On February 27, 2002, the Sabarmati express train arrived in the station of Godhra, in the state of Gujarat, bearing a large group of Hindu pilgrims who were returning from the alleged birthplace of the god Rama at Ayodhya (where some years earlier, angry Hindu mobs had destroyed the Babri mosque, which they claim is on top of the remains of Rama’s birthplace). The pilgrimage, like many others in recent times, aimed at forcibly constructing a temple over the disputed site, and the mood of the returning passengers, frustrated in their aims by the government and the courts, was angrily emotional. When the train stopped at the station, passengers got into arguments with Muslim vendors and passengers. At least one Muslim vendor was beaten up when he refused to say “Jai Sri Ram” (“Hail Ram”), and a young Muslim girl narrowly escaped forcible abduction. As the train left the station, stones were thrown at it, apparently by Muslims.
Fifteen minutes later, one car of the train erupted in flames. Fifty-eight men, women, and children died in the fire. Most were Hindus. Attempts to determine what really happened by reconstructing the event have shown only that a large amount of a flammable substance must have been thrown from inside the train. We will never know who threw it. Because the area adjacent to the tracks contained Muslim dwellings, and because a Muslim mob had gathered in the region to protest the treatment of Muslims on the train platform, blame was immediately put on Muslims. (One former chief minister of Gujarat, Amarsinh Chaudhary, argued that the blaze was set by Hindu nationalists. Many others agree, especially in light of later evidence that the subsequent rioting had been elaborately prepared.) No evidence has been found linking alleged Muslim perpetrators to any organized movement or group.
In the days that followed, wave upon wave of violence swept through the state. The attackers were Hindus, many of them highly politicized, shouting Hindu-right slogans, such as “Jai Sri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” (an aggressive monkey god), along with “Kill!” “Destroy!” “Slaughter!” There is copious evidence that the violence was planned before the precipitating event. The victims were almost all Muslims (with an occasional Christian or Parsi thrown in). There was no connection between victims and the alleged perpetrators; attacks took place, for the most part, far from the original site. Many families of the original dead implored the mobs to stop the violence. Nonetheless, more than two thousand Muslims were killed in a few days, many by being burned alive in or near their homes. Nobody was spared: young children were immolated along with their families.
Particularly striking were the mass rapes and mutilations of women. Typically, a woman would be raped or gang-raped, often with gruesome tortures, and then set on fire a...
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