The problem

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MORE than two months after Gujarat erupted in a fury of hate-filled violence, the situation has still to settle down. Only on surface does it appear that the dark days of end February and March are behind us; the seeming calm episodically shattered by yet another incident, often in newer areas including outside the state.

A few years back, Seminar had published a special symposium on Gujarat (470, October 1998) in an effort to capture different facets of one of the fastest growing regions in the country. Many of the contributors pointed to a disturbing trend, what Harish Khare described as the iron that seemed to have entered the Gujarati soul. Old time residents of the state were particularly concerned about a growing culture of intolerance – a vision of a nation with little legitimate space for anyone dubbed an outsider – Dalits, Christians and, above all, Muslims. The apprehension was that the emerging Gujarat, characterized by a provincial, middle class, upper caste Hindu outlook, seemed to have shed its one-time accommodating, adaptive and welcoming spirit. In brief, not a nice place to be in.

Yet nothing had quite prepared either the ordinary Gujarati or the rest of the country for the frenzy and quality of violence that overwhelmed substantial parts of the state in early March. Ostensibly triggered off by the brutal, senseless and condemnable incarceration of karsevaks on the Sabarmati Express at Godhra Junction – men, women and children on their way back after participating in a VHP yagna at Ayodhya – the violence, almost all of it directed against the Muslim community whose members stood accused of the outrage, soon spread elsewhere in the state. Though some ‘reaction’ was expected, the intensity took even hardened observers of communal riots by surprise.

It was soon evident that this was no ordinary communal riot, no spontaneous outburst of pent up anger against the ‘other’. Rather, it was a systematic carnage, a targeted looting, arson and killing of vulnerable Muslim groups, age and gender providing no protection. For close to three days, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Bharuch and other major cities in the state were on fire – notable exceptions being Surat (the site of a major conflagration in 1993) and Kutch. And unlike many previous such happenings, the frenzy was not restricted to cities and their immediate environs. The countryside, be it the peasant areas of Mehsana or the tribal hinterlands of Panchmahals, soon joined in. In many ways it was a re-play of the dark days of Partition, except that this time the fury was one-sided.

More shocking was the veritable collapse of the state apparatus, the law and order machinery. Correction. What was witnessed, rare exceptions apart, was cynical partisanship. Like in Delhi, 1984 and Mumbai, 1992-93, the police played ‘helpless bystander’, if not active participants directing the rampaging mobs.

The state government took its time in calling in the army. The Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, covered himself with unglory by referring to Newton’s laws of motion and making dark noises about the ubiquitous hand of the ISI. The Centre diddled. The prime minister did not react for the first two days and then, other than expressing pain, seemed more worried about the sullying of the country’s fair name abroad. The home minister, himself an MP from Gandhinagar, did visit but avoided his constituency. And the ruling party and its allies rushed to the defense of the administration.

By the time an element of order was restored, even by official estimates, there were over 700 dead. Unofficial figures were close to 2000. Muslim houses and establishments lay completely destroyed and thousands of victims were huddled in refugee camps.

Even as the BJP claims of providing a trouble-free administration (selective amnesia about the earlier targeting of Dalits, tribals and Christians) lay shattered, the state leadership patted itself on the back for bringing the situation so rapidly under control – a claim incidentally rubbished not only by the national media or the many citizen enquiry reports, but the National Human Rights Commission. Not that any further proof of what had happened, or was happening, was needed. Gujarat 2002 was our first experience of a televised riot, with live coverage and commentary entering every cable-connected drawing room. Televised riots run the danger of exacerbating a troubled situation; they also help nail a lie.

Today, as both state and society pick up their shattered pieces, questions arise if not about the ‘what’, then definitely about the ‘why’ and the long-term consequences. Take first the disturbing data about participation. Even in a region no stranger to riots – the role of women, and not just as backroom supporters, was unusual. So too was the involvement of the gentry – the well-off strata, particularly in arson and looting. While the role of the underclass as storm troopers is well-recognised, significant participation of Dalits and tribals, often themselves on the receiving end in earlier cases, was in evidence.

What is most shocking is the relative absence of remorse. True, there is the refrain that ‘things got out of hand’, but clearly substantial sections of savarna society not only felt that the Muslims had it coming, some even expressed satisfaction the Hindus had finally demonstrated that they would no longer be passive victims and take things lying down.

Is this the natural outcome of a two-decade long programme of Hindutva, a hate inspired social mobilisation helped in no small measure by the Ramjanmabhoomi campaign? Does the steady fracturing of the once invincible Congress party and its one-time plank of KHAM, leaving the political space vacant for the BJP, have something to do with the new political culture? Are we witnessing a cynical consolidation of political Hindutva, central to which is not only the targeting of minorities but a blatant manipulation and subsequent erosion of the impartiality and efficacy of all organs of the state apparatus?

It is difficult to deny that much of what happened did so only because the marauders were confident that they would go unpunished. The swift transfer of the few competent and impartial police officers from their position, overruling protests by the police establishment, has only strengthened that feeling. A process, incidentally, that has not stopped, leading even to the ‘resignation’ of two serving officers of the IAS.

One could conceivably argue that the above is a familiar script. Apologists for the administration remind us that the riots of 1969 and the anti-Dalit turned anti-Muslim violence of the mid-80s went on for much longer, and that was under a Congress dispensation. We are asked to recollect the gravity of the provocation at Godhra. Or the depredations of our western neighbour, the growth of sectarian and fundamentalist elements in the Muslim community. Blame is placed on irresponsible media. Everything to ‘prove’ that the situation was exceptional, and that despite all this, order was restored.

Possibly these forensic concerns may be somewhat clarified by the judicial enquiry ordered into the events, though it must be admitted that few have faith that ‘truth’ will ever come out. But what of deeper questions related to Gujarati state and society, questions that have a bearing on the nation as a whole?

Take first the issues relating to the position of Muslims in Gujarati society. Whatever the references to a one-time pragmatic and inclusive Mahajan culture, the millennium long presence of the Muslim community has not ensured its easy acceptance. Even before the rise of the BJP and associated formations, it was rare to come across mixed settlements. Even well-off professionals were pushed into a ghettoised existence, a process strengthened by the long history of riots.

It is also a matter of some concern that the Muslim community is vastly under-represented both in education and the formal sector job market. Ill-trained, uneducated, stigmatised and ghettoised, significant sections of urban Muslim communities have over time been forced into the informal sector, sometimes criminality, for survival. Proximity to Pakistan and the avenues it provides for smuggling – earlier alcohol, now narcotics, guns and false currency – only helps consolidate a negative stereotype. Little do we realise that mainstream society and polity, in acting and behaving the way it does, only contributes to a self-fulfilling prophesy, that co-living is impossible.

Take also the fact that Gujarat is among our most industrialised and urbanised states with a vast majority of the urban populace living in slums and sub-standard housing. Immigration to the city continues apace, pushed episodically by droughts, cyclones and earthquakes. And riots, for it is in numbers that vulnerable communities seek protection. Today, after so much destruction, what is our vision of urban Gujarat? Surely not a replication of apartheid South Africa.

A similar problem marks the industrialisation process. The old textile industry has all but faded away. The new capital and skill intensive processes – mainly petrochemical – provide little space for the underclass. Worse, with the minority community capital base and housing stock targeted and destroyed, and the better-off among them out-migrating, who will take over the leadership of those who remain? Are we not setting the stage for a continuing social conflict, a danger that becomes even more acute if there is little faith in the impartiality of the state apparatus and the majority community remains recalcitrant about reforming its behaviour. It is significant that while there is some talk about compensation for property loss, there is no move about setting up a reconstruction commission.

It is a matter of some concern that few members of our industrial establishment have so far spoken out against the recent developments, this despite a substantial loss of capital and a clear erosion of business confidence. Surely not because they approve of what happened? Is it that since the regions of new industrialisation, mainly coastal, have so far remained unaffected, they are less concerned? But is that not shortsighted? In a socially tense environment, with many daily wage and contract workers in difficult straits, an out-migration of professionals is unlikely to leave their world unaffected.

Then, there is the response of civil society organisations to the recent events. Despite the formidable legacy of Gandhian and other voluntary formations, both religious and secular, the overwhelming self-activity so visible after the 2001 earthquake is strangely missing. Of course, there are the rare exceptions – individuals and organisations that continue to brave the odds. But they remain, unfortunately, uncommon. Partly it is shock, possibly even indifference, but above all, it is fear of the hoodlums. There is condemnation of the state government, symbolic peace marches and hunger fasts, some attempt at helping victims seek compensation, file FIRs and assist the many fact-finding commissions. But, sadly, there is an inadequate presence in the relief camps. For once it appears that the victims have been left to fend for themselves. Very unlike Delhi in 1984.

Elsewhere, outside the state, there is far greater outrage. But here too, barring the ritual condemnation and demands for the dismissal of the state government, or appeals to peace and brotherhood, one senses a strange helplessness. No one is quite sure how to act and intervene in a situation of such hostility, from elements in the administration but also from society. There is even apprehension that well-meaning interventions might backfire; that rather than shame the silent majority who acquiesced in the carnage, they may further harden attitudes.

It is important at this stage to highlight the role of the religious leaders. What if the high priest of the Swaminarayan sect who enjoys such high credibility in the Gujarati Hindu community, including the NRIs, had issued an unequivocal call for peace? Or if Murari Bapa and Asaram Bapu, whose pravachans are followed avidly by millions of faithful, and not just in the state, had organised a public prayer meeting? Would this not have helped calm things down?

The one group whose behaviour caused little surprise was the politicians. The BJP has so far behaved true to form, the state unit unrepentant and defiant with the central leadership continuing to be evasive despite widespread criticism. But even the Congress, the main opposition party, though it has now launched a ‘remove Modi’ campaign waited far too long. Possibly, like all ‘calculating’ entities, it was waiting to assess the electoral fallout of the ‘riots’. Not only did we witness minimal engagement with relief and rehabilitation, or the setting up of local level peace committees, we saw no move to rush in relief by other Congress administrations, the way it happened after the earthquake of 2001. Clearly, the party missed out on an opportunity to seize the moral high ground and reinvent itself as more than just a political party in search of power.

Of course, there were places that remained peaceful. Partly this was because of speedy and efficacious administrative action. Equally, the presence of local level community organisations drawing in individuals from across the social spectrum, helped. As Ashutosh Varshney has so convincingly argued, sites of potential communal conflict, to avoid conflagration, need a mix of state and community action. There has to be an active stake in peace.

Gujarat 2002 throws up many challenges, difficult questions and choices, and not just for the state under scrutiny. Every time such carnages go unresponded by an ostrich-like behaviour that treats each event as an aberration, a one-off, we undermine the possibility of India emerging as a civilized society. This issue of Seminar debates these troubling questions in these troubled times. On trial is not just the political establishment, but all of us.

 

HARSH SETHI

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