When the BJP shocked India with its landslide victory in the December 2002 election, analysts needed only to point to a single word as an answer for the victory – Godhra. The town was an anonymous railway depot until February 27, 2002, when a Muslim mob set fire to railway cars filled with Hindu pilgrims returning from the controversial temple at Ayodhya, killing 58.
The incident sparked huge riots across Gujarat. Muslim neighbourhoods burned while sword- and stick-wielding Hindus rampaged, looted and raped. In many cases, police forces allegedly stood by and watched. The official count death count reached almost one thousand, more than two thirds of them Muslim, while hundreds of thousands more were displaced.
Gujarat’s BJP chief minister Narendra Modi earned the moniker “Muslim killer” for standing idly by as the violence continued. Just after the NGO Human Rights Watch reported Gujarat state officials “were directly involved” in the killings and that they were engaged in a “massive cover-up of the state’s role in the violence”, parliament attempted to censure the BJP government. Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee apologized for not having “tried harder” to end the riots and announced a $31 million rehabilitation package.
Still, following a campaign filled with Hindutva rhetoric pledging to “to prevent” another Godhra, a blatant attempt to amass Hindu votes amid a climate of ethnic tension, Modi went on to secure a landslide win in the next election and has remained in power ever since, becoming Gujarat’s longest-serving chief minister and continuing to try to block prosecution of the rioters.
In 2004, however, following protests against biased state authorities, the Supreme Court ordered more investigation into the riots, calling for a re-opening of more than two thousand dismissed cases. Just months before the 2007 state elections, respected magazine Tehelka published secretly filmed footage of senior Gujarati Hindu politicians, mainly from the BJP, describing their own active involvement in fanning the riots. The report alleged that Modi allowed the violence to continue unabated, ordered the police to side with Hindu rioters and sheltered the perpetrators from justice. Still, he was again resoundingly re-elected, and his name has subsequently been thrown about as a possible 2014 candidate for prime minister.
At last, in 2011, dozens of those guilty of the Godhra fire were convicted and sentenced, and in 2012, hundreds more of the rioters were convicted, including a former state minister, the first political implication in the post-Godhra riots.
For an in-depth account of the post-Godhra violence and the causes behind it, read Ward Berenschot’s Riot Politics: India’s Communal Violence and the Everyday Mediation of the State (2012).