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India's Gujarat Faces Atrocity Risks Despite New Development Efforts

For Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the planned economic zone of Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT) is a harbinger of a prosperous national future guided by foreign investment, economic growth, and efficient urban planning. At present, the GIFT site “boasts modern underground infrastructure, two office blocks and not much else,” according to a dispatch by the Hindustan Times, India’s second most popular English-language newspaper. By its completion, the planned GIFT will host more than two square miles of public transport, high-end retail and dining facilities, and corporate headquarters for financial services and IT firms.

Less than 20 miles downriver from the GIFT site, the future prosperity of Indian society is less assured. In the Chamanpura area of Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, sits the Gulbarg Society, a Muslim-majority neighborhood. In February 2002, during Modi’s first term as governor of Gujarat, the Gulbarg Society was the site of one of the two largest massacres in a wave of statewide violence that killed more than 1,000 civilians over the course of three months.

The Early Warning Project’s statistical assessment currently places India 18th of 100 countries most at risk of a new episode of mass killing. Meanwhile, a quarterly summary of expert opinion pool forecasts, released in early March, placed India 31st on a list of 36 countries of primary concern. While discriminatory policies and brief instances of targeted violence against Muslim civilians heighten the risk of escalation, India experts suggest the Modi administration’s sensitivity to international perceptions of its human rights policies will, in part, prevent a new episode of mass killing.

The Project uses an averaged set of three statistical models to produce a single best assessment of the risk of mass killing in a specific country. Often, one model drives a country’s risk assessment more than it drives another’s (see image at right). For India, the “random forest” model is the greatest driver (light blue bar). A machine-learning algorithm, the “random forest” model considers each of the variables used in the “elite threat” and “bad regime” models, the assessment’s two other explanatory theories of mass killing.

Previous studies of mass violence in India suggest perceived threats to Hindu majority rule in select Indian provinces continually drive risks of mass killing. With the exception of the riots that followed India’s partition from Pakistan in 1947, state-sponsored episodes of mass violence, as well as those perpetrated by nonstate actors, have emerged from subnational disputes, often between local or provincial Hindu majority groups and Muslim minority civilians. Indian government responses to minority mobilization have varied by province, ethnic identity group, and linguistic identity group. Disputes are especially pronounced between ethnically affiliated groups who vie for new opportunities for political control, as Steven Wilkinson, Nilekani Professor of India and South Asian Studies at Yale University, observes

During the Gulbarg Society massacre, for example, large groups of organized militias targeted a community of Muslim minority residents that included former parliamentarian Ehsan Jafri. The initial attacks were preceded by allegations of targeted violence by Muslim communities against Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya, in northern India. “You burnt our parents, our sisters, so we will not spare you,” one attacker said, according to witness testimonies compiled in a fact-finding report published in June 2002 by the Indian civil society organization Citizens for Justice and Peace in June 2002. In the months following the initial massacres, similar reprisal attacks reverberated across Gujarat.

The fact-finding report also identified evidence of premeditation by Hindu nationalist groups responsible for targeted violence against Muslim minority civilians, as well as a purposeful policy of nonintervention by Gujarat state and local police. As “a medieval and macabre dance of death, humiliation and revenge” unfolded, the report stated, the Gujarat police responsible for protecting the state’s Muslim minority looked on.

Experts suggest risk factors of mass targeted violence against Muslim minority civilians in Gujarat, a political stronghold of Hindu nationalism, remain. The targeted mass violence of 2002 has now given way to regular acts of anti-Muslim discrimination. “Everyday violence” against these civilians has become a common state of affairs, according to Dionne Busha, a Mumbai-based journalist who has reported from Gujarat. Members of Sangh Parivar, the umbrella Hindu nationalist organization linked to the 2002 violence in Gujarat, perpetrate “small incidents” of violence against Muslim civilians “almost every week,” she says. Local militia, rather than state-sponsored paramilitary groups, are mostly responsible for these anti-Muslim attacks. This acute violence is also accompanied by local legislation intended to deepen the social and political influence of Gujarat’s Hindu majority, such as laws forcing the conversion of Christian and Muslim worshippers.

Experts also raise concerns about economic factors that could precede future episodes of mass killing. The current Indian government has expanded its land acquisition authority to accommodate new large-scale development projects, especially in areas of eastern India affected by the Maoist Naxalite rebellion and the Indian government’s counterinsurgency. Under the new land ordinances, government officials may reclaim land currently occupied by agricultural communities to advance development programs associated with key sectors, including industrial support and national security. While state-sponsored mass violence has not followed recent Naxalite protests against Indian government land policies, Busha suggests perceived threats against national development plans may prompt targeted attacks against local communities in the Naxalite areas.

The Modi administration’s interest in continuing positive diplomatic and commercial relations with the international community, however, may limit the risk of new mass killing, in Gujarat and elsewhere. In 2005, Modi was denied a U.S. travel visa by the U.S. State Department, which cited a rarely applied religious freedom statute to justify its policy decision. Emerging trade and investment partnerships have led Modi to disaffiliate his administration from the extreme wings of India’s major Hindu nationalist groups, according to Busha. She says groups less formally affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalist factions are now responsible for most violence against Muslim civilians in Gujarat, rather than the permissive relationship between Modi’s former gubernatorial administration and some perpetrators of the 2002 violence. That said, there has been little indication the structural risk factors that influence current acts of discriminatory violence against Muslim minority civilians will escalate into mass killing.