On February 28, 15 years would have passed since a gale of violence engulfed 20 out of the 25 districts of Gujarat. This persisted for several weeks, and in some places for months, as state authorities did little to control it.
More than 1,000 people, the large majority of who were from the minority Muslim community, were killed. Tens of thousands of homes and small business establishments — petty shops, wooden carts, autorickshaws, taxi jeeps, eateries and garages — were set aflame, and cattle and lifetime savings looted. This resulted in the long displacement and enduring pauperisation of more than 200,000 people. More than half of these were actively prevented — by fear, intimidation and social and economic boycott — from ever returning to their homes, resulting in their permanent expulsion from the villages and colonies of their birth.
Less noted, less dramatic, but even more terrifying is what happened in the dozen years and more that followed.
There is the new normalcy of Gujarat, in which Muslims have learnt to live separately, much like Dalits have been forced to exist for centuries. Much was touted, and celebrated, about the “Gujarat model” and the elections that followed were seen as a mandate to nationalise this in all of India. One part of this “Gujarat model” is no doubt connected with privileging a business-friendly administration over investment in the social sectors.
But what is less recognised is that part of the model is the systematic reduction of the country’s religious minorities to second-class citizenship. This is not different from what was accomplished so effectively — and with such little resistance or even notice and commentary from the country’s liberal public opinion — in the aftermath of the riots. This second-class citizenship of Muslims extends also to Christians, Dalits and tribal people in Gujarat as well.
Campaigns for ghar wapsi or (home-coming) of Christian and Muslim converts to Hinduism, suggesting that only the Hindu faith is “home” and persons converted to other faiths need to be brought back; or against beef-eating and “love jihad”; and abusive hate-speeches against Muslims; have generated fear and dread among India’s religious minorities. Especially during various state elections, anti-minority hatred is stoked cynically — examples are the comments on the “pink revolution” and the killing of rhinos to accommodate Bangladeshi Muslims in Assam in 2014, and the charge of discrimination after death to Hindus in the ongoing UP elections.
To suggest that all this targeting of minorities continues unchecked contrary to the government’s wishes is utterly disingenuous. If his Cabinet and party colleagues were actually falling out of line, one public rebuke from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and — in the unlikely event of their persisting with hate rhetoric — dismissal from senior office, could easily put an end to all hate utterances and campaigns. The charging of Left-leaning university students with sedition further refurbishes the BJP’s ideological world-view in which all Left and liberal dissent against the economic and social policies of the government are unpatriotic, because the ruling party, the government, its leader and the nation all converge into one seamless whole.
When an idealistic young doctoral student — who described himself as a Marxist Ambedkarite — Rohith Vemula in the central university in Hyderabad tried to organise film-screening protesting communal violence, and debate the justice of the death penalty to Yakub Memon convicted for the 1993 Bombay blasts, he was called an anti-national by two ministers of the government. This led to his suspension from the university and ultimately his suicide. When Leftist students in JNU organised a meeting to interrogate the justice of the death penalty to Afzal Guru, hanged for complicity in the attack on Parliament, they were charged with sedition, for which they could be jailed for life. Elected BJP leaders dubbed all those who protested this action, including senior leaders of the Left and Congress, as anti-national. Idealistic activists fighting human rights abuses in Chhattisgarh were hounded as Maoists.
Through all the nation-wide debates, when voices were raised against police action targeting dissenting university students, the government maintained its trademark selective silence. In public addresses, however, BJP leaders regularly decried the political opposition, anti-national students, and also NGOs supported by foreign funds. Once again opposition to Modi’s leadership and the ideology of his government was conflated with petty elitism on the one hand, and betrayal of the nation on the other.
Unlike many commentators, I cannot find hope in the straws in the wind of occasional progressive utterances by the government. The enormous chasm between these stray statements and the actual practice of the government and party is not mere “inconsistency”, but dangerous and cynical double-speak that is characteristic of the RSS ever since its founding nearly a century ago. I worry deeply about the prime minister’s deafening silences, as well as the government’s demonising of every kind of opposition to its policies.
I feel an intense unrest and foreboding thinking about how fundamentally the idea of India and its practice is changing so rapidly today and how the politics of hate has so profoundly polarised and divided us.
Harsh Mander is author, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India
The views expressed are personal