Any discussion on the Godhra murders and the subsequent religious riots that engulfed Gujarat beginning this day 10 years ago inevitably ends up becoming an argument over Narendra Modi. However, to be fair to Gujarat’s cataclysmic summer of 2002, and to the 1,044 people (790 Muslims and 254 Hindus) killed that year, it is necessary to look at the wider legacy of those events. This is not to defend or attack Modi; that is a separate issue and the subject of a separate, though not entirely unrelated, debate. The point is that it is important to see the broader implications of the Gujarat riots without necessarily reducing them to a slanging match over one individual.
Gujarat was not the first major religious riot in post-Partition India and not the worst either in terms of human loss. Why then does it stand out and why are its memories so marked? Why is the perception that Gujarat 2002 was singularly abominable — which in comparison to previous and similar events it was not — so difficult to erase? Indeed which are the forces that have made Gujarat bigger than previous such infractions — and, paradoxically, do they carry the potential to ensure that Gujarat 2002 is also India’s last major riot?
Three features of Gujarat 2002 are worth noting. First, the degree of popular participation was remarkably high. Religious riots, as any police officer from Malegaon to Maliana will tell you, usually involve a minuscule percentage of the population. In the three days after February 27, Gujarat police officers told this writer in 2002 that — and they were citing FIRs and plain surmise — two million people came out on the streets.
Gujarat had a population of 50 million in 2002: 88% Hindu, 9% Muslim. Of this 32 million were voters and aged above 18. As such 4% of the populace and over 6% of all adults were riot participants. In purely numerical, value-neutral terms, this would constitute a mass movement. The degree of social approbation for the events that followed the Godhra train massacre was significant. It can’t be explained as merely the act of a small core of masterminds.
Second, Gujarat 2002 was an anachronism, a 20th century riot in 21st century India. In its narrative and its mobilisation techniques it was no different from the riots of, say, Calcutta (1964), Ahmedabad itself (1969), Bhagalpur (1989) and Bombay (1993). In its background — the sedulous radicalisation of sections of Muslims, the conversion of underworld figures who happened to be Muslim into Islamist warriors, the transformation of Hindutva from a political idea into an ugly and unwholesome street phenomenon that habitually challenged the law — Gujarat 2002 encapsulated so much of the wrenching emotionalism of the mid-1980s and early-90s.
Yet it was also a phenomenon past its time. Gujarat represented an autarkic economy riot in the era of globalisation. In the past 10 years, Modi and his government have made adroit use of the opportunities of globalisation, and turned Gujarat into an extraordinary economic powerhouse. Ironically, they have also been impeded by another manifestation of global networking, one that uses the same tools and communication technologies as its business counterpart — the globalisation of causes and concerns, of protest and activism and ultimately of soft power.
Middle class attitudes are increasingly influenced by these aspects of globalisation. This has had one major consequence: a declining tolerance for violence in the very urban centres that saw the worst religious riots 25 years ago. If there are still fears about jihadist terrorism and national security, these flow more from their ability to interrupt India’s economic treadmill. The propellant is no longer raw emotion, or prejudice for the sake of prejudice. There is a growing sense that direct action cannot be a substitute for strict law enforcement.
As an economy attains critical mass, it transcends adventurism, real or even rhetorical. This is often the basis of political conservatism. After 2002, middle India crossed that inflection point.
Combined with this creeping economic hard-headedness is the presence of an over-intrusive media, Indian and global. This has meant that aberrations are suicidal. For instance, the political cost of a riot has gone up prohibitively; especially following 9/11, any juxtaposition of the phenomena ‘religion’ and ‘violence’ is unlikely to be viewed benignly. The media shows — maybe overstates — horrific pictures, builds revulsion and invites international pressure. Gujarat 2002 is a case in point. It is a ‘victim’ of globalisation, almost as much as Gujarat 2012 — the economic success story — is a ‘creature’ of globalisation.
Third, at the end of 2002, Gujarat saw an assembly election that was compelling but also disturbing. It reflected a polarised society and the BJP exploited this mood. It was reminiscent of the Congress election advertisements of 1984, which too sought to demonise the ‘other’ and scare voters into backing the party.
While this is undeniable, it is equally true that — despite what Modi’s opponents may contend — that degree of polarisation is no longer present in Gujarat. The state has moved on, and to say this in no way mitigates the need to deliver justice to those who died in 2002 or to punish their killers. It also leaves us with the hope that Gujarat — and India — are done with blockbuster religious riots for good.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.