The contradictions of modern Gujarat
Writing this letter takes me back to when I first came to Ahmedabad five years ago and fell in love with the city. Gujarat, the fourth most urbanised and second most industrialised state of India, contributes 6.6 percent of national production and 11 percent of the national industrial output. The average quality of life in the villages of Gujarat is much better than what I had experienced in the tribal belt of Bihar in eastern India, where I had worked earlier. I was told that the mercantile Gujarati community assimilates outsiders like water absorbs sugar. In less than a year, I too was assimilated and acquired the true Gujarati spirit.
Trouble, however, was on its way. In 1999, the monsoon failed for two consecutive years and many parts of Gujarat suffered acute drought. Kutch, Saurastra and north Gujarat faced severe shortages of drinking and irrigation water. Government and voluntary agencies reached out to the people in distress and helped them emerge from the crisis. But there was more in store. In the cold winter of January 2001, a devastating earthquake killed thousands of people and left many more homeless. Once again, voluntary agencies and government assistance poured in to help people in distress. The Gujarati spirit survived.
The question now, however, is whether Gujarat will survive the present crisis — of division of the people along communal lines. This is a crisis that has divided society so deeply that one newspaper headline said that the only person who could feel safe in a beard is Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat. Gujarat is not an isolated event in the cyclical history of violence that has gripped South Asia and the world in different forms. Whether it is ethnic violence in Sri Lanka, fundamentalism and its fallout in Pakistan, the assault on minorities in Bangladesh or the Maoist insurgency in Nepal — violence seems to be the order of the day. However, what is most surprising about Gujarat is the changing perception of violence and its acceptance by Gujaratis. How can a predominantly vegetarian community that espoused the values of non-violence values and nurtured both Jainism and Gandhism for years justify killings on the grounds of religion? How could a society in which killing animals and nonvegetarianism are seen as dreadful acts even today tolerate such extrodinary brutality? Does only lack of monsoon showers or the rumble of seismic tremors arouse compassion for people in need? Let me point out some of the contradictions of modern Gujarat that exist side by side.
The Godhra incident was first reported on one of the 24-hour TV news channels in the mid-morning of 27 February 2002. The news initially came in bits and pieces, and even till evening one could not gauge the gravity of the situation from television. However, that evening I visited the market on CG Road in Ahmedabad and could sense that something was appallingly wrong. Gujarat is known for its peaceful nightlife and it is common to see women and men on the road even at midnight. But on that particular evening the streets were deserted. The shops were closed and there was a perceptible tension in the air. Later I learnt that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had announced a Gujarat Bandh for 28 February.
At that moment, I could forsee what was going to unfold in the coming days. What followed from 28 February onwards is a nightmare without respite. The televised ‘riots’ showed the ugly face of Gujarat to the world — attacks on innocent lives and property and the rest of the rampage of the rioting mob. Today, thousands of people are still living in relief camps in major urban and rural clusters after their houses were burnt and their basic means of livelihood destroyed, leaving them at the mercy of others.
What makes the recent riots different from Gujarat’s earlier disturbances is the participation of dalits, adivasis and middle and upper-middle class Hindus in the riots. Much of this can be accounted for by the history, sociology and realpolitik of Gujarat today. The partial success of industrialisation in many areas of Gujarat created pockets of development, the fruits of which are visible in Gujarat’s golden corridor stretching between Mumbai and Mehsana. The bulk of this land falls in the agriculturally and industrially developed northern and central parts of the state that are under the communal cloud today. The KHAM (khatriya, harijan, adivasi and Muslim combine) politics of Gujarat, a legacy of the Congress regime, partly transferred power from the erstwhile Brahmin-Baniya-Patel combine to the more prosperous strata of lower castes and adivasis. This transfer was not without its problems, as the riots that rocked Gujarat in 1981 and 1985 demonstrated. However, politicians took note of this division of Hindus along caste lines and crafted a common Hindutva strategy to unite the majority community against Muslims. The dalit identity gave way, in the face of urbanisation and sanskritisation in Gujarat, making the state a breeding ground for communal hatred. The loss of identity assisted this assimilation process by building up an aversion to Muslims. The post-Babri Masjid riots in 1992 accelerated this process and changed the social geography of urban Gujarat, creating increasingly sharp distinctions along communal lines.
After 1990, India underwent globalisation and experienced dramatic increases in middle class incomes, primarily fuelled by the industrial and financial sectors. The Fifth Pay Commission hiked government salaries, creating the necessary surplus liquidity for the market to expand. Places like CG Road underwent a remarkable transformation, with large departmental stores and neon lights. In the last three years alone, four multiplex theatres have come up in Ahmedabad screening new Hindi and English movies. However, these new up-market amenities are the exclusive priviledge of the affluent. The general public’s access is regulated in various ways, including economic restrictions. A cinema ticket that costs more than INR 100 is beyond the reach for the majority of Gujaratis. Lower-middle and middle class citizens can only gave in envy, unable to enter these islands of sparkling capitalism. The recent riots included televised images of people from the middle and lower-middle classes looting these stores, bridging the yawning gap between the aspiration and the reality. The phenomenon is important and cries for sociological analysis.
The other part of the story includes the assimilation of Muslims into the mainstream Gujarati economy through changes in income levels. Many of the Muslims have been successfully self-employed in hotel and motor mechanic businesses and the larger process of integration was just beginning. Targeting these business establishments pushed the Muslims back into the very misery that breeds hatred and antagonism.
However, in these times of extreme distress, many people stood out in divided Gujarati society to prove that humanity still survives. Virsinh Rathod, who lives next to the Muslim locality in Naroda, risked his life and brought 20 Muslim families to his home, from where they were later escorted to relief camps. Virsinh helped also 2000 others to reach nearby relief camps in trucks he hired specially for the purpose. The 20,000-odd inhabitants of Ram-Rahim Nagar of Behrampura in Ahmedabad also showed the harmony that could potentially exist between the two communities. They have lived together for years and survived the riots of 1969, 1985, 1990 and 1992. They maintained constant vigil to prevent outside mobs from inciting violence in the area. At the centre of the slum, the two communities have built a temple and a dargah facing each other as a symbol of communal co-existence.
These signposts of secularism rooted in the social fabric of Gujarat bring hope and suggest a glimmer of light at the end of the terrifying tunnel. It gives one hope that, as with other calamities, Gujarat will survive the man-made disaster created by communalism. More than a century old, the bhajan of Saint Narsinh Mehta, which was adopted by Gandhi, still says it all:
“Vaisnav Jan To Tene Kahiye Je Pir Parayee Jane Re” –
Vaisnays (humans) are those who understand the agony of others.