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On September 24, 2002, two gunmen attacked the Akshardham cultural complex of the Swaminarayan Hindu sect in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. By the end of the attack that lasted over twelve hours, thirty-three people were killed and seventy were injured. Human Rights Watch strongly condemned the egregious attack on Hindus and commended the Indian government for responding swiftly to maintain peace and security in the state following the killings.179 The government deployed approximately three thousand army personnel during a nationwide strike called by the VHP to protest the attack. Indian officials also called on citizens to end the cycle of violence by refraining from taking the law into their own hands. Critics of the government's handling of the post-Godhra violence remarked that had it acted as quickly following the Godhra massacre, many deaths could have been prevented. The incident once again heightened tensions with Pakistan, blamed by India for the attack.180

In January 2003 Human Rights Watch visited the Akshardham complex and spoke to Nishith Acharya, an eyewitness to the attack and full-time volunteer who looks after administration at Akshardham. Acharya told Human Rights Watch that the attackers, armed with grenades and automatic weapons, jumped a fence and rushed to the main walkway of Akshardham, opening fire on tourists at the bookstore along the way: "They threw something inside, a grenade, into the bookstore. By God's grace it did not explode in the bookstore. One middle-aged lady tried to come out. They fired on her, and she was immediately killed. They started moving ahead and went to the podium. I had no weapons and no one in the campus had weapons [so as] to preserve the sanctity of the place."181

The attackers then charged toward the main stone monument of the complex, hurling grenades along the way. Acharya relayed an intercom message to the volunteers inside the monument telling them to bring the tourists inside and shut the gates. The same message was communicated to the volunteers in Exhibition Halls one, two, and three. Unable to enter the monument, the attackers proceeded to the basement of the monument hall and detonated a grenade. They then turned their attention to the exhibition area:

Unfortunately the exit door of Exhibition One, which was closed, was opened by one lady, perhaps [she was] thinking of coming out. From there the two terrorists entered and saw that the public was there. They threw a grenade inside. It exploded and they started firing on the public. Many people were injured. There were many casualties.... People were killed there also. One volunteer opened all the doors to let the people out. So they threw a grenade at the entrance part and did firing also. Maximum casualties were there.... The room was full of blood. People were badly injured. But many didn't die. If they had come back and fired again, they all would have died. The terrorists then went up to the rooftop. It was 5:20 p.m. They lay down on the parapet and stopped firing. The police force, the BSF [Border Security Force], CRP [Central Reserve Police] Force and SCF [Security Commando Force] had already taken possession of the complex.182

The police and commandos then escorted hundreds of visitors from around the complex to safety and help transport the injured to nearby hospitals. As the security forces were escorting the visitors out from the main monument, the attackers opened fire again but no one was hit. Periodic cross-firing continued throughout the night. At around 6:45 a.m., Black Commandos of India's national security guard-who had been airlifted from Delhi to join the operation-shot and killed the two attackers. Of the thirty-three people killed, one was a member of the special reserve police, one of the national security guard, and one of the state commando force. Parmeshwar Swami, a religious teacher of the institution, four volunteers, and several children were also among those killed.183

Two separate letters written in Urdu were found in the pockets of the two attackers that claimed that they belonged to a group called Tehreek-e-Qisas-Gujarat, or "Movement for Revenge in Gujarat."184 Brigadier Raj Sitapati of the NSG, who led the operation, told the Times of India that "The letter mentions that the killings were to avenge what happened during the Gujarat riots" and that they planned the attack "for the satisfaction of their souls because they could not tolerate what happened to children, women and Muslims during the Gujarat riots."185 The letters, dated August 2, 2002, are reportedly addressed to the "thousands of conscienceless enemies of Muslims in India."186 On September 26, 2002, Chief Minister Modi moved quickly to rule out the theory that the attackers were local or that the incident was meant to avenge the killing of Muslims in the state. He added that the letters in Urdu were intended to "mislead" those carrying out investigations.187 Not unlike the state's initial statements about the attack in Godhra, the government was promoting the theory that the attack was the product of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.188

An article in the newsmagazine Frontline explains why Akshardham might have been chosen as a target for the attacks:

It is not hard to see why terrorists might have considered the Akshardham temple a high-value target. The complex, for one, is close to Narendra Modi's residence. It is also near the Gujarat police headquarters. Spread over 23 acres (9.2 hectares) of land, the elaborate Akshardham complex is structured around a temple with a golden statue of Lord Swaminarayan. It also has multimedia shows, an exhibition hall, cafes and a vast landscaped garden. "Several foreign dignitaries have visited Akshardham, including Bill Clinton and Prince Philip. Any attack on it would invite international attention," a police officer said. The Swaminarayan sect is also one of the most prosperous and powerful in Gujarat, with a strong following among the Patel community and Gujarati non-resident Indians. Both Patels and NRIs are in large measure seen to be strong BJP supporters. Sections of the Patel community aligned to the Sangh Parivar are perceived to have played a significant role in much of the communal violence in the State.189

The article goes on to claim that "elements within the State Police seem to have gone out of their way to misinform. Officials claimed, for example, that a radio intercept had identified the two killed terrorists as Mohammad Amjad of Lahore and Hafiz Yassir of Attock, Pakistan. Highly placed intelligence sources, however, told Frontline that the supposed identification was pure fiction."190

To date, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack and little progress has been made in the investigation. Many have faulted a failure of intelligence agencies to heed warnings of a possible temple attack, while others have pointed out that the killing of both attackers have hampered investigations.191 The attack has also raised fears that the failure to prosecute those responsible for violence against Muslims may contribute to cycles of retaliatory violence against Hindus and undermine the security of all citizens in the state. Although the authenticity of the letters remained unclear at this writing, the attack on Akshardham highlighted the need to press forward with prosecutions in Gujarat in all cases, regardless of the religious identity of the victims.

179 See Human Rights Watch, "India: Keep Peace in Gujarat," (Press Release) September 26, 2002 [online], (retrieved June 16, 2003).

180 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2003, p. 238.

181 Human Rights Watch interview with Nishith Acharya, Gandhinagar, January 3, 2003.

182 Ibid.

183 Ibid.

184 "Terrorist outfit identified for temple attack," Times of India, September 25, 2002. Urdu is the primary language of Muslims in India, and the national language of Pakistan.

185 Ibid.

186 R. Prasannan, "Fatal error," The Week, October 6, 2002 [online], (retrieved May 20, 2003).

187 "Attack not a revenge: Modi," The Hindu, September 27, 2002.

188 Human Rights Watch interviews in Ahmedabad, January 2-5, 2003.

189 Dionne Bunsha, Praveen Swami, "The Terror Trail," Frontline, October 12 - 25, 2002 [online], (retrieved May 20, 2003).

190 Ibid.

191 See for example Bunsha, "The Terror Trail"; B. Raman, "A case of intelligence failure?" Frontline, October 12 - 25 [online], (retrieved May 20, 2003); and R. Prasannan, "Fatal error," The Week, October 6, 2002 [online], (retrieved May 20, 2003).

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