The Limits of Tolerance: Prospects of Secularism in India After Gujarat

Prof. Dipankar Gupta

I am indeed very honoured that I have been asked to deliver the 7th Prem Bhatia Memorial Lecture. To speak in the memory of a public figure of such eminence and dignity is surely a very daunting task. Unfortunately, I only knew Mr. Prem Bhatia through his work as a fearless and upright journalist. He never balked at calling a spade a spade which is why I am certain that had he been alive today he would have been in the forefront fighting against ethnicists of all stripes who in the name of nationalism commit the most heinous acts of barbarism. Even though Mr. Bhatia may not have agreed with my analysis in this paper, I feel emboldened to present this before you because I am confident that he would have supported the spirit behind my endeavour.

Gujarati Exceptionalism

Once again Gujarat burnt ferociously. Once again it was Ahmedabad that hurt the most. Along with Ahmedabad, the districts of Baroda and Mehsana went up in flames as well. What began with the torching of a Sabarmati Express bogey on February 26, 2002, escalated to become one of the deadliest riots in recent memory. Was this just another riot? Undoubtedly, more, much more intense in scale than most others, but was it remarkable only in terms of its quantitative excess? Or are there lessons to be learnt from this riot? Do we need to understand the specifics of this bout of sectarian frenzy to assess the prospects of secularism in India?

First, what did this riot confirm? Like most other riots, this sectarian carnage too was primarily an urban phenomenon. From Godhra, within hours, the violence leap frogged straight into the heart of Ahmedabad city before fanning out elsewhere. If one takes a look at the sites which were worst hit by the current spate of violence in Gujarat, the riot’s urban character becomes immediately apparent
Godhra, Ahmedabad and Vadordara form a triangle of dense conurbation, and it is here that the riots were at their bloodiest. At this point it is perhaps worth taking into account a few other demographic features as well. These might help to explain why this part of Gujarat is particularly riot prone. If riots are primarily urban phenomena then the fact that in Gujarat only 42% of the Muslims live in villages while at the all India level as many as 65% Muslims are rural based may be of some significance. This urban aspect of Gujarat’s demographics should not be taken to be the sole causal variable- far from it. But it is an interesting feature worth consideration. As a caution one needs to be reminded that Maharashtra has about 67% Muslims living in towns and cities which is far higher than the figure for Gujarat.

Though a larger proportion of Muslims live in urban areas in Gujarat than in most other places in India, what is interesting in this connection is that in Ahmedabad district, for example, a little over 90% of the Muslims are urban. This surely is quite remarkable. In Surat and Vadodara the percentage of urban Muslims is 76.86% and 60.35% respectively. Ahmedabad has also witnessed of late a very high proportion of joblessness among industrial workers. This might make it easier to find recruits for a riot from amongst urban malcontents (Shah 1970:13 see also Breman 1999:265). But we must also note, at the same time, that Mehesana district has only 6.6% Muslims and yet was badly hit by the riots this time. Of these 6.6%, only 34.5% of them can be classified as urban. Muslims constitute a low 2.9% of Gandhinagar district’s population (Census of India, 1991) and yet villages in this area were not spared. Por village, in Gandhinagar taluka, even had a Muslim sarpanch but was attacked by mobs from at least nine neighbouring villages (PUDR 2002:20). Nor can we ignore the fact that a district like Kacchh, which has a high Muslim population of almost 20%, faced no violence this time. All of this should make us re-examine: (1) the urban thesis behind riots, and (2) that a high Muslim presence is necessary to provoke riots. Both these positions probably need to be finessed a great deal more.

Ideologically Gujarat is a fairly volatile mix of urban anxieties and primordial loyalties. Ahmedabad is probably the only industrial centre of its size and eminence without a history of left wing mobilizations. .Kanpur, or Mumbai, or Kolkatta, have all known left wing radicalism, but not Ahmedabad. The Textile Labour Association, which is a federation of a variety of unions, was formed in 1920, largely with the help of Mahatma Gandhi, with the intention of providing arbitration as an alternative to class war. Radical trade unions of the left never really took root in Ahmedabad for a variety of reasons which are too complex to go into at this point. Suffice, however, to say that alternative working class identities which could combat primordial networks did not emerge with any degree of vigour in Ahmedabad. Another aspect of Gujarati exceptionalism is that nowhere else in India does a dominant landed caste aspires to call itself a Baniya the way the Patidar community does in Gujarat (Shah and Shroff 1975: 63). Interestingly again the percentages of Patidars are the highest in the riot prone affected areas of Ahmedabad.

Not just Patidars, but compared to areas like Kacchh, Junagadh, Porbandar and Rajkot, the Bania presence is almost three to four times higher in the Baroda region (see Census of India 1931, vol. 19 and vol.10). A significant feature of the Bania community everywhere is that they also have a foot in the villages, unlike most other urban castes, such as the Kayasthas or the Baidyas of Bengal. Thus there are Baniyas in villages selling merchandise to local residents, and then again Baniyas also pass by villages as itinerant peddlers and long distance commercial agents. The casting of Baniyas as role models in rural Gujarat by land holding Patidars could therefore be very significant. Do these things add up? It is hard to say. But if one is to make the argument that riots are primarily, though not solely, urban phenomena then perhaps such data are significant enough to merit some consideration.

Risk Aversion and Authoritative Support

The recent Gujarat riots again confirmed that like other riots there was clear evidence again of administrative connivance, if not outright support to the rampaging mobs. It was also clear that rioters are more than willing to kill for a cause but far from willing to die for one (see Gupta and Thapar 2002). The many tales of horror when fleeing Muslims sought police protection but were spurned, or when important political functionaries were in the forefront of the killing mobs, or the manner in which certain political personalities made their reputation as ardent Hindu chauvinists during these riots, are too well know to bear repetition. The fact that Gujarat rioters received authoritative support (see for graphic details Communalism Combat 2002: 114-122; se also PUDR 2002: 9,14 and passim) is sadly not a new phenomenon either. The killings of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere in 1984 clearly demonstrated a similar case of high level authoritative support to the violence (PUDR and PUCL 1984). Donald Horowitz has listed several other instances of such authoritative acquiescence: J.R.Jayawardane speech in 1977 which spurred the killings of Tamils, the Bhiwandi riots of 1984, the partiality of the Provincial Armed Constabulary in Meerut in 1987 (Horowitz 2001: 348-9; see also Ray and Chakravarti 1968).

As rioters are generally recipients of official sanction, it is to be expected that they are not specialists but generalists who are more than ready to kill but not die for a cause. This is why they look for safe targets where the victims are heavily outnumbered. The targets are usually poor people who are doubly vulnerable. Vulnerable first because they are numerically outnumbered, and vulnerable again because of their poverty. In December of 1992 it was the poor in the slums outside the central city of Surat who were attacked.

Likewise, in Ahmedabad again slums were the main targets. During the Sikh killings too a majority of Sikhs were killed in the less prosperous areas of Delhi, the same was true of Hyderabad in December 1990. Strangely enough, the killers and the victims seem to share in large measure similar economic profiles. This is a point that has analytical consequences to which we shall return later.
Thirdly, what happened to Gujarat after the Godhra incident on February 27 also confirms that riots are not spontaneous. It is not just anger boiling over, but that there is a great deal of planning that goes behind riots. Targets are carefully designated- and rarely, if ever, are mistakes made even in densely mixed population areas ( see also Breman 1999:267-8). In Delhi, for example, Sikh homes and businesses were attacked but the Hindu homes that were cheek by jowl with them remained unscathed. This also happened in Assam where Bengalis were targetted, the same was true in the Marathwada riots of 1977 when Mangs and Matangs were spared by marauding Marathas, but not the Mahars. In Naroda Petia and Gomtipur in Ahmedabad saw the same pattern repeat itself.

Occasionally, there are lapses, but given the scale of rioting it is not possible that such accuracy in attacking the minority communities could have been possible without deliberate planning. Both 1984 Delhi and 2002 Ahmedabad may give the feeling that the killings were spontaneous, but it would be a mistake to yield to this superficial and popular impression.

The urban under classes have been the foot soldiers of Hindu organizations in urban India for the longest time. However, even when guaranteed support from the political bosses of the day, they still fear to go to areas where Muslims are strong. Bharuch city for instance was not attacked, but on the highway linking Vadodara to Bharuch many Muslim establishments were burnt to cinders in these riots. Even in Ahmedabad’s infamous Naroda Petia killings, Muslim targets were chosen carefully. It is important to note that this area is home to both Praveen Togadia, the VHP leader, and Gordhan Zadaphia, the BJP Home Minister in Gujarat. There was therefore no dearth of official encouragement to the attackers of Muslims in Naroda Petia, and even so more Muslims died in the slums on the east side of Highway Number 8, than on the west side. East Naroda Petia is largely populated by Karnataka Muslim migrants who are not that well organized. It goes without saying that except for a chance Hindu house that was burnt in Naroda Petia, it is indeed very remarkable that Hindu establishments stand intact next to rows of razed Muslim homes. This is true of Naroda Petia as it is of Gomtipur and Bapunagar, the two other significant riot affected areas of Ahmedabad.

Quantity to Quality

Is the Gujarat riot different then mainly in terms of scale? That too may not be true if one takes into account the Nellie massacres in Assam in 1983 or the Sikh killings in 1984. But certainly by most accounts Gujarat suffered a very high death toll, and what is worse, the killings did not end for months. While all riots are beneficiaries of authoritative support in one form or another, the transparent encouragement that the Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat gave to the rioters sets a new mark for brazenness. Quantity can lead to qualitative changes, and surely official sanction which was unusually overt in this regard certainly helped spread the violence to a much wider area than hitherto. Ahmedabad, Baroda, Godhra all went up in flames in a macabre celebration of Hindu hate.

But the Gujarat riots also brought out a few things in clearer focus, though the issues involved, as we saw with authoritative support, may not be entirely novel in themselves. All riots entail economic hardship- jobs are lost, property destroyed, and capital either flees or stays idle. Sectarian riots are largely unmindful of economic calculations and this is true of Ahmedabad where repeated riotings gave a clear indication that those involved in the killings were not inhibited by economic considerations. This was apparent in the first week of the riot itself and yet it continued for months. Between February 28 and March 7, 2002, Gujarat lost to the tune of Rs. 179 crores (SEWA Relief Team 2002: 65; see also Guzder 2002). It is not quite possible to estimate the extent of damage in economic terms but by all accounts it was very extensive. Many corporate leaders came out publicly asking for an early cessation of violence, but Hindu sectarians were in no mood to listen. Predictably, the poorest among the minorities face the brunt of economic hardship following prolonged rioting, but it is not as if others get away lightly. In comparison, of course the Hindus, rich and poor, are better of than the Muslims, but if one were to proceed solely on the basis of economic calculations, then inter faith riots would rarely ever happen. Ahmedabad, Surat, Delhi, Mumabi are all important financial centers, but that has not spared these urban metropolises from being the sites for ethnic riots.

That ethnic activists do not take economic considerations into account should not mean that in the actual process of rioting economic scores and rivalries are not settled. Of course they are! Economic jealousies, including real estate speculations, can help fund the coffers of ethnic parties, but the rhetoric that sponsors ethnic riots, and the justification that most rioters use to satisfy themselves that they are killing for a cause, are not significantly informed by economic calculations. Khalistani activists were surely not being energised by economic motives when they went about capturing gurudwaras and threatening every day life in Punjab. That there are economic problems everywhere does not always mean that they are significant factors in all forms of social mobilizations.

What also comes through loud and clear is that religion has little to do with ethnic strife. This may sound contradictory, but a little attention to the details of rioting will demonstrate that most of the activists are not religious people themselves, and neither are their leaders. Killings take place not because contrary religious priniciples goad rioters on to take adversarial positions against minorities. It is enough, in such cases, that the opponents are born in a different community with a different primordial identity. When Sikhs were killed in Delhi did the Hindus bother to figure out what in Sikh religion was so offensive? Likewise, in the riots against Muslims it is not the tenets of Islam which are at issue. The rioters know so little about their own religion that it is impossible for us to expect that they know something about Islam as well.

It is not as if religious faith is the primary mover, regardless of what the activists may say of their own convictions. Very few of them have anything more than a working knowledge of their respective sacerdotal texts. They are not the type that would go to religious classes, to religious services, or attend rituals with any degree of regularity. While a few swayamsewaks may have some familiarity with Sanskrit shlokas, ethnic activists are in the main religiously unmusical.

Gujarat also forces us to accept that the poor are not necessarily pure. It is again nothing new, but it is a rather bitter pill to swallow for some of us. The urban rootless, the jobless, the ill fed and the underpaid- in short, the lumpen proletariat, have been the foot soldiers and the torch bearers of many a riot. But in Gujarat, this time around it was not just scheduled castes or some backward communities (many of whom have often been labelled as members of criminal communities) who were involved in the killing and looting, but the scheduled tribes too were most obviously involved in a large number of cases. The last shred of romantic make believe according to which the people of the forests who are far away from the depraved ways of life of class and caste stratified societies are somehow better endowed with humane properties has also been laid to rest. Romantic or realist, everyone was saddened by the fact that now the tribals too can become like the worst among us.

Social Forensics or Social Science

The other aspect riots in Gujarat demonstrate is that there are times when we have to pay more attention to social forensics and not be overwhelmed by social science considerations. In a way one might say that this is an extension of our earlier point of not looking for economic calculations behind ethnic riots. All too often, perhaps because we cannot accept the horrendous characteristics of riots- the mindless brutalities, the cries of fear, and the reckless abandonment of all traces of any civilized virtue- scholars look for social reasons that could have prompted such rapid free falls into bestiality. This is why many ethnic riots are analysed largely in terms of economic competition, urbanisation, migration, and ethnic/caste configurations. While some of this may help to understand why people can get frustrated and socially restive, the truth is that when a riot happens it always needs authoritative support. Without this kind of backup riots just cannot take place. There can be the occasional skirmish, but for protracted riots state support, overt or covert, is absolutely essential. This is where social forensics come in.

Social forensics brings out in detail who the killers are, who their supporters are, how they go about the business of targetting and killing their victims, why they choose a particular occasion and not any other, and, most importantly, what real advantage interested political parties hope to gain from such mayhem? Social science has very little to contribute to any of these questions, but social forensics can. One of the most important modality of winning back the confidence of the victims of riots is to actually punish those who are guilty of fomenting and participating in the violence. Whether it be on the actual modalities of a riot, or how to restore confidence in the political system, in both cases social forensics can be of greater help than the social sciences.

If urban areas are particularly riot prone then, according to received sociological literature, it is because people in towns and cities are rootless and do not have a firm sense of belonging. It is as if they are always in each other’s faces (see Horowitz 2002: 220, 381-3). It needs however to be clarified that villages can also be heterogeneous. But hitherto in villages, the power structure was relatively stable and nobody dared rock the boat. This is what gave villages their much vaunted (and sometimes romanticised) tranquility. But in the urban world people can no longer depend on the certitude of village identities, and the life they see around them in towns and cities is replete with anonymity and unconcern. In search of some kind of social tie that might be reminiscent of the unarguable fixity of rural relations, the new urban entrant falls straight into the scheme of ethnicists who guarantee a community bond and a glorious sense of belonging which even the vicissitudes of city life cannot alter.

What puts this very attractive thesis under some pressure is the fact that even long-term urban residents, who should have adjusted over generations to the pace and tone of city life, participate quite energetically in ethnic riots everywhere. Thus urban generational depth does not always mean a lessening of ethnic sympathy or activism. In my own studies on the Shiv Sena in Mumbai I found a large number of committed Sainiks who were several generation urban. Bal Thackeray, the Sena Pramukh, is one such person. His father, Prabodhankar Thackeray, was in fact an activist in the non-Brahman movement in Maharashtra in the 1930s. Incidentally, Thackeray belongs to the Chandraseni Kayastha Prabhu, which is primarily an urban caste with a scanty rural presence.

Rural Riots

Gujarat 2002 has forced us to pay attention to the fact that villages are also getting increasingly ethnicised. This must radically alter the frame of many sociological analyses of riots. What we find in Gujarat is that villagers have turned upon villagers with a ferocity that was till recently reserved for the urban people. It is also true that this is not the first time that such incidents have occurred in rural Gujarat. In 1987 during the Ram-Janki Shobha Yatra villages in Kheda, Sabarkantha and Himmatnagar districts were affected. This time however the scale was so much greater that there is no doubt that villages can no longer claim to be riot proof. In village after village in Gujarat, in Ahmedabad district or in Panchmahals, the countryside saw rioting of the kind that we have perhaps never had evidence of before (see for example PUDR 2002).

Yes, there was the Nellie massacre of 1983, but in that case the mobs came from other villages and towns which were at some distance. But Gujarat 2002 gives us ample evidence of ethnic hatred born, bred and expressed in villages. We may have overlooked this fact earlier, but the sheer scale of the recent riots in rural Gujarat forces us to take this phenomenon into account. Once again the sheer quantity of excess demands a qualitative distinction. On many occasions I was told that the attackers were from families whom the victims knew very well and for a long time. In some cases, the victims say, they were even invited to attend marriage feasts in the homes of those who later came in mobs to brutalise them.

There are some informed hypotheses as to why villages get involved in the way they do. One point of view is that there is a spill over effect from the urban centers to the rural countryside. That is possibly true, but the focus of attention is still the cities and towns. We have to be now quite explicit in our examination of the fact that villages may also be intended sites of sectarian violence. According to Achyut Yagnik (a long time scholar and activist of Gujarat) “in the 1990 rath yatra of Advani Muslims were attacked in 32 villages in Bharuch and Surat district” (personal interview, July 2002). In fact it was in 1987 that we have the first reports of Bhil tribals killing Muslims for a Hindu cause in Virpur (Yagnik 1995:122). Perhaps one should also take into account the fact that Virpur is part of the ex-Nawabi domain of the Balasinor State. It could well be the case that Hindu organizations chose to make a point in Virpur because of this.

Patidars, Dalits and Tribals

At this point we need to return once again to the Patidars of Gujarat. This community is divided broadly into two groups, the Lewa and the Kadwa. The Lewa are considered to be a more confident community, while the Kadwa (predominantly in North Gujarat and Saurashtra) are undertaking determined efforts at upward mobility which is probably what is drawing them close to aggressive Hindu politics. At any rate, in contrast to other land owning castes such as the Jats, Gujars, Bhoomiyars, and Yadavas (to name a few) of North India, the Patidars were not entirely rural bound. They went to cities for technical education and as entrepreneurs while keeping one foot firmly grounded in the village. In fact, the impetus for education among the Patidars came from the Gaekwad rulers of Baroda. This princely state gave special consideration to education seeking Patidars by providing them with scholarships in schools and colleges. One might say that there was even some kind of reservation for these rural Patidars in those times. In order to get financial aid for education from the Baroda state aspiring students had to show that they had land and were indeed rural based. This provision helped the Patidars the most.

The Patidars used their exposure to the outside world adroitly and with a great degree of success. But they did not forsake the village entirely. Even when many of them went to Africa to start businesses, they kept their rural moorings alive. From Africa they went to England, America and elsewhere and became fairly successful entrepreneurs. It is common knowledge that a huge chunk of Vishwa Hindu Parishad funds, both from Africa and America, is contributed by expatriate Patidars from Gujarat. One way of maintaining rural connections is to visit home every now and again on vacations or for some ritual purpose. Another way of doing it is to take brides from villages near their ancestral home. The Patidars did all this but in addition opened a third option by sponsoring Hindutva activism in their natal villages.

All this may be true, but what structural features promoted the ideological justification necessary to fuel a rural riot? While it is true that riots need authoritative sanction, while it is also true that it is not in the nature of people to calmly go out and bludgeon their neighbours, it is also true that unless a riot can have a cascading ideological effect it cannot be used to any advantage for political aggrandizement. Today in Ahmedabad district I have heard people say with great satisfaction : “We have cleaned out (saaf kar diya) the Muslims”, or: “We have taught them a lesson they will never forget. Now they know that we Hindus too are armed”, or: “The Muslims better learn to live quietly in India, after all it is our land and we are allowing them to live here”. These are not unusual observations, but it is one thing to read about them, and quite another to hear them being said with great relish and a sense of accomplishment.
Structural changes have taken place in rural India as a whole over the last several decades, and Gujarat is no exception to this process. (see also Yagnik 1995: 101)? The green revolution, as we know so well, changed land ownership significantly all across the country. It happened in Gujarat too. The newly emergent Patidars, whom the orthodoxy considered to be Shudras, were on the ascendant. They were the major supporters of the Congress Party till in 1980 Indira Gandhi decided to sponsor the KHAM alliance comprising Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim. Suddenly the Patidars felt threatened and out in the political wilderness. This was indeed a peculiarly anomalous situation. Here was a strong, dominant caste in rural Gujarat but without any actual political power. The Patidars comprised roughly 65% of all landholding castes according to the 1931 Census (Census of India 1931). After the green revolution this percentage should have been much higher.

That this was also the time that Hindu political organisations began to explore the countryside is not pure coincidence. From around 1985 onwards the BJP began to support reservations for OBCs ( as late as 1981 the BJP and VHP even opposed reservations for Scheduled Castes), under the leadership of Shankersinh Vaghela. The BJP was sending a clear signal that it was no longer content to be a Brahman-Baniya party and that it was keen to take within its fold other castes as well. In 1981 it was not uncommon to hear the slogan “Dalit-Muslim bhai, bhai” (Yagnik 1995:105), but all that was now rapidly fading into the past. In fact from 1983 onwards the BJP systematically began to include Dalits in their campaigns, beginning with the Ekatmata yatras (ibid: 106).

At the same time, it is also becoming fairly obvious that a large number of villagers all across the country are finding jobs in urban areas even while they continue to live in the villages. This applies with particular force to the rural poor as more than half the scheduled caste population of our country are urban dwellers compared to the national figure where only 30% live in town and cities. So the contact between the rural and urban is not strong just at the level of the Patidars but from the lowest end of the scale as well. By winning over the Patidars and the Dalits the BJP and the VHP seemed to have taken a huge section of the rural population with them. That neither of these two communities live in rural isolation, even though they may be principally residents in villages, is too important a detail to be ignored.

The Bhils, over the last decade, have become particularly susceptible to BJP persuasions for reasons that are still not fully clear to me. These “Ramayana Bhils”. as they are sometimes sarcastically called, have been with the Hindutva forces from the Virpur incident onwards. If one takes a look at the map of Bhil settlements in Gujarat it becomes almost immediately apparent that Hindutva’s tribal allies are almost entirely concentrated in the Bhil areas. The tribals in the Vadodara belt are not with the BJP the way the Bhils appear to be. Most of the tribals of South Gujarat belong to the Chaudhuri, Gamit, and Dhodiya communities. Of these, the Dhodiyas are the most advanced, while the Chaudhuris are not too far behind. Bhil partisanship with the BJP/VHP combine may have an economic dimension after all. In Bhil areas such as Panchmahals and Sabarkantha, for example, Bohras and Memons are not only traders but double up as sahukars (money lenders) as well. As most of the Baniyas have apparently left the villages for the cities, the only moneylender around are the Muslim traders, and, it is, therefore, not surprising that this community should attract the hostility of tribals who are often in debt to these informal rural bankers and creditors.

The Village as “Hindu Rashtra”

The picture, in other words, is far from being neat. Villages are no longer tranquil as urban-rural interactions have become much more intense in recent years. With the sub-division of landholdings there are few jobs left in the villages for agricultural labourers. They too are looking outside the village and getting involved with issues and ideas that have a reach beyond rural confines. When the shilanayas bound for Ayodhya were passing through rural Uttar Pradesh, I noticed several instances of heated arguments between young Jats and their parents on the viability of the Ramajanmabhoomi movement. While the older Jats thought the whole issue to be quite frivolous, if not actually objectionable, their children who had been to colleges in the neighbourhood, and who looked at cities as escape hatches from village scrutiny and traditions, were of the opposite view.

All of this, with differing degrees of valency, has drawn the village to the larger project of Hindutva nationalism. As one drives from Vadodara to Bharuch one comes across signs as , for example, in Bamangaon, which declares that this is a village “of the Hindu Rashtra”. In some predominantly Hindu villages, as in Nidral (Taluka Sanand, near Ahmedabad), you may also be asked to give proof of your religious identity before you are allowed to enter. A sense of fear and anticipation, however, grips Muslim villages even now, months after Godhra. Villagers run away when they see outsiders, and are often very apprehensive, on the verge of hostility, when unknown persons come to their villages. It is true that there are also reports of Muslim retaliation against Hindus in rural Gujarat, for example in village Vatava (Ahmedabad district), and then this is used to justify further attacks on Mulsims by Hindus.

Even so the fact remains, that without the activism and the funds that poured in for the Hindutva cause from a variety of quarters, the tribals and dalits could have pledged their alliances elsewhere. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are good examples of this contrary trend. This should compel us to highlight the partisanship of the more prosperous classes in rural India to the BJP and VHP, without whose help these Hindu organizations would not have got a foothold in the villages. Very often I have heard remarks to the effect that these riots were the handiwork of dalits, tribals and other socially underprivileged communities like the Charas of Ahmedabad. This may be true, but it does not mean that Patidars and Baniyas were not in the fray as well. Regardless of the depth of frustration in the ranks of dalits and tribals, without the ideological, monetary and physical contributions of these so called “upper castes” , the Hindutva cause would not have stood a chance.

So what we can no longer ignore, post Gujarat 2002, is that villages can also become sites for ethnic riots. We need to integrate this with all the known and tested earlier observations on riots. True to the principle that rioters would rather kill than die for a cause, most rural riots take place in villages where Muslims are in a minority. When mobs descend on Muslim majority villages, they do so only when they are emboldened by the fact that such villages are in predominantly Hindu vicinages. Rural rioters are as risk averse as their urban counterparts. As a resident of Ahmedabad told me that people join the riots for the “tamasha” (show). Rural rioters too do not want to die for a cause. If the Bhils and dalits are involved in riots today it is not so much because of class or economic reasons, as it is because they believe that they will not be hurt if they go out minority hunting. Moreover, such participation links them with a wider trans-local community which they find extremely appealing. This is especially so now when the crumbling natural economy of the village can no longer determine their horizons as it could in the past. Into this breach the BJP and VHP have stepped in, and, in the absence of a better alternative, the dalits and tribals have joined them in order to get a sense of collective purpose and a project for the future.

For an Intolerant Secularism

In my view this should lead us to come to two significant conclusions: The first is that the rhetoric of tolerant secularism just does not work. The second is that unless one has alternative political formulations which provide some kind of hope for the future, a vision with an aura, Hindu parties will always have an edge. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Jawaharlal Nehru presided over this country’s tense early years rather successfully in spite of the many pressures that were mounted on him by Hindu sectarians who had the added legitimacy of having the Partition memories on their side. Nehru took them on, time and again, even on such testy matters as the Hindu Code Bill, and won. The Congress Party trounced the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in Delhi in election after election from 1952 to 1967. This, mind you, after Delhi’s population increased dramatically with the arrival of Partition refugees. How did Nehru accomplish all this? Not by debating with ethnic activists on the fine points of secularism, but principally by demonstrating that the Congress was a party of hope, and a party with a realisable programme for the future. Only the Congress had a Five Year Plan, only the Congress could think of Bhakra Nangal, only the Congress could help fight the cause of zamindari abolition.

As most Hindus are not professional Hindus, they might have privately admired RSS workers, but come election time, when it mattered the most, they voted for Nehru. As Nehru had the voters on his side, and the Congress legitimately was in government, he could move swiftly and ban the RSS, come down heavily on rioters in post Partition Delhi, and even put away S.P. Mookerji in jail. Further, as was mentioned earler, he piloted the Hindu Marriage Bill against stiff opposition. Without a larger economic and social charter, Nehru’s attacks against the sectarians would not have been as unequivocal as it was. He did not have to look over his shoulder as he went about putting Hindu activists in their place. It was much later, when Nehru’s vision was tarred and sullied that the Jana Sangh made its presence felt in Delhi. But that was a good twenty years after the Partition. Neither the RSS nor the Jana Sangh were able to capitalize on Partition sentiments when they were really hot and boiling over.

To fight Hindu sectarians it is important to have realizable and promising programmes of economic well being and development. A secular ideology by itself is not enough. A secular ideology works best on the ground when accompanied by economic and social policies that not only make primordial identities irrelevant, but are also appear realisable and attractive to the common person. Just discoursing on the ideology of secularism and hoping for a change of heart to come along is as good as whistling for the moon. But, post Nehru, this is about the best that most secularist parties have come up with. They have failed to shift the terrain of political contestations away from dogma and “traditional” identities to economic and social development within a distinctive super narrative, or meta paradigm. Nehru, in his best years, rode on the ideological grandeur of socialism and self-reliance. If it does not work today then it is time to think of another ideal, which promotes secular collective identities, and not cede territory calmly to sectarians without any worthwhile agenda on the anvil. It is not as if we have to return to unadulterated Nehruvianism of the past, and that there is no other alternative. But unless our secular parties can come up with another vision, which is grand and compelling to light a fire in the popular imagination, they will be forced to bicker with sectarians on petty details, much like haggling over small change, and will constantly miss out on the bigger picture.

What can citizens do? No doubt we are not nearly as privileged as political parties are. It is also true that we are a disorganized majority pulling in a hundred different voices, in a thousand directions. But we can still be effective if we were to learn lessons from the quantitative magnitude of what happened recently in Gujarat.

We are now reasonably certain that riots are created. We are also forced to accept the truth that villagers, dalits, tribals, everyone can be swayed by religious sectarianism.

We have no illusions left. Our past naivet√©’s seems so unbelievable today. So what are we going to do about it?

First, we must rethink the notion of tolerance as the hall mark of secularism. It is time the understanding of secularism is recast in the language of intolerance instead. As citizens, regardless of which community we may belong to, there are certain things we will just not tolerate. No longer is it our prime task to start peace marches, or hold meetings of the virtuosos of different communities, or preach about universal brotherhood. Secularism must be hard nosed. It has been identified for too long with soft shoulders and warm hearts. To some extent this persuasion gained legitimacy from the belief that deep down people are inherently good just like those dalits and tribals. So if urban people and upper castes are all wrong, we can look at humbler quarters for inspiration and good will. For all those who still hold on to this outdated notion, let them come to Gujarat.

The need of the hour is to insist that the law apply to everybody equally and that even the political high and mighty should be answerable for crimes against citizens. We have a whole clutch of laws such as in Sections 153, 153(A), 153(B) 155, 295 and so on that should be implemented rigorously when hate speeches and inflammatory articles are published. Then there are the known laws against murder, mayhem and arson. These constitute our secular foundations, not Gandhian goodwill, nor the pious formulations of religious liberals. Faith can never be allowed to undermine the constitution, nor should the bigness of heart substitute for the letter of the law.

Faith or the Constitution

The separation of Church and State does not mean that the Church is free to do what it wills. A correct reading of the State and Church separation, from the time of King Henry VIII onwards, has been that the Church is always subservient to the State. While the State can intervene in matters of the Church, the Church cannot do likewise. A modern democracy cannot tolerate matters of faith trumping over matters of citizenship rights. There can be no question of tolerance when citizens are denied their status as equal citizens. In this context it is important to emphasise that the killings of Muslims and other minorities (including the attacks against the Christians in the Dangs region of Gujarat), should not be cast in terms of class animosities, or in terms of unemployment, migration, and so forth. The fact is that large numbers of people get swayed by an organization that harps on jingoism. However, such an organization becomes especially attractive when nobody is asked to pay for their crimes. That religion and faith cannot be used as excuses to rise above the law must be made clear in fairly intolerant terms.

Very often, we as intellectuals get drawn into debates whose referents have already been set by sectarians. When M.F.Hussein’s paintings were slashed, many of us discussed the existence and aesthetics of nude paintings and sculptures in Indian tradition. This was done in the fond hope that after we win the debate the other side will see the truth and there will be a change of heart. That did not happen, instead we made the sectarians look like intellectuals. Likewise, with the making of the film “Water”. There again we discussed the veracity of the treatment meted out to widows in Hindu India.

Secular ethic can be strengthened only if we insist on certain inflexible principles and these relate to matters of law. Instead of arguing about whether or not nude paintings were indeed common in the past, our insistence should be that an act of vandalism has been committed and the guilty should pay for it. In Gujarat, more recently, some major secular parties wanted Mr. Narendra Modi’s dismissal instead of demanding that the law be implemented and all those found guilty be punished. As they did not insist on punishing the guilty, but put that issue on the back burner, Mr. Modi and his supporters could take recourse to the ambiguities in political procedures to fudge the issue of criminal responsibility altogether. Some Muslim organisations which have set up camps in Ahmedabad are very incensed by the fact that the punishment of the guilty is not upper most in the real agenda of political parties in the opposition. According to a member of one such Muslim association: “If we can make these criminals run back and forth from the court on a number of grievous charges then that would teach them a lesson. Some of them might even be sentenced. This would also give us Muslims greater faith in the law” (personal interview, July 2002).

With an intolerant secularism that insists on the inalienable rights of citizens and on the due process of the law, it is easier to mount public pressure against minority hunters and sectarian killers. Without going into the details of Indic and non-Indic traditions, without talking about India and Pakistan, without scurrying within monuments searching for authentic truths, what can and should be more easily put across is that people who break the law should pay for it. Here we cannot make exemptions, or look for mitigating circumstances, on grounds of being a minority, or impoverished and unemployed, or even on account of a very personal bereavement. Unfortunately, several members of major secular parties have already compromised themselves on one, or all, of these counts, which is why they are half-hearted about pushing for an intolerant secularism.

The Triadic Framework

What good is a democracy if a large number of minorities feel that it does not belong to them? While these communities can be kept terrified by majoritarianism for a period of time we must realise that this damages the polity irrevocably over the medium term. Terrorism breeds when minority aspirations are thwarted by undemocratic means. In Punjab, if truth be told, secessionism did not happen because of economic reasons, but because ethnic power calculations were steadily displacing democratic politics. This is also true of Kashmir- in fact Kasmir is perhaps the most obvious case one can make in this connection today.

Some years ago when I was working on Sikh extremism in the Punjab I realized that to a large extent the voice of terrorism was being deciphered only by those who felt that the State was no longer the fount of the law and an impartial arbiter. To the rest of us what certain secessionists said was largely incomprehensible. I had then used Jacques Lacan’s notion of the triad to explain this phenomenon, and I will recall it here again in a bare bones fashion. When conflict between two parties cannot be restrained by a third, which is the fount of the law (Lacan initially called it the “name of the Father), then such disputes cannot arrive at a reasonable conclusion. They go on and on in limitless jouissance, or play, with “no-holds-barred”. In the Punjab case, many Sikhs felt that the Indian state had ceased to be the fount of law, the impartial triadic node, and hence the dyadic relationship between Hindus and Sikhs was without a shared language. Pure dyads are always dangerous, which is why when the state collapses in the minds of some as an impartial triad and joins in, or merges with, the other community, in this case the Hindus, then the language of democracy is no longer possible. From then on you only have the inarticulate “cry” of the terrorist (see Gupta 1997: 92ff). According to Lacan, a self image comes into being in a healthy fashion only when there is a triadic setting for it. In a pure dyadic situation one has instead an imago that is restlessly in jouissance with its constructed primordial “other”. Today we see this quite vividly in Kashmir. And if Gujarat tends to get repeated it will happen elsewhere too.

Between Ethnicity and Fundamentalism

The importance of an intolerant secularism cannot be overemphasized especially when we are faced with the issue of minority attacks and ethnic cleansing. I do make a distinction between communal movements and ethnic movements in this connection, though there are many others who do not (for example Horowitz 2002: 53). In my view, and I have said this before (Gupta 1997), if we cannot distinguish between what is communal and what is ethnic then these terms lose analytical relevance. In my view, the two can be separated to great conceptual advantage. A communal movement is one where the activists grant that their opponents are legitimate citizens of the country. In other words, nobody is accused of not being an Indian, or of being anti-India. No upper caste would say, in a situation of caste conflict, that the dalits are not Indians and they should go to Pakistan, or Nepal, or wherever. Likewise, the Maharashtrians would not say that South Indians are not Indians even if many of them believe with the Shiv Sena that the migrants from the south are taking away jobs in Mumbai from “sons of the soil” (see Gupta 1982). Consequently, in all communal movements it is the government that is thematised, and not the State.

In an ethnic movement, however, the “other” is cast as an enemy of the nation-state. Unlike communal mobilisations, in an ethnic situation there is clearly a majority and a minority, and the latter is always portrayed in anti-national colours. Pakistan is a very useful whipping boy in this case. Undoubtedly, it was only after the Partition of 1947 that the lineaments of our nation-state were etched in our collective psyche (Gupta 1997: 20-47). Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Pakistan should figure so readily in our consciousness in times of ethnic strife. In ethnic movements then the rhetoric which moves multitudes to action is not economic but is informed by considerations of one’s status as a nationalist.

While it is true that behind many ethnic disturbances there are clear economic motivations of political elites and real estate mafias, the masses that lend support to these movements are not motivated by economic concerns. They do not want the jobs of the minorities, nor are they motivated by the belief that by displacing these minorities they will be economically better off. Such calculations are paramount in communal movements such as in the various sons of the soil agitations in different parts of the country, from Assam to Mumbai; in various caste mobilisations; as well as in language disputes. Ethnicity functions on a different principle. If ethnic mobs band together to kill, maim and loot it is because they believe that by hurting minorities they can reassert their national identity. It is status not wealth that they are striving for.

Ernest Gellner once said that people often think nationally rather than rationally, and this is truest of all in ethnic movements. The constant feature of ethnic movements is to pillory minorities as traitors and as fifth coloumnists responding to calls from hostile countries. This is why it is all the more important not to give ethnic sectarians any room for maneouvre by rationalizing their appeal in economic, class, or historical terms. This is why it is so essential to separate communal movements from ethnic ones. In a communal movement, no matter how hateful the enemy might be, the State retains its triadic authenticity, though the government of the day can be criticized roundly by both sides. In this situation one can talk of social imbalances and emphasise how important it is to right them in order to bring about greater equity on the civil plane. In ethnic movements, the attempt all the while is to deny the other the status of belonging to the same country as a legitimate citizen, as an equal status holder. When successful an ethnic movement robs the minorities of any confidence in the State and in the constitution. This is always the aim of the majority community in an ethnic face off. The triad loses its sanctity and authority as the source of the law, allowing jouissance to slowly take over. If this is allowed to continue, then before long we will hear the “cry” of the terrorist.

Given all this how can secularism still hope to achieve anything by being tolerant? It is about time that intolerant secularism takes over and defines our activism as citizens.


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