Gujarat and its bhasmita

MEGHNAD DESAI

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THE renowned Gujarati author and politician K.M. Munshi wrote a classic novel, Gujarat No Nath. In the novel there is an episode of Muslim houses being set on fire in Khambhat, the fief of the villainous Uda Mehta. Kaak the hero rescues a Muslim called Khatib. Munshi adds that Kaak insists on calling him Khatip, exercising the age-old privilege of the powerful to distort the names of the downtrodden. Khatib is produced at the court of Raja Siddharaj at a crucial moment and Uda Mehta’s atrocities are exposed. Having served his purpose Khatib disappears from the narrative. It is the perennial fate of the weak to be a pawn in the power struggle of the elite.

I doubt if anyone would write such a story today. Surely for present day Gujaratis, Uda Mehta is a hero for burning Muslim houses and Kaak a secularist villain. Even Munshi who became a leader of Hindu revivalism, started Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, sponsored a Hindu nationalist multi-volume history of India, and helped rebuild the Somnath temple would not have endorsed Kaak’s conduct were he around today. Yet he wrote, I Follow the Mahatma. The other political hero of Gujarat, Sardar Patel, despite his staunch role in the independence movement, has now been appropriated by the BJP and projected as a hardline alternative on Pakistan and Kashmir to the soft secularist Nehru. Yet I doubt that Sardar Patel, though on the right wing of the Congress, was in any sense a Hindu fundamentalist. Yet that is the way he is celebrated today. Is Gandhi himself being disowned now for his tolerance?

Gujarat has redefined itself from a peace-loving tolerant place full of civility into an aggressive assertive Hindu domain. This has been the result of a steady and assiduous Kulturkampf fought by the Jan Sangh/BJP through the 1980s and the 1990s. On my periodic visits to India during those days, I found good, gentle, middle class Gujaratis, prosperous not poor, steadily turning anti-Muslim. One of my great nieces shocked me when she said, apropos of Dilip Kumar, ‘He is a Muslim; he should not get any film roles.’ I had never ever thought of Dilip Kumar as anything but Dilip Kumar and while everyone knew he was Yusuf Khan no one thought of him as other than Indian till the poison began to spread in the 1980s.

There is a parallel story of the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. After the oil crisis of 1973 the suddenly enriched Saudi Arabia strove to reverse all the modernising tendencies in Islam and wound the clock back to medieval Wahabbism. The Iranian Revolution that followed in 1979 added fuel to the fire. The moral collapse of the Government of India over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses showed that secularism had come to mean equal license for both fundamentalisms. Afghanistan with its Taliban revolution did not help matters either. Its anti-Americanism was the fig leaf for masking fundamentalism, which was both anti-women and anti-modernity.

 

 

But even before all that, Amadavad had riots in 1969 and as Ashutosh Varshney argues in his new book, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life, it is one of the most riot-prone cities in India. Along with Vadodara, it accounts for 80% of the deaths from communal riots in the state. While other states have endemic communalism, Gujarat suffers from episodic or discontinuous communalism. Riots are occasional but when they occur they are extremely vicious. But even so we have to ask, why does Gujarat display this behaviour pattern?

Ashutosh Varshney traces the erosion of civic institutions such as political parties, trade unions and business associations in Gujarat as the proximate cause. The Congress declined relative to the BJP, the textile industry also declined, and so did the unions. Thus civic networks where Hindus and Muslims worked together became weak. I would add to this analysis a few more elements. Democracy, which we much celebrate, has not been good for communal relations. This is because competitive politics has crystallised communities by treating them as vote banks.

 

 

Thus Muslims are a vote bank and as a matter of practice religious leaders become the gatekeepers of that vote bank. Among Hindus, different castes are vote banks – Patidars as against Kshatriyas, dalits against the other backward castes, and so on. Thus far from democracy making India free of caste and communal divisions, as the people of Nehru’s generation hoped, all these divisions have been valorised by competitive electoral politics. Far from becoming a republic of citizens, India has become an archipelago of communities.

Alongside we have experienced a relatively slow economic growth rate, an overwhelming weight of the public sector for jobs and patronage, and the deliberate growth of crime by the maintenance of state interventions such as prohibition and import controls or tariffs. Crime depends on politics and feeds on it. Politics needs criminals for money and muscle. If you want a job or a contract, you have to show your community/vote bank identity and you have to channel your demand through political agents who look after your community. There is no neutral public space left where citizens qua citizens can have redress for their grievances or satisfy their demand for publicly provided goods and services. The army and the judiciary are the only two institutions left that have not been thoroughly politicised.

Yet this again is an all India story. Gujarat remains an exception in its sudden bursts of extreme violence. Again one can only speculate. In the civility for which Gujaratis were known, religion, especially Vaishnavism and Jainism, played a large part. Gujarat could be said to have had its bourgeois revolution sometime in the early twentieth century. The business classes became dominant socially relative to Brahmans or Patidars. These business classes were Jain or Vaishnava and were largely mild, non-coercive, albeit exploitative, capitalists. Yet that was before Independence. Subsequent to the formation of the Gujarat state, politicians emerged as an elite group competing with the businessmen and indeed more powerful than them, thanks to ‘socialist’ economic policies. So the importance of this class has diminished. Other groups emerged – Patidars first and then other caste groups.

 

 

But over the years Gujarat has also prospered faster than many other Indian states. In the last ten or fifteen years, a lot of accumulation has taken place, by bursting through regulations and breaking laws. Defiance of rules and laws has marked this new prosperity. At the same time religion has increasingly become more of a consumable good which has to be flaunted with expensive rituals than a code for civic behaviour. Readings of the Bhagvad Gita or the Ramayana have become festivals of conspicuous consumption. Instead of Vaishnavite pacifism we have Bajrang aggression.

Thus Gujaratis have turned from being meek and mild and proverbially passive to being macho and aggressive. This was indeed how K.M. Munshi fantasised Gujarat to be. That bit about Khatib may have been there to bolster his image as a Gandhian. It is now best forgotten.

 

* There is of course no such word as bhasmita, but bhasma is ashes and asmita is self-image. The connection should then be obvious.

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