Book Extract

Recalling the horrors of Gujarat @2002 

The veteran army officer and former Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University recalls how 24 companies of Indian soldiers restored order in riot-torn Gujarat within 48 hours

Recalling the horrors of Gujarat @2002 

Lt General Zameeruddin Shah

On 28 February, 2002, after I had just come back from an exercise of one of my Brigades, I received a telephone call from the COAS. I was a little surprised since the ‘Chief’ would seldom speak directly to a divisional commander.

Gen ‘Paddy’s' directions to me were ‘Zoom, get your formation to Gujarat tonight and quell the riots’. I replied ‘Sir, the road move will take us two days’. He shot back ‘The Air Force will take care of your move from Jodhpur. Get maximum troops to the airfield. Speed and resolute action are the need of the hour’.

I rang up the Corps Commander and told him of the instructions I had received from the COAS. I was told that logistic support would be provided by the lodger formation HQ at Jodhpur. I was also assured that the necessary vehicles, guides, magistrates to accompany troop columns and city maps would be made available when we landed at Jodhpur.

I gave necessary orders for two Brigades to head for Jodhpur airfield. The third Brigade, out on exercise had to disengage. I told my Deputy GOC to ensure expeditious movement of troops and myself headed for Jodhpur airfield.

It was a Herculean airlift effort. The first column of troops arrived at the Jodhpur airfield in three hours and were quickly transferred to the waiting aircraft. My party, comprising my ADC and communication personnel, boarded the first aircraft. I had taken the precaution of ensuring that my ‘Gypsy’ vehicle also went along with us. When we were approaching the Ahmedabad air field, I observed that the city was aflame. There were fires burning all over the city.

We landed on a dark and deserted airfield. The Deputy GOC of the lodger formation received me. I asked, ‘Where are the vehicles and other logistic support we had been promised’. He shrugged his shoulders and replied that the state government was making the necessary arrangements. I knew that there was only one way to energise the state government. I asked for a guide to take me to The Chief Minister’s (Mr. Modi) residence at Gandhi Nagar. En route, I was horrified to observe rampaging mobs, burning and pillaging with the police as mute spectators.

I reached the Chief Minister’s residence at 2 am on 1 March and, to my great relief, found the Raksha Mantri (RM) Mr. George Fernandes there. Both were having a late dinner and invited me to join them. I did, but got down to ‘brass tacks ‘. I had a tourist map of Gujarat and I asked for the trouble spots. I also gave out a list of immediate requirements to enable the Army columns to fan out to restore law and order.

What 110 companies of Para Military forces and police could not do was done in 48 hours by six Army Battalions (24 Companies). The situation was quickly brought under control by firm and impartial action, with resolute use of minimum force

I returned to the airfield to check out the arrival of the 60 odd flights of IL 72s and AN30s. By 7am on 1 March, 2002, we had about 3,000 troops landed, but no transport, so they remained at the air field. These were crucial hours lost. Our road columns reached us on 2 March and so did the requisitioned civil trucks, magistrates, police guides and maps.

The situation was highly tense and communally charged. Armed mobs were roaming unrestrained, committing arson and murder. In the urban areas a curfew had been ordered, but not enforced. When columns reached the towns, unruly mobs were freely burning and rioting. At a number of locations people were trapped in buildings/places of worship and were being attacked by mobs. The streets were choked with burning vehicles. Localities had been barricaded to prevent incursions by adversary mobs. These impeded movement of our own Army columns.

Both communities were indulging in pitched battles hurling crude improvised bombs, acid bombs and Molotov cocktails at each other. Extensive damage to property and life, primarily of the minority community, had taken place on 28 Feb '02. The police, initially armed with ‘lathis’, were passive bystanders since orders for issue of rifles had not then been issued. The partisan attitude of the police lay exposed when I observed that when minority populated localities were surrounded by mobs, the police did not fire at the rioters laying siege but into windows of surrounded homes of minorities instead, ostensibly to ‘keep the two rioting communities apart’, as sheepishly explained to me. I did not hesitate to show disapproval at this contemptible and partisan attitude.

Godhra town was extremely tense and the entire city was under curfew. Violence had spread to neighbouring small towns of the district. Property of the minority community and individuals were being systematically targeted and large-scale migration was taking place. The major trouble spots were minority ghettos. Successive communal riots had forced the minority community into walled communes.

The mixed localities had progressively shrunk and exclusive ethnic ghettos, with a ‘siege’ mentality, had sprouted. The roads separating these localities were termed as ‘border’ by both communities and were the ‘fault lines’, along which there was always major violence. The migration of the middle class to ghettos was fraught with danger. Those who had lost everything were ‘ripe for plucking’ by anti-national elements. An unbridgeable communal divide had been created. Pockets of majority dominated areas had been strengthened by building barricades, gates, high rise walls etc. These were portends of future trouble.

In the rural areas, the situation was highly tense and communally charged. These areas were earlier free of communal violence but now were afflicted. Road blocks had been established on rural roads and systematic looting and burning of the vehicles of the minority community was in progress. Marauding Adivasi gangs, from Rajasthan and MP, created mayhem along the areas bordering these two states.

The official figures of deaths and damage do not reflect a true picture of the actual extent of the carnage, especially in the rural areas. Armed mobs were roaming unrestrained, committing arson and murder. The police were totally absent. Our own troops recovered dead bodies from wells and gave them decent burials. At one stage I seriously considered recommending imposition of Martial Law. I was dissuaded from taking this extreme step as it might have been construed as over stepping my mandate.

I visited Godhra along with the RM the next day and we were shown the burnt carriages. I advised the Railways to remove them immediately, but they remained in situ for many months, grim reminders and symbols of human hatred, triggering revulsion and heightening passions by anyone who saw them.

The RM during the visit asked me, in confidence, what steps should be immediately taken. I recommended an immediate overhaul of the Police hierarchy and a Police DG from outside the Gujarat cadre. He agreed with me by saying, ‘You have taken the words out of my mouth’. We waited but there was no change.

Shri KPS Gill was inducted as Security Adviser to the CM of Gujarat on 04 May 02. As always, he hogged the headlines after the task had already been done by the army. There was a feeble attempt at revamping the police and arrest ‘charge sheeters’ and perpetrators of violence because of the clear signal emanating from the Central Govt to the State that restoration of normalcy was essential. The Corps Commander, Lt Gen Hari Prasad, under whom I had now been placed, was most supportive and visited the troops many times. The Army Commander Lt Gen GS Sihota whom I admired and trusted also visited many times to take stock of the situation.

Attempts to get community leaders to come forward and spread the message of amity yielded disappointing results. Our troops performed magnificently and fairly.

One night I got a report that a Commanding Officer, of one of the units in Ahmedabad, was making late night visits to the home of a divorced ‘Ghanchi’ Muslim lady. I asked him to explain his conduct and when I got no satisfactory explanation, I recommended that he be replaced immediately. He was moved out post haste.

I did not know that this would be used as a weapon against me with the insinuation that I myself was involved with that woman and that I resented another officer taking interest in her.

There are several reasons for the uncontrolled violence. The initial reaction of civil administration was tardy. No civil officials could be contacted on the intervening night of 28 Feb/01 Mar 02. The Chief Secretary was abroad and the officiating incumbent, was a non-performer. The initial reception, briefing and provisioning of suitable transport and maps was inadequate and delayed. It required the intervention of the RM to nudge the civil administration into action.

Officials never said ‘No’ but seldom lived up to commitments. The civil administration appeared to lack the resolve to stem the violence. They were reluctant to impose/enforce curfew because it was politically unpopular. Curfew was selective, indicating partiality. The media widely highlighted the involvement of the political hierarchy, in the riots.

A total of 63 companies of State Reserve Police were also available. The police attitude and, in most cases, their absence during crucial periods, was inextricably linked to the community to which they belonged.

The police, as has always happened in communal riots all over the country, was blatantly partisan and abdicated its responsibility of dealing with majority community mobs to the Army. It was observed that on several occasions police melted away when faced with majority community rioters, ostensibly on the excuse that they were called away to deal with another situation elsewhere.

The higher police hierarchy was totally politicised and virtually divided on political lines. A large number of assertive officers were occupying non-consequential appointments. A further blow to police morale was inflicted, by the reported reshuffle and large scale transfer of police officers who had dealt firmly with rioters. There had been an erosion of authority of senior officers with undue importance being given to Station House Officers (JCO equivalent).

These junior police officers had become a law unto themselves, taking directions from ‘up’ instead of their chain of command. Small police outposts had no logistic back up and were dependent, for meals, on neighbouring majority pockets, which contributed to undermining neutrality.

Over a period of time the police hierarchy had become bloated and top heavy. There was a surfeit of DIGs, IGs, Addl DGs and DGs and very few middle level officers like SPs, DSPs, ASPs to enforce security measures. This also skewed the working equations, to the detriment of the Army.

Police stations were manned by IG level officers and young army majors and captains were in a quandary dealing with them. The worst blot on the police was targeting minority members of the force itself. Newspaper reports indicated that houses of the few minority community members residing in the Police Lines, were burnt.

The Home Guards, being part of the population of the area and even more politicised than the police, were totally ineffective. They were passive observers, and in many instances the very instigators of violence. It was reported that most of the 25 Home Guard Commandants were primary members of Right-Wing organisations. The services of 2000 Home Guards were de-requisitioned by the State Government on 09 Apr 02. They were clearly more of a nuisance.

Restoration of the Rule of Law was the mandate given to the Army. The guideline, before committing Army troops, is to compel the civil administration to first employ all police resources at their disposal. The partisan attitude of the police, however, compelled the Army to be employed and sometimes take proactive measures, on several occasions. The civil magistrates, accompanying the troops, were most supportive of these actions taken to prevent wanton bloodshed.

What 110 companies of Para Military forces and police could not do was done in 48 hours by six Army Battalions (24 Companies). The situation was quickly brought under control by firm and impartial action, with resolute use of minimum force.

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