Grounded

Gujarat as another country

By Prashant Jha

1 October 2006

At a time when a progressive patina is being painted over the rule of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, a reporter visiting Gujarat four years and six months after the pogroms finds a state where Muslims are being thrust forcibly into ghettos.
gujarat_cover_lrge

Photo: Ami Vitale

Ahmedabad is a divided city. On one side resides fear and anxiety, helplessness and anger. Walk across Jamalpur, Mirzapur, Dani Limda, Kalopur, Lal Darwaza and other parts of the Walled City. Go to Juhapura – one of the largest Muslim ghettos in India. Scratch a little, and people want to talk. An entire community feels under attack, with many resigned to their newfound fate of being second-class citizens. Rights are negligible, and the sense of representation non-existent. What remains strong is the cry for justice, and the knowledge they will not get it – not in Gujarat. Why? “Because”, explains one elder in Shah Alam, “we pray to Allah. That is our transgression.”  

There are the borders everywhere. A patch of road, a wall, a turn across a street corner, a divider in the middle of a road – this is all it takes to polarise and segregate communities throughout Gujarat. Each town and city now has countless borders, forcibly making people conscious of their religious identity. Me Hindu, you Muslim. Or one could look at it differently: the borders on the ground merely reflect and reinforce the polarisation that has already taken place in the minds of ordinary Gujaratis.  

Yet nothing prepares you for the certitude on the streets of the other Ahmedabad – in Navrangpura, Vastrapur, MG Road, Judge’s Bungalow Road, Satellite, Vejalpur. Many Gujarati Hindus think they have the answers to some of the most troubling questions of our times. The more subtle would say there is a problem among Muslims. Others argue that Muslims themselves are the problem. They look back fondly at the ‘Toofan’, the 2002 riots, and their reminiscences have a striking thematic unity. The Muslims deserved it. They are all bloody Pakistanis and criminals. If we had more time, we would have wiped them out. See, they are crushed and scared. We taught them a lesson. And now, the world should learn from Gujarat about how to deal with the miyas. The one sentiment that is almost wholly absent is remorse. What remains, 54 months after the pogrom, is an all-pervading sense of arrogance among Hindus in the public sphere. Those who think differently possibly keep silent.  

The story of Gujarat as a whole, then, is a tale of pride and prejudice on the one side, victimhood and alienation on the other. In control of this divisive agenda is the fascist government of Narendra Modi, who happily builds on this evolving social reality, and reinforces it. The everyday tragedy of Gujarat, often invisible, is in many ways more telling than the state-sponsored pogroms of 2002. The high degree of alienation among Muslims, the stereotypes and discrimination they face, the fact that a substantial section of society is committed to the Hindutva agenda, the absence of justice and accountability, and the continued secession of the state from its basic constitutional obligations – these are all elements that go into making Gujarat, in the very words of the Hindu Right, its laboratory.    

This is happening even as Chief Minister Modi, the principal architect of the 2002 killings, seeks to carve an image for himself as a development leader, and the chaperon of India’s best-governed state. While the former is true – that Modi guided the horrors of 2002 and the subjugation of Muslims in the aftermath – the latter is far from proven. Despite the loud applause that is beginning to be heard in New Delhi and elsewhere, the facts on the ground reveal that Gujarat is neither the embodiment of progress nor of good governance.  

Babu’s bomb
If 2002 was an experiment in the Hindutva laboratory, men like Babubhai Rajabhai Patel of the Hindutva outfit Bajrang Dal were in the forefront of conducting it. The short, stocky Babu Bajrangi, as he is popularly known, would pass off as an average middle-class trader. He claims to be a social worker. Sitting in his second-floor office in the Ahmedabad suburb of Naroda, Bajrangi talks about his NGO, Navchetan, which ‘rescues’ Hindu women who have been ‘lured’ into relationships with Muslim men. “In every house today there is a bomb, and that bomb is the woman, who forms the basis of Hindu culture and tradition,” Bajrangi begins. “Parents allow her to go to college, and they start having love affairs, often with Muslims. Women should just be kept at home to save them from the terrible fate of Hindu-Muslim marriages.”  

Bajrangi’s Navchetan works to prevent inter-religious love marriages, and if such a wedding has already taken place, it works to break the union. When a marriage between a Hindu woman and Muslim man gets registered in a court, within a few days the marriage documents generally end up on Bajrangi’s desk, ferreted out by functionaries in the lower judiciary. The girl is subsequently kidnapped and sent back home; the boy is taught a lesson. “We beat him in a way that no Muslim will dare to look at Hindu women again. Only last week, we made a Muslim eat his own waste – thrice, in a spoon,” he reveals with barely concealed pride. All this is illegal, Bajrangi concedes, but it is moral. “And anyway, the government is ours,” he continues, turning to look at the clock. “See, I am meeting Modi in a while today.”  

One might dismiss Babu Bajrangi as a bombast when he claims proximity to the chief minister, or describes the beating of Muslim boys. But for a man of obvious stature in society he is also accused of burning Muslims alive. As the chief accused in the infamous Naroda Patiya case, one of the worst instances of brutality during the 2002 violence, he is alleged to have led the mob that killed 89 people in the area. It is a burden that rests lightly on Bajrangi’s shoulders. “People say I killed 123 people,” he says. Did you? Bajrangi laughs, “How does it matter? They were Muslims. They had to die. They are dead.”

Evidence of Bajrangi’s complicity was so overwhelming that even a pliable state administration could not save him from an eight-month stint in prison. “They cannot reduce my hatred for Muslims with that, can they? While in jail, I demolished a small mosque that was located in there,” he says with a sly, childlike grin. Bajrangi’s views on what is wrong with Muslims are unabashedly straightforward. “They are all terrorists. Refuse to sing even the national song. Why don’t they just go to Pakistan? Now, our aim is to create a society where we have as little to do with them as possible.”  

Bajrangi is now out on bail. But what has allowed a man accused of such a heinous crime to walk and operate freely? Perhaps it is the manner in which the Gujarat government has, since 2002, consistently violated its constitutional obligations to safeguard life and liberty and provide justice.    

After there was fire in a train compartment carrying Hindutva activists on the morning of 27 February 2002 at the Godhra railway station, killing 59 people, Narendra Modi decided to unleash a reign of terror against the state’s Muslims as a ‘reaction’. The cause of the fire is still not certain, though a central government enquiry committee has reported that it was accidental, and not the result of a conspiracy. In a vulnerable political position, and unsure of future electoral prospects, Modi felt this was the right spark to ignite communal passions through the state, and blamed the incident on ‘Muslims’. He instructed senior officers to let the Hindus express their anger – he was essentially asking for the rioters to be allowed a free hand. Modi’s state machinery and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) jointly planned the attacks, with the police themselves in many places firing on the victims rather than the rioters.  

The state’s support to the perpetrators of the pogrom has continued through the four-and-a-half-years since the carnage. Out of the 4252 cases registered in connection with the violence that gripped Gujarat in February, March and April of 2002, the files for more than 2100 were closed without the filing of chargesheets. A few senior police officers have revealed the manner in which the state subverted justice at every stage – by distorting and manipulating complaints at the police station, assigning investigations to the very officers accused of assisting in massacres, and allowing the accused free rein to coerce witnesses into changing statements. With several public prosecutors simultaneously in the ranks – or even the leadership – of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates, the prosecution itself silently assisted in getting approval for bail applications. 345 cases have been decided so far, with convictions in only 13 of those cases.  

After a severe indictment of the Gandhinagar state government by the National Human Rights Commission, the Supreme Court of India passed a landmark decision in 2004, ordering re-examination by a high-level, state-appointed committee of the decision to close more than 2000 cases. The court also ordered the transfer of investigation from the state police to the Central Bureau of Investigation in select cases, and moved two cases out of Gujarat entirely. Muslims and secular groups are clinging on to these small victories as their last hopes for justice.  

And what of the social and economic condition of the victims? The state government’s own conservative figures put the total loss of property at INR 6.9 billion. The government has distributed INR 563 million to the affected persons, which makes up about nine percent of the calculated damage. At the peak of the riots, more than 150,000 people were in relief camps, which were summarily shut down by the government after four months. With the state washing its hands of any rehabilitation for the affected, those who could not return home have had to live in resettled colonies constructed by community organisations. Almost 10,000 families are said to remain internally displaced in Gujarat.  

Pathological normalcy
Shakeel Ahmed heads the legal cell of the Islamic Relief Committee, an offshoot of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), a conservative Muslim organisation. A well-read man who can hold forth as easily on Islamic precepts as on Indian sociology, Ahmed stares incredulously when asked about relief and justice. “It would be so foolish to expect it from the state!” he exclaims. “This was not a riot; it was a systematically planned pogrom. If the accused get prosecuted and if relief is provided, then their entire political purpose will be defeated.” Ahmed’s suggestion is confirmed from a diametrically opposite direction, that of a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of Parliament from Gujarat: “Compensation, relief, regret – these are meaningless issues. We wanted to crush them, and we crushed them. And most Hindus are with us, as was clear from the subsequent elections. Forget about this now.” For a man of vehement convictions, it was nevertheless interesting that the MP requested anonymity. He must still fear something.  

Memory is a convenient, subjective tool. While Hindu extremists tell anyone who raises uncomfortable questions about the killings to ‘move on’, they do not mind evoking the Toofan of 2002 in the most minute detail in order to get the Muslims to ‘behave themselves’. They also evoke the butchery as a ‘feel-good’ factor among themselves. The continuous discrimination against Muslims is part of the same strategy – and it is not subtle in the least. Explains Ahmedabad-based sociologist Shiv Vishvanathan: “What happened in Gujarat was a mini Rwanda: your neighbour raped you; people killed between 9 and 6 and went home singing. It was like a football match where the Hindus won. There remains festivity around it, the state denies victimhood, and there is no erasure.” State acquiescence and connivance can only partially explain such an overriding phenomenon of exclusion.  

Indeed, in the Gujarat of today, among the Hindus it is considered normal to harbour and exhibit hatred for the Muslims. To those who may ask how is it possible to paint an entire state of a population of more than 50 million with such a broad brushstroke, this point is exactly what makes the evolving Gujarat of today different from all other areas where excesses have happened in Southasia. Here, the discrimination against Muslims has the state administration’s support without even a fig-leaf of political correctness, as well as broad-based agreement on this matter among large sections of the Hindu masses. Talk to the common Hindu person on the street, from the neighbourhood guard to the autorickshaw-wallah to the shopkeeper, and the refrain is alarmingly deafening: Muslims are goondas, always doing illegal things. See, they are now bombing people everywhere. The pathological has become the normal. That is what makes societal evolution in Gujarat unique in India – and exceptionally lethal. 

As elsewhere in India and Southasia, polarisation has always existed in Gujarati society. Since time immemorial, Dalits have not dared to stay inside the village core. Muslims and the intermediate and backward castes have been a bit more advantaged, but have still been kept away from the privileges of the Hindu upper castes. But even if the notion of a composite culture is at times over-romanticised, there was at one time an undeniably pluralist culture in Gujarat. In part, this stemmed from its coastal location and trade-based economy, which inevitably forced diverse communities together for mutual economic advantage.  

Achyut Yagnik, influential author of an authoritative book on modern Gujarat, believes that communal polarisation between Hindus and Muslims began after the 1969 riots in Ahmedabad, and accelerated after the rath yatras and political mobilisation by Hindutva forces in the early 1990s.  

If some had hoped that the national and international condemnation would make Gujarat’s communal rabble-rousers (with Modi as their cheerleader) pull back from their extremist agenda, this has not happened. In fact, the polarisation has intensified across the state in the last four-and-half years. If it was difficult before the riots for a Muslim to find a house to rent in Hindu areas, it is now impossible. Sophia Khan would know. A leading women’s activist in Ahmedabad, she has had to undergo significant changes in her personal and professional life since 2002. To begin with, the polarised atmosphere in the city led Khan to shift her residence to Juhapura, the city’s large Muslim area, although her office remained in the upmarket Hindu locality of Narayanpura.  

Sophia’s identity had remained a secret in Narayanpura because the office had been rented in the name of a Hindu trustee of the NGO she runs. A month ago, when neighbours in her office complex came to know of Khan’s faith, she was asked immediately to pack up and depart. She tried to put up a fight, but gave up in the face of constant harassment. “Imagine, they were not even willing to let me use the lift,” she says. Khan moved her office to a flat in Juhapura, but with that came a new complication. A Hindu employee who was working with Khan was pressured by her family to resign, for they did not approve of her going to a Muslim area. She is grim as she intones: “My house is in a Muslim area. My office is here now. My only Hindu employee is resigning, and my work revolves around Muslims. This is exactly how they want to push an entire community into a corner.”    

All over, people are beginning to shift to areas in which they are a part of the majority. M T Kazi is a young executive with F D Society, a Muslim trust that runs educational institutions. “Everyone is insecure,” he says. “What if a riot breaks out again? Both Hindus and Muslims would prefer to be in areas where they are surrounded by their own kind. That way, the possibility of attack is reduced.” But the ramifications of such a trend can be drastic, says Shakeel Ahmed of JeI: “Social polarisation inevitably leads to some kind of economic polarisation. And this will have a more pronounced impact on the Muslim minority, because we are too small to create a self-sufficient unit.”  

It is not even that the mental and physical dislocation of Muslims is an urban phenomenon, as many think. The rural areas in north and central Gujarat, in particular, are presently seeing a spurt in polarisation. There are 225 talukas in Gujarat, the local-level administrative divisions that encompass about 70-80 villages each. Before the riots, there was a Muslim majority in five to ten villages per taluka, a smattering of Muslims in another 40 percent, and the rest almost completely non-Muslim. “Now, those five villages which had a Muslim majority have become concentration camps, especially in villages in the Panchmahal district,” explains Gagan Sethi, who runs Jan Vikas, an NGO working with Muslims. “Muslims in the surrounding area, who feel insecure or have been pushed out of their own places, come to these villages.” Such rural ghettoisation is also problematic because it allows for the possibility of easy monitoring of Muslims by the state agencies, adding to the tensions within the community.  

In the cities and towns, the segregation of residential locations has sharply reduced shared spaces at all levels. A visible example is the decline in the number of schools that have a fair mix of Hindu and Muslim students. Children generally attend schools that are close by, which means that these institutions are increasingly segregated. With the newfound sense of insecurity, parents feel even more strongly about sending their kids to schools with more of “our people”. Some reports also suggest the existence of discrimination along religious lines in admission to elite schools. This troubles concerned citizens, who are worried that children may graduate from high school without having made a single lasting friendship with someone belonging to another community. The absence of contact since childhood can only accelerate the evolution of Gujarat as ‘another country’, where Hindus and Muslims live starkly separate lives and where intolerance becomes the defining characteristic.  

Silent underclass
The 2002 riots were a tragic tale of visible violence, under the glare of the national media, which provoked outrage. But Gujarat 2006 is the story of invisible violence – systematic and subtle, at the state and social levels. Prejudice against the Muslims grows by the day.  

Salimbhai Musabhai Patel is happy he can introduce himself as S M Patel – at least it gets him an appointment with bankers. “People think I am Hindu that way,” he says. A young entrepreneur, he runs the Patel Finance Company, with offices in Ahmedabad and Bharuch. “But that is as far as my initials can get me,” Patel continues with a resigned smile. “Once they know I am Muslim, they treat me like dirt. Forget about getting a loan.”  

It is dusk, and Patel is standing with a group of other Muslim men on ‘their side’ of Mirzapur in Ahmedabad. Patel’s comment unleashes a torrent of similar complaints from the others gathered. We have no hope of getting a job in Gujarat. Government service is impossible. If we get in, we are relegated to the lowest level. The courts are against us. Muslim vendors are harassed, while Hindus get away with crimes. Even private companies prefer Hindus. The ordinary folk think all of us are Pakistanis. The riots are long over, goes the common refrain, and sure we are willing to ‘move on’. But what do we do about the daily injustice? They want to create a society in which we just don’t matter.  

This perception among Muslims, of being disadvantaged because of their faith, seems based on the hard reality of daily experience. Being Muslim in Gujarat is now a recipe for continuous harassment if you want to be anything but a member of the silent underclass. Activist Sophia Khan had to wage a struggle to get a phone connection from the local Tata branch, because the company had black-listed certain areas. Banks have similar systems for loan applications. Most Hindu businessmen would rather not employ Muslims, due to a combination of personal prejudice and pressure from the VHP.

For its part, the government ensures that Muslims are deprived of the most basic of amenities. Juhapura has a population of more than 300,000, with a large middle-class base. Yet it does not have a single bank, its former primary health centre was shifted to a Hindu area, and public bus transport routes now take a detour around the locality. Muslims constitute less than five percent of the high-level officers in the state’s police force, and even those officials who serve are shunted to marginal posts.    

Yagnik points to how the two influential centres – the bureaucracy and local power structures – have been saffronised in the recent past. Muslims have been essentially ousted from local Panchayats, cooperatives, agrarian produce markets, government schemes and other services. There are more than 20 sub-communities among Muslims categorised as OBCs (‘other backward classes’) in Gujarat, but they face enormous difficulties in getting the required certificates that would make them eligible for various services. Again and again, it has been revealed how municipal action is deliberately used to communalise an issue so as to hurt and provoke Muslim sentiment, which is then used as a pretext for counter-violence. Recent instances of such provocation include the demolition of a dargah in Baroda in May, and the diversion of a sewage pipe towards a graveyard in Radhanpur in north Gujarat in August.  

Schools have become sites for propagating hate, with social science textbooks tailored along ‘Hindutva’ lines. Even public examinations conducted by the state government are framed not to evaluate a student’s competence, but to judge his political preferences vis-à-vis the Hindutva worldview. In early August this year, the Gujarat State Public Service Commission conducted an exam to recruit Ayurvedic medical officers. Among the questions asked: “‘Christians have a right to convert’ – who made such a claim?”, “Which day is observed as ‘Black Day’ by minorities and ‘Victory Day’ by the Sangh Parivar?”, and “Babar, who established the Muslim empire, was a devotee of whom?” (the options were Krishna, Buddha, Shiva and Ram).  

There is a point of view sometimes expressed against those who see Gujarat as Armageddon – that there are enough traditional linkages among Hindus and Muslims, despite the strains since 2002. Some will point to the fact that a web of economic relationships still binds the two communities, and they will refer to how Muslims and Hindus interact in a variety of sectors, from firecracker-making to rakhi-weaving to motor vehicle repair, all of them monopolised by the Muslims. Muslims also make the kites that dot the Gujarati sky on the Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti in January. Sheikh Mohammed Yusuf, a kite-maker for the last 32 years, says that the communalisation has not turned away his Hindu customers. “But that’s because only Muslims make kites. Where will they go otherwise?” While there may be advantages in the economic necessity that has Hindus and Muslims at least nodding at each other, it is doubtful that the perfunctory transactions can act as a bridge in a society as divided as Gujarat has become.  

Why here? Why Gujarat?
These instances of polarisation and discrimination are not mere aberrations, or restricted to pockets. The trend spreads across class and caste lines through the entire state, though it is relatively more intense in Ahmedabad, Panchmahal and Baroda – the core areas that shape Gujarat’s political discourse. Certainly, there are Hindus who would prefer a society that is not so mired in conflict and mistrust. But what is important, as this reporter found out in his travels through the state in early September, is that this voice is mute. It is the Hindu Right that is setting the agenda for Gujarat, and amidst the extremism the moderate who remains silent becomes irrelevant for his inability to guide events.    

What led to such a situation? The Hinduisation of Gujarat has surprised many observers: this is a region that had a pluralist culture; the people are driven largely by a mercantile ethos; it did not undergo the troubled Partition experience as intensely as did some other states; and, despite being a border state, it does not have any special reason to harbour intense bitterness towards Pakistan, a fact that could have led to animosity towards Muslims within. Instead, the answer perhaps lies in its political evolution and economic competition.  

If the state is now considered the lab of Hindutva, a century ago a British ethnographer is said to have termed the state the ‘laboratory of Indian casteism’. After Gujarat became a state in 1960, carved out from the then state of Bombay, the Brahmans, Vanias and Patidars held sway over the political structure. This hegemony was broken in 1980 with the Congress’s KHAM formula, which encompassed the Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim. The erstwhile ruling-castes retaliated, initially by instigating caste conflict. But they soon realised that the ‘lower’ castes could not be discarded, and thus began attempting to carve out a broader Hindu coalition where the ‘enemy’ would not be the Dalit, but the Muslim.

Sections of Dalits and Adivasis were slowly co-opted into the Hindutva-guided system, induced with promises of upward mobility and enhanced status, along with other political and economic dividends. The BJP also seemed like an attractive alternative to these groups because, despite voting for the Congress for five long decades, they had little to show in terms of improvement in livelihood. These developments in Gujarat took place at a time when the Hindutva forces were consolidating themselves at a pan-India level through the late 1980s and 1990s.  

The significant organisational work put in by the Sangh Parivar in Gujarat over the previous two decades bore fruit, creating a political base for the BJP that spanned across all sections of society. “While we were writing op-ed pieces and organising college protests against communalism, they were distributing millions of leaflets all over and building a base on the ground,” says an introspective Shabnam Hashmi, who runs ANHAD, an NGO that works to build communal harmony. The decline of textile mills, especially in Ahmedabad, destroyed common employment spaces shared by working-class Hindus and Muslims. These changes created an unemployed segment of society looking for a cause, and this provided the foot-soldiers of the Hindutva movement.  

There are some other specificities of Gujarati society that made the polarisation easier here than elsewhere. For example, the fact that Gujarati Hindus are publicly and obsessively vegetarian has helped to create a visible marker of difference with the Muslims. First, this creates a social barrier in and of itself, and makes it possible for Hindutva outfits to capitalise on the matter of cow slaughter by Muslims. ‘100 percent vegetarian’ restaurants crowd the market streets of Hindu Ahmedabad, and the very fact that Hindus and Muslims rarely dine together in restaurants drastically reduces the possibilities of social engagement.    

While the chief agent of the polarisation was the Hindu middle class, it found its natural ally in the Non-Resident Gujarati. This group constitutes an extremely prosperous section of the Indian diaspora overseas, and flushes the RSS and its affiliates with enormous sums of money. Supporting this dynamic have been the various religious sects and preachers who crowd the spiritual market in Gujarat, as well as large and influential sections of the Gujarati-language press.

The trading culture of Gujarat might have created a pluralist, inclusive environment in the past, but the economic advantages of social cohesion seem to have been sacrificed at the altar of Hindutva. In fact, the relative affluence and stability of the economy is one reason why – based on Hindutva propaganda – a large section of the middle class veered towards religious chauvinism. The well-off had another reason to join the Hindutva bandwagon. They saw it as an opportunity to push their Muslim economic competitors into a corner with hate propaganda. Economics played a critical role during the pogrom in 2002, when those Hindus on the rampage were keen to destroy the property of some of their rivals.  

It did not help that, unlike some others states of India, Gujarat does not have a tradition of left, Dalit or even progressive student movements – which not only provided space to the Hindutva campaign, but also ensured that there was no culture of protest.

Muslims constitute around nine percent of the state’s population, but have never had an effective political voice, as they do in UP or Bihar – another reason why the Hindu Right could so easily ride roughshod over their basic rights. The Congress Party, since the 1970s and through the 1980s, had taken the easy way out to win the Muslim vote, by encouraging conservative elements among them; it also protected certain hardened criminals who happened to be Muslims. The Sangh Parivar cleverly used this as a pretext to convince the Hindus in Gujarat that minorities were being appeased at their cost. While Muslims were and are being targeted elsewhere in India as well, these factors have combined to create a rather unique situation in Gujarat.  

One-man state
The critical state support for communal extremism following the rise of Narendra Modi, the fact that a large section of Hindu society harbours extremist notions about Muslims, and the absence of an effective political opposition to this discourse makes Gujarat stand out in the broader Indian context. Fortunately, the particular mix of societal factors that have made Gujarat ‘another country’ – while they may exist in small areas elsewhere – do not come together at a statewide level anywhere else. Gujarat has gone into its extremist cocoon willingly and alone, and there is the hope and expectation that no other part of India will follow where Gujarat has gone.    

The elevation of Narendra Modi as chief minister in late 2001 has everything to do with what Gujarat has become. He provided the match to the communal powder-keg that the state had already become. Political psychologist Ashis Nandy (along with Achyut Yagnik) interviewed Modi in 1992, and Nandy has written about how he was left shaken by the experience. Emerging from the meeting, Nandy told Yagnik that Modi met all the criteria of an authoritarian personality, and was a clinical and classic case of a fascist. A decade later, that assessment proved correct, when Modi systematically engineered the carnage against Gujarat’s Muslims.  

Faced with the outrage that engulfed India after the Gujarat massacres, rather than take a defensive approach, Narendra Modi has aggressively introduced a potent mixture of Gujarati parochialism and Hindutva to cement his political foundations. His trick has been to construct a four-fold binary – of the insider versus outsider, Gujarat versus Delhi, Gujarati media versus English media, and Hindu versus the ‘pseudo-secularist’. Any criticism can be easily deflected by using this matrix.  

While manipulation of the mass mindset may have helped Modi turn vilification to advantage, in intervening elections at the state and local levels the image of the Hindutva ogre is something he has decided he can do without at present. This is because Modi has his vision firmly set on the national BJP leadership, for which he has now to coin a new image for himself – that of a strong, anti-terrorism leader, focused on development and good governance. And this explains the recent brand-building exercise to portray Gujarat as the most developed state in the country.  

Gujarat has always been a relatively prosperous state, and for Modi to try to hog credit for the traditional achievements of an entrepreneurial class seems excessive. If anything, Modi can be faulted for not being able to build substantially upon this base. 

Economists of varied hues have doubts about the idea of Gujarat as a new economic haven, yet another of Modi’s propositions as he tries to reposition his image. Investment in the state is largely restricted to a few large players pumping in huge amounts of money in capital-intensive units, which have little trickle-down effect. Gujarat has missed out on the new economy, with a weak Information Technology base and few of the outsourcing units that are all the rage in other successful states. In addition, the state’s educational system is in a rut, the crucial local co-operatives are riddled with scams and divisions, and the state is quickly slipping on the human development index scale. 

The idea of Modi as a good administrator, too, is a bogey that has its roots in his strong-leader image. In interacting directly with the state’s far-flung hierarchy, he has been accused of undercutting the authority of ministers and legislators alike. Modi can be ruthlessly efficient, but only when he wants to see results in his pet projects. “His is the efficiency of the emergency era. This fear-induced work culture is not sustainable, because it is weakening public institutions. Gujarat has become a one-man state,” says Javed Chowdhury, a former bureaucrat of the Gujarat cadre. The good-management myth was severely bruised with the late-August floods in Surat, which were entirely due to faulty dam-water management by the state administration.  

What Modi’s dictatorial style of functioning has done is to create massive dissension within his own party, as well as in the broader Hindutva parivar. But while that may somewhat upset Modi’s own political trajectory, it has had little impact on Gujarat’s communalism. The dissidents are more radically ‘Hindu’ than even Modi. Their differences with him are about power and patronage – not about Hindutva.   One of the reasons the Gujarati political discourse has been so completely captured by the saffron agenda is the abject political and ideological surrender of the Congress party. Flirting with a variety of soft Hindutva itself, the party’s Gujarat unit has decided not to take on Modi’s fascist state directly. Congress workers, after all, were also part of the marauding mobs in 2002, and even today the party refuses to take up issues of discrimination against Muslims publicly. This has left Muslims despondent, but they have little choice. Usmanbhai Sheikh, a Muslim activist in Ahmedabad, explains: “Congress treats us like its mistress, knowing we cannot turn elsewhere.”  

But the Modi government is not invincible. If the Congress is able to put together a proactive, secular agenda, and consolidate an alliance between Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, it has a good chance of ousting the chief minister and his party, and of reversing his divisive agenda. At the peak of polarisation during the 2002 assembly elections, after all, more than 50 percent of the population voted against Modi – a figure that would have to have included a substantial number of Hindus. A change in Gujarat’s government would come as some relief, for the state would not be as active in engineering everyday hatred. But even if the Congress party state unit were to muster the energy to take on Modi, it is doubtful that this alone would help to restore a social fabric that has been left in tatters. The communalism in Gujarat has not only become deeply entrenched, it has become bolted to the plank of fascism. Politics-as-usual can hardly be the panacea; what is needed is a social movement for Gujarat to cleanse itself.  

Modified society
It is early September. Baroda is tense. Its Muslims are scared. It is the last day of the Ganesh festival, when Hindus will take part in large processions before immersing their idols. Trouble is anticipated. Only four months ago, the demolition of a dargah had triggered riots here. Security has been beefed up across the city – the state government does not want another blemish on its record, at least not now.  

Yusuf Sheikh is sitting in his house in Tandalja – also derisively called ‘mini-Pakistan’ by local Hindus, because of its Muslim majority. Worried about what might happen, he explains the undercurrent of tension: “If Muslims are out in these areas where processions are being taken out, there is a high possibility that a VHP person will throw a stone at some idol, and blame it on us. Muslims will then be called the instigators and there will be riots.” The city’s Muslims have shut their shops, stocked up on supplies and huddled down inside their homes.  

Sheikh is a ground-level political activist in Baroda. An officer of the central government’s Intelligence Bureau, based in Baroda, pays him a visit to get a sense of the Muslim mood. Sheikh’s request to him is to keep an eye on the younger elements in the Ganesh processions. The intelligence official is fairly confident that no incident would occur today. “The state government is determined not to allow violence.” he says. The government’s decision could have to do with the fact that with no elections around the corner, and Modi seeking to carve a new image, allowing a riot at present would not be politically astute. On the broader communal situation, the officer has a ‘realistic’ take: “It is ok. See, in UP, Mulayam Yadav supports Muslims, and so Hindutva-wallahs have no say. Here it is Hindu rule. So it is the Muslims who are down.”

‘Afraid’ might better capture the sentiment of Muslims, for the Hindus in Baroda do not seem to be merely celebrating a religious festival. Trucks and minivans carry huge idols, followed by hordes of people. Blaring music resonates from all corners, and those gathered dance aggressively to the tune of hit Bollywood composer Himesh Reshammiya. That in itself would be the nature of a Hindu festival anywhere else in India. But here, the saffron flags seamlessly merge with the Indian tricolour. Harshad, an ecstatic-looking 18-year-old, explains: “We are Hindus. And Hindus are Indians. In our festivals, you will see the Indian flag also.”  

In Baroda in Modi’s Gujarat, the Ganesh festival is treated – and exploited – not as a cultural but as a nationalist event. Those excluded accept their status quietly. Silence and deserted streets greet an observer in Muslim areas of the city. Here, there is a curfew-like atmosphere. A few local elders stand outside to ensure that no trouble ensues, while state police guard the city’s invisible borders. But while the day of Ganesh might be one when insecurity among Gujarati Muslims comes forth most visibly, they remain fearful, helpless and alienated throughout the year. We don’t have anyone. This is not our government. Who do we turn to?

But this is not a saga only of victimhood. When a community is pushed into a corner, there are bound to be consequences. Frustrated youngsters will inevitably react one way or the other. The easiest is to leave the state, but that would entail entering as a member of an underclass in an alien society in another Indian state, and few of the poorly-skilled and -educated Muslim youth would venture forth under such circumstances. Much more likely is that some will take matters into their own hands, to fight the oppression that is an all-pervading reality, or follow the siren call of militant leaders. Where will Narendra Modi be to take the blame when the exclusion of yesterday and today invites the conflagration of tomorrow?

The response of the richer Muslims, who also have nowhere else to turn, has been to try and strike up a deal with the state government. Those belonging to the Bohra and Khoja communities, for example, are trying see if they cannot run their businesses unhindered in return for offering their political support to Modi. But the most positive response would seem to be an emphasis on mainstream, modern education among Muslims as a means to responding to the Modi challenge. Indeed, Muslims across class and sectarian lines have turned to education as a passport to a self-confident future. “There is a realisation that we must have more skills and make ourselves more useful. That is the only way out,” says M T Kazi of the F D Education Society.

The Gujarati Muslim is realising the importance of education, of learning the language of rights, of asserting his or her presence in the marketplace. But there will remain the question of whether the larger ‘Modified’ society is willing to accommodate this pool of people when it is ready. And that is why there has been another simultaneous trend in the opposing direction, marked by the increase in the influence of conservative Muslim organisations. “They are all going into the laps of mullahs. Imagine what will happen if all these people get radicalised,” says Mahesh Langa, an Ahmedabad journalist worried about the end result of what Modi and his ilk have wrought. The continued persecution, direct and indirect, makes it fairly easy for these outfits to expand their influence among Muslims.  

When this reporter, with his longish beard, walked into an elite government colony in Ahmedabad to meet a senior official, three children suddenly got off their bicycles. One screamed aloud, “Terrorist!” Why? “Because you are a Mussalman,” he responded. So? “All Muslims are terrorists. My father is a judge. He will call you terrorist in court.”Really? “Yes. Now get out of here. This is a Hindu area!” Sauyajya is 12 years old and has not met a single Muslim in his life. No one knows how many Sauyajyas are in the making in Gujarat.

Post Comments

Leave a Reply

Comments will have to be approved by a Himal Southasian moderator before they are published. See Comment Moderation Policy.

More from Grounded