Whatever happened to the Hindu Left?
HAVE you ever heard of such a thing as the Hindu left? Many books and essays have been written about the Hindu right and this term has become commonplace. No one seems surprised that Hinduism is perhaps the only religion in the world today that is supposed to have a right but not a left. In Europe, the U.S., Canada and in South American countries, there is a secular right and left as also a Christian right and left. While the Catholic orthodoxy opposes abortion and homosexuality, there are many vociferous Catholic groups that support both. There is an organization of gay Catholics called Dignity. Almost every major Protestant sect has a left wing and a right wing.
The tradition of organized Christian feminism dates back to the 19th century and many earlier Christian writers were clearly proto-feminist. Today, the secular, i.e. atheist or agnostic, left routinely works and organizes in cooperation with the religious left.1 Both constitute a visible presence in leftwing demonstrations. Gay Pride parades, for instance, always have substantial contingents of gay Christians and Jews. Similarly, in most Islamic countries, there is a Muslim right and a Muslim left.
In India, however, there is almost no organized Hindu left.2 What does this mean and why is it so? Does it mean that there are no leftists who are practising Hindus? Not at all. It is well-known that even in their most militant days, Calcutta’s communists migrated en masse to Durga Puja celebrations. I personally know Marxist academics at Delhi University who are pious Hindus at home, regularly fasting and performing puja. But at the level of public theorizing and organizing, this aspect of their lives remains invisible and unspeakable. The number of Indian thinkers today who try to integrate religious and leftist thinking can be counted on the fingers of one hand – Ashis Nandy and Ramchandra Gandhi are among the very few who make this attempt with Hinduism. So, while some Indian leftists are atheists or agnostics, many others are not. Yet almost all of them on the surface appear to be so. Why?
Indian culture has often been classified by some anthropologists as a shame culture – in contrast to Christian culture, which is a guilt culture. This means that even behaviour that is not considered immoral in Indian society may be considered shameful. For example, it is not considered immoral for a married couple to have sex but in most parts of the country it would be shameful for them to be physically affectionate or to discuss their sex life in public. Many behaviours that may be practised may not be talked about. What is considered shameful varies widely from community to community and region to region. Communities are not necessarily based on birth; they may also be based on shared world-views. Religious behaviour is not widely considered a shameful behaviour. But by the mid-20th century, it had become so within the community of Indian leftists. How did this happen?
To answer this question, one has to go back to the 19th century when the right and the left in their modern forms began to take shape in India. This was also the time when Indian Hinduism and Islam began to reshape themselves in response to the attack launched on them by British rulers and missionaries. Despite their long history of hostility in Europe, Christianity and Islam had in common some very important features which Christianity and Hinduism did not. Many Britishers remarked that they found it easier to understand Islam than Hinduism. Islam, like Christianity, was monotheistic and based on one text. Hinduism, on the other hand, with its polytheism, idol worship and plurality of texts, was much more like the ancient Greek and Roman religions that Christianity had wiped out centuries earlier. Yet Hinduism refused to be wiped out. It had survived many precolonial physical onslaughts on its temples and idols, and still appeared to be flourishing.
The modern attack on polytheism and idol worship was much more insidious than the cruder medieval attacks. The modern attack took the form of a shaming process. Ashis Nandy, among others, has brilliantly described the way English-educated Indians were made to feel embarrassed and ashamed of practices such as idol worship that were labelled primitive, backward and barbarous by the self-styled modern and enlightened rulers. The best evidence of this shaming is the way new Hindu organizations, such as the Arya Samaj, who rightly embraced such causes as women’s education and the eradication of untouchability, felt compelled to also renounce polytheism and idol worship.
This process, which Nandy has called ‘Christianizing Hinduism’, was not widely successful.3 Precisely because of its flexibility, lived Hinduism has a way of resisting theories generated by its leaders. Most Arya Samaj families quietly reverted to having pictures and images of deities in their homes and shops. Many Hindu leaders argued in public that Hinduism is monotheistic and advocated a return to Vedantic ‘pure’ Hinduism free from idolatrous ritual. However, in private very few were willing to give up the pleasures of collectively celebrating and worshipping regional deities. Who would be so foolish as to stay away from the festivities of Durga Puja or Dassehra or Ganesh Chaturthi? Those groups, like the Brahmo Samaj, who insisted on sticking to a Christianized Hinduism, dwindled or died a natural death. Those, like the Arya Samaj, who accommodated older forms of worship, flourished.
This had important consequences for the characterization of these groups as right or left. In the 19th century, the social agendas of Hindu organizations like the Ramakrishna Mission and the Arya Samaj were definitely left of centre. (It would be interesting to survey how many North Indian leftists today are from Arya Samaji families). For instance, when Hindu social reform organizations fought child marriage and supported widow remarriage, they were opposed by other more rightwing Hindus such as Tilak. This represented a healthy debate within Hinduism which, in modern terms, could be called a debate between leftwing and rightwing Hinduism. Even within each organization, for example within the Arya Samaj, there was a left wing and a right wing with regard to such issues as the content and extent of women’s education.
This continued in the national movement when Gandhi, representing leftwing Hinduism, was opposed by the Hindu Mahasabha, representing rightwing Hinduism. A similar debate was evident amongst Muslim nationalists too. The shot that killed Gandhi in a sense killed leftwing Hinduism too, at least for the time being. Leftwing Hinduism went underground in part as a result of rightwing Hinduism’s aggressiveness.
However, secular leftism also contributed to the process of reconstructing all things Hindu as inherently backward and regressive. The secular left’s attitude to Gandhi, until very recently, was negatively coloured by Gandhi’s being an unashamed Hindu. This was only one example of the secular left’s almost paranoid public stance on anything that savoured of Hinduism.
English-educated Indians’ feelings of embarrassment regarding Hinduism by no means disappeared with the gaining of Independence. If anything, they were heightened. During my 17 years of teaching at Miranda House, Delhi University, I often performed the experiment of asking a fresh batch of students whether they thought monotheism or polytheism was a better system. Invariably, the overwhelming majority (almost all of them Hindus) spontaneously said monotheism was better. In the course of discussion they often changed their minds or at least questioned this position. But what is significant is the degree to which they were almost programmed to value monotheism over polytheism, uniformity over diversity, without having really thought the question through.
Here, the position of Muslim, Christian and Sikh leftists is somewhat different. Because these happen to be minorities in India, the left has to support their rights. Hence, there is somewhat less embarrassment attached to acknowledging these identities as modern. Second, they do not have to carry the burden of being called backward, polytheistic idol-worshipers. Secular feminist organizations and Christian women’s organizations, such as the YWCA, often work together in urban women’s movements. Complete agreement on all issues is not required in such coalitions; basic agreement on the issue at hand is sufficient. However, anyone who theorizes positively about Hinduism is almost invariably labelled ‘communalist’ by the Indian left.
Again, this is anomalous in a world context. Christian and Muslim leftists as thinkers are taken seriously in most parts of the world by atheist and agnostic leftists. In the U.S., where Hinduism is a late comer, and does not have the particular history it does in modern India, many followers of Hindu gurus, such as Gurumayi, are active around liberal and leftwing causes, without perceiving any contradiction between these stances.
The consequence of this rigid positioning and labelling process in 20th century India was to push Hindu organizations such as the Arya Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission into a defensive stance and, in some cases, into the arms of the Hindu right. The more such groups refused to disown Hinduism, the less seriously the English-educated secularists treated their social and political reform agendas, even as the Hindu rightwing remained convinced that such groups were basically on its side. The irony here is that the social agenda of the secular left and the Hindu one-time left was in large part the same, despite the use of very different theories, language and terminology. To a considerable extent, it continues to be the same even today.
On ground level, for example, women’s wings attached to different parties and organizations deal with the same issues of dowry, domestic violence and rape. Except for those that advocate violent revolution, most other organizations working with the poor work on health and literacy, and set up employment generation programmes and childcare centres. While they differ on many issues, they do not differ on all issues; yet they find it almost impossible to acknowledge this commonality in public.
On more contentious issues, there were and are major differences between the secular left and the Hindu left, but there are as often major similarities.4 Everyone knows about the differences but the similarities are less often examined. In the last decade, censorship of sexually explicit materials has emerged as an issue on which not just the secular and religious left but also the religious right, although otherwise in theoretical disagreement, hold practically the same positions. The controversy around the Miss World contest and such songs as Choli ke peeche kya hai saw several rightwing and leftwing women’s organizations, though using different language, taking very similar positions, demanding that the state use its powers of censorship to ban such phenomena, characterized as ‘capitalist’ by the left and ‘permissive’ by the right.5
These paradoxes are connected with another unexamined difference – that between authoritarianism and libertarianism – which cuts across the lines of right and left. There are authoritarian rightists and leftists who despite major differences have a lot in common with each other and there are libertarian rightists and leftists with differences but also much in common.
In many societies, differences between authoritarians and libertarians have emerged around particular issues. Pornography is one such issue in the U.S. and many European countries, where some religious and non-religious leftists, including some feminists, and rightists (such as libertarians), oppose a state ban on pornography on the grounds of safeguarding freedom of speech even as other religious and non-religious leftists, including some feminists, and rightists (such as conservative Christians), seek such a ban. The political/philosophical question at issue here is one of authority versus liberty – should an individual adult have the liberty to choose his or her own reading and viewing materials or should the state or the majority in society make this decision for the individual?
When the question comes really close in a personal way to the living body of the individual in the family, people are forced to take positions, individually and collectively, which may change their public alignments in significant ways. It is possible that homosexuality may become this kind of fruitfully divisive issue in India today. It is the one question on which both right and left, including most women’s organizations, had, until the controversy around Fire, maintained a near-complete silence. The Indian academy, which talks freely about everything else, did not talk about it. It was another one of those embarrassing, ‘shameful’, hence silent aspects of many people’s lives and families.6
Deepa Mehta’s Fire, while it takes some unnecessary and uninformed potshots at Hinduism, certainly does not connect Hinduism to homosexuality in any causal way. Therefore, the Shiv Sena’s attack on the homosexuality depicted in the film was unrelated to Hinduism. It was an expression of authoritarianism, plain and simple. The Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi’s absurd statement that if women are allowed to explore lesbianism, the institution of marriage will collapse and reproduction will cease, is popular despite its absurdity. What the Shiv Sena wants to deny is the individual’s right to freely choose a sexual partner. It wants to assert the authority of the heterosexual majority over the homosexual minority. And it wants to claim that this authoritarian position is ‘Hindu’.
As against their claim, one may quote the views of Srinivasa Raghavachariar, Sanskrit scholar and priest of a Vaishnavite temple at Sri Rangam, happily married with 13 children, in an interview with mathematical wizard Shakuntala Devi. After arguing that homosexuality is the result of reincarnation, that is, same-sex lovers were opposite-sex lovers in previous births, he went on to say: ‘Homosexuality is also a design of Nature. Earth is overpopulated by the human species and the Earth Mother – Bhoomi Devi – is no longer able to carry the burden. So this is one of Mother Nature’s way of combating the population explosion.’
He pointed out that overpopulation is eliminating other species, that increased longevity of humans is creating an imbalance, and that the planet will soon be incapable of producing enough food for so many humans. According to him, human desire to travel to other planets, like homosexuality, is part of Nature’s plan to control overpopulation: ‘All we can do is sit back and wonder at the divine tricks of the Almighty!’7
So what we have here are two Hindu positions – one authoritarian, the other libertarian. In the recent controversy, gay activist Ashok Rao Kavi supported Fire and opposed the Shiv Sena, and did so as a Hindu. Similarly, while many Marxist individuals and organizations supported Fire, it was only a few years ago that Vimla Farooqi, of the National Federation of Indian Women, the CPI women’s wing, opposed a gay conference in Bombay, stating that homosexuality was a western capitalist import.8 As recently as 1996, a Marxist, H. Srikanth, argued at length that homosexuality was a decadent bourgeois perversion that Marxists would proscribe, try to reform by psychiatric treatment, and if these failed, would ‘not hesitate to use force against such homosexual activism.’9 So here again, we have two leftist positions, one libertarian, the other authoritarian.10
Instead of trying to deny or cover up such differences, the occasion to explore, debate and research them should be welcomed as a sign of life. If more liberal and leftist Hindus begin to acknowledge their Hindu identity and speak in defense of Hindu heritage, this can only strengthen, not weaken, the secular left. Hindu tradition is not the monopoly of the Shiv Sena, the RSS or indeed any group. It belongs in a specific sense to all Hindus; in a larger sense, to all Indians (Ashis Nandy has convincingly argued that many Indians have a dual identity, and that one can be, for example, both Hindu and Christian, as he is); and, in a still larger sense, to the world, as does the Christian or Muslim heritage.
It is time to stop allowing the Shiv Sena type of Hindus to be the only ones defining and interpreting Hindu heritage. In fact, the Thackeray type of Hindu knows little about that heritage – he has probably never read the Kamasutra, otherwise he would not claim that homosexuality was unknown in ancient India. Other types of Hindus, including more knowledgeable Hindus, and liberal and leftist Hindus, have an equal right and perhaps even an obligation now to claim that heritage before it gets further eroded and destroyed by its self-styled champions.
1. The deeply institutionalized nature of the Christian left in the U.S. became apparent to me recently when a lesbian couple’s house in the small town of Missoula, Montana, where I now live, was set on fire on 8 February, because they are plaintiffs in a lawsuit demanding equal health benefits for same-sex partners of university employees. A vociferous response in support of the couple and of equal rights for gay people was immediately organized by a wide spectrum of individuals and organizations. Seven churches were actively involved in the effort, ranging from the Society of Friends (Quakers) to the local Catholic church. A huge town rally was held at the United Methodist Church, which also focused its next Sunday’s service on the issue.
2. The honourable exception is Swami Agnivesh who has functioned as a one-man Hindu left but is not perceived by the secular left as a representative of any larger body of people.
3. The Intimate Enemy, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1983.
4. Even on economic and political issues, the stated differences between right-identified and centrist or even left-identified parties often seem greater than their practice actually is. The BJP, which has been espousing the term ‘socialist’ for quite some time, now holds in theory an anti-multinational, anti-world trade, protectionist economic policy very similar to that of the Congress while practicing the support for capitalism, national and international, that was initiated by the Congress, a support that is not altogether different even from the practice of the CPI(M) in West Bengal. According to one report, the RSS now has a Marxist cell within it, called Vivek Prakash and headed by a Dalit woman!
5. For a detailed account and analysis of these campaigns, see Shohini Ghosh, ‘The Troubled Existence of Sex and Sexuality’, in Image Journeys: Audio-Visual Media and Cultural Change in India edited by Christiane Brosius and Melissa Butcher. Sage, New Delhi, 1999.
6. For a more detailed analysis of this silence as it developed in the colonial period and of the precolonial textual heritage, see Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai. Macmillan, NY, 2000; New Delhi, 2001.
7. Shakuntala Devi, The World of Homosexuals. Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1977, pp. 146-47.
8. The Pioneer, 1 November 1994.
9. ‘Natural is not always Rational’, Economic and Political Weekly, 13 April 1996.
10. For a more detailed analysis of the rightwing and leftwing responses to Fire, see Geeta Patel’s and Monica Bachmann’s essays in Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society edited by Ruth Vanita. Routledge, New York, 2002.
Assembly election in UP
THE dismal performance of the NDA alliance in the assembly elections held in May 2001 in five states and one union territory attracted attention of the ruling alliance, the opposition parties and political observers to the state of Uttar Pradesh. It was generally felt that they would have a far-reaching impact on the UP assembly election of February 2002, still around nine months away, and on the polity at the national level.
During this period all major formations started efforts in right earnest to woo the electorate. They announced their main objectives between June and July 2001 – the BJP for social equality and development; the BSP for social emancipation and economic development; the Congress for parivartan; the SP for communal harmony and secularism.
The BJP decided to refurbish its image, tackle indiscipline within the party and fight corruption. It tried to mobilise the villagers, various professional and caste groups through chalo gaon ki or (move towards the villages), holding ‘panchayats’ of farmers and teachers. The BSP campaigned on issues concerning mainly dalits, OBCs and minorities – increasing the percentage of reservation, extending it to the judiciary and private sector, and prevention of atrocities on dalits. The Congress announced a three-pronged strategy to fight for farmers’ interests, to get fresh notification issued on the Ayodhya issue, and filling up the SC/ST quota in central and state government jobs.
The SP decided to launch a countrywide agitation as a member of the People’s Front from 9 August 2001. These declarations were sheer rhetoric meant only for the record. Except for holding rallies, election meetings or issuing press statements, no serious attempt was made to address these issues. In fact, the main focus was on the electoral strategy, i.e., whom to allot tickets and in which constituency. And the considerations for ticket allotment have been other than those that matter in development and governance.
Apart from the four major parties, there were a score of smaller and single caste and single issue parties with their bases confined to specific regions, which contested either as part of the NDA alliance, People’s Front or separately. If Apna Dal of Sonelal Patel wanted a share of power for the backward classes, especially Kurmies, Kalyan Singh’s RKD vowed to defeat the BJP. The RLD of Ajit Singh and INLD of Om Prakash Chautala competed with each other over championing the cause of Kisan Pradesh/Harit Paradesh. The Shakti Dal of Maneka Gandhi or Rashtriya Parivartan Dal of D.P. Yadav strove to carve out bases for themselves. Such examples abound in UP. Unable to be accommodated by the original allies, which led to forming their own parties, the purpose of these leaders was limited, e.g., ensuring the defeat of rivals establishing parties as the sole representative of the caste/communities or settlling personal scores.
It is true that this election provided an opportunity to the marginalised groups – dalits, OBCs, women and eunuchs – to participate. Apparently India ‘is becoming more democratic’ with their electoral participation. But their entry is also accompanied by that of criminals, kidnappers, murderers, corrupt, liquor dons, etc., in the election. Besides, the gradual exclusion of saner elements and many communities from the electoral processes has been noticed. Such communities lack the numerical strength, social capital and political patronage that can affect electoral outcomes. A community may be in a minority in one constituency but a majority in another and vice-versa. The cost of elections is heavy for a substantive democracy. Caste and community considerations overshadowed other issues. The possibility of a share in power even motivated parties to change their original approach; if the BJP has apparently refused to campaign on the temple issue, the BSP has not lost any opportunity to propagate that it is not a party of low castes alone by giving tickets to the high castes as well.
Rather than contribute to the democratisation of society, the election has sharpened social cleavages in UP. It was a festive time for the mafiosi and caste/community manipulators; money and muscle power also played their role. The election has seen a total disregard for established democratic norms. The selection of candidates was not on the basis of virtues like honesty and integrity or personal achievement but their capacity to mobilise muscle and money power and caste/community votes. There seems to be little concern for substantive democracy. A community is guided by its own interests, not those of others or universal values. Thus, there was negative competition; mutual bitterness rather than mutual respect was more evident in the election.
The general milieu in the state of Uttar Pradesh – the social context of election – has been marked by the criminalisation of society, social insecurity and breakdown of law and order, failure of the government school system, lack of health facilities, erratic and inadequate supply of electricity to the farm sector, to mention a few problem areas. But who created this situation? It seems that both society and polity feed on each other. But politicians’ wont to cash in on all kinds of cleavages rather than settle them in a democratic manner seems to be a major factor that has contributed to the present impasse. There is a big gap between rhetoric and performance. Populism and expediency have even led some parties to take up issues of the politically ineffective groups as well (e.g. reservations for the MBCs). There is a crisis of governance on all fronts. Instead of fighting casteism, communalism, corruption and criminalisation, the political classes have encouraged competative bidding. Electoral democracy in terms of participation in the process by those who can afford it is one aspect of democracy, which has also bred undemocratic tendencies in society. A victory for electoral democracy in UP has been at the cost of substantive democracy and democratic governance.
An important dimension of this election has been the centrality of caste. Constituencies where most parties fielded candidates from the same caste/community, resulted in intra-caste/community competition, and where candidates belonged to different castes/communities it was inter-caste/community competition. It was the candidates capability to muster support from his community, along with that of others over another candidate of his caste/community that was the decisive factor, regardless of the means adopted to win the election. The electorate also responded along caste/community lines. In an attempt to cow-down other castes/communities, they seem to have overlooked their everyday problems – law and order, health, education and corruption. Given the widely held perception that all parties are the same, the voters seem to fall back on their castes/communities.
Few have bothered about the heavy cost of electoral democracy. It is part of democracy to contest elections, but as a result of the electoral process, civil society has become sectarian. The democratisation process has been marked by the sectarianisation of society reflected in what has come to be popularly known as ‘dalitisation’, ‘Yadavisation’, or ‘Jatisation’ in some North Indian states including UP. In the classical sense, democracy is identified with the virtues of tolerance and for dissent, respect for others, and caring for the most vulnerable. This is precisely what is lacking in UP polity and society.
Even issues of caring for castes/communities bothers only those that are able to affect electoral outcomes. If a communityis in a minority in a constituency, its rights are infringed upon. And it is not always the traditionally vulnerable groups that have suffered. In many instances the reverse is true.
With the UP elections resulting in a hung assembly, implying either coalition government or President’s Rule, the second phase of activities has started. Again, realpolitik dominates the scene. Despite the rhetoric of social justice, development, good governance and stability, what will matter in ministry formation is community, caste and money/muscle power. The ideological, political or even personal differences will be set aside in order to form alliances for capturing power. All kinds of unfair means, including defections, will play a role. The political processes seem to have come a full circle.
Reflections on Gujarat
FOLLOWING the ghastly carnage in Godhra on the morning of 27 February, Gujarat witnessed what was virtually a state-sponsored genocide over the next four days. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of aggressive Hindutva forces and the recent history of communal riots in the state could have anticipated the ‘so called’ backlash the police as well as the intelligence departments were definitely aware of this. Yet the state made no effort to persuade the VHP against its call for a bandh. Not just that, the BJP tacitly and other units of the Sangh Parivar openly supported and actively participated in the bandh.
This was a period when communal passions had been building up for at least two weeks in the wake of the mobilization of the kar sevaks for Ayodhya. Generally in such a situation the state is expected to take precautionary measures, particularly in the towns and districts already identified by the Home Ministry as communally sensitive. As a routine, potential agent provocateurs and criminals listed in police records are rounded up. But this was not done.
Houses, factories and shops in mixed localities were identified by the strategists among the rioters. Skilled personnel with ‘equipment’ were put on a mission to kill, molest and rape women, destroy property and engage in arson. Several eyewitness accounts identified a number of office bearers of the Parivar, including BJP MLAs and Corporators, as actively guiding the mob. The police, by and large, was either absent or a mere onlooker – sometimes party to the looting, sometimes as helpless witnesses.
Despite several calls to the police and the chief minister’s office, Ehsaan Jafari, former Congress MP could not save his life in Ahmedabad. Liberal Muslim leader, Professor Bandukwala too did not receive any help from the police in Baroda. He had to initially run away from his house and later from the city. His friends from the Hindu community were beaten up and their property ransacked, all because they provided shelter to the professor. They were warned of dire consequences if they continued to help Muslims. The message to secular persons (Hindus) was loud and clear: remain silent or be ready to face punishment. Planning in riots is not a new occurence. It was so in the past also. Earlier the state was unequipped, inefficient or callous. This time it functioned as facilitator and legitimizer of ‘retaliation’.
After the Partition of the country, Gujarat first experienced major large scale communal violence involving massacre, arson and looting in 1969. It took a toll of over 1000 lives and property worth several crores. Gulam Rasul Kureshi, Gandhi’s inmate living in the Sabarmati Ashram and Ramjan Lakhani, lost their lives in a valiant attempt to prevent Hindu and Muslim mobs from rioting.Moraji Desai expressed his anguish that both the government and community leaders of Gujarat had been caught napping on the communal problem. Vajpayee, Advani and Mody do not have that excuse as they have been active in building communal frenzy in the country for over two decades. The partisanship of the state is blatant, viz., its discriminatory announcement of financial relief distinguishing between Godhra and post-Godhra victims.
After the 1969 riots, the average middle class urban Hindus were jubilant for their ‘victory over Muslims’. They felt that the riots gave them an opportunity to teach Muslims a lesson and avenge the historical defeat of Prithviraj at the hands of Mohammad Gazani. And those who engineered the riots gained confidence that they had succeeded in their mission which suggested that the ‘future is ours’. Since then, except for the period between 1974 and 1980, when economic and moral issues related to corruption and authoritarianism preoccupied civil society, communal violence has remained a regular feature of the state. The 1984 anti-reservation agitation turned into communal riots. It was an attempt to prevent polarization between upper castes and dalits.
The Ram Janmabhumi issue was slowly brought centre-stage. During Advani’s rath yatra in 1990, Gujarat experienced the highest number of communal riots in the country. Communal passions were raised particularly in those areas where Hindu-Muslim had a harmonious relationship. Violence was systematically spread to rural areas. Equally at play was the building up of a fear psychosis alongside a feeling that ‘injustice’ was being done to the majority community. Much was made of an appeasement theory, that Muslims were favoured by the state. Stories against Muslims relating to their morals or disloyalty were fabricated and spread. Time and again, Muslims were branded as anti-national, fundamentalist, conservative and backward, terrorists and Pakistani spies.
Organised efforts were made to unite all Hindus, particularly dalits and OBCs against the undesirable ‘others’, i.e. Muslims. The adivasis were provided a new nomenclature as vanvasis, an integral part of the Hindu fold. The Hindus were reminded that they are apostles (upasak) of shakti – the worshippers of Maha-Shakti with trishul in the hands of Shiva, sudarshan chakra in the hands of Krishna, bow and arrow in the hands of Rama. A khadag covered with blood in the hands of Kali and different weapons in the ten arms of goddess Durga are important symbols of the Hindu heritage. They were told, ‘Hindus! If you want to preserve your existence, you should arm yourself with different weapons dear to Gods and Godesses.’
The Hindus were exhorted that they should not hesitate to take up arms when needed, that weakness, timidity and unmanliness are great sins and bravery and masculinity great punya, i.e. virtue. Such interpretations of Hinduism were systematically spread through informal chats, rumour, public lectures, printed as well as audio-visual media by all units of the Parivar. Newspapers and journals, katha recitals by religious saints, booklets and other forms of popular literature orchestrated the same message. Children born in the mid-sixties have now reached middle age in such an atmosphere inculcating an ideology of ‘us’ against ‘them.’
After coming to power in the mid ’90s, the BJP temporary switched off large scale riots as it was not in the interest of the government. But it continued to (mis) use various institutions of the state to deepen its tentacles. The government has given a free reign and state support to the RSS, VHP, Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini, Hindu Mahasabha and other such organizations so that they may enlarge and institutionalize their activities. The school curriculum has been changed to suit Hindutva ideology. Anti-Christian propaganda cum violence was launched, particularly in the tribal belt where the party has a weak electoral base. Trishuls, swords and other weapons are distributed with ceremonial fan-fare at religious functions.
Training camps are regularly conducted imparting ideological tit-bits. The self-styled leaders of the Parivar monitor not only individual morals but inter-community matrimonial relationships as well. Even local police officers have become a party, harassing young couples if they happen to belong to different religious communities. In 1998, the Muslims of South Gujarat were attacked and their property looted because a Hindu girl married a Muslim from Bardoli. In 2001, Bharati Barot was harassed by the local police and Bajrang Dal activists because she married a Muslim. The police even took her into custody. She was later found dead in the Gujarat Pradesh Hindu Mahasabha office in Ahmedabad.
On one pretext or another, Parivar leaders continuously instigate Hindus in public meetings against the minorities. They declare: ‘The security of Muslims in the state cannot be ensured if they do not improve their behaviour’; ‘Muslims should be stripped naked and beaten’; ‘Muslims... should be crushed like mosquitoes’. Such hate speech is headlined in the vernacular newspapers.
Even during a tragedy like the recent earthquake, the state machinery discriminated among victims on religious lines. Under the auspices of the VHP and other religious organizations, NGOs were formed for relief and ‘development’. The continuous flow of donations from the trading community, as well as NRI supporters, only strengthens their activities. Now, being in power, the quantum of extortion money has increased manyfold. We also see NGOs with financial support from the state, carrying out relief cum ideological work among the poor in rural areas. The BJP has expanded its patronage network by appointing ad hoc school teachers against permanent vacancies and aganvadi workers who are under obligation to assist the Parivar’s activities. It is not just police officers but even somewhat ‘independent’ bureaucrats who have been sidelined and removed from important positions.
As a consequence, the party’s performance in governance has remained poor. The BJP came to power promising to ‘eradicate bhaya (fear), bhukh (hunger) and bhrastachar (corruption)’ from Gujarat. ‘But it has remained only a slogan. The party has made no effort to translate it into action,’ RSS chief of the state unit Dr. Kathiwala laments. Factional fights at various levels have become intense, often resulting in conflict among different segments of the Parivar.
A little over a year back the party lost control of many of the municipal corporations, municipalities as well as district and taluka panchayats. Though Keshubhai was replaced by Narendra Mody, a known strategist, he has so far not succeeded in making any positive impact on people’s minds for his ability to govern. Even though he won from Rajkot constituency (by barely 14000 votes), the party lost two assembly bye-elections. Recently, a majority of its supporters lost village panchayat elections. The party leaders confess that they never expected such a rout.
A mere two weeks back most state leaders were fearful that the Gujarat BJP would meet the same fate as its U.P. counterpart. An important ideologue of the party told us last year that, ‘Hindu voters first give primacy to their security and then think about bread.’ The party has failed to satisfy voters on the issue of bread. But it retains its expertise to create a sense of insecurity among the majority voters.
Soon after the 1969 riots, leaflets, presumably issued by the Hindu Dharma Raksha Samiti, a forerunner of the VHP, exhorted Hindus to economically boycott Muslims. Similar leaflets were circulated in all the subsequent riots also. They not only called for a boycott, but also provoked and created a fear psychosis among the Hindus. Recent leaflets once again present economic boycott as the only solution. ‘They (Muslims) buy arms! They molest our sisters and daughters! The way to break the backbone of these elements is "an economic non-cooperation movement".’
Each riot has resulted in segregating the two communities. No educated middle class Muslim can rent or buy a house in a predominantly Hindu locality. Muslims are already discriminated against in the job market. Fortunately, the threat of a complete boycott has so far not materialized, thanks to complex economic and social ties. I can only hope that this will continue to be so in the days to come.