As the communal carnage in Gujarat enters its third month, the Vajpayee government has fashioned a three-pronged strategy: brazen out the opprobrium, attack domestic and international critics of Narendra Modi for “interfering” in “internal” matters (of party and nation), and stage farcical “peace marches” to further terrorise Gujarat’s religious minorities – as George Fernandes and his ink did on 28 April. This strategy must be comprehensively defeated in the interests of the people not just of India, but all of South Asia. This criticism must be sustained.
Vajpayee would like to depict the diabolical violence in Gujarat as a “communal riot” or as an “understandable”, “spontaneous”, “natural” retaliation for the terrible 27 February Godhra episode in which 58 Hindus were burnt alive. In reality, the violence has been a one-sided, targeted, systematic, massacre – a pogrom of Muslims. Yet, the Indian foreign ministry’s official report, posted on its website, does not even mention Muslims.
Far from being spontaneous, the Gujarat violence was pre-planned and in the making for weeks. The 24 hour-long gap between the supposed “trigger event” and the butchery that began on 28 February, the geographical extent of the violence, and the collusive involvement of the state, all reinforce the conclusion.
Gujarat marks a South Asian watershed. It is this region’s worst pogrom of a religious/ethnic minority in half a century, sponsored and organised by the state. Even the massacre of the Sikhs` after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 pales beside it in sheer cruelty and in the overt nature of the state’s involvement.
In 1984, an apologetic, embarrassed Indian government brought the rioting under control in 72 hours by deploying the army. Today, the BJP delights in Modi’s success in “teaching the Muslims a lesson” and “standing firm”. Millions continue to live in a climate of terror and intimidation, including over 100,000 in the inhuman conditions of refugee camps.
No government has so blatantly justified, the way Vajpayee has, the killing of its own innocent citizens and the flagrant breach of its own sources of authority and legitimacy.. the democratic constitution, the fundamental rights it guarantees – above all, the right to life – and adherence to secularism and pluralism.
And none has so egregiously sought shelter in “the last refuge of the scoundrel”. Faced with widespread and wholly justified expressions of international concern at Gujarat’s ethnic cleansing, Vajpayee invokes patriotism and sovereignty.
Vajpayee’s BJP is deeply implicated in covering up its diabolical misdeeds. This involvement derives directly from the Hindutva agenda of polarising and communalising society by stoking profoundly irrational prejudices, denying and altering India’s multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic character, and imposing the will of the majority on insecure minorities to effectively exclude and disenfranchise them.
This viciously undemocratic agenda must not succeed. Its pursuit menaces the whole of South Asia. At stake is the plural, multi-cultural, and multi-religious nature of each one of our societies and the future of our democracies, many of them already under strain.
The BJP and its cohorts could not have embarked on their project in the absence of the global political conditions created by the United States’ response to 11 September, and Washington’s indulgence of Vajpayee’s right-wing regime which seeks a “strategic partnership” with the US as it kowtows to capitalist globalisation.
By reducing all issues of international and national security to “terrorism” alone, and by opting for an indiscriminate and disproportionate military response to it, Bush has legitimised a sharp increase in the level of violence that can be used by governments against their internal adversaries. Sharon and Vajpayee have taken their cue from him.
Other South Asian leaders too may do the same. To prevent this, those culpable for the Gujarat carnage must be brought to book – both in national and international forums which have jurisdiction in respect of crimes against humanity.
All South Asian peoples must actively protest the Gujarat pogrom. Human rights are a universal concern. Their gross violation calls for global intervention. “Sovereignty” is no defence against crimes against humanity. Considering the crimes committed in Gujarat, civil society in South Asia has a special responsibility.
The South Asian diaspora living in countries which allow universal jurisdiction for heinous crimes must join hands in bringing the guilty of Gujarat to book. That task must not be hijacked by parochial and communal forces.
There is one other, positive, lesson from Gujarat. It is India’s civil society groups and the media, not political parties, which took the lead in highlighting, investigating and demanding action on the carnage. They largely succeeded in forcing the parties to take Gujarat on board and give it high priority. Civil society and the press can play such a pioneering role even in situations where democracy is weak. They must.
Gujarat’s dance of death will not end unless the larger world community – and in particular South Asian peoples – shame the Vajpayee government into takin g long-overdue corrective measures: replace the BJP’s state government with an impartial regime that cracks down on the perpetrators of the violence, purges the administration of communal influences, and undertakes full physical, economic and psychological rehabilitations of the victims.
Gujarat is a watershed, a defining moment, a paradigm shift. South Asians must treat it as such.