www.sacw.net > Communalism Repository | March 8, 2005

The Ethics of Collective Vengeance
by Harsh Mander

Some of the most brutal mass crimes in recent history are those of collective vengeance against an entire community for the real or imagined crimes of a few of its members. The blood flowed of thousands of innocent Sikhs in 1984 as a reprisal against the perfidy of two Sikhs guards who assassinated Indira Gandhi. Terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York have been used to condone indefensible military attacks on civilian populations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is the same dangerously warped and morally flawed logic that was used to condone the merciless blood letting that mortally wounded Gujarat three years ago. It was alleged that a group of Muslims set on fire a train compartment at Godhra station, resulting in the tragic deaths of 58 passengers, many of them women and children. Chief Minister Modi described the gruesome incident as a pre-planned ëone sided collective terrorist attack by one communityÖí. The then Prime Minister Vajpayee complained that Muslims did not condemn the incident enough.

For the last three years, intolerably heavy burdens of vicarious guilt have been thrust upon the shoulders of the entire Muslim community in India for the alleged outrage by a few of their co- religionists in the train compartment in Godhra. The slaughter, rape, loot and arson that followed, was widely perceived as a righteous, or ar least an understandable reaction to the alleged barbarous crime by Muslims of torching the train. The same ëlogicí reverberates to this day in middle-class living rooms across country. Indeed, the same reasoning choked the flow of human sympathy for the brutalized, bereaved and homeless survivors of the Gujarat carnage, in disturbing moral contrast to those of the tsunami. There was then no jostling of celebrities, no star-studded concerts, no media houses raising money for the victims, only a deafening silence. The unstated sub-text was that it was somehow fitting that a gravely tainted community was left to deal with the consequences of its collective transgressions.

It is particularly striking that this doctrine of collective communal responsibility for crimes of individuals is applied only selectively. For the recent gruesome killing of dalits in Jhajjar, or indeed in instances of dalit and atrocities that shame every generation, the upper ó caste Hindu majority are never held collectively responsible. Nor are they pronounced jointly guilty for the massacres of 1984 and 2002. Such collective responsibility seems apportioned only to minorities.

The official version of the Government of Gujarat, evolved through 9 charge sheets, is that a conspiracy was hatched at a guesthouse in Godhra, the night before the fire, to kill kar sewaks returning from Ayodhya, by setting aflame coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express. For this 140 liters of petrol were said to have been procured. The next morning, on 27 February 2002, the train was halted at Godhra Station by the conspirators, by repeatedly pulling the alarm chain. It is conceded in the police version that a kar sewak misbehaved with a Muslim girl, leading to tension and of throwing of stones. Taking advantage of the confusion it is alleged that the conspirator cut through the canvas of the vestibule, poured petrol on to the S-6 coach and set it aflame.

However, the evidence before the Nanawati and Banerjee Commissions, and reports of independent experts, completely debunk the police theory. There is no explanation as to how the alleged conspirators came to know that kar sewaks were traveling by Sabarmati Express on that fateful day, when the police and intelligence departments constantly claim they had no such advance information. It is established that it was not the Muslims but the kar sewaks who pulled the chain to stop the train, because several passengers were left behind at the platform. The theory of petrol being poured in to the bogey collapses also because none of the 70 or more passengers who escaped from the bogey had any burn wounds below their waist.

Although the evidence now overwhelmingly supports the theory of a fire accident within the train and death mainly by asphyxiation, there all are still many unanswered questions that the investigations and history will hopefully answer. However an impartial assessment of the large body of available evidence makes one thing incontrovertble, and this is that the official version of a conspiracy planned and executed by the Ghanchi Muslims of Godhra to set the bogey aflame, is unsupported by any credible corroboration.

The carefully reasoned Banerjee interim report has exposed the venality and cynicism of state authorities who created and continue to expound stubbornly this communally incendiary Muslim conspiracy theory, which has profoundly impaired communal relations across the country, and further demonised the entire Muslim community, as violent, supportive of terrorism and of unreliable patriotism. More than a hundred Muslims youths remain confined even today behind bars, without either bail or hope, charged under the draconian provisions of POTA with the burning of the S-6 compartment at Godhra.

However it is perilous to suggest that the Banerjee report has also demolished the ethical justification for the 2002 massacre of minorities in Gujarat, because such justification never existed. No community can be held collectively culpable for the crimes of individuals. Even if a group of Muslims had indeed planned and executed the horrific murder of kar sewaks on that fateful winter morning at the at Godhra station three years ago, it would not have justified the taking of a single life.

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