It was on the afternoon of 27 February 2002 that I learnt from my sales executives about the fire in the S-6 bogie of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra.
A day before, I had returned from Godhra and my executives were planning to visit the town for work. By evening, the news spread and a sense of uncertainty hung over Ahmedabad.
I used to stay at a working men’s hostel in Thaltej, a kilometre from my office. The hostel was located at a secluded place and had just one housing society next to it.
Two people from the housing society, who were travelling in the Sabarmati Express on that fateful day, were missing.
The Mob Approaches
Ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh’s show was scheduled for the night and the roads had begun to wear a deserted look. The concert went off without any problems. But rumours were already swirling about a strong retaliation to the train burning.
On 28 February, a bandh was declared, but we still went to office as we had to close sales.We had hardly started work when suddenly someone spotted smoke billowing from the nearby Tata Teleservices office.
We spotted a mob of around 200 people rushing towards our office. Work was dismissed for the day and everyone was out within ten minutes. I was to commute towards the approaching mob, so I waited for a while.
Soon after, I left office on my motorcycle. By then, another mob had reached the Landmark Honda City showroom opposite my office and broken open the entrance gates.
When we returned to the place later in the evening, 36 Honda City cars had been reduced to ashes.
To reach the hostel, I had to take the highway. I had almost reached the square from where I would take a right turn when I was faced with a situation that lefy me shaken me and shattered my faith in everything good.
A group of four people armed with rods stopped me by holding the grab rail of my motorbike. They stood in front of me as if I was to be blamed for all that was happening.
One of them, who seemed to be the unofficial leader, told me to take off my helmet and then directed another man to question me.
A flurry of questions followed: “Kya jaat (jaat refers to caste, but in this case he meant religion) ka hai be tu, kya naam hai tera? (What is your religion? What is your name?)”
'He Is a Hindu, Let Him Go'
Then another man came forward and unbuttoned my shirt’s collar to check if I was wearing something underneath. He then came to the conclusion, “Hindu hi hai (He is a Hindu)”.
The other one still insisted on knowing my name. I gathered all my courage to question why they were asking me this, though I knew it well.
It was then that their leader shouted, “Saale pe time waste mat karo, jaane do isko (Don’t waste your time on him, let him go).”
I was left shocked. How could someone ask me such questions?
Though I spent the rest of the day playing cricket in our hostel, it was only by the next day that I could stop thinking of the incident. By that night, about 300 houses belonging to the minority community had been gutted.
In my boss’ locality, who was a Hindu and lived in a neighbourhood that had a fair number of Muslim homes, every second building was on fire.
Waiting for the Mob
On 1 March, an all-India bandh had been called and we were hoping that things would turn normal. But that was not the case. We ventured out on our bikes that evening and shockingly, so many places that once represented Ahmedabad did not exist anymore.
You’d understand if you know the city of Ahmedabad. The restaurant near Swastik Square. Kabir Restaurant near Drive-in Road. Sunflower Restaurant at Vastrapur. Navjivan at Vijay Square, Hotel Signor. And many other establishments, all owned by Muslims, had been burnt down.
Some 100 houses in Naroda Patiya, Jamalpura and other areas were charred. That night, we received threatening calls and rumours spread of large mobs moving towards our area.
People from the neighbouring society asked us to be prepared. The 25-odd residents of our hostel gathered sticks, rods, bricks, stones and whatever we could get our hands on. We kept our ‘weapons’ on the terrace and remained awake the whole night.
Living in Fear
We were a bunch of frightened first-year engineering students who had to keep a close vigil.
We would take turns to hold a steel plate and a stick to make noise if we felt there was something suspicious.
You can stop a crowd of 15-20 people. But when it starts throwing petrol bombs or torched sticks, there is very little you can do. This fear was eating all of us and we were prepared for such an eventuality, knowing well that our religion will not save us.
People in a mob cease to belong to any particular religion and the weapon they make use of – fire – is known to be ‘secular’ in causing destruction.
When Educated Youth Hurled Petrol Bombs
It is generally said that people from the upper strata are usually not a part of such incidents. But this time, there was no class difference.
When a final-year engineering student from our locality boasted of his achievements by showing off his loot (expensive shoes, a CD player, etc) and the petrol bombs he flung at buildings, we began to wonder – can education ever wipe away caste and religion differences from our society?
I knew the government and police will fight off all accusations of showing any bias towards the rioters.But the fact remains that destruction on such a massive scale would’ve never been possible without their sanction.
'Only Four Stabbings a Day’
The curfew was later relaxed in Old Ahmedabad and one of my friends had called to tell me that the situation has drastically improved – with only four stabbings a day.
I didn’t blame her for the way she described the situation; it only reflected the extent to which the situation had deteriorated.
At the time, my company had made in charge of the north Gujarat region, which was mostly rural.
But theses places, like Mehsana, Himmatnagar, Patan and Palanpur, were now constantly under curfew. This had brought my work to a standstill.
Just a year ago, the people of this same region had gone out of their way to help each other in coping with the aftermath of the earthquake. However, they succumbed had now succumbed to the ‘human quake’.
Fifteen years after the Sabarmati Express was set ablaze in Godhra, sparking communal riots in Gujarat, The Quint is publishing this personal account written a few days after the violence.
(The writer is Senior Vice President in a leading mobile handset manufacturing company and can be reached @sandeepdongre20. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)