, were given life in prison for their alleged involvement in the train fire.

In the riots by thousands of Hindus, sentences were passed only for some of the killings, which included life imprisonment to 28 Hindus in 2016 for the killing of more than a hundred Muslims.

From Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), one of those convicted was former Minister for Women’s Development in Gujarat, Maya Kodnani, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012 for these riots, but later acquitted in 2018.

Among the victims of the violence was Shakeela Bano, who in 2019 narrated to EFE how on Feb.28, 2002, her family was burned alive in front of her by a mob of Hindus.

“They poured gasoline on my mother, my brother, my sister-in-law and four children and burned them alive. They cut my brother’s head with a sword. There was also a two month old baby, they said, ‘If you are not going to live, what are we going to do with your son?’ The baby was also burned alive,” the woman had recalled.

Bano hid in a restaurant and saw how several young women were raped, many killed, and their bodies were thrown into a well. The police, far from helping them, beat and threatened them.

Although India is a secular country, tensions are frequent between the Hindu majority, who make up 79.8 percent of the population, according to the last census of 2011, and Muslims, who account for 14.2 percent.

In 1947, the partition of the subcontinent along religious lines into India and Pakistan, following its independence from the British Empire, left more than a million dead between Muslims and Hindus in communal violence.

Since then, the country has witnessed riots between the two communities from time to time, the most recent of them in February 2020 in New Delhi, where 53 people – 40 of them Muslims – died during several days of violence.

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