Riots don’t start; people start them

Picture of Tulsi Gabbard, a woman of South Asian appearance with light brown skin and shoulder-length black hair, wearing a fitted white jacket over a black skirt or pair of trousers, standing in front of a small sign saying "Tulsi 2020" with an American flag hanging from a pole next to her.
Tulsi Gabbard

There is a video going round on Twitter of the American representative (from Hawaii) Tulsi Gabbard responding to a question about the Indian prime minister’s role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, in which hundreds or possibly thousands of people were killed in three days of violence instigated by Hindu nationalists in response to a fire on a train in which 59 people were killed. The woman observed that she had served as “one of the major rehabilitations (sic) of Modi’s perception here [in the US]”, then proceeded to say that Modi had been accused of complicity in the 2002 violence. Gabbard responded by asking “do you know what instigated those riots?”, which the woman did not appear to know the answer to. The Indian section of Yahoo News has an account of the incident illustrated by a few tweets supportive of Gabbard and Modi and in some cases insulting to the questioner.

As anyone who remembers the violence (which was 17 years ago, which means a young adult who was not there will not) will also remember, the pogrom followed the train fire which at the time was blamed on Muslim vendors at Godhra train station (an official story was that it was done under orders from Pakistan, which has been described as baseless) who had been subject to abuse and harassment from the temple pilgrims on the train (the temple in question being the one in Ayodhya, on the site of a mosque which was torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992), but more recent inquiries suggest that it was started by someone on the train by accident. However, many Hindus still seem to believe that it was started by Muslims in revenge for the destruction of the mosque, and when I mention Modi’s responsibility for the pogrom, I have had Hindus in my mentions telling me that the violence was in response to the train fire, as if this justifies it. Today, when I told one of them that the riots took place all over Gujarat rather than being targeted at the supposed train attackers, I was told that the victims of the train fire came from all over Gujarat. Now we have an American politician repeating the same line of argument when a member of the public draws attention to Modi’s record.

A few facts about the pogrom should be stated here. One is that there is significant evidence of the violence being premeditated and well-planned: for example, businesses were attacked whose names were suggestive of Hindu ownership when the actual owners were Muslim. So, at best the planners did their research and at worst, they were assisted by people in the government who knew who owned which properties. Another is the extreme savagery and brutality of it: some 250 women and girls were gang-raped and then burned to death; in other cases, pregnant women had their babies cut out of them, families were electrocuted inside houses the attackers had flooded, children were speared and then held up. Local media have described the violence as “state terrorism”, citing politicians’ utterances (including Modi’s) which stoked tensions in the aftermath of the Godhra fire, and the fact that in many incidents, police looked on and did nothing (including where the station was next door to a site being attacked) or even joined in; the state took no action to prevent a strike called by Hindu nationalists after the fire, which was illegal and such strikes had commonly been associated with communal violence in the past.

Using this logic, we could blame almost any atrocity or any act of terrorism on something done by people with some connection to the victims and thereby justify it. Yet, we do not do this; in fact, we protest loudly when someone tries to in regard to terrorism, even when the perpetrators are oppressed people. Hindus in Gujarat were not oppressed, at least not by Muslims; yes, many live in poverty, but they are the majority and their aspirations to dominance are supported by the state, even when the Congress party are in charge, let alone when Hindu nationalists are. This was not a people spontaneously reacting to an atrocity committed against them; it was not an intifada. It was a planned atrocity by a majority population seeking to put an ‘uppity’ minority in its place, and the same movement, now in charge of the Indian federal government, permits a regime like that of the old American South in which Muslims can be lynched for imagined offences against cows. These riots did not just start; people started them. Anyone who cannot see this has no place in any respectable political party or any party which purports to stand for social justice, let alone running as a presidential candidate.

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