Politician Rises From Ashes of India's Anti-Muslim Violence: Choudhury

a | A

By Chandrahas Choudhury

Feb. 28 marks the 10th anniversary of the last major outbreak of organized religious violence in India. Indeed, the riots in the western state of Gujarat in February and March 2002 might be said to be the last major episode of communal hatred in which the state was conspicuously an agent.

The violence began in the small town of Godhra on Feb. 27, 2002, when 58 Hindu pilgrims were killed when a train compartment in which they were travelling was set on fire, allegedly by a Muslim mob. When the news of the incident spread through Gujarat, not only were the state’s Hindus inflamed, the streets of many parts of Gujarat were besieged by right-wing groups that saw the moment as being ripe to attack members of the state’s substantial Muslim minority. By all accounts, the administration of the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then only five months into his tenure, did little to curb the violence. Muslim neighborhoods and buildings in the state’s biggest city, Ahmedabad, were attacked, buildings set on fire, women raped, and people burned alive or hacked to pieces. More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the violence and by the police.

Modi never apologized for the carnage -- some have plausibly termed it genocide -- that took place under his watch. In state elections the next year he ran an inflammatory campaign, littered with anti-Muslim innuendo, that won a clear mandate from the state’s voters, even as thousands of Muslims displaced by the violence continued to suffer in ghettos in the state. Ten years later, Modi's power is ever more firmly entrenched, and has refashioned himself as a modernizer committed to good governance and economic development, with an eye to running for prime minister in the general elections of 2014. When questioned about the violence of 2002 today, he prefers to bat away such queries as an attempt to defame not just himself, but the entire state of Gujarat (last year he launched a large-scale campaign celebrating his reign when the Supreme Court opened a window of hope for him in a case related to the riots).

The violence of 2002 offers sobering lessons for all Indians to contemplate: On the legacy of bloodshed in Hindu-Muslim riots spanning several centuries, and spiraling in the million or more killed during the Partition of India in 1947; on the tendency of democracy in India to transform into its evil doppelganger, majoritarianism; on the perils (and for people of a certain mindset, pleasures) of voting in governments insufficiently committed and indeed ideologically opposed to the idea of secularism enshrined in the Indian Constitution; on the tendency of large sections of Indian society to interpret, and on occasion implement, the idea of justice through the lens of collective categories (“the Hindus,” “the Muslims”); on the power of the mass media to fan communal violence by the repeated circulation of images of rioting or of partisan opinion; and on the question of reconciliation after religious violence and the ominous nature of post-violence “peace” -- a peace claimed by Modi and his party as a sign that all is now well in Gujarat and the riots of 2002 were merely a spasm, to be forgotten. Indeed, on Feb. 26, a day before the anniversary of the violence, Modi posted the following on Twitter: "Disturbing elements trying to create rift in Guj won’t succeed as Guj has laid strong foundation of peace in a decade."

In a wide-angle view of the violence and its implications, Saba Naqvi and Smruti Koppikar asked in Outlook, in an essay called “A Beast Asleep?,” if such violence was possible again:

India is a nation that was born in the bloodshed and displacement of the Partition riots. In its DNA, it inherited the schizoid gene of being a large Hindu nation with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations. It was a historical fault line that was exploited for politics time and again. Ahimsa [nonviolence] was the Gandhian ideal we paid lip service to but the reality far too often was mass violence. In urban ghettos, in the old cities across the land, small riots were part of the cycle of life. A religious procession would be taken out, a skirmish would take place, curfew would be clamped, a minor riot would have just taken place or been barely averted.

But the Gujarat riots of 2002 marked the apogee of communal hatred. Ten years after the Sabarmati Express coach was set afire in Godhra on February 27, and after the bloodbath that followed, we must pause and ask: can it happen again? Many would argue that it cannot because, in the long term, Narendra Modi has had to pay a price for presiding over a bloodbath after the advent of 24-hour television. In the immediate aftermath of the riots, however, he gained enormously. [...]

Modi is stuck with the taint because Gujarat was the first mega riot in the age of 24-hour TV. There were victims in Mumbai, Surat, Bhagalpur, Jamshedpur, Hyderabad, Moradabad, Bhiwandi, earlier riots in Ahmedabad, a city that actually recorded one of the first big post-Partition riots in 1969. But they were just numbers, death tolls, the faceless victims of communal carnage.

But in Gujarat 2002, the stories were documented in heart-wrenching detail and etched in our collective memories. How Bilqis Bano’s daughter was snatched from her hands, flung against a rock, killed, and the pregnant woman raped repeatedly; how Zahira Sheikh survived the grisly burning of the Best Bakery in which her family was roasted alive; how limbs of children were hacked and little boys flung to their death in Naroda Patiya; how Ehsaan Jafri begged for the life of those who had sought his protection in Gulberg Society; how his widow Zakia Jafri still fights for justice and says her husband called the CM’s residence for help. The photograph of Qutubuddin Ansari begging for his life epitomises the plight of an entire community in Gujarat; thankfully, Ansari survived.

The 2002 Gujarat riots also marked the coming of age of anti-communal activism. Several citizens, activists and lawyers who live within Gujarat have consistently fought against a state administration determined to block any probe. [...] Although Modi has been able to stay one step ahead of the legal snare, he is certainly bogged down by it.

And in perhaps the best essay on the anniversary, the sociologist Shiv Visvanathan interpreted the riots soberly and chillingly by looking at the actual objects and technologies used in the massacres:

Killing as a collective act needs technology. First, there was the train, and then two lethal instruments of murder. Two everyday objects. The dharyu, an agricultural implement used by farm hands became a tool to disembowel bodies. More dramatic was the use of the humble gas canister to blow up houses. The cooking gas became a binary weapon, both as a domestic convenience and a destroyer of homes.

Yet what made the riots even more macabre was the use of two other technologies. One was the use of the mobile phone to create a connectivity among the rioters, and second was the deliberate use of chemicals during arson. Survivors speak of the use of numerous tiny bottles of foreign import which not only ate into the skin but scorched the walls indelibly. [...]

Riots are too simplistically viewed as a communal problem. Constructed this way, riots are seen as occasional bursts of emotion, episodic outbursts against a particular community. But riots in India appear to be more systemic.

A Muslim informant, an experienced activist told me that riots appear to be an act of economic leveling, that whenever Muslim communities build through their enterprise, a riot emerges to level their hard work. [...] When homes are emptied, real estate is born. The sudden upsurge of urbanization in various parts of Gujarat like Naroda Patia makes one wonder if riots consciously or unconsciously are a part of a deeper plan.

Visvanathan also refuted the claim made by many of those sympathetic to Modi that what is past is past, and that the chief minister should now be allowed to get on with his declared goal of “Vikas” or “development”:

Studying the materiality of loss makes me wonder if riots are, in fact, a form of economic warfare. Today, riots along with dam projects have become a major cause for large-scale, collective displacement.

In fact, the idea of development is used to implicitly condone riots. Many middle-class people seem to think that the past should be forgotten so we can focus on the more important task of development. In fact, the plea for development allows the erasure of the memory of riots.

While riots create urban real estate in one part of the state, they also serve to ruthlessly exile minorities to another. Anyone who doubts this should visit the camp at Citizen Nagar in Ahmedabad. Ironically dubbed a ‘transit’ camp, it clings to a huge garbage site. The dump was a small one in 2002. Today, it is a gigantic structure, a mountain of waste, smelling of garbage and chemicals, acrid with smoke, the delight of birds of prey.

Here then is the question: What kind of urban planning would locate a group of survivors near a dump site of this size? The very act juxtaposes two allied forms of waste – urban waste and urban survivors wasted by riots. It is a damning symbol of the indifference of the Modi regime to normalcy, survival and justice; of the deliberate destruction, symbolically and materially, of a group that is culturally different.

And he was echoed by the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, author of an influential study on the rise of the Hindu right-wing movement in India, in the Indian Express:

“Vikas” is the most commonplace explanation for the popularity of Modi. After the massacre, he needed to change his image by promoting economic development and good governance — and he did, even if the performance in agriculture remained poor. His agenda as a Vikas Purush [agent of development] helped him get the support of the corporate sector, as evident from the praise the most influential businessmen of India dispense him during the yearly “Vibrant Gujarat” functions. The middle class also appreciated his policy: in 2007, the richer the voters were — and the higher they were in the caste system — the more they voted for the BJP.

The most striking aspect of this “success story” lies in the marginalisation of freedom. [...] It tells us something about the state of democracy in Gujarat, a place where the consensus of Beijing (that Modi visited recently) applies more than anywhere else in India: economic growth prevails above liberty.

As a Gujarat phenomenon [..] Modi tells us something of today’s Indian democracy. In some states, regional bosses are in a position to appear as incarnations of “their” state and defy national institutions — including the Supreme Court. [...] A weak Centre, due to the decline of the Congress and the absence of majoritarian parties, has been good for decentralisation and federalism. But it has also given new space to state leaders who may not comply with the rules of the game any more.

And the monthly The Caravan devoted more than 18,000 words to a profile of Modi in its March issue, supplying many unknown facts and stories about his rise. The journalist Vinod Jose argued, in "The Emperor Uncrowned," that “The story of Narendra Modi is also the story of a series of organisations under which he was nurtured and trained; it is the story of the political rise of those organisations in the past half-century, and the rise of Modi within their ranks.” He also revealingly linked Modi’s stance in 2002 to the larger climate of hostility toward Islam that had broken out across the world after Sept. 11:

Narendra Modi took his oath as the new chief minister of Gujarat on 7 October 2001, on the very same day that the United States and its allies dropped the first bombs on Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad, less than a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. The world suddenly rang with alarm over the threat of Islamic jihadists, and the American president declared the dawn of a “Global War on Terrorism”, from which no territory would be excluded. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution encouraging member states to take additional legal measures to combat terrorism. For political leaders everywhere, the fight against Islamic terrorism acquired a rare rhetorical power, as an unassailable justification for any and all decisions.

In Delhi, the BJP government saw America’s belated campaign against Islamist terror as a vindication of its own anti-Pakistan rhetoric. By the end of the year, after the 13 December attack on Parliament, a million troops were mobilised on the border with Pakistan. [...] It was a time of fervid nationalism and widespread anti-Muslim sentiment. For Modi, whose ideology had taken shape within the crucible of the RSS [the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organization], the dominant political mood had never been so much in line with his own views.

It’s clear, though, that while much of the debate about the violence of 2002 takes Modi as its center, doing so often has the consequence of activating the polarized views on Gujarat’s chief minister, and ending all reasoned argument, often to the benefit of Modi’s supporters. A Modi-centered approach to the violence makes invisible or minimizes the many complex issues at stake in the matter, including the dismaying absence of remorse on the part of the Gujarati citizenry, as well as the failure, by and large, so far of the Gujarat legal system and state administration to deliver justice for the victims of the 2002 violence. As Jaffrelot said in a long essay in The Economic and Political Weekly titled "Gujarat 2002: What Justice For The Victims?":

Ten years after the 2002 violence, the results of judicial proceedings have been very few in Gujarat. While the heaviest sentences have been handed down in cases where Hindus in Godhra had been victims of violence, a very large number of cases have been closed before prosecution and many others remain pending, with only a handful completed or near completion. The reasons for this failure of the rule of law – whose magnitude will have to be qualified since proceedings are still under way – lie in the grip that Hindu nationalism (as an ideology and a political movement) holds over the state machinery (including the police and the judiciary) in Gujarat and the central authority’s relative powerlessness (both at the executive and judicial level) to counteract it.

With Gujarat set to hold elections at the end of 2012, this is a year in which the state’s citizenry, and not just its controversial chief minister, of whom difficult questions must be asked. Is something rotten in the state of Mahatma Gandhi? The answer seems ever more clearly to be yes.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at Chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

-0- Feb/28/2012 20:00 GMT