Khambhat violence: Residents recall 2002 riots as communal clashes erupt in Gujarat town

Devparna Acharya

On 23 February, when Rubina* and her mother left for her aunt's home in the main town of Khambhat, Gujarat, they confronted an unnerving sight: the presence of hundreds of men in the narrow maze-like lanes, their faces obscured with handkerchiefs. Some had lathis, others machetes and iron rods. By the time Rubina and her mother reached the aunt's residence in Akbarpur, they saw the men on the roads gathering stones and passing them along among the crowd.

"We stay on the outskirts, away from the commotion, so miss a lot of stuff that goes around here. But my aunt lives in the heart of Khambhat, in Akbarpur, right opposite the Jama Masjid," Rubina explained, in a telephonic interview with Firstpost.

What followed was hours of terror as violence was unleashed on the streets of this sleepy, old coastal town in Gujarat's Anand district. Sunday's clashes spilled over into the week, continuing for the next three days as Khambhat reeled under the onslaught. Akbarpur, according to the residents, was the epicenter of the violence.

[imgcenter][/imgcenter]

k2

(In these images: The aftermath of the 23 February violence in Khambhat. Images procured by Devparna Acharya)

[imgcenter][/imgcenter]

k8

Blaming the clashes on local "demographic changes", the Bharatiya Janata Party government imposed the Disturbed Areas Act €" aimed at preventing distress sale of properties in communally-sensitive areas €" in some parts of the town.

A resident of Khambhat told Firstpost that Sunday's violence was a continuation of a flare-up that occurred several days earlier, on the preceding Thursday (20 February). "Unidentified 'rioters' looted around 25-30 households in the Bhavsarwad area near the main town," the resident said. A Hindu-majority area, Bhavsarwad boasts of a privileged, upper class Hindu demographic, "many of them NRIs and very well-to-do".

***

On Sunday, Rubina's family were just sitting down for lunch, a little after noon, when stones were thrown at the house. "It was not just us. Everyone around us was panicking. We did not know what was happening and we didn't dare step out. That's when the shots were fired."

Rubina recalls that seven gunshots were fired; however, it was impossible to know whether it was the police or the mob firing the shots as the family was "too scared to even peep out of our windows".

"The scene on the streets was horrifying," said Rubina. "Muslim homes in the main market area were on fire. Shopping carts were toppled, markets were destroyed, property was burnt. It was terrible."

Helping Rubina and some other Muslim families in the vicinity in Akbarpur was 52-year-old engineer and Khambhat resident Arshad Khan*, who rushed to their homes and asked them to leave immediately. "He told us to go home right away, describing the situation outside as a ticking time bomb," said Rubina.

[imgcenter][/imgcenter]

k1

(In these images: Residents of Khambhat said that unprecendented violence followed after the looting incident at Bhavsarwad. Images procured by Devparna Acharya)

[imgcenter][/imgcenter]

k5

Speaking with Firstpost over a phone call, Arshad said that Sunday's violence was sudden and escalated in no time. "Curfew and communal riots are a daily affair in Khambhat. But this was something which reminded us of 2002," he said.

According to Arshad and other witnesses' accounts, after rioters had looted the houses in Bhavsarwad area on 20 February, a crowd headed by Hindu leaders rallied against Muslims on Sunday, especially near the Akbarpur area of Khambhat.

"Danga log nahi karte. Hum dekhte hain. Neta karwate hain aur phir humhise poochte hain (Residents don't riot on their own. We are just spectators. It's the politicians who instigate these riots and then they turn around and ask us)," Arshad told Firstpost.

***

According to the 2011 Census, the total population of Khambhat is just over 99,000. There are 72,270 Hindu families in Khambhat €" about 72.88 percent of the population. Muslims households, numbering 23,670, account for 23.87 percent.

Vulnerable residents are easy pawns for politicians. After the Bhavsarwad looting incident, as the populace was on edge and rumour mongering peaked, that's when the polarising elements struck, residents said.

Few political parties have succeeded in polarising the polity in the way the BJP €" which has been in power in Gujarat for 25 years €" has, says political analyst and psephologist Sanjay Kumar. "Every political party has a leaning and they do side with communities for electoral gains. But the ruling party has taken this to a new level," Kumar told Firstpost.

[imgcenter][/imgcenter]

k3

(In these images: The aftermath of the 23 February violence in Khambhat. Images procured by Devparna Acharya)

[imgcenter][/imgcenter]

k4

On Tuesday, between 5,000-8,000 people gathered near the main Tower area, or city centre, in Khambhat. Arif Shekh, a journalist who extensively covered the riots for a local TV channel, said that the Hindu Jagran Manch organised the rally to condemn the Bhavsarwad looting incident. Two prominent local BJP leaders even addressed the crowd. Khambhat BJP leader and former MLA Sanjay Patel and Khambhat city unit head of the BJP Pinakin Brahmbhatt allegedly raised religious slogans.

Witnesses say the rally called for all Muslim families to be ousted from Khambhat. "Muslims were told to leave town by Tuesday afternoon or their homes would be burnt," Arshad's brother, Aftab*, told Firstpost. "In a small town like Khambhat, if thousands of people gather in the city centre and Hindu leaders chant 'Jai Shri Ram' and demand the removal of Muslims, imagine its impact on those who don't belong to the majority community," Aftab said.

At least seven FIRs have been registered in Khambhat police station since Sunday, including against Patel, Brahmbhatt, members of the Hindu Jagran Manch, and some local councilors.

Patel and others were accused of breaching a notification issued by the district magistrate imposing prohibitory orders restricting movement of groups. The FIR, registered at Khambhat city police station under the Gujarat Police Act, alleges that the accused made provocative speeches. "In all, 84 persons have been arrested in seven FIRs lodged in connection with communal clashes that followed the bandh call on Tuesday," Inspector General of Police (Ahmedabad range) AK Jadeja said.

After three days of unabated riots and fear mongering, the situation in Khambhat was controlled only on Wednesday. At least five police officers are facing action: following the riots, the Gujarat home department transferred Anand SP Makrand Chauhan and Khambhat's Deputy SP Reema Munshi. Three police inspectors were also shunted out with immediate effect. Firstpost reached newly-appointed SP Ajit Raijan for comment, but did not receive a response.

[imgcenter][/imgcenter]

k6

Sanjay Patel called the FIR against him baseless and said those looted in Bhavsarwad had asked for help. "They were looted and they wanted help. They came to us and told us to get them justice." When asked what he meant by "us", as the rally was organised by Hindu Jagran Manch and Patel is a BJP member, he said, "Haan€¦ unhiko. BJP ko nahi." Calling the rally peaceful and successful, Patel said that the BJP was only trying to help the citizens who were looted. "We only want the attackers to be arrested. See, the condition in Khambhat is completely peaceful now."

***

Communal flare ups are not a rare occurrence in Khambhat. One local noted, "In the last 15 years, there have been at least 12 riots, if not more." Still, Sunday's events felt different. Residents said the intensity and vehemence of the rioters and the subsequent "calls for revenge" by the Hindu group were terrifying.

Rubina, who was visiting her family for the weekend, termed the happenings in Khambhat an extension of occurrences in the rest of the country. The fear, she said, was palpable. "Our aunt wanted us to leave immediately on Sunday when we first heard of the riots. My brother, who does not live in India, got calls from his friends here, instructing him to take our mother out of the city. We immediately moved her to another relative's home in Ahmedabad. We have never had to leave the city before," she said.

[imgcenter][/imgcenter]

k7

The violence in Khambhat comes at a time when Delhi is reeling under communal riots after Hindu and Muslim protesters clashed over the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens.

"The similarities between the two incidents are hard to ignore. Rioters who started looting (in Khambhat) were outsiders. Most locals have vouched for it. They all said that they had not seen these men before. Reports from Delhi are similar. Locals are saying they have never seen these men before. Who is bringing in these people and why?" Arif Shekh, the Khambhat-based journalist, said.

Arif says for every 250 Muslim households in Khambhat, there would be 1,000 Hindu ones. But "it's not the ratio that complicates issues, it's the lack of education and means of livelihood. There are activists who are trying to spread awareness about education. But it is very easy to manipulate a hungry and a poor society," he says.

Khambhat's population is majorly made up of the Chunara community €" an ethnic group comprising both Hindus and Muslims. "Lekin un logon mein bhaichara nahi hai (There is no brotherhood between them)," says Arif. "It is all about survival and where will the next meal come from. This is the biggest tool in the hands of the politicians."

*Names have been changed to protect identities

With additional inputs from Sonal Kellogg

Also See: Amit Shah blames Opposition for Delhi violence, says Congress spreading misinformation about CAA and inciting communal riots

Delhi violence: Kapil Mishra joins peace march in Jantar Mantar amid allegations of inciting communal clashes that claimed 42 lives

Uneasy calm in parts of northeast Delhi after two days of violence claim 27 lives; journalists, police personnel among injured

Read more on long-reads by Firstpost.