The pathology of Gujarat


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IN the collective memory of Gujarat, the opening years of the 20th century are synonymous with the Great Famine followed by widespread plague. Similarly, the opening years of this century will become synonymous with the Great Earthquake followed by communal carnage. While the early years of the last century witnessed large scale out-migration of rural Gujaratis opening up new directions, the present crisis will lead to intrastate migration and out-migration of urban and rural Gujarati Muslims resulting in further ghettoisation. Simultaneously, the worldview of the vast majority of Hindutva oriented Gujarati middle class will most likely shrink further reducing the space for any kind of dialogue.

The Great Famine of 1900, known in popular parlance as chhappaniyo, (referring to Vikram Era 1956) set in motion the migration of not only peasant communities but Dalits as well. Realizing the limit of land based activity, the peasant communities began diversifying into modern sectors – commerce, industry and technical education. Even the Brahmins and Banias from Hindu upper castes and Muslims with a trading background – Bohra, Khoja and Memon – were part of this trend. A few took the route to Africa and Fiji. The combined impact of such migration resulted in greater urbanisation within Gujarat and the expansion of a prosperous Gujarati diaspora.

The second wave of migration from rural Gujarat started in mid-20th century after land reform measures were initiated by the Congress government in Bombay and Saurashtra states. In 1911, less than 20% of the population of Gujarat was concentrated in urban areas and of that only 18% resided in two cities with more than 100,000 population. By 1951, 27% of the population was urbanised and of that 36% was concentrated in six cities with more than 100,000 population.

Though industrialisation started in the mid-19th century, the modern production processes were largely controlled by the mercantile elite that had dominated trade and commerce for centuries. Within the ‘great tradition’ of mercantilism in Gujarat, there existed a powerful stream that propelled every new generation to cross boundaries and establish new frontiers. The beginning of the first textile mill against many odds exemplified this spirit of entrepreneurship. But the value system that governed entrepreneurship remained the age-old code of competition with compromise.



After the first quarter of the 20th century the trend towards greater entrepreneurship in industry and agriculture became marked. Modern and technical education contributed to the rise of new professions – medicine, engineering, agricultural science, pharmacy and banking. The land owning communities diversified from agriculture into these new avenues but continued their linkages with agriculture and the two worlds reinforced each other.

Between the first and second waves of urbanisation, just when mercantile dominance was giving way to the entrepreneur, Gandhi entered the public sphere. Having grown up in a mercantile-turned-administrator family, conversant with the feudal dimensions of Saurashtra society and Mahajan culture, he sensed the looming crises. Mercantile society, dominated by Jain and Vaishnava Banias, thrived on competition and generally resolved conflicts of interest through compromise. While the structure of society was feudal, public life and business dealings were governed by the kajiyanu mon kaalu norm, that is, ‘conflict is always inauspicious’.

However, with the rise of a new entrepreneurial class, the rules governing social and business life were slowly rewritten by the new entrants so as to emphasise ruthless advancement. Gandhi grasped this transition and tension which is why he strongly advocated inter-community harmony, peaceful co-existence and, above all, the primacy of means over ends.



For the first couple of decades after Gandhi’s death, the march of this new dominant class towards urbanisation intertwined with industrialisation and capitalist development of agriculture, manifested in the green and white revolutions. During this period age-old socio-economic practices – the haalipratha or bonded labour system in South Gujarat and vethpratha or forced labour system in the erstwhile princely states – started disappearing because of state intervention, even as the grahakvati or jajmani system was on the decline due to market forces. A new structure of domination emerged, characterised by ruthless exploitation of agricultural and migrant labour by denying them minimum wages as well as the displacement of large numbers of tribal and other backward communities through projects for irrigation, electricity and water.

The social sphere revealed another dimension of the changing scenario. The sex ratio in urban areas steadily decreased from 965 at the turn of the century to 896 in 1961 and 893 in 1971. In Class I cities the figure fell from 909 to 851 and 861 for the same years. This suggests both greater in-migration on the one hand and increasing violence in the private sphere on the other.



Parallel to these developments was the last contribution of Mahajan culture in the form of the establishment of new national level institutions, such as the first Indian Institute of Management, the National Institute of Design and the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad. At the same time the entrepreneur class in smaller towns established new colleges, in which exploitation of teachers and students, reflected another expression of their dominance. This trend is exemplified by the fact that by 1970, Chimanbhai Patel, the rising star of the Congress, controlled more than 70 colleges and successfully subverted the university system. This period also witnessed the hijacking of the cooperative sector – banks, milk dairies and agricultural produce market yards – by the entrepreneur class.

By the late ’60s the social composition of Ahmedabad had radically changed. More and more people from other parts of Gujarat as well as other states such as U.P., M.P. and Rajasthan, started flocking to the city in search of economic opportunities. The contradictions of rapid urbanisation first became visible in Ahmedabad with the outbreak of Hindu-Muslim conflicts from the early sixties, culminating in the eruption of one of the worst post-independence communal riots in 1969. These riots marked the demise of the Mahajan culture as the old city elite among both the Muslims and Hindus were unable to contain the violence. Another feature of these riots was the beginning of the partisan role of the state and the emerging nexus between the political leaders and criminals.

The ’70s witnessed the Navnirman student’s movement, essentially an urban upsurge against those who were repeating ad nauseum the slogans of green and white revolutions. By 1980, however, the power elite had put these developments behind them and moved on to hardcore industrial projects, developing the ‘golden corridor’ from South to North, projecting in sharp focus the image of mini Japan for Gujarat. Even the political leadership of the intermediate and lower communities were incorporated into this culture. The entrepreneurial class marched on and their ethos became the mantra of an ever expanding middle class. The rising middle class of Gujarat, unlike in the 1950s, was no longer dominated by the upper castes. A number of communities from the intermediate castes and socially and educationally backward castes, as well as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, had moved upwards and become part of the middle class, sharing its aspirations and world view.



To recover from the setback caused by the Navnirman movement, the Congress formulated an election strategy around a combination of caste and community known as KHAM (Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim combine). After the great success of this formula in the Assembly elections of 1980, the upper castes for the first time sensed a political and economic threat to their domination. To them it appeared that their political power was slipping away and being transferred to the ‘backward castes and communities’. The educated middle class, mainly the Brahmins, Banias and Patidars, reacted sharply by starting an agitation against the reservation system in 1981.

Probably for the first time in independent India, a modern industrial metropolis experienced such extreme forms of caste violence. The clashes between the savarnas and the Dalits in the industrial periphery of Ahmedabad gradually evolved into a caste war that spread to the towns in 18 out of the then 19 districts. In many villages dominated by land owning Patidars in North and Central Gujarat, Dalit bastis were burnt. Caste tension resurfaced in 1985 in the second anti-reservation agitation. The issue this time was the increase in job quotas of the non-Dalit socially and educationally backward castes; yet the victims were all Dalits. As a result of these two agitations, the Brahmin-Bania-Patidar combine acquired a savarna unity.



The BJP leadership, drawn mainly from the upper castes, indirectly participated in both anti-reservation agitations. But they realised that in order to expand their social base and dislodge the Congress, they would have to co-opt ‘backward communities’ including SC and ST groups. From 1985 onwards, the Sangh Parivar tried to consolidate its social base through a series of symbolic yatras and by 1990, was able to win over a large section of urban Dalits and OBCs. The riots of 1990, after Advani’s arrest during his rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya, saw Dalits and Muslims in pitched battle in industrial Ahmedabad.

In the ’90s, the Sangh Parivar tried to win over tribals who constitute 15% of Gujarat’s population. They did this by systematically creating a rift between the so-called ‘Hindu tribal’ and the ‘Christian tribal’, mainly in the areas south of the Narmada. Dalits, tribals and socially and educationally backward castes were drawn towards Hindutva, seeing in the ideology an opportunity to achieve social acceptance from the savarna society.

At the same time the Hindu Gujarati diaspora was adrift in the western world, in search of an anchor, which they found in the ideology of Hindutva. Since they maintained close linkages with their family and community, Hindutva was nurtured both at home and abroad and in turn gave many Hindus a new meaning and direction to their lives.



In the first half of the 20th century, the rising Gujarati entrepreneurial class along with the middle class expanded and consolidated their economic and social control, deriving meaning and direction from two ideals – independence and nation building. After Independence, the pace of their expansion became more marked as they grew both in number and in their control over the modern economic, educational and political apparatus. With the weakening of the mercantile and Gandhian ethos, degeneration within the Congress and the diminishing of the focus provided by the nation building project, this class became devoid of moorings in any value system.

Despite outward modernisation and institution building, modern values of equality, fraternity, justice and secularism remained weak. In the ensuing vacuum, Hindutva provided both an identity beyond caste and community as well as sanction to pursue their own agenda of greater political, economic and social control. Also, Hindutva as ideology scarcely raises any ethical questions for its supporters. In the case of Gujarat, this aspect made it more attractive for the entrepreneur middle class that wants to perpetuate its hegemony.

Even prior to the events of February-March-April this year, the aftermath of the earthquake provided a glimpse of the future that lies ahead for Gujarat. In the immediate relief phase we saw discrimination against Muslim communities by both the state machinery and volunteers of the Sangh Parivar. Indeed the demarcation between the two was hardly visible. In the rehabilitation phase, discrimination was extended to Dalits, Kolis (OBC community) and pastoralists whose damaged property was neither surveyed nor were their compensation amounts fixed in a just and proper manner. Though many of them continue to struggle on these issues, the middle class has hardly raised any voice of protest.

When villages had to be shifted to new sites, the dominant communities of Patidars and Darbars ensured that Dalits, other ‘backward communities’ and Muslims were allotted separate venues away from their village. In many cases, two villages were formed, thereby revealing the upper caste sense of exclusiveness as also their shrinking horizons.



If the ‘violence’ around the post-earthquake relief and rehabilitation was ‘invisible’, the violence in ongoing communal conflagration is there for everyone to see. The Sangh Parivar and the state apparatus have once again coalesced, this time to loot, burn and murder, and then shield each other. Citing the Godhra carnage, the entrepreneur class and burgeoning Hindu middle class found no difficulty in justifying open violence, including the lawlessness of the state. It is significant that in the private sphere, the same class has perpetrated violence within their own family in the form of foeticide and infanticide. The 2001 Census reveals that the latest sex ratio in urban Gujarat is 879 females per 1000 males, the lowest figure in the last hundred years.

It goes on to add: ‘The overall sex ratio is affected by migration from rural to urban areas in search of employment, education, etc. The sex ratio in the population category of 0-6 years is, however, relatively immune to such bias/aberrations and can be said to be a relatively stable indicator. On this count also, the state of Gujarat has fared badly as the 0-6 year sex ratio has decreased from 928 in 1991 to only 878 in 2001.’ The five worst blocks in this category are Unjha, Mansa, Visnagar, Mehsana and Prantij where the number of females ranges from 781 to 734. The same blocks witnessed communal violence in varying degrees.



At this juncture, one may ask whether the visible and invisible violence is turning Gujarat into a dark zone. If we examine the geography of the present communal violence closely, we find that Saurashtra and Kutch remained relatively calm. Except Rajkot and Bhavnagar which were disturbed for the first two days, all the other towns and most villages remained quiet. South Gujarat too remained peaceful, with the exception of Surat city that saw some unrest in the early days. It is also significant that the tribals of South Gujarat did not participate in the violence unlike the tribals of the northeastern Bhil belt. Even in rural North and Central Gujarat which have been at the centrestage of violence, a number of Hindu communities – Dalits, Thakor, Rajput and pastoralists – protected and sheltered Muslims.

The next Assembly elections, whether held now or later, will be decisive in more than one way. Even if the Congress were to win, it would be unable to stop the onward march of the entrepreneur class and the middle class, and the accompanying invisible violence. What might perhaps change is the blatant state support to visible violence. The dominant classes would be forced to introspect and reconsider their worldview only if the deprived and oppressed strata throw up radical challenges through people’s movements.