Commenting on the performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Gujarat State Assembly elections in December 2017, where the incumbent party had barely managed a majority, journalist Revati Laul writes in her book The Anatomy of Hate, “In Gujarat, it seemed as if there was no more room for the hate to grow.” In the context of the massive victory for the BJP in the 2019 general elections – in Gujarat alone, the BJP won all 26 parliamentary seats – it is ironic to read Laul’s assessment – that they had gone “as far as they could”.
Laul moved to Gujarat as a reporter with the Delhi-based news channel NDTV following the anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002. The widespread support among many Hindus for the anti-Muslim violence haunted her. Keen to understand the dynamics at play, she thought interviews with some of the perpetrators of the mob violence would be a good way to explore these complexities. After considering making a documentary film, and then writing a magazine cover story, Laul eventually decided on a book. Unsuccessful in obtaining grants from research foundations and institutions, she decided to crowdfund her journalistic project. Scheduled to run for 45 days, the crowdfunding campaign exceeded her target of INR 800,000 (USD 11,600) in about 15 days, the result of which was The Anatomy of Hate.
Judging perpetrators of mob violence – such as the members of militant Hindutva groups who were part of the 2002 Gujarat massacres – as ‘evil’ primarily caters to our instincts of righteousness. But moral condemnation does not provide insights about the politics of polarisation. The ineffectiveness of the left in countering fascist ideologies – whether seen in the German Communist Party during the rise of the Nazi ideology in 1930s Germany, or the present crisis of the left in India – is testimony to their failure to grasp and engage with the politics of divisiveness. Moreover, in the Gujarat of 2002, it was not just a handful of fringe extremist groups, but at times mobs of thousands who participated in the killing of Muslims, making it even more crucial to understand the forces at work.
The Anatomy of Hate’s approach is in sharp contrast to a simplistic condemnatory paradigm. As Laul writes, “Choice is a vexing word. What part of choice applies when a tidal wave of anger tears through a state? What part of it is the moment, the madness, the collective, and what part individual, personal history?” To answer these questions, the book takes an intimate look at the lives of three individuals who participated in the mass violence of February-March 2002.
Laul met nearly a hundred people accused of participating in the 2002 pogroms, and the three protagonists in the book have been chosen with care: Suresh Jadeja, who was involved in the Naroda Patiya killings in Ahmedabad and lived in the adjacent neighbourhood; Pranav, a college student; and Dungar, a former member of the BJP from the Bhil Adivasi community. The three characters demonstrate different aspects of the violence during the pogroms.
The anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 saw large-scale mobilisation of Adivasis against Muslims. Far-right Hindu groups in India have been making inroads into Adivasi communities since late 1980s, hoping to recruit them for anti-Muslim and anti-Christian politics. But 2002 saw the first violent mobilisation on that scale. For instance, in Sanjeli Village in western Gujarat, which had a significant Muslim population, a fact-finding investigation in 2002 (of which I was a part) found that all of its nearly 500 Muslims households were driven out during the pogroms. A Bhil community leader named Dalsukh Maharaj, who ran an ashram with a hostel for school children, mobilised around 30,000 Adivasis to attack Muslims in the village. Much like him, Dungar – the Adivasi protagonist in the book who leads the burning of homes and shops of Muslims in the village – runs a hostel and has an organisation that helps Adivasi residents in dealing with government bureaucracy.
Through Dungar’s persona, Laul’s book brings out how the dominant discourse of Bhils being inferior to caste Hindus, and their feelings of smallness, insignificance and humiliations, coalesced with envy of better-off Muslims, and led to the violence in this case. The act of taking the lead in burning down the houses of Muslims in the village, she argues, gave a larger purpose to the simmering rage which resonated in a sizable section of the Adivasi community of Gujarat. Dalsukh Maharaj had used slogans like “Muslims despoil our women” to rally his community of Bhil Adivasis. Adding some detail about the rhetoric and organisational strategies employed by Dungar to lead the mob would have greatly enriched our understanding of the processes of group mobilisation for violence.
Laul’s other subject is Suresh Jadeja, better known as Suresh ‘Langdo’ – so called because of a limp from having contracted polio as a child. Jadeja was a perpetrator of killings and rape in Naroda Patiya in Ahmedabad, a Muslim neighbourhood adjoining his home in Chharanagar. A sizeable proportion of people from both neighbourhoods are butchers and meat vendors. Chharanagar is also home to the Chhara community, to which Jadeja belonged. The Chhara people had been designated by the British as “criminal tribes addicted to the commission of non-bailable offences” through a colonial law called Criminal Tribes Act in 1871. The so-called criminal tribes were denotified in independent India, but the stigma against them remains. Attitudes and practices of both police and the society towards ‘denotified’ communities like Chharas and Pardhis continue to be prejudiced. A place of grinding poverty, Chharanagar has its own counter norms, writes Laul, where “being labelled a son of a thief had become a badge of honour”. This was the milieu in which Jadeja grew up to adulthood.
One resident from Jadeja’s neighbourhood, who knew him since he was ten years old tells Laul that he once made a complaint against Jadeja for stealing a watch. “And the cops came after Suresh beat the crap out of him. They went on beating him, over and over. They beat him so much, even I felt bad. But then he is a Chhara after all. This is in their blood.” Jadeja grew up amid such fixed labels, was expelled from school in the second grade for hitting a teacher with a stone, and became increasingly full of rage and violent as a teenager. In the 1990s, the militant Hindutva group Bajrang Dal became active in his neighbourhood and Jadeja became increasingly susceptible to Islamophobic propaganda. The feelings of humiliation and rage escalated after Jadeja’s sister eloped with a Muslim man. As revenge, he vowed to get a Muslim wife and subsequently, and succeeded in wooing and marrying Farzana, who was from Naroda Patiya.
Laul’s book also illustrates how, in some cases, being abused as a child, rather than making the individual more sensitive to the perils of violence, could turn a young victim-survivor into an abuser as an adult. Jadeja grew up hearing his father declare, “I don’t know who that wife of mine has slept with to produce this bastard. He’s not my blood. This boy is not my son”. In turn, we find Jadeja proclaiming loudly that his son with Farzana – lovingly named Vivian, after the famous Antiguan cricketer, reflecting the father’s passion for the sport – is “the son of a eunuch. Half Muslim. Chhakka [an epithet used against gay men or transgender people]. Kateyla miya [a pejorative for Muslims].”
Powers of propaganda
In the 1971 Bangladesh War, the Pakistan Army systematically used rape to impregnate Bengali women, in an attempt to wipe out Bengali nationhood. Estimates suggest that between 200,000 and 400,000 women were raped by the Pakistani Army. A similar tactic was seen during the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s, when the Serbian militants raped Bosnian and Croatian women, forcing them to give birth to chetniks (Serbian paramilitaries from the time of the Ottoman Empire), with the intention of destroying the Muslim and Croatian identity in Bosnia.
In India, feeding into fears and insecurities about Hindus facing a demographic threat has been successfully used to demonise Muslims. In this paradigm, sexual violence against Muslim girls and women becomes a righteous act by the perpetrators to save the ‘honour’ of their mothers and sisters. At the same time, the act is seen to emasculate the rapacious Muslim men and ‘dishonour’ the entire Muslim community. The reduction of the ‘other’ to a subhuman, evil, beast-like creature, therefore, makes the violence acceptable, if not a virtuous act.
Among the incidents in which Jadeja participated was the murder of a full-term pregnant woman named Kauser Bi, ripping her foetus out with a sword. The case of Kauser Bi’s killing has a special significance, as it seeks to prevent the birth of a Muslim child. Jadeja’s bragging about another incident to Ashish Khetan, an investigative reporter for the magazine Tehelka who posed as a member of the group Vishwa Hindu Parishad, shows the brutal power of such ideology: “Look, I’m not telling lies… Maata is before me [gesturing to an image of a deity]… Look, my wife is sitting here but let me say… That scrap dealer’s girl, Naseemo… I got on top… Then I pulped her… Made her into a pickle”.
The book interrogates the much-idealised concept of romantic love, too. Despite beatings, humiliations and accusations of infidelity by her husband, as well as his confessions to rape and killings, Farzana, according to Laul, feels that “What complicated everything was the affection for Suresh that [she] thought that she was done with but discovered she was not.” Laul writes that Farzana “saw how, despite himself, [Jadeja] was also in love with her.” The Farzana-Suresh relationship powerfully illustrates the vicious cycle of domestic violence – of beatings followed by remorse, apologies and declarations, of never repeating the acts, leading to repeated abandonments and reconciliations.
The study of individual psychology has the concept of ‘splitting’ emotions, where we project onto others that which we consider ‘bad’. An example of this is when a child calls a doll bad and then gives it a whack. This process seems to operate at collective levels, too, particularly in the context of inter-community relations. For example, ‘dirtiness’ seems to be one of those universal feelings which we find most difficult to tolerate, and thus often project onto others. Fascist movements often feed into that intolerable feeling of ‘dirtiness’, and project it onto the ‘other’ – communities with different religion, ethnicity or other markers. Examples include the Nazis projecting Jewish people as dirty; colonial regimes, where the rulers often considered the ‘natives’ dirty; or today’s India, where some Hindutva groups characterise Muslims as dirty.
Laul’s book also shows the possibility of acknowledging and taking responsibility for one’s unwholesome – ‘bad’ or ‘dirty’ – aspects, rather than splitting and projecting them onto the demonised ‘other’. She brings out the process beautifully in the story of Pranav the pièce de résistance of the book. A student with nebulous negative feelings about Muslims, he joins his hostel mates and friends as a voyeur-observer in the looting and burning of Muslim-owned shops. To camouflage the student’s identity, Laul has changed his name, but she describes him as an English-speaking postgraduate student from a rising middle-class family, who belonged to one of the dominant caste groups of the state.
Later on, Pranav visits refugee camps that are full of destitute, injured and bewildered Muslims. It has a deep emotional impact on him, creating dilemmas and forcing him to grapple with his identity. He goes on to become involved with a group which works on building cricket teams that comprise both Hindus and Muslims, initiating an interrogation of the biases of caste, class and religion, which seep into us by an invisible, osmotic process.
Similarly, a civil-rights group wanting to partner with Adivasis approaches Dungar, where the first task is to rebuild Muslim homes which he took a lead in burning down. Seeing the miserable lives of people whose houses he had burnt evokes feelings of remorse in Dungar. We see him struggle with his poverty, his ambitions of making it big in politics, of being an Adivasi but claiming to be a Rajput caste Hindu, and of being an Islamophobe and a rebuilder of Muslim homes at the same time.
Invoking historical traumas as if they happened today and conflating the perpetrators of the past with members of whichever community today constitutes the ‘other’ – Muslims, Albanians, Croatians, Bosnians – is a tried formula for stoking communal tensions that can lead to genocidal killings. In his infamous Gazimestan speech in June 1989, then president of Serbia Slobodan Milosevic invoked the Battle of Kosovo, marking the 600th anniversary of the defeat of the medieval Serbian state by the Ottoman Empire, to stoke ethnic tensions between Serbs and Albanians. In 1990, BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani started his blood-strewn Ram Janmabhoomi rath yatra procession – part of a movement to reclaim the legendary birthplace of Ram in the north Indian town of Ayodhya – by invoking the plunder of Somnath Temple in Gujarat by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1025, to whip up Hindu-Muslim tensions. This book examines the intermeshing of such landmark events with what transpired at the ground level to expand our understanding of individual and community agency in political violence. As Laul puts it: “the three actors were not marionettes… Neither were they operating on a blank canvas over which they had absolute creative rights”.
It is easy for those who have a preference for ‘hard’ data of quantitative surveys to dismiss the book for its sample of three. Acknowledging this critique, the author responds: “The three stories I confined this book to are the ones that revealed themselves to me in all their layers and complexity. They are neither geographically nor demographically representative of the whole. They are intimate, however, and that I have hoped provides a different way of seeing.” This approach has also been effectively deployed in the past to gain a depth of information about similar phenomenon: the role of women in Hindutva movement. Paola Bacchetta’s book, Gender in the Hindu Nation (2004), which was based on in-depth interviews of a single Rashtra Sevika Samiti member, is an excellent example of insightful writing about women who are in the Hindutva movement, through the voice of one woman.
The Anatomy of Hate is an important contribution to our understanding of the political role of hate, rage, anger, violence and, of course, love. It is also an important exploration of the crucial link between the individual and the collective psyche. By and large, psychology as a discipline stands largely preoccupied with the individual. Those involved in social movements for a more egalitarian society are, therefore, often legitimately suspicious of some claims of psychology, which they see as advocating a philosophy of adjusting to the status quo, through various methods such as counselling. But bringing the two together, as Laul does in this book, can offer constructive avenues of engaging with the politics of ‘othering’ and work towards building better relations between communities.