Making sense of Gujarat


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THE horrendous violence that has occurred in Gujarat since 27 February raises three questions. First, since intercommunal violence is not new to Gujarat, is its current manifestation significantly different and, if so, how? Second, how does one explain it? And third, what lessons can we learn for the future? I shall take each question in turn. Since all the facts about the recent events are not yet available, my answers to all three, especially the first two questions, are necessarily tentative.

Every Indian state has its own distinct pattern of intercommunal violence. Although none is wholly free of it, some such as Himachal Pradash, Punjab, Haryana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have witnessed far less of it than such others as Bihar, U.P. and Maharashtra. Unlike the latter, Gujarat is not prone to communal violence in the sense that it does not tend to occur with distressing regularity, as is evident in the fact that during the past fifty years, Gujarat has enjoyed over thirty years of communal peace. However, when violence does occur, as it did in 1969 and 1992-93, it tends to be extensive and to last longer, giving Gujarat the dubious double distinction of having the highest per capita deaths in such violence in the country and causing the highest number of casualties in a single cluster of riots.

Compared to 80 deaths in communal riots per million in Bihar and 42 in the neighbouring Maharashtra during the past fifty years, the figure for Gujarat is 120.1 In the riots in 1969, 630 people died according to official estimates (though the real figure seems to be closer to 2500) and many more were seriously injured, a figure unmatched by any other Indian state. Gujarat thus presents the remarkable paradox of a relatively peaceful and relaxed society periodically seized by a communal frenzy and erupting into most savage acts of violence, almost as if it needed such abnormal blood-letting to retain its normal civility.

Since 27 February this year, Gujarat has been passing through its third violent phase. It has killed nearly a thousand people and injured or rendered homeless many times more. Although the scale of casualty is high, it is not much higher and, many would say, even lower than in 1969. The blatant partisanship of the public, the looting of shops, and the biased and at times irresponsible reporting in the media are not new either. Several features of this violence, however, are either wholly new or have taken novel forms.

First, burning people alive in a systematic and gruesome manner is new. As many as 400 people out of nearly a thousand seem to have been killed in this way. This can be partly explained as a case of ‘fire for fire’, a response to the initial incident in which 58 people were burned to death. This is not, however, a whole explanation. The mode of violence derives its logic and legitimacy from the overall framework within which violence is conceived and justified. When violence is not interpersonal but intercommunal and part of one community’s collective hostility against another, as was the case in Gujarat, burning people alive has sinister advantages and a macabre logic not available to usual forms of killing. It can be easily executed by organised groups with the tacit support or acquiescence of their community, used to wipe out large numbers indiscriminately, poses no danger to the perpetrators, and helps create the intended climate of terror.



Second, in earlier riots the Sangh Parivar was not as publicly active, and the government not as patently partisan, as now. There was also a public disapproval of violence, and a plea for communal harmony. During the recent riots, communalism ran extremely deep and pervaded almost all areas of life. The Gujarati media were grossly biased and even provocative. The government gave up all pretence of neutrality and openly encouraged Hindu violence. It even offered differential compensation to Hindus and Muslims, and wants to try them under different laws, Muslims under POTA and Hindus under IPC. Communalism seems to have spread even to some hospitals in Ahmedabad. And the advocates of intercommunal harmony are not only thrown on the defensive but positively terrorised into silence.

Third, the violence in Gujarat did not remain confined to the usual cities of Ahmedabad and Baroda (the ‘sanskarnagari’ as its citizens have been taught to call it without any sense of embarrassment and irony), but extended to 37 cities and towns and even to some villages that had no previous record of such violence. Even Gandhinagar became a victim, where fire was set to the offices of the government Wakf Board and the Minority Development Board.



Fourth, violence in Gujarat involved groups that had hitherto kept out of it. These included the adivasis, subjected in recent years to the systematic process of Hinduisation and ‘protected in their own interest’ against Christian and more recently Islamic missionaries, as a VHP leader put it. The new groups also included professionals, especially doctors, lawyers and teachers who, while avoiding active participation, donated money, offered moral support and encouragement, and provided free services to Hindu victims of violence. They drove in their cars to burning buildings and watched the horrid spectacle with a measure of relief and even pride.

Not surprisingly, the groups who would normally have protested, organised silent visits, mounted demonstrations or sent petitions to the state Governor were largely silent. Even the Gandhians, the social activists, and progressive religious leaders were relatively quiet. They either sheltered behind the excuse of helplessness or argued that although the Hindu violence was deplorable, it was an understandable expression of legitimate anger. The public space in Gujarat shrank dramatically and little was heard but the raucous voices of rage and revenge.

Fifth, unlike in almost all previous riots, several sacred Muslim places such as the mosques and the dargahs were not only razed to the ground but replaced by saffron flags and the statues of Hanuman. This was highly symbolic, for it was a way of humiliating Muslims and telling them that their religious and other liberties were not a matter of right but a Hindu gift that was conditional on their continuing gratitude and evidence of good behaviour. Muslim houses, shops and industrial units too were systematically targeted, and a virtual economic war was declared on the whole community. Muslim intellectuals were attacked with particular hostility, and their voices of protest brutally silenced.



Finally, the rhetoric surrounding the violence showed several unusual features. It was targeted not only against those responsible for the event of 27 February, but against all Muslims. The latter were linked with Pakistan and presented as an internal enemy. The violence against them was driven not so much by communal hatred as in the past but by a dangerous mixture of self-righteous rage and despair, rage that Muslims had engaged in a ‘terrorist’ act, and despair that they ‘would never be ours’, as a newspaper commentator put it.

Hindus worked themselves into a state of frenzy and resorted to violence, not just in legitimate self-defence but as an act of patriotism and a well-deserved chastisement of Muslims for their alleged ingratitude and betrayal. Their violence often lacked instrumental rationality and was devoid of any sense of guilt and remorse. It was not the usual form of communal violence but a veritable war on the Muslims, and terrorist in its nature and intention. Gujarat, which had once given India its doctrine of non-violence, was now the home of a most perverse form of intercommunal violence.

This is a new Gujarat, not the one I knew as a child, which I love, and to which I am still proud to belong. Like the rest of India, society in Gujarat has long been suffused with the spirit of violence. But it had mechanisms to control and regulate it, and had managed to remain decent and civilised. How then can one explain recent changes in it?



The gruesome event of 27 February played an obvious part. All the currently available evidence indicates that it was planned. Several hundred Muslims, supported, guided and even aided by the Mayor and the municipal corporators of Godhra, stopped the Sabarmati Express a little distance from the station, poured petrol, and killed 58 people including children and women. They could have spared the latter, but showed no mercy. They could have beaten up the kar sevaks and humiliated them, but chose instead to subject them to a most gruesome death.

They are bound to have known that their action would invite reprisal, but did not mind it in the least and seemed to challenge the Hindus to dare do their worst. In short, burning down the carriage was a heinous and terrorist act, devoid of mercy, moderation, prudence and even an elementary concern for self-interest. Even if it is true that kar sevaks had insulted and taunted some Muslims, refused to pay for their goods, and even kidnapped a Muslim girl, nothing could justify the atrocious deed. A strong Hindu reaction was only to be expected.

It need not, however, have taken the form it did. The Hindus could have blamed the few hotheads and left it to the government machinery to deal with them. Or they could have blamed the Pakistan ISI, as some did, and absolved the Godhra Muslim masses of the major blame. After all, as was widely known and admired in Gujarat, the far worse events of 11 September in New York and Washington D.C. had not led to organised violence against American Muslims or Arabs. Only a handful of them were manhandled and half a dozen killed or grievously injured, largely because the political leadership went to great length to persuade the ordinary Americans that they should leave the matter to the machinery of the state. The opposite happened in Gujarat. Why? Since the full explanation is complex and requires a lengthy discussion, I shall only highlight its five major ingredients.



First, the government of Gujarat and the central government failed to act in time with the required degree of political wisdom and maturity. Following and quoting the examples of the United States and Britain after the events of 11 September, either or both governments could have condemned the Godhra incident, promised to bring the miscreants to swift justice, appealed to the good sense and long-term interests of the Hindus, urged them not to blame ordinary Muslims and play into the hands of their militants and the ISI, and so on. Sadly, not much was to be expected of the Modi government, but the prime minister could certainly have given a lead.

Second, since 11 September it has been widely believed in India that the events like those of 27 February were likely to occur sooner or later. The defeated Al Qaeda were believed to be looking for new trouble spots and India was their most likely target, particularly Kashmir. Gujarat’s perception was somewhat different. It is a frontline state, with its three districts of Kutch, Radhanpur and Thorad bordering Pakistan, and hence vulnerable to Islamic terrorists. Given its currently popular reading of its medieval history, including the destruction of the Somnath temple, Shahbuddin Ghori’s treatment of Prithviraj Chauhan, and so on, Gujarat also tends to see itself as an Islamic gateway to India, a state whose prosperity attracted Muslim invaders and whose defeat paved the way for their successful entry into the rest of the country.

The burning of the carriage in Godhra appeared to confirm these fears and aroused powerful passions. Without much analysis or evidence, it was construed as a sign of the widely expected Islamic terrorism, which Hindus had to put down with all the force at their command. Gujarat has long felt that its geopolitical importance is not fully appreciated by the rest of India and has not earned it its due political weight at the national level. Not surprisingly, many Gujaratis leapt to a highly distorted view of the Godhra incident and took it upon themselves to defend India against its internal and external ‘enemies’.



Third, for reasons too complex to explore, Gujarat is going through a period of profound cultural change. For the past few centuries, its traditional culture has been shaped and dominated by the higher castes made up of the Brahmins, the Banias and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Patidars. They wrote its literature, produced its arts, interpreted its religions and philosophy, and created over time a subtle and highly complex culture that spread to and determined the norms of other sections of society. That culture is largely apolitical, hierarchical, tolerant, casteist, moralistic, devotional and moderately religious. Gandhi injected into it a strong social consciousness and the spirit of equality, but did not radically alter its overall framework.

Its political domination was challenged by the numerically larger lower castes, especially after Gujarat became a separate state in 1960, and Madhavsinh Solanki’s winning KHAM (kshatriya, harijan, adivasi and Muslim) strategy gave it a much-needed impetus. The higher caste guardians of the dominant culture felt threatened, and found in the Hindutva-based Gujarati culture an effective and acceptable alternative. The latter makes them guardians of Hindu culture, ensures their dominance, splits the political alliance between the lower castes and the Muslims, and integrates the former within the cultural and social order of Gujarat.

Muslims are not easy to fit into the new Gujarati culture and its model of a ‘good Gujarati’. They speak ashuddha Gujarati and lack a compensating command of chaste ‘Urdu’ whose poetry literate Gujaratis greatly admire, and do things no good Gujaratis should do, such as illicit bootlegging, eating meat, practising polygamy and forming part of the underworld. Muslims, therefore, have only two choices, namely remain permanent cultural outsiders or, more sensibly, change their ways, speak, act and live as good Gujaratis do, and keep to their place in society.



Self-respecting Muslims rightly resent this choice, and as they are throwing up an increasingly larger middle class, the resentment is rising. They do not want to live in Gujarat on Hindu terms, to be denied the right to help shape the new identity of Gujarat, to be subjected to offensive innuendos and stereotypes, to have their legitimacy and patriotism challenged. They demand respect for their cultural identity and full equality as citizens. This threatens the new identity and material interests of, and predictably provokes intense hostility among the guardians of the Hindutva-based Gujarati culture, especially the middle classes. Hence the uncharacteristic rage, frenzy and viciousness that many of the latter showed during the recent riots.

Fourth, although Hindus and Muslims have lived together in relative harmony in Gujarat, there is extensive residential, social and educational segregation in many parts of the state. In Godhra some areas with a heavy Muslim concentration are called ‘Pakistan’, and many Hindus tend to avoid them. This is also the case in Ahmedabad and several other cities.



Hindu and Muslim children often go to different schools, and the social interaction between the two communities is largely confined to the elite. There are few intercommunal associations where the two meet, pursue their common interests, and build up solidarities based on mutual trust. Muslim presence in the police force and the civil service is small. Their representation in the Gujarat legislative assembly is poor, and was never more than four per cent (a third of its numbers in the population as a whole) even during the heyday of the KHAM strategy. This is why the Gujarat police had no intelligence on the Godhra incident, and was caught unawares. And this is also why the police and the Modi government did not have to worry about the likely resignations of prominent Muslims in protest against their unpardonable partisanship.

Finally, Muslim leadership in Gujarat and in India as a whole leaves much to be desired. Some are too willing to be co-opted into the system, and have little interest in their community except as a captive vote bank; some are happy to be outlaws, masterminding the underworld and making easy money by dubious means; most are adrift. Barely a handful of them have campaigned against their community’s unacceptable social and moral practices, the tyranny of its religious leaders and their exploitation of their gullible followers, or urged Muslim masses to take enthusiastically to modern education and join the cultural mainstream of Gujarat.

Some, no doubt a tiny but vocal minority, have made provocative remarks about Hindu religion and culture and even disavowed their loyalty to the country. It is also depressing that there was no immediate and strong condemnation of the burning of the kar sevaks by the Muslim leadership either in Gujarat or at the national level. One would have thought that both morality and self-interest would have prompted them to do so.



Even the Ayodhya issue has been treated as if it were solely a Hindu responsibility. The Hindus were unwise to raise it, not because of the lack of historical evidence that Rama was born there, for the evidence in such matters is always soft and based on popular belief, but because history cannot be easily undone, because India can ill-afford communal tensions at this delicate stage in its history, and because such issues are best settled when the two communities build up more relaxed and trustful relations with each other.

However, once the Ayodhya issue became an obsession among large sections of Hindu society, it was no longer a religious but a political dispute requiring goodwill and compromise on both sides. Political prudence and their own long term self-interest demanded that rather than stonewall the discussion and take a consistently hostile line, Muslim leadership should have shown some appreciation of Hindu feelings, however misguided they might think these to be, explained their own deepest fears and anxieties, helped calm the passions, and invited and constructively participated in a sincere search for the best ways of dealing with such disputes.

The Gujarat violence then was the product of a complex set of interacting factors. The burning of the carriage on 27 February was its immediate cause. And the fear of such an attack and the consequent climate of revenge gave it an added force. The chain of events that this triggered off was not inexorable and could have been arrested had the government acted with wisdom and foresight. The fact that it did not, as well as the savage passions which the events released among Hindus, were in turn the result of a wider set of cultural, social and political factors, including the polarisation between the two communities, the pervasive communalisation of the Hindus, and narrow electoral calculations.



What happened in Gujarat is likely to recur, if not there, in other parts of the country. Ayodhya will remain a festering sore for some time yet. The Muslim middle class will grow and knock at doors the threatened Hindus are unlikely to open. Political instability in Pakistan and the neighbouring regions will tempt their leaders or disgruntled groups to embark on adventurist interventions in India. Economic, educational and other disparities between Hindus and Muslims are likely to widen.

All this is likely to trigger intercommunal violence from time to time, and it is likely to be of the vicious kind that we have witnessed in Gujarat. We obviously need a coherent strategy to deal with it, and it will need to be different from the one on which we have relied with moderate success for the past fifty years. I would like to end with a few thoughts on its broad outlines.

Intercommunal violence undermines India’s stability and capacity to function as a democracy, and must be put down firmly. This is the first responsibility of every state and central government, and one that fails to discharge it should be required to resign as a matter of course. If need be, our Constitution should be appropriately amended. Furthermore, any political leader or minister suspected of instigating it should be prosecuted on criminal charges and disqualified from holding public office. It is scandalous that none of the political leaders implicated in any of our countless communal riots has ever been sent to prison. If we can have POTA, there is no reason why we cannot enact a far more relevant Prevention of Communal Violence Act.



The police too have a crucial role to play. They should be required to act with utmost impartiality, and dismissed and prosecuted for criminal negligence when shown to have failed to do so. Our criminal law needs to be revised to allow for private or public prosecution of such officers. The police act partially because of political pressure, poor professional ethics, lack of independent control, and absence of minority officers in high positions. Determined efforts should be made to insulate them against political pressure, to improve their training, to recruit and promote qualified minority officers, and to set up independent disciplinary committees made up of the representatives of different communities and enjoying the power to conduct inquiries against partisan officers.

The current practice of setting up judicial committees of inquiry into riots needs to be reconsidered. These committees are time-consuming, expensive, adversarial, and take years to produce their reports by which time the initial riots are forgotten, the government or its attitude is likely to have changed, and there is an inevitable political pressure to shelve their reports.

Take Gujarat. J.M. Reddy’s inquiry into the 1969 riots took four years, and its report was shelved. I.C. Bhatt’s and P.M. Chauhan’s inquiries were wound up after a while. Since the judicial committees are only concerned to establish facts and apportion blame, they not only entail yet further litigation but do little to heal the wounds and reconcile the affected communities. I suggest that the inquiry committees should be proactive and investigative rather than adversarial and report within six months; they should be concerned not only to ascertain facts but also to reconcile the parties, and should therefore include not only the judges but also respected leaders of the communities involved; and the government should be required to implement their recommendations unless it gives good reasons to the contrary.



Intercommunal violence cannot be tackled by the state alone. The institutions of civil society too have a vital role to play. It is, therefore, crucial that in all sensitive areas, extensive networks of intercommunal groups should be formed. They should be made up of the representatives of different communities with a track record of public service, interact on a regular basis with their constituents and earn their trust and goodwill, enjoy access to government ministers, officials and the police, and be willing and able to act in times of trouble.

Wherever such networks exist in the country, they have played a vital role in calming passions, quashing rumours, providing vital intelligence, and acting as a bridge between the various communities. Suresh Khopade’s successful experiment in Bhiwandi in the 1980s shows how valuable such groups can be. When the rest of Bombay suffered in 1992-93, Bhiwandi remained relatively undisturbed.

Strange as it may seem, India has no strong anti-discriminatory legislation, and naturally no machinery to enforce it. India’s Human Rights Commission has been a great success and is much admired abroad, so much so that we on the British Parliamentary Select Committee on Human Rights are coming to Delhi in September this year to learn from it. Such a Commission, however, is not enough. Much discrimination occurs against Muslims in all walks of life, and they have no legal redress. I saw cases of this during the three years that I was Vice Chancellor of the University of Baroda in the 1980s, and was disturbed by the growing sense of injustice and alienation among middle class Muslims.



Anti-discriminatory legislation is ineffective without a powerful body to enforce it and to mobilise much needed popular support behind it. It can take up individual cases as well as conduct investigations into suspect institutions and organisations. I can say from my experience as Deputy Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality in Britain that such legislation and machinery can go a long way towards reassuring minorities and winning popular confidence in the country’s system of justice. It would also help greatly to assign such a body the power to monitor the progress of different communities, and to propose ways of addressing the problems of those lagging behind the rest.

Thanks to our unplanned economic development and the impact of globalisation, some of our minorities, especially the Muslims, are denied the fruits of such prosperity as we have managed to achieve. Both central and state governments must find ways of redressing this growing disparity. Extending reservations is not the answer. We need instead greater investment in Muslim education, greater financial and managerial help to their small businesses, a greater determination to open up careers that they rightly or wrongly believe to be closed to them, and so on, all done with the threefold objective of eliminating acute poverty, fostering a confident middle class, and giving their masses the hope of a better future.



Muslim leadership too needs to take a long and hard look at itself. With all its obvious limitations, India’s record in treating its minorities is not at all bad, especially in the light of the trauma of the Partition. For their part the minorities, including the Muslims, have served the country well. They have fought in India’s wars with Pakistan, immensely enriched Indian cultural life, have been generally peaceful and law-abiding, and have shown their commitment to the country. Many of them feel economically trapped, socially vulnerable, culturally confused, religiously manipulated by their clerics and Imams, and disowned by their professionals. They very much want to be part of India’s great democratic and secular experiment, but also feel rightly attached to their history and culture, and do not know how to reconcile the two.

Their current cultural and political leadership is wholly out of touch with their deepest aspirations and agonies, and compensates for its incompetence and immaturity by arousing and exploiting false fears and hopes. It is about time the talented minds within the Muslim community developed a coherent vision of their place in India and provided an imaginative, skilful and open-minded leadership.

Even if these and other measures were taken, and only a naive optimist thinks that they will be, communal violence would remain a constant threat as long as Hindu chauvinism continues to flourish. Many in Gujarat and indeed in the rest of India have increasingly come to think of the country in narrow Hindu terms. India, they say, ‘essentially’ or ‘primarily’ belongs to the Hindus, defined culturally to refer to those who, among other things, see the country as their pitrubhumi and punyabhumi. This is an incoherent and misguided view. The internally self-contradictory Hindutva ideology alienates not only our minorities but also a large majority of Hindus, and cannot be the basis of India’s identity. The BJP cannot be both ‘Bharatiya’ and committed to Hindutva.



India’s national identity needs to be so defined that all Indians, irrespective of their cultural, ethnic, religious and other differences can enthusiastically identify with it, own it with pride, and build up on its basis a common sense of national belonging. It must, therefore, be defined in political terms, not cultural or religious. What all Indians share in common is their commitment to the political community of which they are all equal citizens and to which they are bound by the ties of loyalty. We need an overarching notion, not of Hindutva but of Bharatiyata, one that affirms and cherishes our rich cultural and religious diversity and embeds it in those public values, sensibilities and institutions that we all do or should share in common.

This great political project requires a historically sensitive imagination, a culturally attuned intelligence, and a shrewd sense of political possibilities. Sadly, none of these qualities is much in evidence, either among the fanatical BJP ideologues who are busy destroying the country they claim to love, or among their simpleminded secular opponents whose thinking has advanced little since Nehru’s death.2



1. These figures are to be found in Ashutosh Varshney’s Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, Yale University Press, 2002. Although his general thesis that strong associational forms of civic engagement are a crucial variable in explaining communal conflict is insightful, it is problematic in important respects. Following Robert Putnam, it concentrates too heavily on civil society and ignores the powerful impact of wider political and cultural forces. It does not explain why strong associational forms spring up in some cities or states and not others, nor why they regulate violence in the same city at one point in time but not at another. And it takes little account of the great differences between the internal composition, historical memories, and dynamics of the ‘same’ community in different parts of the country.

2. I am most grateful to my good friends Raojibhai Patel, Vinod Kothari, Thomas Pantham and Jayshree Mehta for their most helpful comments on this article.