Gujarat after two years of ‘normalcy’

By Satish Deshpande

27 February 2017

A 2004 critique of the Gujarat carnage remains disturbingly relevant to the reality of the state today
Narendra Modi

Flickr / Al Jazeera English

(Published in Himal Southasian March-April 2004 and January 2013)

In their famous conversation about words, Humpty Dumpty confides to Alice that while verbs are short-tempered and proud, “you can do anything with adjectives”. Humpty also insists that whenever he makes a word do a lot of work, he always pays it extra.

By this token, the adjective ‘normal’ must have been paid an astronomical bonus for the truly stupendous amount of work that it has done in Gujarat over the past two years. Although his claims were met with disbelief at the time, Chief Minister Narendra Modi has been retrospectively vindicated in his insistence that, except for the first 72 hours of the ‘action-reaction’ sequence, post-Godhra Gujarat has been, well, normal. Indeed, we ought to be grateful to him for drawing attention to Gujarat’s most significant contribution to the national ethos since Mahatma Gandhi – the establishment of a new notion of normalcy.

An important term in social theory, the word ‘normal’ has three main meanings in everyday language – a common or usual state of affairs that carries the additional connotation of being ordinary or unremarkable; a healthy condition, the opposite of diseased or pathological; and finally, the sense derived from its root-word ‘norm’, indicating an ideal state that is worthy of emulation. These meanings suggest that ‘normal’ is a boundary-marking word whose job is to separate the mundane from the extraordinary, the healthy from the sick, and the legitimate from the delinquent. Although every society and every age needs such boundaries, their actual location keeps changing according to the balance of social power in each context. The political potency of the word derives from its ability to link a populist-majoritarian fact (that which is most common) with a moral-ethical ideal (that which is most right). What we have witnessed in Gujarat is an unprecedented attempt to normalise communal oppression by representing it as popular practice and proper precept.

We must not flinch from acknowledging the success of this attempt. The spread of Hindu communal violence in Gujarat has broken many barriers: a hitherto urban phenomenon has spilled over into rural areas; adivasis and dalits have participated actively; and the upper middle-classes have been directly involved, both as victims and especially as perpetrators. Disturbing reports, since confirmed repeatedly, about the presence of women and even children among the mobs make these India’s first ‘family-outing’ riots. The depth, intensity and sheer scale of public participation – as many as 40 cities and towns in the state were under curfew simultaneously – had shocked even people like Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Pravin Togadia.

If the making-common aspect of normalisation was spectacular, the making-ordinary and making-legitimate aspects have been even more stunning. Gujarat’s recent history contains many acts of symbolic erasure like the destruction of the poet Wali Gujarati’s mazaar in Ahmedabad. But it is only here that the municipality – an institution steeped in the dull details of everyday life – managed to pave the spot overnight to make it look ‘normal’ by morning. Every riot involves destruction of property and sources of livelihood; but in Gujarat, this was followed up with a systematic economic boycott designed to continue this destruction silently and ‘peacefully’, thus annihilating hope for the future. All riots uproot people from their homes and communities; but in Gujarat, this was backed by sustained public pressure to ensure that the refugees would never return, or would do so only under stringent ‘conditions’ enforcing second-class citizenship. In short, all riots – even state-sponsored pogroms like the anti-Sikh riots of Delhi – are supposed to end, to yield to an ‘after’ that is fundamentally and not just formally different. Gujarat is our first riot that has refused to end: for its victims, the difference between the ‘abnormal’ madness of 2002 and the ‘normal’ malevolence of 2004 is only the difference between jhatka and halal.

Retail repression

Except during the Partition, mainstream political discourse in India has always – albeit after the fact – described communal riots as isolated incidents of momentary madness sharply separated from normal everyday life. Of course this is untrue, because riots cannot be conceived immaculately, but this fiction has suited most parties – the dominant sections, the ‘silent majority’, and sometimes even the victims. More importantly, the moral illegitimacy of riots has never been in doubt, even though the guilty have rarely been punished. Attempts to justify riots have never flatly denied wrongdoing, but have concentrated on constructing a history of prior provocations in order to present the riots as defensive action.

In its ‘laboratory state’ that is Gujarat, Hindutva has developed a prototype of everyday communalism that breaks decisively with this pattern by seeking to integrate riots with normal life, shrinking and eventually erasing the zones of delinquency in which they used to be segregated. Above all, it seeks to legitimise the oppression of Muslims to the point where it seems so natural that justifications will be superfluous. The model here is that of a nation at war, when all patriots are expected to be unthinking warriors and all questions are anti-national. But war is an abnormal condition, so this example does not capture the full significance of the Gujarat model. A closer approximation might be caste, where the oppressive hierarchy is so deeply embedded in tradition that it becomes part of ordinary common sense, requiring no explicit justification precisely because it is what we ‘already know’. In fact, activists working in Gujarat have pointed to the birth of a new form of untouchability with respect to Muslims. The ultimate goal of the Gujarat model is to make riots redundant – to replace the spectacular, wholesale violence waged by trishul-wielding mobs with the unobtrusive, retail repression enforced by the mundane compulsions of daily custom. In the new normalcy, Muslims are to be ghettoised as a caste of right-less non-persons forever dependent on ‘the goodwill of the majority’.

If this chilling vision were thought to be exaggerated or still a distant dream, one needs only to look at the calm and confident manner in which long-established precedents have been flouted in Gujarat. Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) has been used exclusively against Muslims (and one lone Sikh) but not against Hindu rioters; differential amounts of compensation have been paid to Hindu and Muslim victims in similar circumstances; and the legal machinery of the state is itself obstructing due process and abetting the accused in evading justice. It takes courage to grasp the enormity of what Hindutva proposes, and especially to acknowledge its asymmetry with Muslim fanaticism. Given the demographic and socio-cultural profile of India, Muslim hate-organisations can never hope to normalise themselves; they will forever remain in the delinquent fringe. Barbaric acts attributed to Muslim fanatics – like the burning of the train in Godhra – will always remain just that, extraordinarily vicious crimes. Hate campaigns launched by Muslims can never be converted into electoral chariots bearing their sponsors to the most powerful positions in public life.

Spilt milk

But – and this is where hope has often been sought – it is not as though Gujarat has been easy to replicate in the rest of India. Despite the initial euphoria of the 2003 state elections which gave ‘Milosevic’ Modi an overwhelming victory including as much as 55 percent of the popular vote, the Sangh Parivar met with rebuffs in subsequent elections in Himachal Pradesh and elsewhere. Even in the recent round of state elections where it has been unexpectedly successful, the BJP was forced to foreground issues other than Hindutva. And by comparison with past versions, its current campaign for the general election of April-May 2004 seems remarkably subdued. There has been no routine recourse to the tried and trusted Ayodhya issue; in fact, ‘development’ appears to be the uncharacteristic centrepiece of the campaign, at least so far. Does this mean then, as many are urging, that it is time to ‘get over Gujarat’ and move on?

What we have witnessed in Gujarat is an attempt to normalise oppression by presenting it as popular practice and proper precept

It is true, of course, that in political terms Gujarat 2002 represents ‘spilt milk’ that is pointless to go on crying over, especially given the comprehensiveness of the Hindu right-wing victory in that particular battle. It may even be true that Gujarat is the exception proving the rule that, in the final analysis, rabid Hindu communalism does not make electoral sense on the subcontinental canvas of Indian democracy. But to think thus is to underestimate the importance of the decisive break that the events of 2002 have made with the history of our present. Moreover, by seeking solace on these terms, we become hostages of ephemeral caste equations, erratic electoral ‘waves’ and other political contingencies that determine the outcome of elections in India.

The particular events which constituted the riots of 2002 were unprecedented only in scale, not so much in content. We had, alas, seen it all before – the burning, looting and killing, the rapes, the slaughter of children and even the unborn. But despite the repeated occurrence of such horrors, the political universe which produced them remained inhabitable because it had always – always – disowned these events retroactively. Howsoever hypocritical it may have been, the dominant ethos did eventually place such events in moral quarantine, thereby preventing them from infecting the body politic. Modi and his minions have achieved something significant – they have overturned this history by masterminding India’s first riot with both mass participation and zero remorse. In Gujarat today, two long years later, neither the proverbial common man nor the politician, bureaucrat or policeman – in short, none of those responsible – feels the need, even strategically or cynically, to admit that something wrong has happened. This immediately places enormous strain on the social fabric because it demonstrates that, contrary to the conventional wisdom fostered thus far in post-Partition India, planned ethnic cleansing is in fact achievable.

From the perspective of the Hindu right, the crucial fact about the 2002 riots is that they have facilitated the BJP’s electoral victory in Gujarat without causing losses elsewhere. None of the BJP’s recent defeats – in Himachal Pradesh, the Delhi municipal and assembly elections, etc. – were directly attributable to Gujarat; the indications are that this issue was largely irrelevant to the outcome. It is equally plausible that the BJP’s victories (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh) too are unrelated to Gujarat, but this cannot be a source of much hope for the secular-progressive camp. For it only proves that while Modi-style pogroms may not always win elections, they will not lose them either. The uncertainty of benefits may dissuade the pragmatic or passive communalist, but their costlessness can only encourage the committed kind. To men like Modi, Togadia, Singhal or Advani – true believers prepared to pay a high price to achieve their aims – this is clearly a worthwhile bargain. Such people will only be dissuaded by the prospect of heavy losses.

Are there any factors in the contemporary political scene that can raise the cost of communal violence? Can such forces be built by collective action? These are the key questions of the moment.

Globalised Gujarat

There is a widely held view that ‘globalisation’ will somehow tame Hindutva through world opinion and/or the world market. The geopolitical history of the unipolar world in the last two decades provides sufficient evidence of the fragility of this argument. Moreover, there is the experience of Gujarat itself, as the BJP leadership conclusively demonstrated, that it is possible to manage appearances by saying one thing abroad and its opposite at home. In any case, Sangh Parivar doublespeak is now a well-rehearsed routine. As for the world market, it is doubtful whether it has had any impact on Gujarat. The discomfiture of local industrialists may have had more effect, though its long term implications are difficult to gauge. In reality, most global markets are thoroughly cartelised with only a few powerful players, and their alleged tendency towards political moderation has been extremely unreliable to say the least. So, where containing communalism is concerned, globalisation may at best provide some contingent inputs; it cannot form the basis of a deliberate strategy. Whatever their specific content, such strategies will perforce have to rely on domestic factors.

That is why it is imperative to breach the cloak of impunity which Narendra Modi has almost succeeded in throwing over the post-Godhra events of 2002. The wheels of justice do seem to be moving in that context, despite the considerable doubt that forensic reports have cast on the original thesis of a Muslim mob having set fire to Coach No S6 from the outside. On the other hand, with the large-scale destruction of incriminating evidence – including gruesome instances of state police burying the bodies of victims with large quantities of salt in order to accelerate decomposition – the subversion of justice in the post-Godhra riots is nearly complete. Last hopes are pinned on the small proportion of cases taken up by the Supreme Court, and on the staying power of embattled NGOs, local activists, and above all, the survivors themselves.

What else can be done to interrupt the march of Hindutva, or at the very least, to force it to pay a higher price for its successes? Can we afford to rely solely on the vagaries of electoral arithmetic? Two years later, it is difficult to be optimistic. The voices of Gujarat’s victims and its dissenters proved no match for the menacing growl of Modi’s amplified election speeches as he laid claim to ‘Gujarati asmita’ (Gujarati pride) and threatened to bring down the wrath of ‘five crore Gujaratis’ (50 million) on his opponents. If the familiar forms of our progressive politics are all ultimately founded on faith in ‘the people’, then Gujarat 2002 forces us to confront the darkest of all questions: What is to be done when ‘the people’ turn regressive? How does one confront a normalised pathology, a banalised evil?

A question first asked of Western Europe in the second quarter of the 20th century now faces Southasia in the first quarter of the 21st century. Whatever the shape of the answers that will be forged collectively, it is certain that they will need not only hardworking adjectives but also angry verbs.

Satish Deshpande currently teaches Sociology at Delhi University. He is a recipient of the 2012 Malcolm Adiseshiah Award. 

(Published in Himal Southasian March-April 2004 and January 2013)

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