Journalist | Writer | Analyst
24 January 2003
Gujarat and the limits of the possible
GUJARAT: THE MAKING OF A TRAGEDY Edited by Siddharth Varadarajan, Penguin, Rs 295
Among the lessons that last year’s genocide in Gujarat has taught Indians, the most important one is about the limits of the possible. It is actually possible to detect in the events preceding the state-sponsored pogrom hints of what was to come. Siddharth Varadarajan, in his introduction to Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy, presents a chronology of the systematic attacks on the minorities and their property in the state since the late Nineties. But did anyone take the hints seriously enough? No. Why? Because it was considered impossible for these precedents to bring about what followed the burning of coach number S-6 of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra, with 58 people inside it.
Almost a year has passed since the first Muslim houses were set on fire after the Godhra incident. During this time, dozens of investigating teams have toured the length and breadth of the affected districts and recorded the testimonies of the victims — the book brings together extracts from many of them. These teams have indicted the Bharatiya Janata Party governments in the state and at the Centre in the harshest of terms; the media, ba-rring a section of the Gujarati press, have seconded the indictments most vociferously; the government’s will and ability to protect all its citizens have been questioned in many international fora. The cumulative effect of all this has been reduced to nothing by the landslide victory of the unrepentant Narendra Modi government in the assembly polls of December 2002.
The clockwork precision with which the entire operation — from the burning of the train to the swearing-in ceremony starting Modi’s second term in power — was carried out would have made any planner proud. Such precision cannot be mastered within 24 hours of a bandh-day. The same precision also marked the numerous “sporadic” incidents of post-election violence ten months after Godhra. A friend who visited the Dahod district earlier this month saw the charred remains of almost thirty Muslim houses which were burnt to cinders while several adjoining ones belonging to Hindus remained undamaged.
Yet, almost all the narratives of the 2002 killings use Godhra as a point of reference, and not as a cog in the larger wheel — even after independent probes and forensic reports have all clearly established that the burning of S-6 was pre-planned to set a bigger fireball rolling. Modi and the sangh parivar’s rhetoric predictably aimed at projecting the genocide as a justified Hindu retaliation to the burning of kar sevaks inside the coach. But what could have stopped the rest, including the media, from questioning more relentlessly the absurd theory of a “spontaneous” attack on a single compartment of the train, and asking why no one jumped out of it to save his life.
Gujarat brings us face to face with these questions, and many others. The reports, analyses and essays in it confirm that there cannot be a simple and linear cause-and-effect interpretation of what happened in Gujarat since February 27. Interestingly, the problems with such an interpretation now seem to be plaguing the BJP leaders. Witness L.K. Advani’s alternately reaffirming India’s commitment to secularism and going back to his agenda of a Hindu rashtra; witness Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s use of one Urdu word, mazhabi (religious), to talk of religious fundamentalism, and another Urdu word, aman (peace), while advocating harmony between communities.
Advani and Vajpayee’s doublespeak can be explained in terms of political calculations, both domestic and international. There is no doubt any more about where their loyalties lie. But what of the cabinet ministers — though few in number — who are from the victimized minority community? The Shahnawaz Hussains and the Sikander Bakhts have endorsed through their silence the attacks on innocent Muslim men, women and children. Not a single minority office-bearer has till date resigned in protest. Hussain wanted the prime minister to send him for supervising relief work, but did not object when this request was denied.
And how has the opposition protested? By countering empty rhetoric with emptier rhetoric. One of the most gruesome incidents during the height of the carnage was the butchering of the 76-year-old former Congress MP, Ehsan Jafri, who was sheltering more than 60 people in his house. How many times has Jafri’s name come up in the Congress’s election campaign? Hardly ever. Instead, Congress leaders have busily tried to follow the BJP’s footsteps in catering to the majority vote bank, realizing perhaps that the few minority members remaining in the state after the pogrom could not see them through.
It is important to bring up these questions because, as a senior IPS officer has pointed out, no riot can continue for more than 24 hours unless the state wants it to. In the case of Gujarat, while the state enthusiastically cheered it on, the opposition protested in whispers which got lost in all the din. Gujarat looks into the different aspects of state complicity, but does not review the role of the opposition adequately.
What emerges most prominently from this book is a set of paradoxes. For instance, Muslims are accused of not joining the mainstream. But wherever they have tried to do so in Gujarat, they have been beaten back into their ghettos. Again, the sangh parivar’s fears that Muslims may outnumber Hindus one day (because of the high birth-rate myth) played a vital role in the killings. But in raping Muslim women, the Hindu mob risked adding to these threatening numbers.
Who made up the Hindu mob? The book wants to make a distinction between the “Hindus” and those who attacked. But, even if one accepts that no one is naturally inclined towards violence, most Hindus in Gujarat became complicit in the brutality by voting Modi back to power. Only those who have not voted for Modi, or not voted at all, can escape this blame.