Gujarat's burning train, ten years on

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 27, 2012 08:54 hrs

Ten years ago today, a train was set on fire at Godhra in Gujarat and a relatively obscure politician was thrust into the limelight. He has remained there ever since, not necessarily for all the right reasons. Narendra Modi was brought in as chief minister of Gujarat in October 2001 to bring peace to the squabbling factions of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state. Not many thought this party apparatchik who had spent most of his working years until then outside Gujarat would last long, leave alone succeed. He is today the one most Indians expect to be the BJP's standard-bearer for prime-ministership whenever the next general elections are held. He is either a folk hero or an ogre, mostly the latter to the English-language media and commentators.

The Sabarmati Express inferno consumed 59 lives, all Hindus, including kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya. The riots that followed engulfed the entire state and lasted over two months. The official estimate put the death toll at 1,040 - 790 Muslim and 250 Hindus. Unofficial figures are much higher, with an even higher proportion of Muslim victims. This is possibly the most extensively discussed and reported instance of communal violence post-Independence.

The state government continues to insist that communal miscreants among the sizeable Godhra Muslim population plotted to set the train coach on fire, to teach the volunteers of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and other such outfits a lesson. Its inquiry commission has so far only submitted an interim report. The Railways ordered another inquiry during Lalu Prasad's tenure as minister. It concluded that there was no such conspiracy.

A number of trials have since begun. Two have been moved out of Gujarat at the instance of the Supreme Court, as it believed that a fair trial was not possible in the state. The apex court has taken a strong interest in the conduct of most trials, constituting special investigating teams (SITs) and appointing amicus curiae to facilitate the inquiries and trials. Some convictions have resulted, but a large number of cases are still pending. These are in the news almost all the time, with the state government on one side and some victims or non-governmental agencies ranged against it.

The anguished face of Zakia Jafri, widow of Ehsan Jafri, a former Congress member of Parliament burnt alive in Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad along with 68 others on the first day of the riots, is the most poignant reminder of the enormous human tragedy. A trial court has just denied her plea for access to the SIT report.

The normal business of Gujarat has not stopped in the meanwhile. In the decade since the Godhra incident, the state has gone to the polls twice to elect the state Assembly (2002 and 2007) and twice to elect parliamentarians (2004 and 2009), with results contrary to the expectations of the punditry. The BJP swept both the Assembly polls, winning over 120 of the 189 seats, even as analysts, with more than a touch of wishful thinking, had predicted a close contest if not a defeat for the BJP.

The party was expected to get 20 or more seats of the 26 in the state in each of the Lok Sabha elections, but it managed only 14 and 15. A sober professional had told me just before the general elections that it was best for Gujarat to have the BJP in the state and the Congress at the Centre. This voter behaviour might seem enigmatic but has not yet been fully explored.

Gujarat's economy continues to grow faster than that of the country. Its net per capita state domestic product grew at a compound annual growth rate of 8.2 per cent between 2001 and 2009. This was second only to Uttarakhand's 9.2 per cent and 2.4 percentage points ahead of the national average of 5.8 per cent. Gujarat continues to attract tremendous investor interest.

Actual investments may not match the pledges announced after the much-hyped annual “Vibrant Gujarat” jamborees held under Modi's leadership, but there is no doubt that the state is among the foremost investment destinations, both domestic and foreign, in India. These investments are predominantly in manufacturing, as is evident from Gujarat's recent emergence as an automotive hub. Ratan Tata, who moved the Nano plant from West Bengal to Gujarat, has attributed this phenomenon to what they call the business-friendly policies of Modi and his government. Other investors echo this sentiment.

Gujarat's agriculture has not been a laggard either. Its sustained double-digit growth over the last decade has been much in the news. This growth is widespread. It is not confined to the irrigated fertile tracts of south and central Gujarat. Saurashtra and even the usually arid Kutch have registered high growth, even before the Narmada irrigation waters reached there, thanks mainly to local water-harvesting programmes and spread of Bt cotton.

Gujarat's infrastructure has also come in for much acclaim. I can vouch for Gujarat having the best roads in the country. Private ports have given the maritime economy an edge. Its power position is more than satisfactory, with 12,000 Mw of port-based new capacity to go on stream in the next three years.

The state administration is justly reputed to be among the more efficient and cleaner ones in the country. Modi's stern diktat to bureaucrats and local politicians to keep their noses clean is said to be the reason for this happy state of affairs. The remarks I hear most often during my travels and interactions outside the state are, in fact, about how Gujarat manages to function so well and not about the scars of 2002.

The impression that prevails among the large number of generally well-informed and concerned people is that Gujarat is now well ahead of the rest of the country on most development indicators. Relative peace and harmony prevail. The unspoken corollary is: so is it not time to put this behind us and get on with the task of development?

There is an equally vocal, though possibly not so numerous, group comprising largely non-governmental organisations and intellectuals that believes the state political leadership was complicit in the events of 2002. It needs to be held accountable and brought to book.

Ten years after the burning train of Godhra, Gujarat is caught in the dilemma between pragmatic concerns of sustaining development and the moral and ethical obligations of a just and fair society.

The writer taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand

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