India weeps, and protests, as Gujarat burns



If someone wanted to wantonly bleed innocent Indian citizens -- in particular, unleash a massacre of Muslims - they couldn't have started the process more effectively than by petrol-bombing the Sabarmati Express at Godhra, thus burning alive more than 50 karsevaks returning from a Ram temple-building campaign at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.

Godhra is a powder keg in the center of Gujarat, India's most communally polarized state, and a Hindutva "laboratory". During the 1970s and 1980s, Godhra used to record violence or curfew on as many as 150 days in some years. The town's majority Muslim population; endemic rivalry between it and the surrounding Adivasi (tribal) groups, and caste Hindus; sharp Hindu-Muslim competition over trading interests; and Hindutva's spread among the upper castes, all gave Godhra a special, incendiary, character.

The February 27 carnage was preceded by numerous unpleasant episodes: karsevaks shouting militant Hindu slogans, taunting or cheating Muslim vendors, and verbally abusing their womenfolk. These "provocations" were seized upon by some extremists to perpetrate a totally barbaric act. The fact that a several hundred-strong mob was mobilized as early as 7 a.m. suggests serious planning and preparation on the part of Muslim communalists.

What followed suggests both planning on the part of Hindu communalists AND state collusion. Absent state complicity, one cannot even begin to understand the partisan conduct of the Gujarat police. In several gory incidents, it not only failed to deter or stop the violence; it actively encouraged it.

Just as in Bombay in 1992-93, the Gujarat police refused - in spite of repeated warnings and orders - to intervene in time, know this would result in mass murder. Worse, it itself participated in arson, abduction, armed intimidation and downright homicide, besides looting and destroying property. It takes more than mere apathy for the police to passively watch the stoning of the Defense Minister's car.

Ten times more Muslims have already been killed in Gujarat than the Hindus murdered in Godhra. For millions of citizens, Gujarat has turned into a veritable purgatory. Vishwa Hindu Parishad goons took over more than 30 cities and towns, and rampaged, burned and killed at will. Amidst their depredations, the police were nowhere to be seen. Once again, hardcore communalists suborned agencies of the state.

Gujarat thus fits into a sordid, disgraceful, pattern, witnessed right since Ahmedabad (1969) and Bhiwandi (1970), all the way to Delhi (1984) and Bombay (1992-93). The pattern has many components. A first, crucial, one is the formation and propagation of false collectivities (Hindus and Muslims as "us" and "them", erasing distinctions between the tolerant majority and a fanatical minority in each community). A second is the logic of revenge and counter-revenge. Third, active collusion between communal groups and the police.

What is special about Gujarat is that the violence there has been planned, organized and executed by a political group (the VHP-RSS), which is organically linked to the ruling party. (In Delhi-1984, Congressmen were involved in anti-Sikh violence more as individuals.) In Gujarat, the VHP merges seamlessly with the BJP.

Secondly, Chief Minister Narendra Modi himself has been the principal source and rationalizes of the pogrom. Modi's politics is rooted in violence. In 1985-86, he was the proud instigator of a bloody anti-low-caste agitation. In 1992, during the Surat riots, he is said to have masterminded some unspeakable atrocities against women. After September 11, he said all Muslims may not be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims. A life-long RSS pracharak, Modi has never hidden his hatred of non-Hindu faiths.

Modi's is a fit case for prosecution for hates speech. His culpability is all the greater as the Chief Minister of a state with a shameful history of violence against ethnic-religious minorities, including Adivasis and Christians in recent years.

Modi's government recently took undemocratic steps such as ordering weird "dharti mata" yajnas in all state-run schools to "prevent" future earthquakes, and compelling Adivasi children to carry the Gita as a sign of loyalty to a religion they don't quite profess or practice, being nature- or ancestor-worshippers.

For Gujarat's religious minorities, Modi's rule is no different from what Slobodan Milosevic's reign was for Serbia's ethnic minorities. Modi has been responsible for mass murder. Each day of his continuation in office means scores of deaths.

The Modi government must be sacked. Its rule is incompatible with fundamental rights - including rights to life and liberty - guaranteed by the Constitution of India. This is not a party-political demand, but a prerequisite of democracy. Gujarat's civil society organizations (CSOs) demand this because they see no other way out of the present crisis.

There are growing protests all over India by CSOs and secular parties, which too want Modi dismissed. This was articulated at a well-attended rally in Delhi on Tuesday.

Clearly, the Indian state is called upon to take extraordinary steps in Gujarat. Is it capable of doing so? Or is it beyond reform? There are provisions in the Constitution of India - a fine document anchored in a liberal-secular vision -, which allow the Union government to dismiss a state government or enforce its compliance with Central orders. These are Articles 355 and 356.

Article 355 specifically says it is "the duty of the Unio,n to Protect every State against external aggression and internal disturbance" and ensure that its governance "is carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution." New Delhi thus cannot plead that it is helpless in dealing with the Gujarat crisis - as it did in 1992 when faced with the escalation of the Ramjanmaboomi campaign in Ayodhya, on the ground that an elected government was in power in UP.

Two questions arise. Can the Vajpayee government summon up the will to act against Modi? And is the Indian state so corrupted that it is all but a Hindu state and therefore incapable of relatively impartial behavior towards the religious minorities guaranteeing them security of life and limb?

The answer to the first question is, probably not. Vajpayee - groomed by the RSS and devoted to Hindutva - lacks the courage to take on the RSS-VHP. This risks breaking up his own fragile government, especially after the blows from the four state elections.

The answer to the second question must be a firm no. Contrary to what many believe, the Indian state has NOT become irreformably anti-secular and communal. True, its failures to defend secularism are many and grave - as in Delhi-1984 and Bombay-1992. But they cannot be hidden, suppressed and trivialized. Commissions of inquiry cannot be dismissed, even suspended - as the BJP-Shiv Sena tried to do with the Srikrishna Commission in Bombay. Their work can only be slowed down. Accountability is not a dead letter in India.

Most non-BJP parties do not merely pay lip service to secularism. For them, and their constituents, communalism IS a dirty word. Most people consider communal strife and riots wholly unacceptable.

Despite flaws in the Indian state's character, the idea of pluralism has taken deep roots. And democracy even deeper. It won't be easy to uproot them - however hard the BJP may try. But the opposition will have to try even harder to flesh out the idea of secularism.

The writer is one of India's most widely published columnists. Formerly a Senior Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, he is a winner of the Sean MacBride Prize for 2000 of the International Peace Bureau.

Source: The News International, Pakistan


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