Journalist | Writer | Analyst
After taking on some apologists for Narendra Modi on Twitter, I realised the limitation of the 140 character limit for responses. These guys will probably never be satisfied… As I tweeted, Modi apologists are like Holocaust deniers, who say Hitler didn’t kill the Jews but they sure deserved to die. For the Modi apologists, their hero didn’t say the post-Godhra massacres were a ‘reaction’ but they believe the Muslims who got killed in ‘reaction’ had it coming anyway.
Anyhow, for what it’s worth, I am posting an excerpt from my 2002 book where the action-reaction quote is given. As a bonus, I am including the section on Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s appalling Goa speech that year, also the subject of disinformation and redaction by embarrassed BJP sympathisers…
Except from Chapter 1, ‘Chronicle of a Tragedy Foretold’ by Siddharth Varadarajan. In Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy, ed. Siddharth Varadarajan (Penguin, 2002)
From Golwalkar to Newton
When one examines the politics of the RSS and BJP today, it is striking to see the manner in which the arguments of Golwalkar and Savarkar about Muslims and Christians as ‘foreigners’ and ‘enemies’ resonate in the pronouncements and activities of these organizations. There is a clear line which connects the founding principles of the RSS to the mass killing of Muslims in Gujarat. Golwalkar’s obsession with a purely Hindu nation in which non-Hindus would have no rights, the ‘Newtonian’ rationalizations of genocidal violence provided by Narendra Modi, and Prime Minister Vajpayee’s sweeping attack on Muslims in his speech to a BJP meeting in Goa in April are all part of the same chauvinist discourse.
At its Akhil Bharatiya Karykari Mandal meeting in Bangalore in mid-March, 2002, the RSS adopted a controversial resolution titled ‘Godhra and After’ in which Muslims were cautioned that they would only be safe in India if they won the ‘goodwill’ of Hindus. By ‘Hindus’, of course, was meant the RSS. ‘Let Muslims realise that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority’, the resolution stated. It added, ‘The reaction of this murderous incident in Gujarat was natural and spontaneous. The entire Hindu society cutting across all divisions of party, caste and social status reacted.’56 Elaborating on the resolution, RSS joint general secretary Madan Das Devi told the press, ‘Hindus live and let live. This does not mean Hindus can tolerate insults. They (Muslims) are safe if they win our goodwill . . . respect us and we will respect you.’ Asked to explain the real meaning of what he was trying to say, Devi said, ‘Any killing is unjustifiable but at the same time there will be reaction to any action.’57 In similar vein, BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy told the press during the party conclave in Goa, ‘In any communal strife, there is always one who provokes and another (who is) provoked.’ Strongly implying that the attacks on Muslims were provoked, he criticized the media and others for ‘advising and attacking the provoked. This has given rise to a psychology amidst the provoked that it is the victim in every sense’.58
The first use of this morally perverse ‘Newtonian’ logic of action and reaction to justify the killing of Muslims after Godhra was made by Modi in an interview to Zee Television on 1 March, even as the violence was at its peak. And ironically, it wasn’t so much a reference to the burning of the Sabarmati Express as to press reports that former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri—who was lynched by a Sangh Parivar-led mob at his residence in Chamanpura, Ahmedabad on 28 February—had fired at the mob in order to try and disperse them. Modi said that Jafri’s ‘action’ of firing had infuriated the mob and that the massacre which followed was a ‘reaction’. Since his remark generated a huge controversy59 and led the Gujarat information department to deny that he had said any such thing, it is worth reproducing his exact quote: ‘Kriya pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai. Hum chahate hain ki na kriya ho aur na pratikriya. (What is happening is a chain of action and reaction. What I want is that there should be no action and no reaction).’ Asked about the violence which erupted throughout Gujarat on the day of the VHP-sponsored bandh, he said:
Godhra mein jo parson hua, jahan par chalees mahilaon aur bacchon ko zinda jala diya, is mein desh mein aur videsh mein sadma pahunchna swabhavik tha. Godhra ke is ilake ke logon ki criminal tendencies rahi hain. In logon ne pahele mahila teachers ka khoon kiya. Aur ab yeh jaghanya apraadh kiya hai jiski pratikria ho rahi hai. (It is natural that what happened in Godhra day before yesterday, where forty women and children were burnt alive, has shocked the country and the world. The people in that part of Godhra have had criminal tendencies. Earlier, these people had murdered women teachers. And now they have done this terrible crime for which a reaction is going on).60
Apart from being a crude attempt to deflect criticism of his failures as chief minister, Modi’s ‘action-reaction’ theory is also morally repugnant. As Vir Sanghvi has argued, ‘What Mr Modi and his ilk are really saying is this: Because the riots were a response to a horrific and immoral act at Godhra, they are somehow less morally reprehensible . . . But cause-and-effect cannot be a moral philosophy. You cannot whitewash an event, wipe away somebody’s guilt or provide moral justification by pointing to the cause of their behaviour.’61
Steeped in the RSS teachings of historical enmity between Hindus and Muslims and unencumbered by the formal trappings of political office, VHP leader Ashok Singhal took Modi’s Newtonian logic one step further. For him, the situation in Gujarat was ‘a matter of pride.’ ‘It is a befitting reply to what has been perpetrated on the Hindus in the last 1,000 years . . . Gujarat has shown the way and our journey of victory will begin and end on the same path.’62 The VHP’s Pravin Togadia held out another direct threat. ‘Wherever there is Godhra, there will be Gujarat’, he said. ‘In Gujarat, for the first time there has been a Hindu awakening and Muslims have been turned into refugees. This is a welcome sign and Gujarat has shown the way to the country.’63 Togadia’s inflammatory statement was formalized by the VHP later in a resolution adopted at a conference in Hardwar at the end of June where Muslims throughout India were warned that Gujarat could be repeated and that they could all be driven into refugee camps.64
In 1939, Golwalkar had argued that ‘only those movements are truly “National” as aim at re-building, revitalising and emancipating from its present stupor, the Hindu Nation. Those only are nationalist patriots, who, with the aspiration to glorify the Hindu race and Nation next to their heart, are prompted into activity and strive to achieve that goal. All others are either traitors and enemies to the national cause, or, to take a charitable view, idiots.’65 It was left for senior BJP leader and spokesman J.P. Mathur to take this logic forward and describe the killing of Muslims in Gujarat as a ‘patriotic reaction’ to what happened at Godhra. ‘I don’t know why the people and the media have been calling the violence in Gujarat riots. These are not riots, but the reaction of nationalist forces to the Godhra carnage . . . The so-called secular leaders like I. K. Gujral, Chandrashekhar, Sonia Gandhi, Mulayam Singh Yadav are also in league with the anti-national forces. Whenever nationalist forces come out to challenge the anti-national elements, these people come to the rescue of the Muslims,’ Mathur said.66 There is no ambiguity in Mathur’s statement, nothing is left to chance: Muslims are anti-national, those who attack them are nationalists.
When the Mask Slipped
Perhaps the most significant elaboration of the Golwalkar-Savarkar thesis of India as a Hindu nation beset by Muslim trouble-makers in recent times was that provided by Prime Minister Vajpayee in his speech to the BJP national executive meeting in Goa on 12 April 2002.67 The speech is remarkable for the manner in which it attempts to justify the murder of Muslim citizens in Gujarat by referring to Godhra and contrasting the supposed ‘traditional tolerance’ of Hindus with the alleged ‘intolerance’ of Muslims.
Like Golwalkar, who believed only Hindus were true Indians, Vajpayee uses ‘us’, ‘our’, ‘Hindus’ and ‘Indians’ interchangeably throughout his speech. He begins by making an observation about Hindu kingdoms in ancient Cambodia. ‘No king destroyed a temple or damaged the deities’ idols at the time of attacking another king. This is our culture. This is our outlook, which treats all faiths equally.’ India, he said, was secular before Muslims and Christians set foot on her soil. Once they came, they had freedom of worship. ‘No one thought of converting them with force, because this is not practiced in our religion; and in our culture, there is no use for it.’ Here, the Prime Minister was trying to contrast the ‘tolerance’ of Hindus and Hinduism, which he described as ‘our religion’, with the supposed intolerance of Muslims and Christians. The reference to the destruction of idols and conversion ‘with force’ is a standard part of the RSS arsenal. At the root of major incidents of violence, he said, was ‘growing intolerance’. Since Hindus are, by definition, tolerant, the obvious inference is that this ‘growing intolerance’ is on the part of the Muslims. Turning immediately to the burning issue of the day, he asked:
What happened in Gujarat? If a conspiracy had not been hatched to burn alive the innocent passengers of the Sabarmati Express, then the subsequent tragedy in Gujarat could have been averted. But this did not happen. People were torched alive. Who were those culprits? The government is investigating into this. Intelligence agencies are collecting all the information. But we should not forget how the tragedy of Gujarat started. The subsequent developments were no doubt condemnable, but who lit the fire? How did the fire spread?
Here, in as unsophisticated a fashion as Modi had stated it, we find Vajpayee presenting his own version of Newton’s Third Law. There is no remorse about the killing of hundreds of innocent people, no apologies for the failure of the government to protect its citizens. He makes no attempt to distinguish between the criminal perpetrators of the Godhra attack and the innocent victims of the ‘subsequent tragedy in Gujarat’. For him, Muslims are an amorphous, undifferentiated lot who collectively ‘lit the fire’. They were to blame, not his party men who took part in the ‘subsequent developments’.
Going from the specific to the general, Vajpayee then launched a frontal attack on Muslims. He asserts that ‘For us, the soil of India from Goa to Guwahati is the same, all the people living on this land are the same. We do not believe in religious extremism. Today, the threat to our nation comes from terrorism’. Who is this we and where exactly does this ‘threat to our nation’ come from? The Hindi text provides a clue. Vajpayee deliberately uses the Urdu word mazhabi for ‘religious’ (rather than the Hindi word dharmik) when he says ‘religious extremism’.68 We do not believe in religious extremism; it is the Muslims. And terrorism, of course, is synonymous with Islam, or ‘militant Islam’, as Vajpayee chose to put it. But having first made a distinction between militant Islam and tolerant Islam, he then makes a sweeping generalization about all Muslims:
Wherever Muslims live, they don’t like to live in co-existence with others, they don’t like to mingle with others; and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats. The world has become alert to this danger.
The statement is classic hate speech, but after it generated a huge controversy, Vajpayee claimed his remarks were aimed not at all Muslims but only ‘militant Muslims’. The Prime Minister’s Office subsequently issued a doctored version of the speech in which the word ‘such’ was inserted between ‘Wherever’ and ‘Muslims live’. Many newspapers subsequently printed this version. It was not until a privilege motion was raised in Parliament—for Vajpayee had made the mistake of claiming on the floor of the House on May 1 that the doctored version of the speech was the true version—that he was forced to admit the word ‘such’ had been deliberately interpolated. However, he reiterated that ‘no one who reads my entire speech and takes note of the tribute I have paid to the tolerant and compassionate teachings of Islam, can be in any doubt that my reference . . . is only to the followers of militant Islam’.69
The allegation of Muslims not living in co-existence with others and not mingling with others is such a standard trope in RSS propaganda that Vajpayee’s claim of intending to refer only to militant Muslims does not seem very convincing. Earlier in his speech, he had equated militant Islam with terrorism. ‘Not mingling with others’ is a peculiar charge to level against terrorists. In any case, it was a bit odd for the prime minister to talk about terrorism and militancy as if they were the preserve of the adherents of Islam—especially at a time when his own Sangh Parivar was heavily involved in acts of terror in Gujarat. But there was a deeper level of dishonesty in the charge against Muslims, for it is precisely the policy of the RSS to ghettoize and isolate the Muslim community. As sociologist Dhirubhai Sheth has argued, it was not accidental that the Muslims who bore the brunt of the Sangh Parivar’s violence in Gujarat were those who chose to live in Hindu-majority areas. The communal killings in the state, he says, have exposed the dishonesty of the ‘Hindutvavadis’ who reproach Muslims for not entering the ‘national mainstream’ but then beat them back into their ghettos whenever they do emerge.70
In another attempt to soften the impact of his Goa remarks, Vajpayee told Parliament that he was as opposed to militant Hinduism as he was to militant Islam. ‘I accept the Hindutva of Swami Vivekananda but the type of Hindutva being propagated now is wrong and one should be wary of it.’ Having said this, however, he went back to square one by adding that although there were laws to deal with such an eventuality, he was confident no Hindu organization would become a danger to the country’s unity.71 In other words, only Muslim (or Christian or Sikh) organizations have the potential of endangering the country’s unity. After maligning Vivekananda—who never spoke of Hindutva but of Hinduism—Vajpayee went straight back to the teachings of Golwalkar and Savarkar.
Apart from reverting to the usual chauvinist line of the Sangh Parivar, Vajpayee was also diverting the debate into a dead end. The issue is not whether he personally opposes militant Islam or Hinduism but whether, as prime minister, he is prepared to defend the constitutional rights of all Indians. Regardless of his own views and beliefs, a prime minister cannot speak for only a section of citizens. Do the Muslims of Gujarat have the right to physical security? Is he prepared to punish those who have committed crimes regardless of their political or ideological affiliation? Rather than dealing with these questions, Vajpayee is trying to cover up his own political failure and culpability.
It is remarkable that Vajpayee’s first televised address to the country was only on 2 March—after the seventy-two hours of apparent freedom enjoyed by the Sangh Parivar in Gujarat expired—and even then, all he could do was appeal for calm and tolerance.72 In fact, his attempt to blame the ordinary people of Gujarat—and their supposed lack of ‘harmony’—for the mass killings in their state was a disingenuous manoeuvre aimed at absolving himself, his party colleagues and the state machinery they control, of any responsibility for the crimes. Like Rajiv Gandhi in November 1984 and Narasimha Rao in January 1993, Vajpayee will go down in history as a prime minister who preached the virtues of tolerance even as he turned a blind eye to the massacre of innocent citizens. Instead of using national television to tell the people of Gujarat that the genocidal mobs would be put down with a firm hand—and that policemen failing to protect the life and liberty of all would be punished—Vajpayee delivered a sermon on the need for religious sadbhavna.
There was little passion or feeling in what he said, no words of succour for the victims, no anger or opprobrium for the killers. He said the violence was a ‘black mark on the nation’s forehead’ but he couldn’t bring himself to say that retaliatory attacks on Muslims for what happened at Godhra would attract the same punishment as the burning of the train. Here was a violent disturbance that had made a mockery of State power as it is supposed to operate yet the prime minister issued no dire warnings to those who were challenging his authority and power as chief executive. In the US, President George W. Bush and his senior aides publicly warned citizens against attacking Muslims, Arabs and other immigrants following the World Trade Centre terrorist strike. In less than a year since 9/11, a man in Texas has been sentenced to death for the ‘retaliatory’ murder of a Sikh immigrant. To date, however, Vajpayee has yet to even publicly acknowledge that Muslim citizens of India were victimized in Gujarat or to threaten the attackers with the severest consequences.
Indeed, Vajpayee was later to demonstrate that he was so loyal to his party and Parivar that he didn’t mind undermining the majesty of the State and his own office. On 17 April, he said that if only Parliament had condemned Godhra, the subsequent massacres would not have happened. The fact is that he is leader of the House and could have ordered a discussion and condemnation of Godhra on the day it happened—instead of the scheduled presentation of the Budget. In early May, he made another curious statement, this time on the floor of the Rajya Sabha: That he had decided to remove Modi in April but didn’t act fearing a backlash in Gujarat. ‘I had gone to Goa making up my mind on changing the ruler in Gujarat but according to my own assessment, I felt that the change in leadership will only worsen the situation.’73 At the time, the only people opposed to a change in leadership were the RSS and VHP. Removing Modi may or may not have provided temporary relief for Gujarat’s beleaguered Muslims but it was odd for the prime minister to admit being held hostage to the threats of criminals and goons. ‘Vajpayee,’ wrote B.G. Verghese, ‘placed the diktat of the mob above his oath of office . . . the emperor has no clothes, stripped of the last shred of moral authority.’74
56 The full text of the resolution may be accessed at http://www.rss.org/reso2002.htm
57 ‘RSS asks Muslims to shun extremist leaders,’ Hindu, 18 March 2002; ‘Hindu goodwill key to Muslims’ safety: RSS,’ Hindustan Times, 18 March 2002.
58 Smruti Koppikar, ‘BJP chief reads riot act to Muslims,’ Indian Express, 13 April 2002.
59 ‘Blame it on Newton’s Law: Modi,’ Times of India, 3 March 2002.
60 Interview by Sudhir Choudhury, Zee TV, 1 March, 2002. Reproduced as Annexure 4A in the Editors Guild Report, p. 38. The denial issued by the Gujarat Government’s Directorate of Information on 3 March 2002 states, ‘The Chief Minister has never mentioned such Newton’s (sic) third law,’ and is reproduced in the Editors Guild report, pp. 73-4. But though Modi did not himself invoke Newton’s name when he spoke of action and reaction, his reference to the law was obvious.
61 Vir Sanghvi, ‘Gujarat: Cause and Effect,’ Hindustan Times, 21 April 2002.
62 ‘ISI hand in Godhra incident: Singhal,’ Hindustan Times, 6 May 2002.
63 Amita Verma, ‘VHP to test war on jihad in UP,’ Asian Age, 7 June 2002.
64 Hindu, 24 June 2002; Amar Ujala (Dehra Doon edition), 24 June 2002.
65 In We, or Our Nationhood Defined. p 44.
66 Onkar Singh, ‘Gujarat violence is patriots’ reaction to Godhra: Mathur,’ rediff.com, 3 May 2002. http://www.rediff.com/news/2002/may/03train.htm (Accessed on 20 June 2002)
67 The speech is reproduced unedited in the Appendix.
68 His exact words were ‘Hum mazhabi kattarta mein vishwas nahin karte’. The fact that mazhabi is the only Urdu word used in the sentence is not accidental. In Sangh Parivar literature and propaganda, whenever a positive reference to religion is made, the word used tends to be dharm, implying Hinduism; when the reference is negative, the word used tends to be mazhab. See M. Zeyaul Haque, ‘The Language of Hate,’ Milli Gazette, 1 June 2001.
69 The ruling by Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi on a privilege motion moved by Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi on 9 May, 2002, quotes the PM as admitting that the ‘video tape of his speech at Goa did not contain the word “such”.’ ‘Privilege motion against PM rejected,’ Hindu, 17 May 2002.
70 Dhirubhai Sheth, ‘Is dangey ko samajhne ke liye…,’ Rashtriya Sahara, 9 March 2002.
71 ‘PM wanted to sack Modi but feared reaction,’ Times of India, 7 May 2002.
72 ‘It’s a black mark, says PM,’ Hindu, 3 March 2002.
73 ‘PM wanted to sack Modi but feared reaction, Times of India, 7 May 2002. His remark in Parliament condemning Godhra was made at a public function to felicitate former PM Chandrashekhar. ‘A lesson or two for his teacher,’ Hindu, 18 April 2002.
74 B.G. Verghese, ‘Farewell to Rajdharma,’ Times of India, 23 May 2002