Wednesday, March 6, 2002

Alan Freeman

p. A12.

Rumours and blame swirl in India after rioting

Amid an uneasy calm in violence-torn city, residents offer different versions of events

AHMEDABAD, INDIA — To hear shopkeeper Gul Kinger explain last Thursday's events, it was just an unfortunate coincidence that Muslims owned four of the five stores destroyed by a huge mob during an attack on his Ahmedabad strip mall.

"The mob's agenda was to close the shops that had opened up," said Mr. Kinger, a Hindu with four businesses in the mall, including a children's-wear outlet and an ice-cream bar.

"Some people opened their shops, so they were hit. My shop was closed so nobody touched me."

And he insisted, "We couldn't identify whether the mob was Hindu or Muslim."

It doesn't take long to see his description of last week's incident, which took place in broad daylight, is either an illusion or an outright fabrication.

At one end of the three-sided strip mall sits the rioters' ugly handiwork — the burned-out shell of four shoe stores owned by the same Muslim businessman. The interior of the shops is a tangle of twisted metal and blackened walls; some of the outside concrete pillars have partly crumbled. To the stores' right is a blackened sweet shop, the first Hindu-owned business that obviously could not escape the flames.

Thursday was the first day of a bloody weekend in Ahmedabad and the rest of the state of Gujarat. Rioters ran wild, targeting Muslims in revenge for an attack on a train full of Hindu pilgrims returning from a controversial holy site.

Fifty-eight people died in last Wednesday's train fire; as of yesterday, the official death toll from the reprisals was 570, although the violence appeared to have subsided.

An uneasy calm reigned in Ahmedabad, a city of 3.5 million where the vast majority of people live in communal peace. But as the ruins smouldered and the killings ceased, allegations circulated that the revenge attacks were far from spontaneous.

Bishop S. Fernandes, who leads the state's tiny Roman Catholic minority of 150,000, alleged the attacks were co-ordinated by men with cellphones who told the crowd which Muslim business or home to hit next.

"It was backed by an organization," he said in an interview after an inter-faith peace march. "It had to be planned out over months. You don't just attack particular houses and particular shops."

At the mall, meanwhile, Mr. Kinger and more than a dozen other shopkeepers sat in a semicircle of plastic patio chairs outside a café, sipping tea and listening to Haren Pandya, their representative in the Gujarat state legislature and a member of the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Nobody in the group openly admitted that Hindus were responsible for the conflagration that had taken place a few metres down the sidewalk, but it was clear they believed the Muslims had it coming.

"It all started with Godhra," site of the train massacre, Mr. Pandya said in an interview. "The event was premeditated. And there were already stresses in the people because of the attack on Parliament [in December], because of the volatile situation in Pakistan, because of the massacres continuously going on in Kashmir. These things were already lying in the minds of the people of Gujarat."

Senior officials in the Indian government suggested this week the initial train massacre was orchestrated by Pakistan to divert international attention from the killing of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl.

Mr. Kinger said Hindus shouldn't be blamed for what happened, comparing the killings to a father beating a undisciplined child.

The shopkeeper said he hasn't seen his Muslim neighbour return to what is left of his shops. But he expects him to reopen soon."Ninety per cent of the shoe business is the hands of Muslims," he said, hesitating. "Plus all the smuggling business and all the drug business and all the prostitutes, weapons and professional murders."

He was referring to alleged crime rings led by Muslims, although India has many suspected criminal groups headed by Hindus, Christians and people of other faiths.

A clearer picture of what actually happened at the mall emerged from the accounts of the Hindu owners of two shops that managed to escape the destruction.

"They only attacked Muslim shops," said Kamal Lokwani, whose uncle owns LeeSha, a children's clothing shop. Another witness said the metal shutters of the Muslim-owned shops were closed but the mob broke in anyway and ransacked them, contradicting Mr. Kinger's version of events.

[World 2002] [News by region] [News by topic]

Created: March 6, 2002
Last modified: July 9, 2002
CSIS Commercial Sex Information Service
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710