In February 2005, the Asian American Hotel Owners’ Association (AAHOA) invited Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to headline their annual meeting. A group of Indian Americans protested. Modi, after all, had had his hand on the levers of power when Hindutva’s armies had killed over a thousand people in February 2002, in the wake of the death of a group of Hindutva activists in Godhra, allegedly by a Muslim mob. Some held him personally responsible, either for sins of commission (he set the forces in motion and purposefully held back the police) or for sins of omission (he failed to prevent the riots or to stop them once they began). Either way, Modi did not look good. He was bad for Brand India.
But not to the leaders of AAHOA. To them, Modi was Gujarat. M P Rama, AAHOA’s vice chair, wanted Modi because his organisation “saw a great business opportunity. We told Narendrabhai Modi to come and tell our members about Gujarat’s potential.” As it turned out, the US government denied Modi’s visa application. Gujarat’s strongman stayed home.
Everyone knows about Narendra Modi, and about the post-Godhra massacre. But what is astounding is that, like other modern pogroms, the guilty go unpunished and the survivors continue to suffer. Dionne Bunsha, a correspondent for Frontline, covered Gujarat’s trials for the magazine and has now written a book from the survivor’s point of view. Scarred takes us from the train fire at Godhra to the refugee camps across the state. With forensic clarity, Bunsha shows us how the BJP and its Jung Parivar unleashed terror across the country, and how the BJP-controlled state government worked its malevolence against Muslims.
This is not the story of a ‘failed state’, but of incredible efficiency: the carnage went smoothly, as the saffron forces murdered Muslims and destroyed their economic base. Authoritarianism in power faces a conundrum. It is never good at the articulation of popular grievances, or at preparing solutions for them. Instead, it offers a narrative of the Final Battle between Good and Evil, between Hindus and Muslims – where the ultimate destruction of the latter will inaugurate a Ram Rajya, in which there will be no want and justice will reign. The only way to address the pressing needs of the people, then, is to enjoin them to kill Muslims. Bunsha’s book shows us how this political ideology functions in everyday terms, and what it means to bear the social costs of this sort of messianic fascism
Bigotry and haftas
A month before Godhra, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) hosted Modi for a New Delhi conference titled ‘Resurgent Gujarat: Business Partnership Meet 2002’. The theme was to celebrate the shift of the state’s economy “from a predominantly agrarian one into a major industrial power house”. The businessmen wanted the state to create “a more business-friendly environment”, which meant less regulation, no unions and more profits to corporations.
Beneath the high growth figures, however, lies a different Gujarati reality. Unemployment is up, as is the depth of poverty and agrarian stagnation. Literacy rates of just 69 percent lag behind neighbouring Maharashtra (77 percent), not to mention Kerala (90 percent). Gujarat also manages to get just ahead of Bihar for the lowest rate of school attendees. The state’s sex ratio is in decline, and one-in-four atrocities against Dalit women takes place there. The collapse of one lakh union textile jobs and the growth of the ‘casual’ sector create social frustration that is fodder for the rightwing mischief-monger.
Bunsha introduces the reader to Hiren, the son of a retrenched mill worker from Ahmedabad’s Gomtipur area. Unlike his father, Hiren is an ardent BJP supporter, and the local bootlegger. “I earn my living through cheating. I take haftas,” he explains. “After the BJP government came, the Hindu bootleggers have more power than the Muslim ones.”
The BJP does not offer union jobs, but it cultivates gangsterism and bigotry. The essence of the BJP economic plan is to give free reign to major corporations, and to alleviate social distress through the cannibalisation of Muslim jobs and communities. A recurrent theme in the speeches from Modi and others is that the Muslim population of Gujarat is an economic leech. When asked about the plight of refugees, Modi lashed out: “What should we do? Run relief camps for them? … We have to teach a lesson to those who are increasing the population at an alarming rate.
Many heard those words loud and clear, and acted on Modi’s wishes. In Naroda Patiya, Ahmedabad, two Modi followers, Bhavani Singh and Suresh, caught Kauser Bano, slit her pregnant body, pulled out her unborn child and said, “Look, we have sent your child to heaven before he even arrived in the world.” Bigotry is an easier coin to distribute to the disenfranchised working-class, particularly when the ultra-rich roam free of taxation or any moral constraint.
Help from abroad
Non-resident Indians (NRIs) play an important role in Modi’s landscape. Bunsha notes that NRI money flooded into Gujarat’s Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) to facilitate the riots. “In several villages like Padoli”, she writes, “there were reports of rich NRIs instigating mobs with the temptation of money and liquor, and funding the operation by providing cash, weapons and gas cylinders.”
But the NRIs did not only fund the pogrom. They have also become a fundamental contributor to the foreign investment in the state. AAHOA’s M P Rama noted that Gujarat’s government has been “rolling out the red carpet” for NRI investments. Gujarat is desperate for this capital inflow, banking on the good feelings of NRIs for their homeland, and knowing that commercial capital is loath to enter a state governed by a man prone to create social instability for ideological and electoral gain.
Where the banks fear to tread, Modi wants the NRIs to come running in. In October 2002, at the founding meeting of the Group of American Businesses in Gujarat, the state’s industry minister, Suresh Mehta, urged the business leaders to “re-brand” Gujarat. “Some doubts have been created in foreign countries,” he noted, as the group’s vice chairman and Motif CEO Kaushal Mehta urged industrialists to “create brand awareness about Gujarat in the US”. The post-Godhra massacre had tarnished Gujarat’s sheen.
The NRI position vis-à-vis Hindutva is significant, because it tells us something of the altered notion of nationalism for neo-liberal authoritarian regimes. They are more prone to understand nationalism as the patriotism of faith and of the bottom line. The rights of the citizenry are less important than the imaginary claims of a faith community, or of capital, upon the nation state. This is a new kind of nationalism: a sense of fealty that transcends the constitutional identities born out of a long anti-colonial struggle, and cemented with the promulgation of a republic. Modi’s India is neo-liberal India – better able to appeal to the imagination than to the Constitution, more prone to violence than to the creation of well being. The NRI is no longer a brain drain; it is now a cash cow.
Of course, the NRI does not do the actual killing. The assassins are local, and they come from all castes and communities. Bunsha offers us glimpses of the Dalits, Bhils, Patidars and Brahmins who wielded the axe and carried the torch. But we do not hear much either from or about them. These are the elusive characters of communal riots, the ones who act but who do not occupy the main stage of our narratives about them. We, the genteel section of the petty bourgeoisie, tend to imagine that the less cultivated, the BJP-types, buy off the loyalty of Dalits and Bhils with liquor and cash, and that once plied, they blindly do the bidding of the masters.
But there is also ideology at work, or else there is a sympathetic conjoining of interests. In 1999, Hindu Bhils killed Christian Bhils in the Gujarati district of Dangs at the behest of the VHP and Bajrang Dal, but also to increase their market position in a collapsed economy. Hindutva appeals to oppressed castes because, on the surface, it sets aside the vertical caste hierarchy for a horizontal Hindu comradeship. The Brahmin-Patidar alliance in Gujarat is firm thanks to Hindutva – unlike the far more honest caste battles in Uttar Pradesh, which enable the growth of parties inimical to Hindutva, even if for opportunistic rather than programmatic reasons. Cut loose from the welfare state, other castes seek patronage from these local hoodlums, who dole out favours and operate the new, communal License Raj.
Bunsha’s account is about bad times, but it is not pessimistic. There are many heroes here: people who shielded others, and state officials who risked their jobs to disobey Modi’s demands. There is also the memory of another time, of the important role played by the Majoor Mahajan Sangh (the Gandhian mill workers’ trade union) during the 1969 riots in the state. The 150,000 members of the union took to the streets and factories to close down the aspirations of Hindutva’s armies. The death of the union and the rise of neo-liberal cruelty removed the main obstacle to Hindutva. But even without unions, the people are not entirely cowed. In October 2002, when Modi traveled to Surendranagar for an election meeting, the crowd revolted. They threw chappals at the chief minister, who fled the scene behind police lathis. It is such events, unlike Modi’s contentious Gujarat Gaurav Yatra, which help to restore Gujarat’s pride. Other histories in the state are still waiting to be redeemed.