Tuesday, October 21, 2014


I went to Gujarat in 2002 to meet IT entrepreneurs. But the wounds of the Hindu-Muslim riots were still fresh, and what I came across was shocking - especially the communalization of the Hindu middle class. Since the Gujarat government did not catch the rioters, we know little about them except for the fact that leaders of extremist Hindu organizations were involved. Hence Dipankar Gupta's hypotheses were speculative, but nevertheless worth taking seriously. These columns were published in Business Standard  of 20 and 27 August 2002.


I    Gujarat – the aftermath

Some weeks ago, I went to Gujarat for the first time after the riots. The first thing I noticed was the extent of the crimes. In Ahmedabad and Baroda, some localities have been “ethnically cleansed”: Muslims have been killed, and their houses, shops and workshops burnt and looted. Those who were killed were the lucky ones. Their wives and children live on, often with no means of support. They are not allowed back to their old homes, or fear to go back. They cannot stay on in refugee camps. Their insanitary condition has been reported; but there is also overcrowding, and flimsiness of the shelter through a hot Gujarati summer. And it is impossible for the many craftsmen and shopkeepers to live in a camp and carry on their occupations. They have to resume life in a community; and often the community in which they lived has been communalized and has rejected them. Even when their Hindu neighbours want them back, they cannot protect them against fresh attacks. I do recognize that there are vast areas of Gujarat of which this is not true and that the vast majority of Muslims were unaffected; but it is true of Ahmedabad, Baroda, Mehsana, and some other cities.
In those places there is so much hate, so much fear in the air. Those who killed the Muslims and burned their houses are still at large. Everyone knows that they can strike again, anywhere – not just against Muslims, but against anyone who helps them. So it is impossible for the Muslims to resume life in a secular community. For help and shelter they are driven into the arms of Muslim organizations – which must find the resources for relief.
Much relief has come from secular NGOs; in Ahmedabad in particular, they did sterling work. Without them the refugees would have starved to death in the early days. The Congress sent 50 truckloads of food from Delhi with fanfare; but many other non-political organizations, mostly of Hindus who were shamed and distressed, also organized considerable help.
Many Hindus have helped financially. But here the fear of Hindu hooligans is felt: many would give, but only cash, on condition that their help was kept secret. This need for secrecy, and the concomitant distrust, have meant that people give money to someone whom they trust. So the active organizations have remained small and have not always cooperated.
The only organizations that work in the open, because they can do nothing else, are Muslim organizations. And the only way they can attract resources is as Muslim, Islamic, communal organizations. Nothing wrong in that; for 17 years I have been paying for the education of Sikh children whose fathers were killed in 1984 through a Sikh religious organization. But the Muslim ones cannot generally attract money from secular people; the hostility between the Indian and Pakistani governments has poisoned our own society. Nor have they got registration as charities, so money given to them is not tax-exempt. So they are unlikely to get donations by cheque; it is all in cash.
Thanks to the internet, the plight of the Muslim refugees is known all round the world – usually in an exaggerated version. Gujarat has not a single Pakistani correspondent, but Pakistani media have been full of news and pictures from Gujarat. Nor have the media in the Middle East lacked coverage of Gujarat.
Suppose someone abroad was not bloodthirsty, but simply wanted to help those in distress. Where would he send money? Not to Gujarat government after the notoriety it acquired. Nor to Prime Minister’s Calamity Fund; there would be no assurance that this Prime Minister would send the aid over to Gujarati Muslims. To the NGOs? The sender would not know whom to trust. And an NGO treasurer might not welcome money from Pakistan for fear of being clapped in gaol under POTA.
So no one in his senses would take any of these paths – especially when there is the neighbourhood hawala operator available. Hawala is legal in the Middle East; you can find many an operator in the high streets. And it is no more difficult to find one in Karachi; if in doubt, call Dawood or Chhota Shakeel. If you were abroad and wanted to help Muslims in Gujarat, your best course would be to go to a criminal organization.
In these ways, the atmosphere of fear and intimidation created by lawless Hindu communalists has pushed their Muslim victims into Muslim ghettos and into the arms of Muslim communal organizations and money for them into illegal channels. Narendra Modi’s physics is faulty: in violence, action does not evoke equal and opposite reaction. It provokes a cycle of violence – unless the state stops it and asserts its monopoly of violence.
I cannot believe that everyone in Bharatiya Janata Party applauds the violence against Muslims. But everyone, right to its highest leaders, defends it implicitly. Every time they are accused of conniving at and abetting such violence, they go on about the violence against the Sikhs in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. It can only mean that if Congress presided over the killing of 3000 Sikhs, BJP should be allowed to preside over the liquidation of a few thousand Muslims. This petulant call for indulgence is juvenile; it would not become a grown-up argument even if L K Advani advanced it.
But it is also the mistaken application of Newton: that Mrs Gandhi’s killing led to the riots against Sikhs, that Godhra led to the massacres of Muslims. That may sound as natural as physics, but as home minister Mr Advani must surely see that all the reactions were unjust to innocent victims. The state can be only on one side – that of the victims. It has only one duty – to stop indiscriminate retaliations as fast as possible, to punish those who indulged in them, and to remove the common people’s fear of such criminals. The freedom those criminals enjoy, and the impunity with which they go around, have led to a situation in Gujarat that can only divide the people further and worsen the state of law and order.
And what happens to Gujarat threatens the rest of India. For days after the Gujarat riots, Madhya Pradesh police repulsed Gujarati hooligans trying to go and start riots in Ratlam. But Muslim retaliation, when it comes, will not be so open, and will not be confined to Gujarat; nor will the Hindu retaliation that will follow. Digvijay Singh will not find it so easy to prevent it. Chandrababu Naidu will wonder what he unleashed by supporting the gentle Atal Behari Vajpayee.

That is why prevention of further Gujarats, and punishment of the wrong-doers in Gujarat itself, are important if India is to survive – not as a secular country, of which I despair, but as a reasonably peaceful country getting more prosperous at a reasonable rate. The BJP must raise its sights: India badly needs standards of policing and law and order that only BJP thinks are unachievable.

II    The anatomy of Gujarat riots

In a lecture on 11 August in the memory of Prem Bhatia, Dipankar Gupta, Professor in the JNU Centre for The Study of Social Systems looked at the Gujarat riots in light of social scientists’ earlier findings, and noted a number of unusual features.
Riots are mainly urban; in India, some cities like Ahmedabad and Meerut have been notorious for periodic riots. Sociologists’ explanation is that villages have intact social structures into which everyone fits, everyone feels he belongs, and this secure place in a community keeps people from running amuck. When people migrate to towns, they become rootless. They enter a marketplace in which everyone is for himself. Under the stress, collective madness becomes possible.
Gupta finds that Gujarat riots spread to villages as well. He thinks this is because in Gujarat, the distinction between town and country is disappearing. Many people work in towns and live in neighbouring villages; others live in towns but go often to their village homes. I myself think that this attempt to adapt received theory to the new facts ignores another phenomenon: that mobs in the Gujarat riots were highly mobile, and the killers often came from outside the locality or village. There was an organization behind the massacre of Muslims – an organization with money, resources and official patronage. The precise name – VHP, Bajrang Dal or some other – is not important and may mislead. The grapevine names a certain north Indian politician. But there were fuel, weapons and transport behind the riots. The speed with which the attacks against Muslims started after Godhra also points to an organization.
Incidentally, I keep hearing rumours that Godhra was not the work of Muslims, but of a Hindu organization that wanted to create a pretext for the attacks on Muslims that were to follow. I understand that of the hundreds of Muslims in Godhra that were arrested, and that all have been released except those who were charged in the railway case, which is not going well enough for the authorities to give or leak details. I also understand that some people tried to verify who died in Godhra and asked for the reservation lists, and that the railways have refused to release these. I know no facts on which to base a belief one way or another, but I did have a conversation with someone – a Hindu - who was in Godhra on the day. He told me that for hours after the bogie was burnt, no one knew about it; that it was burnt some way out of the town, and the tragedy came to be known many hours later as passengers who escaped trickled into the town. If his testimony is to be believed, it is not true that a mob of hundreds and thousands surrounded the bogie and burnt it. What is true, I do not know; but the public perception of the truth would appear to have been doctored.
Gupta finds another conflation peculiar to Gujarat: Patidars, though primarily farmers and villagers, also have branches of their families in towns, usually in commerce and industry. They have emigrated in large numbers, and have communities in the US, Britain and East Africa amongst others. He thinks they are shudras, and that the foreign Patidars have been the mainstay of VHP and financiers of the riots. This is the first time I have heard Patidars were shudras. The fourfold hierarchical caste classification is very ancient, and had largely lost significance by the time of the middle ages; by that time the Hindus were divided into thousands of endogamic castes. When the British came, British scholars resurrected the fourfold classification and tried to fit the thousands of castes into them. But the fact is that while Brahmins and Dalits are distinct and present all over the country, the castes that have chosen to call themselves Kshatriya, are numerically significant only in the west and northwest, and the majority of the population – 60-70 per cent – belongs to middle castes which fit ill into the Vaishya category. Patels are amongst these. Their peculiarity is a severe paucity of surnames; Patel, Amin and Desai (no! no! not me) are about all they have got. So whatever list of Gujaratis one takes – whether supporters of the VHP, cricketers, motel owners in the US or Indian names in foreign telephone directories – Patels will stand out. My own impression is that many kinds of Hindus abroad – not only Patels, not only Gujaratis – are anti-Muslim. I have seen no convincing evidence that the Patels are particularly virulent.
A third peculiarity according to Gupta is the involvement of Bhils, the tribals of South and East Gujarat, in the riots; it destroys the sociologists’ illusion that Hindu-Muslim riots are a monopoly of savarna Hindus, and that tribals are innocent outsiders. The point is that in Gujarat, tribals ceased to be an isolated community long ago. They were forest-dwellers like the tribals in the entire central Indian belt; but apart from a patch in Dangs, forests in Gujarat disappeared long ago. The Bhils have for decades worked as landless labourers and manual urban workers. One of the sights of Ahmedabad which never ceased to shock me was carts pulled by a pair of tribals, usually husband and wife, instead of bullocks. If Bhils and Bhil villages have been involved in attacks in Muslims, it has nothing to do with their being tribal; they equally span town and village, and above all, are one of the groups hitherto excluded from the political process which the Hindu communalists are mobilizing.
We were shocked by the sight of middle-class Gujaratis taking away car-loads of consumer goods from Muslim-owned shops; I am also familiar with people protesting their innocence and blaming a community not their own – for instance, tribals. Both types of behaviour are rational, if unattractive. But the television which gave us a look at the avaricious well-to-do looters also gave us a good look at the rioters; they were those whom Gupta describes as the “…urban rootless, the jobless, the ill-fed and the underpaid – in short, the lumpen proletariat…” The last half century has seen mechanization of manual labour on a vast scale. There was so much manual carriage and haulage of goods in my childhood; and all agricultural work used to be done manually or with the help of bullocks. Today, much of transport, ploughing and threshing has been mechanized. But neither education nor upbringing equips the children of manual labourers to do anything better; the kind of half-baked literacy that many of them today acquire does not qualify them for any job. Even becoming a waiter nowadays requires some education. So young people drift to cities, pick up jobs as shop assistants, teaboys, errandboys, and make a precarious living. It is these who are available for hire by communal Hindu political groups – even if the job involves killing and arson, as it did in Gujarat.