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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Reconciliation must be based on justice and punishment of those guilty of violence, collusion or dereliction of duty. Ctizenship should be inviolate

Lessons from Gujarat

Gandhi walked the way of fraternity. Gujarat invites India to try that road again.

By B G Verghese

The India Quarterly, India International Centre, New Delhi, August 2002.

The Gujarat holocaust marks a studied effort to redefine Indian nationhood in terms of the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva lexicon. And it is this electoral “certification” that the BJP seeks in its effort to hustle a traumatised people to a snap poll in that unhappy State. The issue goes beyond this one, single election and the ensuing verdict on who will govern Gujarat for the next five years. What’s at stake is the soul of India. The BJP may well be in for a surprise in Gujarat itself. Whatever the outcome there, it will never succeed in obliterating the idea of India. This has survived and shone through the ages through a tradition of inclusion, accommodation and tolerance that the Parivar rejects.

This is the short text of what “Gujarat” is about. You are involved.

To our eternal shame, there have been many riots in India, some possibly even gorier than Gujarat. However, Gujarat-2002 exemplifies the best and worst of what we have experienced. The true horror is the official effort by the perpetrators in Gujarat and their mentors and protectors in Delhi at different times and occasions to sanitise, extenuate, vindicate and even exalt the evil that was done. This is unprecedented. There was little remorse; no shame. The Prime Minister spoke and then self-confessedly abdicated to the supremacy of the mob. Some of his senior colleagues were brazen; others silent. All are complicit. Extraordinarily, with a few exceptions, there was no national appeal for funds to aid the victims. This cannot be glossed over. Donations not merely bring succour to the distressed but are a recognised means of expressing solidarity with and reaching out to the victims.

On the other hand, barring a section of the Gujarat press that once again disgraced itself, the media rose to expose the true dimensions of the crimes committed against innocent men, women and children as well as the unborn. Hindus took grave risks to save the lives and property of their Muslim neighbours – or even total strangers – and vice versa. The rest of the country witnessed a storm of anger and protest against what was widely seen as a planned genocide in furtherance of the Parivar’s warped agenda. This was spearheaded by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other front organisations and orchestrated by the BJP chief minister, Narendra Modi with the loudly silent approval of the Centre. But the riots did not spread to other States.

Barring a section of the Gujarat press, the media rose to expose the true dimensions of the crimes

Hindutva is not Hindu. The course and sequence of events is well known. Yet the background needs telling. A series of electoral reverses for the BJP across the country and the surfacing of scams and internal bickering had steadily combined to stir disquiet and despondency within the Parivar. The radical view, espoused by hardliners especially within the RSS and other front organizations, was that the rot had set in on account of the seeming compulsions of coalition politics to abandon core issues in the Hindutva agenda. Correctives were indicated; and where better to start the process than Gujarat, which has emerged as the stoutest bastion of Hindu fundamentalism. Not without reason did Gujarat send one of the strongest contingents of kar sewaks to join the renewed Ayodhya crusade.

The jury is still out on why and how one of the carriages of the Sabarmati Express was torched at Godhra. Be that as it may, 58 people were roasted alive, an inhuman crime that was unequivocally and universally condemned, not least or last by Muslim clerics and lay spokesmen. However, in a deeper sense, what happened at Godhra provided the opportunity rather than the cause for the horror that followed.

The script of hatred and vicarious revenge had been written. It was enacted over the ensuing weeks. The theory was that the provocation at Godhra caused the backlash elsewhere in the State despite the fact that the latter victims had nothing to do with the initial crime. A whole community was targeted. Let Narendra Modi speak for himself. In a telecast to the people of Gujarat on February 28, the Chief Minister did indeed appeal for peace and harmony after the “barbarous and demonic atrocity” that took place in Godhra. Then (as translated from the original Gujarati), he went on “to assure the people that Gujarat shall not tolerate any such incident. The culprits will get full punishment for their sins. Not only this, we will set an example that nobody, not even in his dreams, thinks of committing a heinous crime like this”. These are ominous words on one reading. “Full punishment” did follow.

A taped interview by K.K.Shastri, President of the Gujarat Vishwa Hindu Parishad, to Sheela Bhatt for the rediffmail portal tells of the deliberate pre-targeting of Muslim homes and establishments. Fire and wind cannot read, but they got the addresses right with terrible exactitude. Popular Hindu names for Muslim owned vegetarian eateries and private partnerships, peculiar to Gujarat, with a scarcely known or even marginal Muslim interest provided no cover whatsoever. Like other minority homes and establishments, they were singled out, looted, ravaged and set aflame. The Citizen’s Tribunal inquiring into the holocaust reportedly obtained hard evidence from certain political and official actors privy to Narendra Modi’s secret briefing on the night of February 27 that the Gujarat genocide, in the mobster’s jargon, was an inside job.

It may not be long before the report of the Citizen’s Tribunal is published. We must also await the Report of the official Commission of Inquiry into the events in Gujarat. This was initially headed by Mr K.G. Shah, a retired justice of the Gujarat High Court, who, almost three months later, found himself made part of a two-man Commission under a senior justice, Mr Nanavati. Since his retirement from the Supreme Court some two years ago, Mr Nanavati has turned in the report of a Commission that he was invited to head, and currently presides over three other Commissions of Inquiry concerning the 1984
anti-Sikh riots, the demolition of some structures in Delhi and, now, the Gujarat riots. Mr Nanavati is obviously going to be very busy for quite some time. So those awaiting an early verdict on Gujarat from this stream of “due process” may have to wait awhile.

For the 700 and more officially proclaimed dead this will not matter. They know, like Ehsan Jafri.
However, Mr Modi was not inclined to wait. He sought early political absolution through dissolution of the Gujarat Assembly. And Mr Advani, Home Minister and Member of Parliament for Gandhinagar, stoutly upheld his right to seek such “certification”. Much has been said and written about the criminalisation of politics and the politicisation of crime. And politicians charged with criminality have on more than one occasion argued that electoral vindication places them above the law. This is a most dangerous theory. There is no such immunity. Politicians always plead innocence and invariably offer the same alibi, namely, that some officials or other underlings may have misbehaved, tut tut. Officials who violate their oath, codes of conduct and established procedures cannot simply get away by pleading obedience to “orders from above”, though this may be an extenuating circumstance. Their superiors or politicians who suborned them in the first instance are certainly accountable.

Perhaps the most horrendous idea that the Gujarat pogrom has spawned is a theorem enunciated by Narendra Modi. In one of his early post-Godhra broadcasts, he advised the people that “if raising issues related to justice or injustice adds fuel to the fire, we will have to observe restraint and observe peace”. In other words, the hapless victims were told that if they wanted peace, they should not seek justice. In a similar vein, a fact-finding team of the Editors Guild of India was told by the Chief Minister that his
Government did not prosecute newspapers guilty of flagrant sensationalism and incitement, of which he himself complained, because, as he put it, “we prefer to move on”.

This has become a recurrent theme of Mr Modi and his ilk in the Parivar. “It is time to move on”, they intone as and when it suits them. Yet the hypocrisy is blatant as these zealots are tireless in preaching hatred against Muslims, “Babar ke aulad”, for real or imagined crimes allegedly committed by their forbears and remote cognates decades or centuries ago. It is this mindset that dictates their interpretation, appropriation and re-writing of history.

To pit “justice” against “peace” is a perversion of the fundamental concept of common citizenship set out in the Preamble to the Constitution. “We, the People of India”, are not mere individuals but are citizens in whom ultimate sovereignty resides. The Parivar would have it that some are more equal than others, being indigenes as opposed to “foreigners”, the “other”. Class 9 Social Studies textbooks brought out by the Gujarat State Board of School Textbooks brackets “Muslims, even the Christians, Parsees and
other foreigners” as minorities.

Are they foreigners? Speaking in Goa last April, the Prime Minister added to the confusion when he said that India was secular “even when Muslims hadn’t come here and Christians hadn’t set foot on this soil”. The tradition of secular tolerance that has by and large underpinned the civilisational ethos of India is now being questioned and undermined by certain ideologues for narrowly partisan ends. However the idea that Christians and Muslims “came” to India is essentially muddled. It is the message not so much people that came. Christianity and Islam found willing adherents in India in the same manner that Hinduism and Buddhism did in Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia. Christianity came to Malabar with St Thomas the Apostle in the first century A.D. Islam did likewise during the lifetime of the Prophet. Ideas, cultures, teachers and trade moved freely along the Spice Route and Silk Road from and to lands afar. The ensuing fusion of cultures enriched India.

The RSS returned to the theme in Bangalore a month later when it reiterated its thesis that the minorities must earn the goodwill of the majority community if they are to live in peace in the country. In Gujarat it was said that Muslims had the option of living according to the rules set for them or otherwise risk finding themselves in (relief/refugee) camps. Fifteen-year olds in Gujarat are also taught that Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes “have not been suitably placed in our social order” and remain backward and poor. The same Class 9 Social Studies textbook mentioned earlier, however also notes that “Of course, their ignorance, illiteracy and blind faith are to be blamed for lack of progress because they still fail to realize (the) importance of education in life”. So those who have been socially deprived, oppressed and marginalized for tens of generations must today bear responsibility for their sorry plight.
“Of course”, in Ahmedabad’s Naroda-Patiya and Gulberg Society too, the victims stand charged with crimes that culminated in their own brutalisation, dismemberment and incineration. Elsewhere, FIRs regarding murder, rape, arson, loot and vandalism were not registered if they named the aggressors, identified their affiliations and provided details that could lead to their arrest, prosecution and conviction. In Modi’s Gujarat, “peace” indeed required that justice be forfeited.

Reconciliation must be based on justice and punishment of those guilty of violence, collusion or dereliction of duty

Yet, reconciliation must be based on justice and punishment of those guilty of violence, collusion or dereliction of duty. Relief and rehabilitation are obviously necessary but if confidence is to be restored among the victims, they must have the assurance that their citizenship is inviolate and its infringement will engender retribution under the law.

Gujarat has had a sad record of communal and caste violence over the past few decades, manifesting a deeper social malaise. The crass materialism of a new upwardly mobile middle class has eroded older liberal and humane values. The fading fortunes of the leading textile industry saw the decline of the once-powerful Ahmedabad Textile Association and the trade union movement generally. Gandhians, intellectuals and the cultural community have been marginalized. The new economy has seen the rise of white collar workers in the services and capital (petro-chemicals and pharmaceuticals) sectors. Rural-urban migration and in-migrant labour has filled the gap. The spurt in out-migration has brought in new money and new mores amid a great display of religiosity.

The weakening Congress tradition following the party split in 1969 and mounting distaste for factionalism and corruption within its ranks gave the BJP the opportunity it was looking for. The Congress’s subsequent strategy of forging an intermediate/lower class-caste KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) alliance facilitated a middle/upper caste consolidation under the banner of the VHP. This was followed by a further drive to enlist dalit and adivasi support, with activism in the cause of Hindutva being used as a bait to leverage status within the emerging social order. It is no accident that Advani’s rath yatra in 1990 should have commenced in Gujarat, with Somnath, a symbol of Hindu resurgence, as the starting point. Hence also the effort to counter seeming Christian influence among the Dangs tribals of southern Gujarat, through a “re-conversion” campaign, and the mobilization of Bhils in the Panchmahals, by fanning prejudice against alleged exploitation by Muslim traders.

The distress and unemployment that followed the collapse of the textile industry saw the rise of the underworld, with criminal connections extending to the Gulf. It merits research to establish to what extent prohibition, introduced in undivided Bombay shortly after Independence, laid the groundwork for licensed disrespect for the law and the steady proliferation of godfathers. However, the late 1980s saw Abdul Latif emerge as Gujarat’s leading mafia don who represents a popular stereotype that the Parivar has widely portrayed in its demonisation of the Muslim. The oil boom and ensuing Islamic resurgence, the Afghan-Taliban crisis, the rise of jehadi fundamentalism and the global war against terror after 9/11 have all reinforced this process.

The litany of hate was strikingly evident in some of the local media coverage during the Gujarat riots. The Report commissioned by the Editors Guild of India entitled “Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat” documents chapter and verse. Despite their open incitement to violence, two leading Gujarati dailies, among others, earned encomiums from the Chief Minister for their “restrained coverage” through an official letter addressed to their editors. Other Gujarati newspapers and the national media acted
responsibly on the whole and aroused public opinion by exposing the truth. This was the country’s first “TV riot”, much as Kargil was India’s first “TV war”, and has raised delicate issues about the nature and extent of coverage, balance and the naming of communities. Communications technology has rendered earlier media codes obsolete. The explosive employment of the new digital media - mobile phone, email, fax, computer-generated printouts and hand-held video cameras -– has created an entirely new situation.

This was the country's first "TV riot", much as Kargil was India's first "TV war"

The new media was extensively used by mob leaders for command and control, to disseminate rumours and disinformation and incite fear and hatred. The contents of many posters and handbills pasted up or openly distributed at street corners were chilling and in clear violation of the law. The disaggregated and unorganized new media poses new challenges for law enforcement and riot control. Not naming communities to avoid further inflaming passions was perhaps a wise caution in an age of slow communication. Today, to suppress community identities by not naming an establishment or showing the picture of a shrine or victim may be to abet cover-up through anonymity. It was well said by a distraught media person that in Gujarat the community was the story. Those complicit were understandably embarrassed and angered by the speed and extent of the media exposure.

The onslaught was not only on the persons but on the dignity, livelihood and cultural identity of the Muslims. That this was deliberate is further evidenced by the fact that there were calls for the economic and social boycott of Muslims and conditionalities were laid down for their return home and the restoration of their livelihoods. The Government did not itself open any relief camps but merely assisted private initiatives, mainly with rations. Yet there was a shameless urgency about securing the earliest possible closure of the camps, even without enabling the reconstruction of homes and establishments through prompt or adequate compensation, in order to claim “normalcy” and cash in on what was seen as a “Hindu re-awakening” through early elections. Modi has tirelessly repeated that, even at the peak of the riots, 98 per cent of Gujarat was peaceful. Ergo, the problem was blown out of all proportion by those intent on assaulting Gujarat’s pride and progress. By that token, an even more miniscule part of New York was devastated when the twin towers were brought down and even less than that was flattened in Japan by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The 2002 riots have aggravated the emotional and physical partitioning of Gujarat’s major cities engendered by earlier communal tensions. The process of ghettoisation has been carried further. The land mafia, eager to secure the cheap “vacation” of prime real estate, no doubt promoted some of the later acts of arson. This has happened elsewhere too and calls for remedial action through statutory regulation. Insecurity has always herded communities into what are perceived as safe havens. Arsonists and evil-doers should not be allowed to get away with the spoils.

This time around, it was cosmopolitan Muslims, including judges and professors, who preferred to live with the rest on Main Street, out there in the “mainstream”, that were particularly vulnerable. A liberal, forward looking Muslim spoke feelingly to the Editors Guild team. He said he had fought the orthodoxy and had spent years exhorting members of his community to take to modern education, compete for opportunity and stake their future on the assertion of their civic rights. And now his world had crumbled, hopefully only temporarily. Now when he went to the ghetto what he heard was, “if only Latif had been around, this would not have happened”.

The move back to the ghetto has unexpectedly ghettoized both sides, maybe the minority community by inclusion, the majority by exclusion. There is here a double jeopardy. The vocabulary of discourse is frightening. The edge of the ghetto is termed the “border” and the “frontlines” were manned and patrolled by the able bodied during the height of the madness. Across the “frontier” is where “they” live. But then “we” too are afraid. “We” know that the State has failed. So who will protect “us” if the “frontier” is breached tomorrow or the next time? Both sides are looking for Godfathers. Is this our tryst with destiny or this the India “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high?”

The Gujarati is by nature an entrepreneur. VHP/BJP ideologues who spewed fire and brimstone against Muslims for alleged acts of omission and commission were taken aback when asked, what next? A traders delegation offered a fairly typical reply. It’s spokesman said that the economic interests and livelihoods of the two communities were so interwoven that the damage and destruction suffered by Muslim workers, establishments, wholesalers, transporters, hoteliers and the like had disrupted innumerable forward and backward linkages. These had in turn caused very considerable loss to Hindu suppliers, processors, traders and consumers. He now felt enough was enough and it should be back to business. Such contradictions underline the irrationality of blind hate and anger.

If the Parivar has been unrepentant, the Government has been defiant and helpless in turn. The Centre’s first response was that the media and Opposition were at fault in not condemning Godhra and for sensationalising what followed. The charge is so much at variance with the facts that it cut little ice and was more or less abandoned after some time. It then endorsed Modi’s boast that the situation was largely brought under control within 72 hours. Events exposed the hollowness of that claim. The Prime Minister was anguished, even apologetic, when he visited Ahmedabad and advised Modi to practice Rajdharma. He decided that the Chief Minister must go, but caved in at Goa on being confronted with the threat of a communal backlash. That was the signal for hardliners in the Party and Parivar to up the ante.

That path, alas less travelled, points to Fraternity. Gandhi walked that way. Gujarat invites India to try that road again

The National Human Rights Commission, the Minorities Commission and any number of independent observers and fact-finding missions have exposed the enormity of the wanton killings and sadism in Gujarat. The media tore off the veil by its revealing reportage of the evil that was done. A cornered Government finally promised the Rajya Sabha that it would harness the Gujarat administration to constitutional norms by issuing appropriate directives under Article 355. There is scant evidence of much pressure being applied on Modi.He was persuaded to appoint K.P.S Gill as security adviser and, later, to secure the postponement of a series of so-called Gaurav Yatras from Gandhinagar to every district in the State in order to uphold and vindicate Gujarati pride.

On the other hand, relief camps were ordered closed. Payment of compensation remained tardy and inadequate. Conditionalities imposed on traumatised families seeking to return to whatever was left of their battered homes and livelihoods were not challenged. The promised reconstruction of cherished Muslim dargahs and monuments that had been vandalised or razed was callously disowned by the State and then disallowed when sought to be achieved through private endeavour. A subsequent NHRC report dated May 31 was scathing in its indictment of the subterfuge and dereliction of duty this implied. It found the Centre to have been casual and callous and ascribed “comprehensive failure” to the Gujarat government. The Election Commission was no less dismissive of Mr Modi’s claims to have restored normalcy and refused to be stampeded into snap elections after premature dissolution of the State assembly eight months before its term was to expire.

This writer tasted the flavour of the day when he visited Gujarat in April as part of the Editors Guild fact-finding mission. He was closeted with some visitors in Ahmedabad’s Circuit House when a group of VHP vigilantes stormed into the room demanding to know whether he was Hindu or Muslim. For them, this was the touchstone. Nothing else mattered. “Faith”, perversely caricatured, was placed above citizenship and constitutional values. That widely experienced phenomenon captures the essence of the crisis in Gujarat and the danger to India.

India is an extremely diverse and plural society. It is no accident that those who led the freedom struggle and the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution chose democracy as the instrument rather than the outcome of nation building through a process of economic and social transformation. It is only by adherence to democratic values that the nation will not just survive, but grow and prosper. The cementing bond that creates unity out of diversity is Fraternity, a concept far larger and richer than secularism. Fraternity, a sadly forgotten word, must be restored the centrality accorded it in the Constitution. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity together make a supremely important trinity. But what Gujarat tells India is, perhaps, that the greatest of these is Fraternity. For without that, the others may not long survive.

Anger and bitterness may understandably linger in the minds of those that have or perceive themselves to have been wronged, whether recently or long past. Yet confrontation can only result in further strife. Bringing the guilty to justice is pivotal to restoring confidence and harmony. Ancient wrongs cannot be righted through contemporary reprisals or vendetta. Acknowledgement of past wrongs can, however, provide a balm. Dialogue and understanding can thereafter lead to reconciliation.

That path, alas less travelled, points towards Fraternity. Gandhi walked that way. Gujarat invites India to try that road again. Hindutva represents a fundamentalist throwback that seeks to restore what has been perceived and portrayed as a glorious heritage that was displaced and suppressed for a thousand years. The national mood is indeed darkened by a sense of cynicism and disenchantment. The reasons for that are many, including disillusionment with or ejection of the Gandhi-Nehru and other models and an inability to construct any alternative vision of the future that embraces and inspires all sections of the people. The answer does not lie in retreating into an imagined past that is exclusive and divisive, but in remembering the future. The Preamble says it eloquently. That must be our guiding light.

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