Gujarat Riots – 1969 : When Congress Government Helped an anti-Muslim Massacre

(Following is an excerpt from Professor Ghanshyam Shah’s ‘Communal Riots in Gujarat : Report of a Preliminary Investigation’ published in Economic and Political Weekly, January, 1970) 

On September 18, 1969 while Congress leaders from all over Gujarat were busy discussing the “unity resolution” of the Congress party at a meeting held in Ahmedabad, some sadhus and Muslims were reported to have clashed a little distance away. This was, of course, a pure coincidence. The venue of the clash was the Jagannath temple, situated at the end of Jamalpur area, thickly populated by Muslims. In 1946, too, when the last major communal riots took place in Ahmedabad, the cause was the same, namely a Rathayatra of Jagannath. 

As part of a festival held every year, about a thousand Muslims, including women and children, had assembled for Urs near the Jagannath temple along a narrow road about 30 feet wide. Also, as happened every day, at about 3 pm a herd of cows was returning to the temple, led by two sadhus who were quite familiar with the Muslims of the area. One of them, a dwarf, had always been an object of fun for Muslim youths of the locality. As the cows came in, the sight of the crowd frightened a cow which hurt a woman with two children. Angered at this, the lady shouted at the sadhus, “Can’t you control your cows? They have hurt my children”. At about the same time some Muslim youths were making fun of the short-statured sadhu, and the sadhu, in anger, lifted his rod which accidently touched a Muslim woman standing behind the sadhu who too shouted at him, “Are you a man, beating a woman ?” In this atmosphere of tension and commotion a scuffle developed between the Muslim youngmen and the sadhus. The sadhus used their sticks while the Muslims used stones. The two sadhus, being in a minority, rushed into the temple. As they went inside the temple, the crowd threw stones at the temple. The two sadhus came back with a few others to retaliate. But they were still too few against the crowd. About 13 sadhus were injured by stones. There was also some damage to the temple, such as breakage of glasses of photo-frames covering the picture of a deity. Meanwhile, police came and brought an end to the fighting. On the whole, it was an ordinary incident sparked off by a minor accident. 



A few hours after this episode, at 8 pm, a meeting of the trustees of the temple was held. The meeting issued a Press statement expressing distress, appealing to the Government to appoint a commission of inquiry and punish the criminals and asking the people of Ahmedabad to offer a prayer to Lord Jagadish and maintain peace. 

On the same night, several sadhus of the temple, including Sevadasji, the head priest, went on fast to protest against the attack and to demand justice. Similarly, the Hindu Dharm Raksha Samiti called a public meeting on the 19th at 7 pm outside the Raipur gate for condemning the attack on the temple. 

Although there were these loud expressions of protest, the rest of the city life went on quite normally. Several rumours, of course, went around the town. Also, as a measure of retaliation, on the 18th night and early morning of the 19th three shops belonging to Muslims at three different places were set on fire. But, barring this, the city passed the evening and night quietly.



The next morning, the 19th of September, brought the news of the attack on the temple to newspaper readers. Dif-ferent newspapers gave different descriptions of the episode. We shall examine the role of newspapers later in this article. Suffice it to note here that the news media only succeeded in spreading confusion in the minds of the people. People also read the statement of the trustees of the temple and the call of the Hindu Dharma Raksha Samiti. From all this they concluded two things: the attack on the temple by the Muslims was a serious one and had been pre-planned; and the Government and the Press were not giving a correct picture of the casualties. Though newspaper reports were short, it was mentioned that the attackers used acid bulbs and arms. 

However, despite this general impression and expression of concern about it, there was as yet no sign of an outburst of communal feeling. The burning of the three Muslim shops had not been reported in the newspapers. The morning of the 19th in Ahmedabad appeared to be pretty near normal. Workers went to the factories, students attended their classes and businessmen carried on their work as usual. The overriding topic of discussion in the town was, of course, the Jagannath temple. And the nature of the discussions revealed deep rooted prejudices.



As the day passed, however, these prejudices were to be actively nursed and incited. During the day unsigned handbills were circulated which gave exaggerated accounts of the Jagannath temple incident from the point of view of the Hindus. The reports contained in these handbills were taken at their face value, and most people were furious against the Muslims. Secondly, about twelve noon, organised groups of people began moving around various areas, asking people to close their shops. By 2 pm most of the markets were closed. Schools were closed a little later. Evening shows of cinemas were cancelled. By the after- noon itself a grim atmosphere of suspense had overtaken the city. 

Meanwhile, several delegations met the Chief Minister to press for appointment of an inquiry committee on the Jagannath temple episode. The Government had declared the appointment of such a committee. Leaders of all communities issued appeals, condemning the attack on the temple and urging the citizen’s to maintain peace. Muslim leaders were not found lagging behind in these attempts. Fifteen Muslim leaders belonging to different parties condemned the attack on the Jagannath temple; demanded an immediate inquiry, and asked for severe punishment to the offenders. They appealed to Hindus and Muslims to maintain peace. But the news of all these appeals, and the Government’s decision to appoint a committee of inquiry, were published only the next day in the newspapers. Long before that mob fury had taken hold of the situation. And there was no sign yet of any firm action on the part of the Government. 

Already between twelve noon and in the evening several scattered instances of arson and fire had taken place in different places within the walled area of the town. At 7 pm the scheduled meeting of the Hindu Dharma Raksha Samiti was held outside the Raipur gate; despite section 144 of Cr P C having been promulgated. It was a big congregation. The leaders of the Samiti came to the venue of the meeting in a procession. Anti-Muslim slogans were shouted. The speakers condemned the attack on the temple in very strong words and asked for an inquiry committee, failing which, according to a swami of the Gita Mandir, all sadhus of the Mandir would observe fast from the next day and would not hesitate to sacrifice their lives on the issue. Another very popular religio-political leader said that he would violate section 144 Cr P C, no matter what sacrifice was involved. Most of the speeches at the meeting were delivered in a firm and decisive tone.



Although the meeting was dissolved in twenty minutes, while it was in session, a section of the meeting attacked a radio shop of the area and set fire to it. The fire-brigade soon came but was met with stones from the crowd and was forced to return. Later on the police controlled this particular situation. But mob fury had been sparked off and there was no stopping to looting and large-scale rioting in various parts of the city. However, the Government imposed curfew in Khadiya, Jamalpur and Kalupur wards from 10 pm to 7 am. 

The direction of mob action was determined by this partial action on the part of the Government. The rest of the city was left at the mercy of the rioters. They first turned to Gita Mandir Road, adjoining the Raipur gate. Gita Mandir temple is located in this area and the sadhus of the temple were active in the protest organised by the Hindu Dharma Sarniti. The inhabitants of the area also had a special grievance which had turned them against Muslims. A political bully of the area, whom the Congress leaders were alleged to have protected so far, happened to be a Muslim. Residents had felt helpless and were critical of the Government. Now,. in the general excitement against the Muslims, they found an opportunity to retaliate against the hooligan and his community. They became active In the riot. Close to Gita Mandir road was the Beharampura area where the Ramayana incident had taken place only a week ago. There was also the slummy Shah Alam Taka, reportedly the abode of many a hooligan. This combination of circumstances provided fertile ground for the spread of the mood of retaliation and revenge that started with the Raipus meeting and its aftermath.



By 11 pm the mob had taken complete control over the area. There was not a little planning in their actions. In order to prevent police vans from entering the area they dug ditches at the three ends, some volunteers occupying seats near the ditches and watching. Meanwhile, Muslim shops were broken open, goods were looted or set on fire. Even in this the mob showed a calculated sense of discriminafion. Muslim shops in Hindu-owned buildings were plundered but not set on fire; similar shops in Muslim-owned buildings were set on fire; shops run by a Hindu and Muslim in partnership remained undisturbed. It was reported to me that riot organisers in this and other areas moved with voters’ lists to identify Muslim houses. On the whole, though they tried to resist the attackers in the beginning, the Muslimn population found itself overwhelmed in number and utterly demoralised in the face of such a massive attack. 

The momentum came with the burning of two big “kabadi” markets dealing in second-hand tubes and tires, colour and cloth printing for which Ahmedabad is famous and oil which provided the rioters with ready fuel. No fire-brigades came to the help of the Muslim shop-keepers most of whom were themselves not on site. The flames spread wide. Even the roads were hot. Yet throngs of Hindu house- holders, including women, were out as participants, as observers or simply to enjoy the fun. Some of them joined in shouts of “Jai Jagannath” while others distributed prasad to the onlookers. 

Later, Hlindus forced the Muslims also to shout “Jai Jagannath”. A gruesome episode brings out the depth of animosity against the Muslims. A young Muslim, enraged by the destruction of his property, said he would take revenge. Upon this the crowd seized him, showered blows on him, and tried to force him to shout “Jai Jagannath”. Staying firm, the youth said “you can kill me, but I will not say that”. To this someone in the crowd responded that he may indeed be done away with. Wood from broken shops was collected, a pyre prepared in the middle of the road, petrol sprinkled on the pyre as well as on the youth, and be was set alight with quiet efficiency. What is remarkable is that there was no resistance from any Hindu. The wails of the Muslim inhabitants were drowned in the celebration of the incident by the Hindus that followed. This incident took place on the 20th noon. Thereafter, the riots took a new turn from looting and arson to murder and physical attacks. Up to now incidents of killing were sporadic; they now became frequent and on a large and organised scale.


By the afternoon of Saturday the 20th, the flame of Gita Mandir and Raipur had spread through the whole town – labour as well as upper class areas. The mob violence that was let loose did not spare even the Sabarmati Ashram. On Saturday the 20th evening, a relatively small crowd of about fifty people went to the Ashram with axes, stones, lathis and iron-bars to attack Imam Manzil, the house of 70- year old Gulam Rasool Kureshi, an Ashram inmate since 1921. For him, it should be noted, this was not the first attack by communalists. In 1939 he had been assaulted by Muslim Leaguers. But this time as the ashramites stood together against the crowd, no serious damage was done to Imam Manzil. However, the houses of Kureshi’s two sons, one of whom had married a Hindu woman and had allowed her to follow Hindu religion, were set aflame. In the process both the Quran and the Ramayana were burnt by the mob.



In the same way, the crowd attacked the house of Ramjani Lakhani whiose brother Rajab had sacrificed his life to prevent Hindu-Muslim riots in 1946. Similarly, high government officers who lived in the government colony were not spared. Officials could not protect their Muslim colleagues who happened to be their neighbours. In this inventory, mention should also be made of Kamal Hostel of Vadaj, a Muslim hostel for university students in whlich there were also 30 Hindu students as boarders. The hostel provided a possible platform for expressing solidarity among the two communities. Instead it was completely destroyed, pillars and slabs of the huge building were physically removed, suggesting that skilled engineers were employed destruction.

 The worst affected areas were the labour areas : Khokhara-Mehniadavad, Amaraivadi, Raipur, Rakhiyal, Bapunagar, Chamanpura and New Mental Hospital Colony. Villages nearby, Sabannati and Ranip, were also affected. Chawls consisting of rows of huts had been destroyed, their wood-work burnt and mud and brick walls demolished. Even such property of Muslim labourers as earthen pots, a pair of clothes, bed and a broken chair were burnt or destroyed. Old cycles, the only vehicles of mill labourers, were broken into bits. 

Atrocities multiplied by the 20th evening when several poor labourers were either burnt alive or murdered. In some places they were thrown into fires. Scythes, axes, knives and spears were used for killing people. Women were raped or ripped bare and forced to walk naked on the road children were beaten against stones or their legs were torn apart. Limbs were cut  out of dead bodies, women’s breasts were cut and sex organs were mutilated or torn apart. In this mad orgy, animal instincts of the worst kind seem to have got hold of the people of Ahmedabad.



The riots had spread from Ahmedabad into various parts of the State. Trains were not spared On the 20th night, when several Muslims were escaping from Ahmedabad, four trains were stopped, Muslim passengers pulled out, looted and killed. Four days later, two trains were again stopped and seventeen passengers killed. On 23rd September, as the Government lifted the curfew for three hours, forty persons lost their lives. 

This orgy of violence, massacre, arson and looting continued unstopped for three days. By Tuesday (September 23) afternoon Ahmedabad was under the control of the army. The coming of the army brought about a radical change in the situation, but scattered instances of stabbing continued to take place for more than a month. More than one thousand people, a large majority of them Muslim, lost their lives. Several hundreds ran away to their native villages. About fifteen thousand took shelter in relief camps. 3,969 dwellings and shops suffered destruction by fire, and 2,317 more were physically destroyed. About 6,000 families lost their belongings and shelter. The value of property destroyed ran into crores of rupees. Just the city being under curfew for ten days caused loss in income of at least Rs. 33.70 crores.


Government’s Role

Decisive action came in slow and patchy measures. On the 19th the Government imposed curfew only at some places; curfew was later extended to other parts of the city. Then, as the situation went out of control on the 19th, S R P and C R P forces were called in by the 20th morning. As these failed in controlling the situation, the army was called in on Sunday, the 21st. Troops were first posted in suburbs. Later, they were given complete control of the city. ‘Shoot at sight’ orders were given to the soldiers on Sunday. More than five thousand people were arrested for participating in riots during the ten days of the curfew. Because of the vigilance of the army, the situation came under control.

However, the authorities were almost always late in taking decisions. It took two days to call the army and, according to reliable information, only after one of the Cabinet Ministers had insisted on this and threatened to resign. Even after this, a whole day passed in discussions whether the entire city should be handed over to the army. In Baroda, Government officers and politicians were engrossed in abusing each other while the city was under the control of rioters. The Collector incharge, a determined lady, could not contact the Home Secretary in Ahmedabad for three hours as he was in a meeting with the Chief Minister. She wanted orders from the Secretary before calling the army which was right there in the town. In the somewhat terse words of a commentator :

“It is true that Mr Hitendra Desai (CM) did not fiddle while Ahmedabad burnt. He merely sat in his bungalow surrounded by his Cabinet colleagues and a reassuring number of security guards. It was a pathetic spectacle of visible incapacity to deal with the situation. It must be assumed that the long sessions at the Chief Minister’s residence were directed to some useful purpose, but it is a risky assumption. One suspects that a good deal of the time was taken up in deciding what official account of the day’s happenings should be fed to the Press and put over the radio.”


Apart from the delay in taking decisions, the State Government was half- hearted in using force. Even on the 20th evening when large parts of the town were already ablaze, the Chief Minister was still saying: “The government will not hesitate to use force for restoring peace.” Such warnings were too late and ineffective, for frenzied rioters had already taken control of the city. It is difficult to explain the Government’s reluctance to use force. But one possible explanation mentioned among Congress leaders was that “if the Congress Government had come down hard on the rioters early when Hindu sentiment was still deeply aroued by the Jagannath temple incident, the political cost might well have been a Jan Sangh Govemment in 1972.” 

Besides Government’s reluctance to use force, the curfew was not strictly imposed in Ahmedabad till the army took control. A large number of organisations and individuals were authorised to issue curfew passes. I was told that Congress House alone had distributed about five thousand passes. Consequently, there was virtually no curfew in practice. I have come across some people who participated in the riots with curfew-passes in their pockets. 


Instead of taking firm action to curb the riots, Gujarat politicians were in search of scapegoats. In the beginning they discovered that the riots were instigated by ‘Pakistani agents’. Later, they suspected communists of creating disorder. As the commentator quoted above put it: 

“There was also a desperate search for alibis and scapegoats. One senior minister tried to persuade this writer that China had a hand in the disturbances. He said that Chinese money was being circulated in the city, and to clinch the issue he pulled out his wallet and flourished the evidence a Chinese currency note. It would have been cruel to ask him whether Chinese currency would be of any earthly use in Ahmedabad, particularly when all the shops were closed. Such was the condition of the State Government when Gujarat was gripped by the worst communal riots in its history. “

The police in Ahmedabad had utterly failed in its duty of maintaining law and order impartially. At several places killing and looting took place in the presence of policemen. They often ran away from the place and allowed a free hand to the rioters. Often SRP and CRP cadets told Hindus that Muslims needed such treatment. “ (I was told that in Baroda, policemen had encouraged onlookers to be courageous and take part in looting.) 

The indifferent, and in some cases partial, attitude of the police can be attributed to two reasons. First, it is an open secret in Gujarat that police and anti-social elements have close ties. Oftener than not, illicit liquor, gambling and smuggling which are rampant in the towns and villages of Gujarat run under police protection. For this policemen get a regular amount every month which is often many times their salaries. Such association between bootleggers and policemen has paralysed the functioning of the police (prohibition’s contribution to public life!). For the same reasons the police were reluctant to arrest known goondas. If a few were arrested, they were released on bail immediately. In the course of my investigations, I have come across a case in which a police officer informed a hooligan in advance that a warrant was issued against him. 

The second reason concerns the state of demoralisation of the police in Gujarat. In order to appease mischief mongers, the Gujarat Government had time and again disowned responsibility for police actions, making the police itself responsible for them. During recent years in three cases Government did not defend police action but, on the contrary, asked the police to apologise to mischief-makers. The attitude was revealed when a senior Congressman close to the ruling circles told me that “the police might have failed in controlling the riots but not the Government”. Obviously, such treatment had demoralised the police and made them indifferent and reluctant to take risks. They did not know when the Government would ask them to apologise for firing on communal fanatic. 


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Saquib Salim

Saquib Salim is a well known historian under whose supervision various museums (Red Fort, National Library, IFFI, Jallianwala Bagh etc.) were researched. To his credit Mr. Salim has more than 400 published articles on history, politics, culture and literature in English and Hindi. Before pursuing his research and masters in modern Indian History from JNU, he was an electrical engineering student at AMU. Presently, he works as a freelance/ independent history researcher, writer and works at

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