When we stood with pickaxes in Vadodara

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 27, 2012 08:02 hrs

Ten years ago, a madness, a maelstrom of sorts hit Gujarat. Hundreds died in its wake. Innocent lives lost, sacrificed on the altar of man's cruelty to man. I was there and witnessed it all firsthand.

My thoughts go back to Feb 27, 2002, the black day that it all started. It was late afternoon. And I, a student of the bachelor of computer application programme, was attending classes at the Faculty of Science at Baroda's M.S. University.

In the middle of the class, a man came inside and whispered something to Rana Mukhopadhyay, my professor. Immediately afterwards, with a look of concern on his face, the professor told us, 'Something very bad has happened at a place near our city. I request you all to go to your homes and stay there.'

Later that night, we got to hear the full story. A train carrying Gujarati kar sevaks or religious volunteers from Ayodhya to Ahmedabad had been attacked at one of the stations, the town of Godhra in Panchmahal district. The kar sevaks had apparently been burnt alive in their coach.

Communal riots were a common feature in Gujarat. Like most of India, the state had a turbulent history of Hindu-Muslim relations. In fact, riots had been common since medieval times, when the state's Hindu Rajput kingdoms gave way to the Delhi Sultanate and later, Muzaffarid and Mughal rule.

The towns and cities of Gujarat, especially the northern and central parts, were communally sensitive. My own hometown Vadodara, or Baroda as the British called it, was regularly affected by clashes. But these were usually restricted to the walled city areas. The common word for riot in Gujarati was 'dhamaal' (chaos).

However, 2002 was not to be like other years. I still remember the night when a resident of our colony came to our house and said in a sombre voice: 'There are rumours that Muslim gangs from Tandalja (a Muslim neighbourhood in the new city) will carry out revenge attacks against Hindu colonies, including ours. Please arm yourselves with whatever weapons you have.'

Well, we did not have any 'weapons' as such. All we had were a few gardening and carpentry tools: a pickaxe, a spade, a sickle, a handsaw. My father, my twin brother and I took these and went to the colony gate.

I still remember that moment. The darkness, punctuated only by the street lights. The gate, where we stood, armed with whatever we could find. The empty road in front of us. Loud sounds, appearing to be gunshots, resounding from the side of Tandalja. Any minute, I imagined, a vehicle full of men could appear on the road and attack us.

Fortunately, nothing happened that night to us. But in the days that followed, I found others had not been so lucky. Massacres which have become today bywords for armed slaughter happened in those very days - Best Bakery (Baroda), Pandharwada (Panchmahal), Gulbarg and Naroda Patia (Ahmedabad) - story upon ghastly story, highlighting the sheer frenzy that overtook my state in those days.

Some personal glimpses left me shaken - the blackened, burnt door of a Muslim-owned shop in a posh complex, a looted shoe store in another posh complex, the bright blue of RAF men sitting inside my old school in Tandalja.

Since that year, Gujarat has never been the same again. The state is now notorious across India and the world.

A state where Zoroastrians fleeing post-Sassanid Persia got refuge, a state which had played host to vibrant Buddhist and Jain civilizations, a state which had maritime and cultural relations with pre- and post-Islamic Arabia, a state which gave the world an apostle of peace and non-violence like Mahatma Gandhi - is now reviled as one where the blood of innocents flowed even as the state administration 'fiddled like Nero'.

For me, as a conscientious, middle class citizen, Gujarat 2002 is a lesson - in politics, statecraft and human rights. It is also a lesson to modern India as to what future it wants for itself - a secular democracy where majority and minority live in harmony or a theocratic, Nazi-style state, where there will only be turmoil, chaos and bloodshed. It is something that all Indian citizens must ponder over.

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