Ten years ago…

Yashwant Sinha had called the day a defining moment in Indian history.

He probably had no idea how right he was going to be, eventually. Sinha, then Union minister for finance in the NDA government in 2002, was presenting the national budget — and, even as he spoke, unbelievable reports from Godhra were filtering in and the Gujarat riots were breaking out.

I was then the Chief of Bureau at the Hindustan Times’s Bombay bureau (we launched the edition only three years later in 2005). Our correspondent in Gujarat had just proceeded on leave and we could not track him down in a hurry. So we decided to dispatch correspondents from the Bombay bureau to Gujarat – they were in a position to reach Godhra and Ahmedabad sooner than most others from other parts of the country.

They left in the clothes they were wearing (and had to live in them for the rest of the month as by then riots had well and truly broken out and all shops shut down for weeks). I recall one of the two correspondents was worried about the dog he had locked up in his bachelor’s pad and we sent someone over to rescue the animal, asking him to rest at ease since he would be back in a couple of days.

How wrong we were – it took him days and days and when he returned, I could see he was in trauma. His dog, by then, was the least of his worries.

VB was among the first correspondents from outside Gujarat to have reached Baroda en route to Godhra. And, in the manner of all good reporters, had decided to visit the main mosque in that city for the Friday afternoon prayers before going onward to the city where the train had been burned down.

I thought he might have gone missing when I could not track him down for hours that day – and when he called that evening, both he and I were blown out of our minds.

“I do not know what happened to me,’’ he said. “My brains have only just begun to work again.’’

He had been sipping tea outside the mosque as the namaaz finished and was waiting for the worshippers to pour out. He made nothing of the heavily armed police bundobast outside the mosque believing it to be normal deployment in such troubled times. Then, even as the first namaazi stepped out and he stepped forward to speak to the man, he found a bullet whizzing past him and a fraction of a second later the namaazi was lying dead on the street outside the mosque.

VB thought that might have been an accident but then he found bullets whizzing in just one direction – from the cops towards the mosque and the street was littered with bodies within seconds. He was sharp enough to realise what was happening but stupid enough not to know that he must not give his identity away. So he whipped out his notebook to write down what he was witnessing.

That was enough provocation for those who looked like Vishwa Hindu Parishad workers, hanging around with the cops. These guys, as VB told me, were armed with all sorts of non-firearms like swords, choppers, butcher knives, et al. They lunged for VB even as he ran for his life.

“I did not know where I was going with those pack of wolves gaining upon me. When I came to, I found myself in a near-by hospital, hiding under the bed of a patient in one of the wards.’’

Apparently, even as he was running for his life, his mind switched off and his responses were automatic. “Those armed men followed me into hospital but probably did not have courage to enter the wards. I could hear the ruckus they were making. Then, after sometime, the noises died down and all went quiet. I could make out just that much even as I was shaking with fear and did not quite know where I was.’’

It took an hour or more for the numbness of both mind and body to disappear and, even as he crawled out from under the bed, he knew he had had a lucky escape while something very horrible had happened in town. He found his way back to his hotel and called me. “The town will soon be under curfew. Even otherwise, I think all the cyber cafes would be shut. Can you take down my report?’’

Traumatised as he was, his report was brilliant — and chilling. I had no reason to disbelieve his eyewitness account because only a decade earlier during the 1992-93 Bombay riots, in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, I had seen, with my own eyes, a city corporator, a woman, in a pitched battle with other rioters, shot down in cold blood by the police on duty. VB’s story brought a sense of déjà vu and my fingers moved slowly on the notepad as I found my blood curdling for the second time in ten years.

Our troubles began when I sent the story across to my New Delhi office. That the then Resident Editor disbelieved the account was bad enough but that the then State’s Coordinator asked us to provide some proof – like the names, ages, professions and localities of those shot down in cold blood and, incredibly, the names of the cops doing the shooting – by now unfroze my blood and had it boiling at 100C, with me hopping mad, screaming like a banshee and making as much noise as a skeleton on a hot tin roof.

I had cut my milk teeth in journalism on riots and massacres and was simply incredulous that others could believe that a reporter in the field was making up such an enormous story (though it was understandable, for it beggared belief then that cops could be deliberately targeting Muslims in the way they obviously did in Gujarat). As we argued all evening, even past the deadline, and VB began to receive calls from the coordinator, his traumatised mind could take it no longer – he ran out into the curfew to escape the calls (he did not have a reachable cell phone at the time) and stayed away from his hotel all night.

I stayed in my office, locking myself in, all alone, through the dark night, worried and desperately calling his hotel every half hour or so, until he crept back in at 5am. “How dare you risk this!’’ I screamed at him in relief when he returned my calls. “It is bad enough that you almost got killed yesterday but how could you deliberately invite trouble in a town under curfew? I almost died thinking about how I would face your parents had anything happened to you and I could never have forgiven myself for sending you out into that danger!’’

But he was calmer and beginning to accept the reality of the situation. “I just couldn’t take the questions any more,’’ he said. “Don’t worry, God is with me or I would have been killed by those goons yesterday itself. But last night I simply could not take those questions and queries for clarifications any more.’’

Needless to say, the paper missed carrying the story in the Saturday morning editions but I did not leave office for home until much later that afternoon – for it was now my turn to badger and convince the Sunday editor to, at the least, carry the story in some form in his edition, even if it was buried inside and toned down in drama and content.

I had better luck with him and even though he was a little cynical about the events being reported, it made the papers on Sunday. National television anchors hit Gujarat that morning and began reporting exactly the same stories from all over the state. The areas were different but the actors were the same – cops and VHP workers as perpetrators of killings and rapes, Muslims all over as helpless victims.

As the riots seemed to go on endlessly I asked the reporter why the army, which had been called out by then after enormous delay, was not able to control the violence. “In my experience, they are usually able to bring things under control within a couple of days. What’s going on here?’’

“The Gujarat police is playing fast and loose with them,’’ said VB. “They do not know the topography and the cops who do deliberately direct them into the wrong lanes and blind alleys. They take too long to find the locations and by then much of the violence and killings are over and done with.’’

“Write that story,’’ I told him. But I knew I had another battle on hand, convincing the disbelievers that he was right again.

But soon, a very senior and respected colleague from Delhi, Vinod Sharma, landed in Ahmedabad even as our regular correspondent cut short his vacation and hot-footed it back to Gujarat. No one could now disbelieve anyone. Vinod’s reports corroborated what the Bombay bureau had been reporting out of Gujarat for days. He took them under his wing and I could sit back and relax.

And, by then, the television channels were already recording these defining moments in Indian history.

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