In an old Muslim cemetery surrounded by the fallen vines of Banyan trees, Pathan Mohammad Mahrouf stood over the grave of his wife and two children.
“It feels like they’re still with me,” he said looking down at the mound of dirt. “It feels like I’m sitting with them.”
It has been 12 years since they were murdered, burnt alive by a rampaging mob of Hindu vigilantes. His wife Bilqis, along with his daughter Kherun Nisha, 14, and son Hamid, 10, were among the first victims of the 2002 communal riots in India’s Gujarat state. They were attacked by a Hindu mob seeking retribution for the death of almost 60 Hindu pilgrims in a train fire started by Muslims.
“I didn’t see my daughter but the lady who was with me said my daughter was raped and then burned,” Mahrouf said. “They attacked my wife with a dagger and there was a deep cut. They poured petrol inside (the wound) and lit a match…I did whatever I could to save the two kids that were with me.”
It is a scene that Mahrouf has played in his mind many times as parliamentary elections sweep across India. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party‘s (BJP) candidate Narendra Modi is favorite to win thanks to an anti-incumbancy wave against the ruling Congress. The self-proclaimed Hindu nationalist enjoys tremendous popularity amongst young Indians who make up a large percentage of the electorate.
“He is a man of integrity, a man of honesty with an incorruptible record and performance,” said the BJP spokesman, Prakash Javadekar. “People want delivery, he is the man of delivery.”
But Mahrouf remembers Modi very differently. He was Gujarat’s chief minister when the anti-Muslim riots spread across the state. More than 1000 people, including Mahrouf’s family, were killed in the carnage that continued sporadically for months. Survivors like Mahrouf have accused Modi’s right-wing BJP government and the police of willfully failing to protect them.
“We went to the police headquarters next to us. They said today we can’t help you at all. Today you have to die, there are orders from above,” Mahrouf said.
Sanjiv Bhatt, a senior Gujarat police officer, says he has testified to several official inquiries that these ‘orders’ came from Modi himself.
Bhatt was the Deputy Police Commissioner of Internal Security during the riots. He said during a late night meeting at Modi’s residence on February 27 2002, the chief minister asked commanding officers not to allow their men to interfere with the Hindu rioters.
“This time there is a lot of anger in the Hindus,” Bhatt quotes Modi as saying. “The normal practice of the police to take an even handed action against Hindus and Muslims will not work this time, he said. There is so much anger, you’ll have to allow the Hindus to vent out their anger.”
Victims want Modi tried for criminal conspiracy linked to the violence, and he has been named in a petition currently before the Gujarat High Court.
But a separate Supreme Court initiated investigation failed to find any evidence to charge him. Modi and his party, the BJP, have always denied culpability.
“There were 10,000 rounds of bullets fired. It’s a very tough police action. More than 190 rioters were killed. So this is what has actually happened,” said Prakash Javadekar, the BJP’s spokesman.
Yet rights advocates and the Supreme Court have expressed grave concerns about a perceived cover-up following the violence.
In a 2012 report, Human Rights Watch accused Modi’s government of “subverting justice, protecting perpetrators and intimidating those promoting accountability 10 years after the anti-Muslim riots”.
“Instead of prosecuting senior state and police officials implicated in the atrocities, the Gujarat authorities have engaged in denial and obstruction of justice,” HRW’s South Asia Director, Meenakshi Ganguly, said in the report.
Several times the Supreme Court re-opened cases that were dismissed due to a lack of evidence or because witnesses had turned hostile. They were even forced to transfer cases out of the state to protect witnesses from intimidation and ensure fair trials.
In March 2008, the Court ordered a Special Investigation Team to investigate nine crucial cases after strongly criticising the Gujarat administration for an attempted cover up.
But the BJP said this on-going criticism of their prime ministerial candidate is politically motivated.
“The worst kind of persecution has happened to him over the last 12 years by the Congress (Party) and their cronies, NGOs and others,” said Javadekar.
“Nobody talks about Bhagalpur where 1000 Muslims were butchered. Congress chief minister was there… Nobody talks about earlier Gujarat severe riots where thousands of Muslims were killed. Such a partial discourse can show only the bias. People have moved on.”
India’s voters certainly appear to have moved on. Latest opinion polls indicate that the BJP and its allies could win around 226 seats in the lower house, or Lok Sahba. This is well short of the 273 seats they need for a majority, but enough to form a government through coalition deals.
Modi is largely credited for the BJP’ resurgence. During his 12 years as Gujarat’s Chief Minister, the state has consistently recorded higher economic growth than the national average.
Unemployment is amongst the lowest in the country and the state is fast becoming a manufacturing hub. Tata Motors, Maruti Suzuki, Peugeot Citroen and Ford have all set up plants there in the past three years.
At campaign rallies across the country, voters talk with envy about Gujarat’s pot-hole free roads and its surplus supply of electricity.
“Modi is like a God to us,” shouts Manohan Kumar at a BJP rally in Bihar state. “He’ll give jobs to the youth. There’s a wave for Modi in the country and that’s why I want to support him.”
Santosh Kumar could not agree more. “Modi is on everyone’s lips – from the young to the old. This time only Modi’s government will be formed.”
It is a prospect that Pathan Mohammad Mahrouf finds deeply disturbing. He says he understands why so many Indians are drawn to Modi. With the country’s GDP growing at less than five percent, the BJP’s focus on economic development is alluring.
But Pathan says there are some things that are more important. “My kids were the apple of my eye,” he said, standing over the mass grave they were buried in along with other victims of the riots. “I won’t be able to forget what happened till my last breath.”
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