Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

Much more than Modi: A review of Yagnik and Sheth’s ‘The Shaping of Modern Gujarat’

History usually begins or restarts at that prosaic, magical or bloody moment when civilisation dawns or is extinguished. If February 2002 was such a moment for Gujarat—when the Narendra Modi government presided over the systematic slaughter of Muslim citizens—then what can we say about the state’s ‘prehistory,’ about the social processes which created the political climate in which such a monstrous crime could be committed?

Issue dated 3 October 2005
Outlook

REVIEW

History Of A Plurality

The book attempts to fill in the backstory of Gujarat’s history with no glib connections

Siddharth Varadarajan

THE SHAPING OF MODERN GUJARAT: PLURALITY, HINDUTVA AND BEYOND by Achyut Yagnik, Suchitra Sheth
Penguin. Pages: 344; Rs 350

History usually begins or restarts at that prosaic, magical or bloody moment when civilisation dawns or is extinguished. If February 2002 was such a moment for Gujarat—when the Narendra Modi government presided over the systematic slaughter of Muslim citizens—then what can we say about the state’s ‘prehistory,’ about the social processes which created the political climate in which such a monstrous crime could be committed?

In a first-rate work of social-historical forensics, Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth have attempted to fill in the backstory, without making glib connections or forced linkages. Indeed, at no point in the book do the authors even say that their aim is to render intelligible the events of 2002. Rather, their narrative begins with Dholavira, moves quickly on to the state’s “oppressive encounters” with Turkic invaders and British traders, and ends with Naroda-Patiya, and it is for the reader to appreciate the finely-spun continuities between the present moment and the centuries which preceded it.

Given the paradoxical nature of Gujarat’s DNA, this is no easy task. The authors begin by acknowledging the paradox that is their field of study. “A society which has drawn diverse people to its bosom can also be exclusive and excluding”. Gujaratis have travelled the four corners of the world but are also “inexplicably insular and parochial”. The state is prosperous but one-fifth of its people live in poverty. Women feel safe to move about unescorted but its female sex ratio is appallingly low. “And most intriguing of all is that two Gujaratis rose to eminence in the twentieth century, one as the father of India and the other as the father of Pakistan”.

The core of the book is the transformation that is wrought in the state’s economy and social dynamics by the onset of British rule. This is also the period when identities like ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ solidify. The authors argue that although British policies like the religion-based census and elections for local government communalised Gujarati society, a key role was also played by the intelligentsia, by the up-and-coming middle class, and by the press, in this process. For instance, Narmadashankar was instrumental in fashioning the 19th century Gujarati Hindu’s “Aryan identity”. Nandshankar Mehta’s 1866 novel, Karan Ghelo, the first in that literary genre to be written in Gujarati, equated the ‘Muslim’ period of Gujarat’s history with the degradation and decline of the state and perhaps played a central role in communalising the psyche of the Gujarati reading public as Anandmath did for the Bengali.

“This first novel”, write Yagnik and Sheth, “played a crucial part in the construction of the image of Muslims as destroyers of Gujarat and of Hindus as a community that was devastated at their hands”, a theme which, incidentally, formed a dominant part of the Sangh parivar’s propaganda during the anti-Muslim violence of 2002.

Post-Independence, the state’s social landscape mirrored the changes taking place in the economic sphere. “The Gandhian moral order”, tenuous though its hold might have been, “was swept aside as the Gujarati entrepreneurial class and the middle class expanded and consolidated their economic and social control”. Yagnik and Sheth blame the control this class has exercised over the political levers of power for much of the negative dynamics that have become so apparent in virtually every sphere of life in the state, from ecological degradation and a declining female sex ratio to communal tension and the marginalisation of the working poor and adivasis. Some of this story is familiar to us from the recent work of Jan Breman—which, surprisingly, finds no mention here—but the authors have also sought to analyse the wider political implications.

In the concluding section, there is some useful discussion about the rise of New Hinduism, and of the social significance of new and powerful Hindu sects like the Swaminarayans (of Akshardham temple fame) but one wishes the authors had delved deeper into this fascinating phenomenon. One would like to understand, for example, how the rise of the new sects overlap with the politics of Hindutva and the mantras of the market which their adherents fervently believe in.

Perhaps this is a subject for future research. Engagingly written—and illustrated with historic photographs and cartoons from Hindi Punch—this book is bound to be considered required reading for anybody interested in the political history of modern Gujarat.

(Siddharth Varadarajan’s edited volume, Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy, was published by Penguin in 2002)

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This entry was posted on September 24, 2005 by in Book Reviews, Communal Violence, Indian Politics.

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