Godhra. The name conjures up horrific scenes of a burnt train, heart-rending screams, the sight of charred human bodies, the terror of severed limbs. It is reminiscent of the subsequent clashes that turned out to be ugly by any figment of human imagination. The year 2002 saw the worst of communal clashes in modern Indian history, perhaps next only to those witnessed during the days of partition.
Sanjeev* has truly been through hell - he saw raging fires, heard desperate screams, smelled burning flesh and tasted his own blood. He was shaking when he arrived at Ahmedabad aboard an undamaged bogey of the ill-fated and charred Sabarmati Express. He tumbled on to the platform and sank to his knees, screaming in anguish as the horror replayed itself in his mind. He saw the corpses of children; fifteen of them had been burnt alive, he remembered. He heard the anguished wails of deperate mothers and helpless fathers. He could smell death all over him as he clawed at his own flesh in vain hope of cleansing himself of the horror he had witnessed.
Seven years on, life for Majid* has come to a standstill. His eyes are a deadened black hole, unable to forget for a single living moment that his wife and six children were massacred in the post-Godhra riots. Majid, who witnessed the Naroda Patia massacre, escaped the carnage by jumping onto the terrace of a neighbouring building, but his family was not so lucky. Later, he found the bodies of his children amidst the rubble that was once his home, all of them charred. The body of his wife was found in a dustbin; she had been raped multiple times before she was mercifully killed. His daughters, the youngest being just six-months-old, had all been raped and brutally murdered. One little daughter had her eyes gouged out, while a teenage son had his limbs chopped off.
The stories are different, but the horror in them is the same. It is about two people from different communities - for the average Indian, as different as chalk and cheese - but the suffering is essentially human. The blood that soaked the soil of Gujarat is human blood - not Hindu blood or Muslim blood. The wounds are raw, and both need to be assuaged equally. The political clout leaped into the boat of polarised sentiments, and happily went fishing for votes in the rivers of blood. A section of the media helped them dish out their crass propaganda for power. All the norms which were needed to be done were either thrown overboard or conveniently sidetracked. All evidence and explanations contrary to the scenario favouring the polical leadership were pushed under the carpet, and later incinerated.
The gut-wrenching carnage that stole the lives of hundreds of Gujarat's citizens moved an entire nation. India saw (and still sees) the plight of those who have been left grieving for lost family members, or have been orphaned at a tender age, or have been gravely debilitated for the rest of their lives. That this tragedy was not the result of a natural disaster but was man-made is perhaps what is even more chilling. Undoubtedly, the burning alive of passengers in the Sabarmati Express was horrific and gruesome crime, but that it may unleash such barbaric retaliation has left India collectively shamed.
The intent of the Hindutva leadership has been, apparently, to instill amongst the nation's Hindus a sense of dignity and pride, and to awaken the nation to the despotism of Islamic fundamentalism. Then Godhra happened. What occurred in the aftermath of the slaughter has undoubtedly shifted the focus to more fundamental questions. What truly is the essence of India and Indians? What are the duties of the state towards its people? What has been and what should be the role of organized religion in India? What is the secular agenda and why is it so fragile and vulnerable?
These are perhaps just some of the questions that need to be asked if we are to assess this catastrophe in sociological terms. What has emerged quite unmistakably is that there exist elements amongst both Muslims and Hindus who are seeped in feelings of sectarian hatred. Their anger is uncontrollable and manifests itself in indescribable acts of reckless and brutal violence. A spirit of vengeance shrouds their collective wisdom and dormant humanity. Shockingly, such elements enjoy the tacit patronage of the political clout, who feed off them to survive in a turbulent politico-social climate.
The credibility of the entire Hindutva movement is at a particular low; unless their leadership calls for serious introspection and recognizable rectification of past errors, it is very much likely that they would arouse only greater distrust and disdain in the Indians' hearts. At the same time, those who pander to Islamic extremism and approach secularism in a distorted way must also engage in some re-evaluation. The politics of opportunism especially needs challenging. Those who attempt to extract votes - majority or minority - at the cost of principle or national interest all need to evaluate their own role in stoking the communal cauldron.
Our greatest homage to those that died in the tragedies of Godhra would be to truly build an India where there is genuine respect and camaraderie between social communities. Let us take the nation to a new and more equitable secular milieu. Let us not at any level compromise with the evils of organized religion. We have for too long divided ourselves along lines of faith, and have been alarmingly shackled to primitive ideologies. Let us create new political organizations, or at least sanitize the existing ones of divisive thoughts. Indian secularism needs to be invigorated; all sectarian and psuedo-revivalist tendencies need to be quashed. We must get back to our most essential task - that of preserving our delicately forged unity.
The Gujarat crisis has at least illuminated some of the problems of India's fragmented opinion in relation to communal antagonism. In its Indian avatar, secularism is far from being the panacea that many of us believe it to be. It is profoundly misinterpreted as a concept, and heavily tainted in practice. Our religious bigotry remains as real a threat to society today as it was in 2002, in 1992, or even in 1947. That is an inescapable conclusion imposed upon us by the Gujarat crisis.
The question India needs to ask herself today is this. Will justice, if it ever comes, help to heal the emotional and economic wounds? Unfortunately, I have asked this question repeatedly over the last seven years, and each time the answer was lost in silence, and the silence was deafening.
* Names changed to protect privacy