For a more humane society

A.M. SHAH

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I AM writing this article with a great deal of reluctance because I am writing in the backdrop of the recent communal carnage in Gujarat and the high expectations from the intelligentsia (particularly social scientists) to explain satisfactorily the ‘basic’ causes of human behaviour manifested during the carnage. I am afraid social scientists are not yet equipped to perform this task. Second, although I have spent all my working life researching on Gujarat society, I do not know the current situation in Gujarat as well as I should because I have been living away from Gujarat in Delhi since 1961. I cannot say that I know the pulse of Gujarati people as some of my colleagues living in Gujarat might. With these reservations I offer a few reflections for whatever they are worth.

There should be no illusion about the Gujaratis being a non-violent and peace-loving people. I have seen and known a lot of violence in Gujarat ranging from domestic violence (including female infanticide) to bloody fights between groups of people in villages as well as in towns, let alone battles and wars between Rajas in history. It is well known that there are rowdy pockets in every town and city and often politicians and others mobilize them for engaging in violent action during elections, riots, and so on.

Many non-Gujaratis and even some Gujaratis often ask: Why does violence occur frequently and widely in Gujarat despite the fact that Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, lived and worked in Gujarat? This question assumes that Gandhiji’s message of non-violence had penetrated deeply in Gujarati society and culture during his lifetime. This assumption is far from the truth. First, it is necessary to note that Gandhiji left Ahmedabad in 1930 with a vow not to return till India became independent. He did not return even after Independence.

After he left, all the institutions he built up in Gujarat began to decline. His Gujarat-based followers did not have the benefit of his close counsel in running these institutions. In other words, Gandhiji’s influence began to decline in Gujarat even during his lifetime.

The decline of Gandhian institutions became faster after his death and is more or less complete by now. His ideas have of course survived, in books and archives, but there are hardly any individuals today to actively practice them. This legacy of ideas should be revived through various means, but it faces a powerful public opinion in a section of society against Gandhiji – that he did maximum harm to Gujarat and India in respect of Hindu-Muslim relations. A few NGOs have tried to revive the spirit of Gandhism, but they are few and small and have little radiating effect.

 

 

One source of hope for creating a humane society after the holocaust of Partition was the educational system. It has grown in numbers but has failed miserably in performing its role to train citizens who would uphold the values of democracy, secularism and rule of law enshrined in the Constitution. Apart from the fact that primary education has not spread sufficiently, the biggest disappointment is the failure of universities and colleges in Gujarat.

Almost all the universities and colleges have been languishing for quite some time. They have failed to train students imbued with the culture of debate and discussion rather than of violence to solve crucial problems of society. If anything, they have themselves become arenas of violence. The teaching community has not been able to generate a vibrant intellectual culture. Learned societies, journals, publications, newspapers and magazines have all declined. The size as well as quality of a concerned and alert intellectual community has shrunk, such that it has hardly any impact on the conduct of public affairs.

Even before Independence there was some presence of RSS and the sympathizers of its ideology of Hindutva in Gujarat. I recall how at the time of Gandhiji’s assassination this group distributed sweets in Baroda. There were some supporters of this ideology even among professors in Baroda College. The ideology spread slowly but steadily after Partition, and with the emergence of BJP, VHP, Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena – although Shiv Sena is based in Maharashtra, it has quite a few branches in Gujarat – the ideology spread rapidly and widely. It spread even among the Dalits and Adivasis. The recent election of a BJP government in the state was the culmination of this process.

This government took full advantage of its power to spread the ideology in the bureaucracy, police, government schools and other organs of the state by favouring the members of the Sangh Parivar in making appointments and transfers and in other ways. It also protected and encouraged the institutions of the Sangh Parivar in widening and deepening its influence among the people.

 

 

These institutions have for quite some time systematically carried out propaganda against Muslims and Christians in the region. They have spread all kinds of stories about the two religions. Let me cite just one. A few weeks ago in a middle class, upper caste household in Baroda, I listened to the conversation about Hindu-Muslim relations. One person, in all seriousness, said that not only was the Babri mosque in Ayodhya constructed on the ruins of a Rama temple but that the sacred stone of the Kaaba in Mecca had also been installed above the ruins of a Shiva temple. I was shocked that everyone agreed without question. This is the kind of poison that has been poured into the public mind.

These developments at the political level were helped by certain developments at the social and cultural level. First, the process of Sanskritization has been spreading, slowly but steadily, among the middle and lower castes (including Dalits) and the Adivasis. It is tragic that the study of this process remains neglected, if not given up. A prejudice against the concept itself prevails in the new generation of social scientists.

 

 

Second, there has been an enormous growth of Hindu sects, such as the Pushti Marg, Swaminarayan Sampraday, Jalaram Sampraday, Shakti Sampraday, the recent Swadhyay movement and many others, in every respect: number, size and wealth of temples, number of followers and preachers, lavishness of celebrations, religious literature, pilgrimages, and spread in the Indian diaspora. It is unfortunate that the study of sects is neglected, partly because of an old tendency to consider sects as castes. This is a totally false conception. Third, there has been widespread growth of modern associations of devotees of various sects and cults. All these developments in the religious sphere have provided a fertile ground for a growth of politics based on religion.

The time has come for Hindu society to introspect about its role in a modern, democratic, law abiding, multi-ethnic, secular state. Hinduism always had movements to reform itself. During the struggle for Independence many nationalist leaders were also religious reformers, the foremost of whom being Mahatma Gandhi. Hinduism now needs reformers who would reform it according to the demands of a new world order. It should ask itself whether it should hand over its future to the whims and fancies of the trishul and lathi wielding leaders, to the so called sadhus, sants and mahants living in akhadas and indulging in many illegal if not criminal activities.

At a deeper level it should distinguish between its own sober and violent elements – in its deities and rituals (both domestic and temple) and in its myths and philosophical ideas – and decide in favour of the sober elements for guiding its destiny. If this task is not undertaken, the Hindus will fall into the lap of the Sangh Parivar. The members of the minority religions should also introspect on the same line.

 

 

The education system needs to be thoroughly revamped to create a humane society in Gujarat as elsewhere. At the primary and secondary levels the teachers should be rigourously trained to impart the values enshrined in the Constitution to their pupils. This is not a simple matter of changing textbooks but of reorienting the entire approach to teaching. The teacher training colleges have a crucial role to play here. They should develop more active links with the universities, which in turn should take a more active interest in the problems of primary and secondary education. And it is hardly necessary to stress the importance of revitalizing universities, colleges and research institutes, the fountainhead of leadership in ideas as well as civic behaviour.

I would add a special word for social scientists. They should consider religion an integral part of society. No useful social theory or policy can emerge if religion is excluded from social scientific endeavour. A social scientist may not personally believe in religion but he/she should not disregard religion as a social phenomenon. Actually it is a massive social fact and social scientists must confront it creatively. There has been a great deal of discussion on civil society in recent years but at least some of it is unreal since it excludes religion from its purview.

Second, a large part of the study of religion is concerned with rituals, myths and philosophical ideas rather than with the social organization of religion, as for example of sects, temples, mendicant orders, and so on. This lacuna needs to be quickly filled so that we are better able to grasp the role of religion in politics.

Commissions set up by the government will of course do their job of inquiring into the Gujarat riots. A lot has already been written about the nefarious role of the state and its various organs in these riots. I would not like to repeat it. But let us hope that social scientists too will study the riots, however post-facto their studies may be. At least the geography of the riots should be worked out.

 

 

The recent riots seem to have some special features. One such feature is their spread in many more small towns than before and in villages and Adivasi areas. As regards the Adivasi areas I have an informed guess, which may be tested. On the one hand, there has been an economic change. For a long time the shopkeepers in these areas were Banias. However, the Banias gradually migrated to towns and cities to take advantage of better economic prospects there. The Muslims filled this gap. In recent years, they faced competition from the newly emerging Adivasi entrepreneurs, and an uneasy relationship developed.

On the other hand, there has been increasing Sanskritization of Adivasis through various channels of influence working over a long time, as well as recent systematic attempts by the Sangh Parivar to spread its ideology among them. The coalescence of these developments has brought them into the orbit of anti-Muslim violence radiating from thecities. It will be necessary to unravel similar complex forces behind violence in other settings.

Every right-minded Gujarati is ashamed of what has happened in Gujarat, but we have also to look to the future.

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