'Passage from India': Hindu nationalists linked to atrocities

  • A stunned Shajahan Sheikh, 18, listens as her mother asks "Who will take her now?" referring to the scars she wears across her face after she was burned during the 2002 riots in Ahmedabad.  She recovers from the riots in a Muslim resettlement area, known as Faizal Row House, outside of Ahmedabad.

    A stunned Shajahan Sheikh, 18, listens as her mother asks "Who will take her now?" referring to the scars she wears across her face after she was burned during the 2002 riots in Ahmedabad. She recovers from the riots in a Muslim resettlement area, known as Faizal Row House, outside of Ahmedabad. M. Scott Mahaskey / Daily Herald, 2003

By Rukmini Callimachi
Updated 3/11/2017 9:51 PM

Editor's note: This story is republished from a 2003 series, "Passage from India," by former Daily Herald reporter Rukmini Callimachi. She traveled to the country with M. Scott Mahaskey, a former photographer for the newspaper.

AHMEDABAD, Gujarat -- In his last hour, witnesses say, Ahsan Jafri knew he would not leave his house alive and so he delivered himself to the mob.


Already, houses all around his bungalow were in flames.

Jafri, this city's 74-year-old Muslim statesman, had provided refuge inside his two-story residence to more than 150 of his Muslim neighbors. When the Hindu mob turned violent, the Muslims took cover inside, thinking no harm would come to a retired member of the Indian parliament -- even if he was a Muslim.

It was Feb. 28, 2002, a day after Muslims armed with stones and kerosene set four train cars on fire in Godhra, trapping the passengers inside. Fifty-eight Hindus were burned alive, including more than a dozen children. Dozens of others were horribly scarred.

The train was carrying hundreds of Hindu activists returning from a pilgrimage to the city of Ayodhya, where in 1992, hard-line Hindus tore down a 475-year-old Muslim mosque, claiming it stood on the birthplace of the god Ram.

As relief workers gingerly untangled the limbs of the charred bodies on that February day, Hindu mobs erupted in a frenzy of vengeance.

Now, reportedly 10,000 circled Jafri's home, chanting his name. When repeated calls to the police brought no help, some who survived said, Jafri decided to sacrifice himself in the hope others would be spared.

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He walked onto his doorstep. The mob demanded he say "Jai Shri Ram," or "Victory to Lord Ram," one of the gods in the Hindu pantheon.

When he refused, they cut off his hands.

Survivors said the attackers wore saffron bandanas, the signature orange color of Hindu nationalism, which holds that because most Indians are Hindu, India should be a Hindu nation. They carried tridents, the three-pronged weapon of Shiva, the god of destruction.

The mob asked Jafri again to honor their god. Again he refused, and they cut off his legs.

When he declined a third time, the mob cut him down his middle and dragged his body into the street.

There, they set him on fire on a road 10 miles from the ashram where half a century ago, Mohandas K. Gandhi perfected his doctrine of nonviolence.

After killing Jafri, the mob set fire to his house. At least 40 Muslims died.


Ahsan Jafri has become the icon of the three-day rampage in which at least 2,000 Muslims were killed while another 100,000 became homeless, according to the U.S. State Department's 2002 human rights report on India. About 20,000 Muslim businesses were destroyed, said India's Concerned Citizen's Tribunal.

Unlike the Godhra murders, which a Human Rights Watch investigation said appeared to be spontaneous violence, there was evidence the three-day attack on Muslims was premeditated, the report said. That opinion was echoed by India's National Human Rights Commission and the Concerned Citizen's Tribunal, the latter a commission of mostly retired Indian supreme court judges.

Mobs organized into "militia-like units" that fanned out across the state and carried printouts identifying addresses of Muslim homes and businesses, researchers said.

Moreover, Smita Narula, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and a Hindu, believes the violence against Muslims was masterminded by a family of Hindu nationalist organizations, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which all fall under the umbrella of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. The National Human Rights Commission concurs.

International outrage over the Gujarat violence was swift. In the United States, a federal agency commissioned by Congress recommended India be placed on the list of Countries of Particular Concern.

Members of the RSS during a shakha in Pune.
Members of the RSS during a shakha in Pune. - M. Scott Mahaskey / Daily Herald, 2003

Meanwhile, scholars and non-nationalist Hindus in the United States increasingly are concerned about the proliferation of RSS branches in this country, known here as the HSS, called shakhas. In 1991, there was just one shakha in the United States; now, there are more than 50, according to the HSS Web site.

There is no evidence that connects the nationalist movement in the United States with the violence in Gujarat. But scholars, many of them Hindu, say local nationalists help support an atmosphere of hate -- both ideologically and financially -- in the mother country.

Two local shakhas meet weekly in Schaumburg and Wheeling while a third Chicago-area shakha is being formed, organizers say.

The Hindu Students Council, the HSS student wing, holds meetings at Northwestern University and the Illinois Institute of Technology. Their foremost symbol is the saffron flag, posted at every meeting.

Before the Ahmedabad mob dispersed, it planted a saffron flag in the courtyard of Gulbarg Society, the subdivision that Ahsan Jafri had built as a refuge for Muslims everywhere.

Suburban saffron

"Just seeing it fills you with joy," said Vasant Pandav, 59, president of the Chicago-area HSS, referring to the orange-hued flag that has just been posted on a portable stand inside the Schaumburg Park District Community Center.

It's early on a Sunday morning, and 19 members of the local HSS, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, are playing a traditional game called kabbadi, which resembles team tag.

The flag is orange, Pandav said, because that is the color of the sun at dawn. It is a symbol of Hinduism meant to dispel ignorance, just as the morning sun dispels the darkness of night.

Members like Shridhar Damle reject the idea that they promote an atmosphere of hate. Damle, of Villa Park, is a member of the local HSS and co-author of an authoritative account of the organization, "The Brotherhood in Saffron."

"Our function is to organize Hindu society in America," Damle said. "We do not have time or energy to think about other things.

"Our motto is 'The whole universe is one family,' so there is no room for hating each other."

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the "National Volunteer Corps," was founded in India in 1925, two decades before India won independence from Britain. India is a secular state, but the RSS holds that Hindus, 81 percent of India's 1 billion population, are the rightful heirs of the subcontinent.

In India, young men meet daily in the early hours before dawn and salute the saffron flag. They partake in games, drills and discussions.

On this Sunday in Schaumburg, families are nearing the end of a 1 -hour session. They gather in a half-moon on the floor.

"For all of history, Hindus have been kicked around and bullied," Pandav said, opening the discussion. "We need to unite so no one can beat us around. What are the latest examples of this?"

The group mentions Maxim, the men's magazine that ridiculed Gandhi in a recent cartoon. It sparked an online campaign, forcing the editors to apologize. There's also the Seattle manufacturer who made a line of toilet seats embellished with Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction.

"Should we take this kind of insult lying down? No!" said Pandav. "A thousand protest e-mails were sent. This is what we can do if there is unity."

Pandav, who immigrated to Illinois in 1965 and lives in Downers Grove, says the suburban shakhas promote Hindu unity and pride in their heritage. Most of the attendees say they joined to reconnect with the homeland they miss.

"English is the language of instruction in India. I grew up reading the Hardy Boys," said Saurabh Jang, 29, a former member of the Schaumburg shakha who came to Hoffman Estates in 1996. "I always felt that I didn't have a firm enough grounding in my own culture."

Second-generation members like Ami Soni, 16, who was born in Libertyville, see it as a kind of Hindu Sunday school.

"There's a lot of things I didn't know, like why does Ganesh have a trunk? Or why does Hanuman have the face of a monkey?" the Mundelein High School junior said.

Hinduism, the world's third-largest religion, with 900 million practitioners, is a polytheistic faith with several thousand gods. It has no single sacred text, nor does it prescribe a single moral way of life. "Just as all rivers lead to the sea, eventually all paths lead to God" is a common Hindu saying that implies it is among the world's most tolerant religions.

But scholars in the United States say the nationalist Hindu groups, however benign they may seem, support bigotry.

"Americans should be concerned. Any religious organization that promotes what could be construed as bigotry is undesirable in this country," said Sumit Ganguly, a professor of Indian culture at the University of Texas and a Hindu. "They seem benign, but they're not. They extol Hindu virtues in a way which denigrates other faiths."

Supporters of Hindu nationalism in the Chicago area are only a fraction of the nearly 125,000 Indian immigrants living here. According to Pandav, the greater Chicago HSS chapter has 50 active members and 3,000 supporters.

Many Hindu immigrants are suspicious of nationalist groups, said Padma Rangaswamy of Clarendon Hills, author of "Namaste America." One local temple declined to host a VHP function, she said.

"Most of the established religious institutions here want to separate themselves from extremist elements," she said. "The majority of Indians here don't even know they hold shakhas."

Chicago-based scholar Lise McKean, author of "Divine Enterprise, Gurus and the Hindu Nationalist Movement," said she fears the nationalists in this country "are creating another generation led to think that being Hindu somehow means that you're against Muslims."

Rangaswamy said, however, there is growing concern within the Indian community about the rise of a Muslim-backed insurgency in Kashmir, where a reported 34,000 people have been killed since 1989.

The recent spurt in shakhas goes hand-in-hand with the beginning of this conflict and the post-1990 wave of immigrants who came here to work in the tech industry, she said.

"If things simmer down at home," she said, "these kinds of organizations would not have a breeding ground here."

Pandav said the real issue is the general victimization of Hindus, like the 58 Hindus killed in Godhra.

The retaliatory attack against Muslims, Pandav said, was a reaction to years of pent-up pain. He denies it was organized or that the RSS played a role.

Damle, meanwhile, said it is possible some fringe nationalists may have been involved, but said that should not reflect on the nationalist movement.

"If you're a member of a church, and you kill someone, does that mean that the whole church should be blamed?" Damle said.

"Both what happened in Godhra and what happened in Ahmedabad is to be condemned, it was a 'mobocracy,'" he said. "But when somebody tries to attack me or my society, then it's my right to defend myself."

At the Schaumburg shakha, there is another component besides games and talk. As the group discussion wraps up, one member calls, "Takhsat!" -Sanskrit for "Attention!"

Immediately, the 19 men and women form a single-file line in front of the saffron flag.

They stand alert, military-like. Their hands are clenched at their sides. On cue, they pivot. One by one, they march forward and salute the flag, hands raised to their hearts.

No photography is allowed.

A Hindu land

On Jan. 30, 1948, Mohandas K. Gandhi was killed in New Delhi with three pistol shots to the chest.

Gandhi had enraged nationalist Hindus by reluctantly supporting the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which was carved out of India in 1947.

His killer, Nathuram Godse, was a former member of the RSS. As India grieved for Gandhi, the government banned the RSS for 18 months. Hindu nationalism instantly became a pariah movement.

Scholars say the dangers of the movement were evident long before 1948. The RSS was founded with the explicit aim of creating a Hindu rashtra, or Hindu nation, McKean said.

"The ideology of the RSS is fascist. It explicitly modeled itself after Mussolini and Hitler. There's plenty of scholarship to back that up," McKean said. "So when one uses the term, it's not some kind of name-calling."

After nearly half a century on the fringe, RSS fortunes changed dramatically in the late 1980s when the Congress Party, which had governed India since independence, fell into disarray amid charges of corruption. In 1998, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which many contend is the RSS's political arm, won the general election.

"What was once a fringe movement became politically mainstream," said Ashutosh Varshney, director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan and a Hindu.

A year later, India tested nuclear weapons in a show of military might against Pakistan. Elementary school textbooks began to reflect a history that portrayed Muslims as aggressors, Varshney said.

The State Department says that since the BJP's rise to power, some government bureaucrats began to enforce laws selectively to the detriment of religious minorities. The "Hinduization" of education and the revision of history books included hate propaganda against Muslims and Christians.

But the BJP never had a secure grip. In Gujarat in the months preceding last year's violence, the BJP was losing ground, Varshney said.

"Riots, when they can be blamed on Muslims, help the Hindu nationalist parties," said Varshney. The districts hardest hit by anti-Muslim violence last February voted overwhelmingly for the BJP, he said.

Inauguration of Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat. History was made this day, as it was the largest inauguration ceremony for any chief minister in Indian history. Occuring in an Ahmedabad sports complex, about 120,000 people, mostly members of the BJP and RSS, attend and chanted support for the continuation of the BJP doctrine.
Inauguration of Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat. History was made this day, as it was the largest inauguration ceremony for any chief minister in Indian history. Occuring in an Ahmedabad sports complex, about 120,000 people, mostly members of the BJP and RSS, attend and chanted support for the continuation of the BJP doctrine. - M. Scott Mahaskey / Daily Herald, 2003

Narendra Modi, the BJP-backed chief minister of Gujarat, was easily re-elected. In December, more than 120,000 people dressed in saffron crowded into the Ahmedabad stadium to bless Modi's inauguration. One young man held up a sign: "Narendra Modi = Chief Minister = Prime Minister = Hindu Rashtra."

Funding hate

Indian academics in the United States have voiced concerns about money raised here and sent to support nationalist activities in India.

The India Development and Relief Fund, based in Maryland, says it serves economically disadvantaged people in India. It raised more than $10 million since its inception in 1989, according to the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, a group of Indian academics and activists in the U.S. The campaign says 82 percent of the money went to projects managed by groups that are explicitly part of the RSS family.

The RSS has undertaken thousands of development projects, medical clinics, orphanages and schools in India.

"But they're not exactly the Salvation Army," said Stephen P. Cohen of the Brookings Institute. He argues the majority of the relief work comes with an ideological price tag.

The "Foreign Exchange of Hate," a report written by the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate claims the money went to RSS-affiliated charities that helped create the ideological environment that allowed the Gujarat violence to occur.

After the report was released in November, 320 academics in the U.S. who specialize in South Asia studies independently circulated a petition supporting the conclusions.

Motorola software engineer and former shakha member Jang, for instance, designates a portion of his $29.58 a month IDRF contribution to Ekal Vidyalayal, the "One Teacher Schools."

"Sure, they run educational institutions that teach arithmetic and reading," said Shalini Gera of the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate and herself a Hindu. "But these schools, under the cover of relief work, are also teaching that Muslims and Christians are foreigners. It teaches them to hate."

Jang argues that Hindu schools merely counter what Christian missionaries already have been doing in India's tribal districts. "Christian missionaries never give something for nothing," he said, remembering the day Jehovah's Witnesses showed up at his mother's doorstep.

In 1999, the State Department documented a wave of apparently organized attacks against Christians in the tribal belt of Gujarat, including forced conversions to Hinduism. A report released this March said Hindu nationalists in 2002 "began an ideological campaign to limit access to Christian institutions and discourage or, in some cases, prohibit conversions to Christianity."

Until recently, employees at Sun Microsystems, Oracle and CISCO could donate to IDRF through payroll deductions matched by company donations. Oracle and Cisco halted matching contributions following the release of the "Foreign Exchange of Hate" report. Sun Microsystems is investigating, but has kept the charity on its payrolls.

The Illinois chapter of the IDRF is run out of the Bloomington home of Shrinarayan Chandak. He said the IDRF "rejects violence of any kind" and described the foreign exchange report as "totally false" and "Hindu bashing."

Jang is disturbed by the allegations and says they are false.

"If I thought that the IDRF had anything to do with the riots, I would not give to them," he said. "If I thought the RSS had anything to do with it, I would stop being a member."

Suicide squad

On the outskirts of Bombay, in the district of Thane, is the Hindusthani Suicide Squad training ground.

"There is nothing secret about what we are doing," said Col. Jayantrao Chitale, the founder of the camp that opened last fall. "A thousand years ago, we fought with sticks and stones. Then we fought with tanks. Now the new war is terrorism, and we plan to fight terrorism with terrorism."

His target is not Gujarat's Muslims. It is Pakistan.

For decades, Hindu nationalism has been fueled by Pakistan's aggression in Kashmir and acts of terrorism within India, such as the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and on New Delhi's Red Fort in December 2000.

So far, Chitale said, 40 young men have signed the "suicide bond" that binds them to give their life for Mother India.

The camp once was closed by the Maharashtra state government. It was quietly allowed to reopen. Chitale said he is informing every member of the Lok Sabha, India's parliament, that he intends to train the suicide squad and keep it ready. It will only be deployed, he said, with government approval.

"Gandhi was a very weak person," said Chitale, "and Indian people are like cattle. You drive them and they will be driven. We need to send the message to Pakistan that if you blow off one bus, we'll blow off five."

Coming home

"There were bodies in every single room," said Tanveer Jafri, 40, Ahsan Jafri's eldest son and the first family member to get to the house after the massacre.

The first floor of Ahsan Jafri's house, with its bare cement and exposed wires, now is a dormitory for India's Central Reserve Police Force. Police were sent here last December to "protect minorities," 10 months after the riots.

The 2002 State Department report said that during the Gujarat riots, the police reportedly told frantic Muslim callers, "We don't have orders to save you."

"When we called for them, they wouldn't come," Tanveer Jafri said. "Now that we don't need them, they are here."

The second floor of Jafri's house withstood the burning. More than 70 women and children, including Jafri's wife, huddled there in terror, waiting for it to end even as the walls became so hot that posters began to warp.

A dozen crumpled Indian flags are buried in the rubble here, under a heavy coat of soot. The flags are relics from Ahsan Jafri's days as a leader of Gujarat's Congress Party.

Tanveer Jafri bent down to inspect a flag that, by a dark coincidence, had crumpled into a shape like the outline of the subcontinent.

One year later, no one has been convicted in connection with the deaths of the Muslims in Gujarat, said Human Rights Watch's Smita Narula. Tanveer Jafri collected 22 signed affidavits from the survivors of Gulbarg Society, naming specific attackers. All are out on bail, Jafri said.

After taking testimony from survivors of the massacre, including Ahsan Jafri's daughter Nishrin Hussain, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, recommended India be placed on the list of Countries of Particular Concern. The Bush administration responded this spring with "no."

"The commission was deeply disappointed," Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer said. "There is credible evidence that orders were given to police not to interfere. Muslim homes were singled out for death and destruction."

But the violence also gave birth to activism, including the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate. In the Chicago suburbs, a group of Muslim and Hindu residents began meeting at the Darien Public Library, forming the Coalition for a Secular and Democratic India.

The Indian Muslim Council also was formed. In March, it sponsored Nishrin Hussain, Jafri's daughter, to speak to the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park on the anniversary of the riots.

She spoke to a packed hall, many of them members of the Gujarati Muslim community. About 2,000 Gujarati Muslims live in the Chicago area, said Akhtar Sadiq, president of the Gujarati Muslim Association of America, headquartered in Downers Grove.

In Villa Park, the crowd surrounding Hussain supported her as she struggled at the podium, clasping a poem written by her father. It compares India to a beautiful woman whose hair was trimmed by a Hindu saint, whose form was called out by Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, and whose vibrant garments were painted by Buddha and an Islamic poet.

Hussain broke down and couldn't read the final line.

"This is my land," says the English translation. "This is my land. This is my land."

Shridhar Damle's house is just three minutes, or 1.24 miles from the Islamic Foundation. On a side table in his living room is a tiny saffron flag -- a 2-inch version of the one ceremoniously installed each week in Schaumburg, in 50 shakhas nationwide and in 25,000 shakhas around the globe.

It is the pilot light of a movement.

"Everywhere you went in Gujarat, there were saffron flags," said Smita Narula. "You were literally tripping over them."

For Damle, it stands for Hindu pride.

For Hussain, it might be the last color her father saw.

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