My heart sank when I saw pictures of burning bogies of Sabarmati Express, spread over front pages of almost all the mainstream Indian newspapers, on the morning of February 29, 2002. Mangled bodies of Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya presented a gory spectacle. In the editorial sections, there was rage written all over. Even a generally sensitive Vir Sanghvi, editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times, ranted and raved. Apparently, Muslims of Godhra town in Gujarat had set the train on fire. In Aligarh Muslim University, where I was studying economics at the time, a sense of foreboding was looming. Aligarh had seen one of the worst riots only a decade back, scars of which had yet not healed, and the city, spatially divided into less than clear-cut Hindu and Muslim enclaves, always stood on the brink.
The classes looked deserted; Hindu students kept away from the largely Muslim campus; Muslim students were advised not to visit Hindu areas. The night was tense; there was talk of forming night vigil parties, since rumors of Hindu mobs attacking outlying Muslim areas were flying thick. Provost’s office of our hostel was witnessing frenzied activity; wardens visited all the rooms to check if everyone was back. I stood outside my hostel the entire night, standing with senior students, keeping watch. The morning came late. The newspaperman, a Hindu called Anil, came very late, and dropped newspapers at the hostel gate, and scurried away on his cycle.
There had been only a few stray incidents in Aligarh the day before; Gujarat was burning, though. Muslims in Ahmedabad had been attacked, dozens had been massacred. Many women had been raped and killed, and their bodies were strewn across the streets.
I wanted to go home; it was safer there, in Kashmir. My parents were very worried; they called me up every few hours. They told me to stay put. In 1992 riots, after Babri Mosque demolition, a young Kashmiri boy (who was from my school in the Valley) had left the campus for home with his brother, and on the way he was pulled down from the train, and stabbed to death. His brother escaped; a Hindu couple told the mob that he was their son. I remember I was in fourth standard then, and back home we had organized a big condolence meeting.
Over the next few days, we would hear names of places like Narodia Patia, Best Bakery… Horrifying stories about the communal pogrom kept trickling in from Gujarat the entire March, and till mid-April. Liberal intelligentsia had woken up to this new phenomenon where the state government was complicit in the violence against its own citizens. Vir Sanghvi’s of India were now feeling appalled. Media persons from New Delhi made sorties to affected areas, bringing back more tales.
In AMU, students wanted to bring out a communal harmony march. The University authorities were nervous. They sent in its own special police to prevent any such effort. Why would they oppose a harmony march! Next, students wanted to collect money for the victims. It was also stalled. There was a deathly silence all over. Our Parzania had become suffocating. However, Aligarh maintained its peace; and in the end only seven people were lynched in the streets.
In the afternoon today, we went to watch Parzania in a theatre, but the tickets were sold out. So we spent time outside Barista discussing adolescence and adulthood over coffee, and silky wafts of smoke. Five years have passed since Gujarat Riots. The angst of those uncertain times has trailed off. Broken lives have begun afresh.