The ongoing violence and its broadening social and geographical base in the state is a consequence of the political recasting of social identities.
The winter moon had already risen over the Taranga hills, when a group of men and women stopped our vehicle on the road from Ambaji to Baroda in the western Indian state of Gujarat. The women were dressed in brightly coloured half sarees, worn in the typically western Indian tribal style. A man in the front was carrying a photograph of Hanuman, the monkey god and lieutenant of the Hindu deity Ram. The light of the full moon bathed the hills on both sides of the road, and the exchange that followed was as pleasant as the surroundings.
“Donate some money,” said a woman from the group. In the tribal districts of Gujarat it is customary to stop passing vehicles and collect money around the time of Holi and other festivals that western Indian tribals celebrate. Only, this was not the month of Holi, or of any other festivity. Queried about the purpose of the collection they replied, “We are collecting money for the bhajan mandali” (the collective singing of hymns celebrating deities). The bright red image of Hanuman that they carried was most certainly not native to their original spiritual repertoire. Neither was the idea of the bhajan mandali, which is a characteristically Hindu institution. The image and the ritual had come from somewhere else. This was in early 1993 when several parts of India, including Gujarat, were burning in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. But, the violence had not yet touched the tribal belts of Gujarat.
A month ago, in the aftermath of the Godhra incident and the subsequent riots, a friend, who sports a vandyke beard, was accosted on the same road by a group of men who live on the gentle slopes of the Taranga hills. But, there was nothing gentle about these men. Armed to the teeth, they snatched his wallet and then grilled him about his religion. He was allowed to proceed unmolested only after he furnished proof of his Hindu bona fides. Newspapers the next morning reported the killing of Muslim highway travellers, who were perhaps fleeing the riots.
An end to the violence of the last two months is not in sight, and, the end of it will not be the last of it either. The first incident of 1993 was not the starting point of a process that culminated in this second incident, almost a decade later. Both events and all that happened in the interim are merely stages in the acceleration and amplification of a process that has been in the making for some decades. In Gujarat, where it is today imprudent to wear a beard and a misfortune to be a Muslim, a pervasive communalisation has been cultivated even among communities marginalised by Hindu society. The participation of tribals in the brutal enterprise of Hindutva is an index of this communalisation. The collection for the bhajan mandali was only the more benign aspect of a development whose logical intent was the killings on the road from Ambaji to Baroda and elsewhere.
The arrival of Hanuman in the Gujarat hills has a cultural and political significance. It is also a mythological metaphor for the arrival of tribals in the militia of Hindutva. The military prominence of Hanuman and his army in the epic, Ramayan, has been understood to signify the martial services rendered by some forest dwellers for a Hindu purpose of the remote past. Likewise, the adoption of Hindu symbols and rituals by the tribals of Gujarat suggests their subordinated absorption, as a regiment of foot soldiers detailed by the Hinduised polity to kill on command its ‘enemy’ of the moment. And as in the mythology, all they get in real terms is an honourable mention for services rendered. In both the myth and the current reality (a distinction that often has no meaning in the recent politics of India), the labours of the aboriginal underclass are directed towards the almost exclusive benefit of the caste-Hindu leadership that commandeers it.
‘Normalcy’ in a normal state
Both the violence and its expanding social base have been commented on at length. What is forgotten in all the rhetoric for and against the politics that engineered it is the historical-political context in which this engineering took place. The context may not be the direct cause of the psyche that produces such extreme forms of violence but it nevertheless merits description, if only because it may help identify and explain the direct cause, besides dispelling misconceptions about both Gujarat and the riots that seem to have found purchase in the media.
Ever since the outbreak of violence, there have been frequent expressions of surprise that such events could ever happen in the “land of Gandhi”, in a state that is the most industrialised after Maharashtra, in a society with such a “strong mercantile mentality”, and in a polity that has seen such “stable governments”. These vaunted attributes are not a necessary impediment to organised violence and in any case this is not the first, worst or longest riot recorded in the state. In fact, any or all of these factors could cohabit with or even produce such violence. Perhaps the idea of riots in Gujarat will be less bewildering if it is kept in mind that during a riot organised under an extremely stable government with resources garnered from industrial and mercantile sources among others, the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, founded by Mahatma Gandhi, no less, shut its gates and turned its back on Muslims fleeing certain death. If the political process can so easily erode the historical legacy of ahimsa in the ashram in which the concept was elaborated, optimistic assumptions about the restraining influence of Gandhi, commerce and industry do not place Gujarat under a special compulsion to be less violent than any other state in India’s degenerating polity. As Achyut Yagnik, the wellknown social worker and researcher from Ahmedabad, notes: “Gujarat is as normal as any other state.”
A sign of this normalcy is the number of incidents of communal violence in the state as recorded officially. Judicial commissions of inquiry, the Justice Reddy Commission and the Justice VS Dave Commissions, were instituted after two major riots, of 1969 and 1985 respectively. Both commissions referred in some detail to Gujarat’s history of communal violence. The Justice Dave Commission traced the history of communal violence in Ahmedabad as far back as 1714 when a bloody riot was sparked off during the Holi celebrations. The city then was still under Mughal control. Subsequent riots broke out in 1715, 1716 and 1750. The Marathas, who succeeded the Mughals in Gujarat, were described by the Commission as being “instrumental in creating a riot in Ahmedabad” after the city was occupied by them.
Hindu-Muslim violence continued in the centuries that followed, with the pace and intensity picking up in the second half of the twentieth century. When communal riots broke out in 1941, curfew had to be imposed for over two-and-a-half months. The Justice Reddy Commission identified as many as 2938 instances of communal violence in the state between 1960 and 1969, that is, an average of approximately three riots every four days during this ten-year period. It is perhaps more than just a coincidence that this was the period when the Jan Sangh, the first overtly political front of the Rashtrya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), and the organisational precursor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which by all accounts is responsible for sustaining the current riots, became active in the state. During this period, riots began to spread over a much wider geographical area of the sate, affecting towns like Veraval, Junagadh, Patan, Godhra, Palanpur, Anjar, Dalkhania, Kodinar and Deesa, all of which have been hit by the ongoing violence.
Immunity of social conscience
Violence of the communal variety staged in urban and semi-urban venues, besides rural violence directed against agricultural labourers, particularly dalits, was thus as routine an aspect of Gujarat as it is of most other states in the country. But violence of a different, more systematic and sustained order was inaugurated in 1969. The Hindu-Muslim riots of that year mark a major break with the hitherto prevalent pattern of steady if unspectacular social conflict. More than two years of hectic Muslim and Hindu fundamentalist activity preceded the outbreak of these riots. Communal violence in the state acquired a more organised form against the backdrop of the India-Pakistan war of 1965. The Jana Sangh stepped up the level of patriotic mobilisation and secured a toe-hold among the urban middle class. This mobilisation cashed in on the shelling of the area near the Dwarka temple in Gujarat by the Pakistan Navy, and the death of the incumbent Congress chief minister of the state, Balwantrai Mehta, when his plane was brought down by the Pakistan air force.
Muslim mobilisation too was simultaneously taking place. The Jamiyet-Ulema-e-Hind tried to rally Muslim support, perhaps with the tacit consent of the Congress Party, which was then going through a phase of organisational and political crisis. In June 1968, the national convention of the Jamiyet was organised in Ahmedabad. Though it professed to be a nationalist organisation which supported the Congress, the convention showed very clearly that the Jamiyet was drifting towards communal politics. Its firebrand leaders, Maulana Asad Maad and Yunus Salim delivered provocative speeches. A booklet called The communal riots and the harm that they have done to the country and Hindu religion, authored by the president of the Jamiyet, Maulana Aqualak Husain, was circulated during the convention. The booklet gave grossly exaggerated accounts of atrocities on Muslims in communal riots elsewhere in the country. This spurt of Islamic activity prompted the Jan Sangh to found the Hindu Dharma Raksha Samiti. It also brought the RSS chief MS Golwalker to the city. At a rally in Ahmedabad in December 1968 Golwalkar attacked Muslims as invaders who the country could not tolerate for too long. The idea of Muslims as invaders has been repeatedly used by Hindu fundamentalists to a point where it has become the received wisdom, all cogent arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. The riots that ensued in 1969 left some 1500 people dead.
A riot of this magnitude, unprecedented in both scale and duration, had a foundational significance for the politics of the state and the techniques of mobilisation and orchestration that increasingly came into use. The discrete and scattered violence of the preceding period can be presumed to be manifestations of everyday class, caste and community struggles arising from socioeconomic conflicts of a more or less local nature. To that extent, their individual histories and repercussions were confined to the respective localities of incidence. The 1969 riots had the critical mass that lent it stateand nation-wide visibility and gave it a prominent place in the historical inventory of community grievances. This riot could now be invoked at will, not just in Gujarat but wherever else tension had to be engineered. In effect, this was the first explicit politicisation of both communalism and public violence in the state.
Most importantly, the riots of 1969 took Gujarati society past the psychological threshold of normally tolerable public violence, and this not just of the communal variety. Once the barrier to the use of violence in inter-party conflicts was crossed, its repeated use acquired a tacit legitimacy as the social conscience became gradually more immune to the incremental doses of it that the polity administered. The two instances of extended public ferocity that Gujarat witnessed after these riots, the 1974 Nav Nirman movement, launched by the opposition parties to oust the Congress state government, and the 1981 riots against public policy designed to benefit lower castes, involved a high level of violence, including in the latter instance, the burning alive of dalits. Both these instances of extra-parliamentary ‘politics’ were remarkably successful in their objectives. Violent street politics had made an impressive debut in Gujarat and presented itself as a model worth investing in and emulating.
Making of a pattern
There were two aspects to these agitations that had long-term social and institutional consequences. One was the induction of middle class youths into a form of politics not normally associated with them. The other was the emergence of the incipient social and financial networks that sustain prolonged violence. The issues involved in both the 1974 movement and the 1981 riots, though they affected a much larger segment of the population, were articulated most vigorously by the middle class through its traditional channels. But the urgency of the objective, particularly in reversing affirmative state action in favour of the lower castes, caused dissent to spill out of the traditional channels. Middle class, upper caste youths played a leading role in the anti-reservation riots, and the focus of conflict here belonged solely to the matrix of Hindu social relations and its hierarchies of caste. A middle class, consisting predominantly of caste Hindus who saw themselves as the true repositories of merit, was defending its privileged access to professional education and government service. The high level of violence was justified as a legitimate expression of thwarted merit and one more barrier to muscular Hindu middle class street politics was crossed. The BJP was active in the 1981 riots as were its professional front organisations, notably the university and secondary school teachers associations. The classroom, the family and many other institutions which crucially shape social and political values had succumbed to the pressures of protecting the elite monopoly of state privileges and public resources.
The 1981 riots were replayed in a more drastic form in the 1985 anti-reservation movement. In many ways, this sequel marked the beginning of a new phase. Although it partook of features of all the antecedent riots, it also had a novel dimension. The roots of Gujarat’s radical communalism can be detected here. Methodical violence from now on became a more regular instrument and expression of electoral politics, recurring with increasing frequency and refinement of technique and exhibiting remarkable similarities of character. Soon after it commenced, the riot of 1985 was annexed to the exigencies of the BJP’s political constituency-building drill. The seemingly undirected ‘riot from below’ was given a purposeful leadership by the present dispensation in the state, notably the current Chief Minister Narendra Modi, acting then in his capacity as a senior functionary of the RSS. By 1985, the Hindutva cadres had acquired considerable experience in disruptive politics, many of its leaders having participated in the ’81 agitation.
The BJP’s active influence on the 1985 agitation explains many of its more curious features. The riots began on 19 March, the day after the newly-elected Congress government assumed office, and was directed against a policy measure declared more than two months prior. In January, the Congress government had announced an increase in the quota of jobs in government and seats in public educational institutions reserved for backward castes. The riots lasted six months, much after the policy had been revoked by the government. The fact that a riot could start two months after the cause that provoked it, and end as suddenly as it started, points to a high level of coordination by an existing command structure. It cannot be a mere accident that the violence extended beyond Ahmedabad to smaller towns and villages, particularly in those areas where the BJP had acquired influence, notably in central Gujarat and some tribal belts. South Gujarat, which had previously been unaffected, now found itself on the riot map of the state. The social base of the violence expanded to include gangsters, bootleggers and professional killers. Various reports of the period quote doctors who described the stab wounds they attended to as the work of trained hands. The agitation finally degenerated to a point where sections of the state constabulary abandoned their uniforms and relinquished their responsibilities to join the riots.
The beginnings of social engineering
But there is another compelling aspect of this riot that overshadows all others. The 1981 riots sharpened the conflict within the ‘Hindu’ community, between the upper and lower castes, the victims being primarily dalits. By contrast the 1985 agitation, though initially directed against caste-based affirmative action, transformed itself very quickly into a gratuitous attack on the Muslim community, which had nothing to do with the reservation policy of the government. In the final reckoning, an extended riot led by upper caste Hindus that succeeded in revoking a policy that benefited lower caste Hindus eventually managed to inscribe itself into the social memory as one more gory episode in the deteriorating history of Hindu-Muslim relations. Perhaps the danger to a conceptual and potential ‘Hindu’ unity from a conflict internal to the community was being minimised by quietly diverting the focus of the agitation. If its similarities with the Sangh Parivar’s current modus operandi are anything to go by, then the 1985 riot was the real crucible of Hindutva politics in Gujarat. A kingpin of that agitation is the kingpin of the current spate of pogroms; the only difference is that today he officially rules the political roost with a popular mandate of 55 percent.
There are many crude calculations in the social engineering formulas of the RSS, but the last 15 years have proved that, given a polity degenerating in the appropriate manner, these calculations can yield the desired outcome. From 1990 on, Gujarat has witnessed riot after riot, varied in scale, but similar in character and equal in significance for the BJP’s rise to political power. The late 1980s witnessed an escalation in the tempo of the Ayodhya movement and this furnished the climate for the orchestration of events that would culminate in the party’s emphatic electoral victory in 1995.
The pattern of the first riot of 1990 is interesting, though not necessarily symptomatic. LK Advani’s rath yatra from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh came in the immediate aftermath of widespread and violent upper caste agitations across north India against the affirmative action principles in favour of backward castes, adopted at the national level by the United Front in New Delhi. These agitations had intensified socio-economic conflict between upper and lower castes at a time when the plural constituency of a potential Hindutva was being assembled through the politicisation of Hindu symbols and myths. This was the period when imagined grievances, culled from an imagined history, were being assiduously broadcast, accompanied by the shrill denigration of parties which allegedly indulged Muslim treachery. The rath yatra did manage to rally large numbers, particularly from the lower castes, and the arrest of Advani en route to Ayodhya provoked riots in many states, including Gujarat.
Gujarat again witnessed riots in 1992 when the disputed Babri Masjid at Ayodhya was razed to the ground a few hours after kar sevaks stormed the monument. Surat experienced intermittent disturbances over a six-month period. In 1993, more riots followed, after the blasts in Bombay, allegedly masterminded by the Muslim underworld. Perhaps these riots were attempts at forging a Hindu unity that, on the face of it, seemed impossible. Whatever the intention, there is no denying that the rath yatra precipitated a political crisis in which the existing intra- and inter-party equations began to break down. And, there is no getting away from the fact that, though not uniformly successful across India, the BJP from the 1991 general elections has secured more than 50 percent of the votes cast in the state. Remarkably, for three years following its assunption of office in Gujarat in 1995, the state was free from communal riots. The BJP was clearly living up to its boast of ensuring a riot-free administration, prompting critics to cite this as proof of the party’s monopoly of organised public violence. At any rate, this peaceful interim was part of the established pattern of violence erupting and subsiding according to the clearly discernable designs of politics. The inference, therefore, that violence had become a crucial raw material of electoral politics controlled by a cartel is unavoidable.
New tribe of kar sevaks
The brief interlude of social peace came to an end in 1998, with the attacks on Christian missionaries and establishments in the Dangs, a forested tribal belt on the southern edge of Gujarat bordering Maharashtra. This was a new theatre of conflict in terms of both the region and community involved. This was the first instance of organised violence after the BJP came to power and the context once again is instructive. Cracks had developed in the carefully crafted socio-economic balance in the BJP soon after it came to power in the state. Hindutva once again confronted a crisis of caste. An influential segment of backward castes in the BJP legislature party had revolted against its upper caste leadership, on the lines of what was subsequently to happen in the Uttar Pradesh unit too. Social engineering had failed in the face of an old caste conflict and a substitute social group had to be found to take the place of the departing backward castes. Tribals make up 14 percent of the states population. Christians, who are largely concentrated in the tribal districts, add up to less than 1 percent of Gujarat’s population. Even in the Dangs, they do not exceed 5 percent.
On the night of 25 December, under the auspices of an RSS front organisation called the Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM), churches, educational institutions and houses were attacked in Ahwa, Subir, Jamlapada, Gadvi, Divan Temrun, Madagkhadi and Padalkhadi. Over the next four days attacks spread to other tribal areas in Bharuch, Surat and Vyara districts of south Gujarat. This orchestration of violence by the HJM had been preceded by a decade-and-a-half of patient mobilisation by another RSS front organisation, the Samajik Samrasta Manch, founded in 1983 to assimilate those segments of society marginalised by Brahmanic Hinduism. Whatever else the RSS fronts have been doing, it is clear that within four years of those attacks, tribals from both north and south Gujarat have been recruited in large numbers as kar sevaks for both the construction of the Ram temple and the destruction of the Muslim community.
The similarities between the broad context of the riots is striking. Any crisis internal to Hindutva inevitably leads to violence against well-defined ‘enemies’. If the 1998 violence was necessitated by the social crisis of Gujarati Hindutva, the present and continuing violence comes on the heels of a comprehensive political rout of the BJP across several states in India. Gujarat is its last bastion, and reports and analysis in the media indicated that defeat stared the party in the forthcoming elections in the state. The prominence of tribal participation is the common element between 1998 and the ongoing violence. Perhaps, in the social engineering calculus of the RSS, a fresh massacre of the old enemy by new recruits will add to the prowess of Hindutva, enrich its folklore, expand its social base and thereby forestall a defeat in the nursery of its politics. A tribal population of 14 percent is electorally significant enough to justify the slaughter of several hundred Muslims.
Secularism and silence
Clearly then, from the mid-1980s political violence in Gujarat had become more organised and more numerous, had increasingly begun to manufacture its own provocations, and was directed at minorities, particularly Muslims. This last development coincided with the BJP’s Hindutva agendas in a period when the party was systematically cultivating overarching Hindu nationalist sentiments. In 1985, the Congress party was at the peak of its electoral strength, enjoying the support of 55 percent of the electorate. By the 1991 general elections, the BJP had secured 55 percent of the vote and in 1995 rode to power in the state with an overwhelming majority. In this violent ten-year period the Congress Party, which ruled the state for most of the past four decades, had crumbled and out of the ruins of the existing polity the BJP had emerged triumphant.
There seems to be a prima facie correlation between the violent politics of the state and the BJP’s rise to power. Numerous studies, by the Centre for Social Studies, Surat, by the sociologist Ghanshyam Shah, the historian Jan Breman, the political scientist Atul Kohli and many others, have chronicled some of the micro-level processes in the party’s rise to power. But there has not been any real synthesis of explanation, based on these studies, that describes the precise mechanics at a statewide level. Perhaps, that exercise is precluded by a lack of uniformity, and even an organic unity, in the strategies of the RSS and its offspring. The intricacies of refabricating a complex socio-economic demography may well require multiple, even mutually contradictory, local strategies within an overall climate of communal strife.
But even if there are not too many identifiable and overt statewide strategies, barring of course the assault on minorities, the BJP’s success has been statewide and not all of it can be attributed to just the ingenuity of the party’s political techniques. After all, identical experiments by the BJP in other states have not fetched the same dividends. It would seem therefore that conditions specific to Gujarat’s history, society and politics have facilitated the cultivation of Hindutva politics. These specific circumstances may help penetrate the air of inscrutability that surrounds the BJP’s covert strategies and successes, if only by questioning many well-meaning but untenable secularist assumptions about Gujarat and the riots, which actually impede an understanding of Hindutva’s politics in the state.
In the secular intelligentsia’s description of the gory events of the last two months, communal violence is the handiwork of a violent minority of fundamentalists. In this view, the secular majority is silent and can only watch helplessly as the state administration actively abets the Hindutva lumpens. This is not an entirely accurate description of the reality. True, there are many who have actually gone to the aid of the victims and prevented more unspeakable brutalities than have been committed. It is also true that there are many localities where irreproachable community relations, fostered by shared concerns of a more fundamental and material variety, have ensured that provocateurs have been unable to incite murderous passions. But it is equally true that there are many others who silently approve of the carnage. The violent minority and silent majority of Gujarat do not constitute separate and distinct social fragments. The silence of a sizeable part of the silent majority is not the speechless shock of numbed bystanders. It is the conspiratorial silence of willing spectators, remote witnesses to a Roman holiday, whose public silence is a private roar of approval that is clearly audible to the architects of the violence. There are those who cannot speak and those who will not speak.
How else are we to explain the seeming paradoxes of the riots in Ahmedabad? We have seen educated girls and boys from middle and upper middle class families who do not actually participate in the killings but follow in the wake to loot Muslim establishments. We have seen couples on two wheelers bring home consumer durables scavenged from the debris of retail outlets. The cell-phone wielding rioters are not isolated elements who have taken control in a social vacuum. They roam about so brazenly because they know they have a silent social mandate. This is the clear conspiracy of silence among many of the so-called silent majority and it has many manifestations — the son of a bureaucrat who gets away with murder, a government official who demands bribe, the worker who looks at unions as an instrument of personal gain, the trader who cheats at one go the marginal producer and the small consumer. We have seen the faces of this silent majority at various places. Sometimes they are at a safe distance behind the rioting mob, sometimes they are in the air-conditioned cabins of newspaper offices. They are always there where it matters and they are always silent when it matters. We have seem them outside Gujarat too, in 1984 in Delhi when Sikhs were being butchered, in the 1992 Bombay riots, in the Dangs, in Orissa, in Madhya Pradesh, in Uttar Pradesh and many other places too numerous to be listed. And now we are told that the VHP in Ahmedabad has a team of 50 lawyers who will, without payment, legally defend the Hindutva rioters. Secular optimism should not blind us to the reality of communalism’s expanded social base.
Anatomy of a Hindu state
Gujarat is a visibly Hinduised state today, and not just because of the 55 percent that voted the BJP. Even if that 55 percent were to vote in other ways, the ideology of Hindutva that has sunk roots will continue to pervade society. What this means in effect is that even if the Congress were to return to power, it will have to mould itself more openly to the agendas of Hindu politics. In fact, it is more than likely that the state Congress unit has itself already been Hinduised. Reportedly, Congress-run municipalities have extended infrastructural and other assistance to the rioters, particularly in destroying evidence of demolitions. Even casual observers of politics have noted that the Gujarat Congress has been less than tepid in its response to the riots, being more keen to defend Sonia Gandhi’s credentials than to protect Muslim lives. The state administration has been so extensively contaminated that even if a Congress government were to allow some residual secular instinct to surface, it is unlikely to get much support from the bureaucracy. This is the most impressive achievement of fundamentalist politics — that it has recast even the opposition in its own image.
Some traces of how a caste-divided state can achieve an overarching Hindu unity, even if only briefly and at extraordinary moments of stress, are to be found in aspects of the state’s social, political and demographic history. Gujarat came into existence in 1960 after the States Reorganisation Act of 1957, which carved out states on a linguistic basis. Two broad regions — mainland and peninsular Gujarat — make up the territory of the state. Peninsular Gujarat consists of Kutch and Kathiawad, now known as Saurashtra. Prior to Indian independence, numerous kingdoms, principalities, and jagirs dotted the territorial landscape of present-day Gujarat. Saurashtra alone had 499 political units. Kutch was a princely state while parts of mainland Gujarat were directly administered British territory incorporated into the Bombay Presidency. In 1948, all these units were consolidated and Kutch, Saurashtra and the mainland were added to Bombay state in 1956, where they stayed until 1960 when, through linguistic division, the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat were created.
This territorial consolidation gave the future politics of Gujarat several institutions, forms, values and characteristics that made it easier for Hindutva to take hold. Among the more useful heritages was the myth of the Somnath Temple. The temple complex is located in the port town of Veraval on the southern coast of Saurashtra just a little below Porbandar, were Gandhi was born. The myth of Somnath left Gandhi untouched. But it excited many others who formed the cream of the Congress leadership in Gujarat, mainly because in AD 1026, Mahmud of Ghazni (in Afghanistan) raided the temple of Somnath and broke the idol. The temple was situated inside a fortress in which wealth accumulated from the brisk maritime trade of ancient and medieval Saurashtra was stored. Before Mahmud’s raid, this amassed wealth had attracted the notice of many other rulers, some of whom, like the Chudasama, Ahiras and Yadhavas, had attempted to make off with it. But the attack of the Mahmud from Ghazni has been singled out for special attention and presented as proof of Muslim insolence.
Eminent historians like Romila Thapar have argued very eloquently against simplified narratives of the Somnath raid. But the matter long ago passed from the hands of professional historians and into the arsenal of practised politicians such as Rajendra Prasad, the president of India in the 1950s, Vallabhai Patel, the first union home minister, and KM Munshi, a senior minister in successive union cabinets. Among the Congress leadership, Somnath was a Gujarati preoccupation. It was only the objections of Jawaharlal Nehru and some of his secular colleagues that prevented the repair of the temple under state auspices, but that did not stop the president of India from participating in the ceremonies of the privately funded restoration.
Somnath was the Gujarat Congress Party’s gift to Hindutva and is an early example of the politicisation of temple related trauma. Such is the pedigree of the Somnath myth, and the extent of its popularity in Gujarat, that it was absorbed and given prominence in the politics of the Ayodhya myth. Thus it was that the rath yatra that symbolised the spiritual conquest of India by vaishnavite Hinduism began its journey from this shaivite monument.
Shackles of faith and caste
The appeal of such religious themes is not difficult to understand in a society permeated with strong orthodox vaishnavite traditions. The absence of a serious bhakti movement in Gujarat’s history is perhaps a reflection of and reason for this potent institutional vaishnavism. Mythological religiosity has been an integral part of Gujarat society and continues to be fostered by bardic performances. Kathakars, who recite stories from the Ramayan, have an important role in collective social life and in recent years have been active in the BJP’s political cause. According to Ghanshyam Shah, in the 1991 elections kathakars like Moran Bapu were involved in the party’s campaign and “attracted a cross-section of society both in urban and rural areas”.
Mass politics right from the Gandhian phase has been unable or unwilling to break the shackles of this public religiosity. In fact, as the historian David Hardiman points out, Gandhi and his followers were themselves not above using the idioms of caste and religion in political mobilisation. As early as 1920, Gandhi was to appeal to fellow members of his bania caste to, as good ‘vaishnavites’, abstain from courts and schools run by the British government, whose rule he likened to ravanraj. Patel, likewise, played on caste traditions, and laid stress on themes like kshatriya martial virtues. It is not surprising at all that Gandhi should have harped on ramrajya as a political ideal. Vaishnav, kshatriya, ravanraj, ramrajya, all popular currency in the Bp’s rhetoric, have a long and respectable history in the mass politics of Gujarat. The state did not really witness the emergence of a politics that seriously tried to purge the public arena of its religious inflections
As is to be expected, orthodox faith and values were nurtured within the bounds of an entrenched caste system. The mass politics that emerged in Gujarat could not escape the dynamics of caste and so chose by and large to be confined within it. Although caste divisions did not fully coincide with class divisions in the state, socio-economic power was predominantly in the hands of a few castes, i.e. patidars, brahmins and baniyas – and to a much lesser extent the kshatriyas. Caste associations, some of them active in party politics, are a common feature of Gujarat’s public life. They include the Gujarat Kshatriya Sabha and the Gujarat Kshatriya Sangh, the Patidar Yuvak Mandal, the Khedut Sangh and the Khedut Samaj, which are basically patidar organisations, the Prajapati Mandal and numerous others. These caste associations, besides undertaking welfare measures, function also as lobby groups seeking to influence politics in addition to manoeuvring for control of resources. Of these organised castes, the most powerful are the patidars, who in much of the state practically control the rural economy. Brahmins and baniyas, though insignificant as a proportion of the population, are economically and politically powerful by virtue of their dominance in professional services, industry and trade.
The politics of Gujarat has been based on the alliance between castes. The Congress party’s near monopoly of power was based on a patidar-brahminbaniya leadership that brought together under a broad umbrella the dalit, tribal and Muslim electorate. The weak opposition in the state in the early period, the Swatantra Party, was primarily a kshatriya enterprise, allied to the leadership of dissenting patidar groups. Through the 1960s, the state legislature was dominated by a highly organised Congress party well-versed in the practice of an accommodative politics that did not fundamentally affect the socio-economic structure. As an efficient organisation that functioned both as a civic institution and a political machine, it perfected the technique of herding a large electoral constituency without altering the overall status quo. The patidars, brahmins and baniyas continued to dominate the economy while the dalits, tribals and Muslims continued to vote the Congress.
The moment of accommodation
In 1969, by the time the Swatantra Party was beginning to make inroads into the state legislature, the Indian National Congress experienced a nationwide split. The two groups that emerged were the Congress (Organisation), which inherited the party’s organisation, and Congress (Requisition), which had Indira Gandhi and a large part of the influential ‘left-leaning’ leadership of the parent party. A new political alliance slowly emerged, with the Swatantra Party and the Congress (0), both with orthodox social and economic programmes, aligning with the Jan Sangh, which had no real policy other to offer than Hindu Rashtra. The split in the Congress is that moment when the public accommodation of Hindutva politics by the larger polity begins. The existing caste-political equations also began to break down. The two numerically significant castes that were political ly influential, the patidars and the kshatriyas became internally divided along political lines.
Over time, both the Swatantra Party and the Congress (O) disappeared, having merged, along with the Jan Sangh, into the Janata Party during the period of unstable politics that followed the split in the Congress. With the political opposition uniting against it and itself lacking any real organisation to combat the trend, the Congress, under Indira Gandhi, adopted a populist economic and political course. While that helped secure a wide base for the party at the electoral level, the lack of an organisation meant that the Congress was unable to deal with the growing forms of extra-parliamentary agitations that commenced with the Nav Nirman Movement of 1974. That movement unseated the Congress government and brought the combined opposition, including the Jan Sangh, to power. Hindu politics had tasted office for the first time in the country in the company of like-minded organisations.
The Congress returned to power after the Emergency of Indira Gandhi, once again without any real organisational structure, but with an infusion of new lumpen cadres. The caste-leadership of the post- Emergency Congress changed hands as the kshatriyas became more dominant. A peculiar aspect of kshatriya politics in Gujarat is that in the course of political mobilisation it redefined itself to include a large backward caste component, notably the kolis. This was to be of some significance in the nature of Congress politics, which in turn influenced to some extent the rise of Hindu politics. By the 1980s the Congress social affiance was based on what has come to be called the KHAM formula, ie an alliance of kshatriyas, harijans (dalits), adivasis (tribals) and Muslims. (see page 24) Through the period that the Congress held power this was the combination that gave Gujarat its governments. And through the period that these governments were in power the patidars, baniyas and brahmins continued to control the economy and some crucial nodes of the public sphere, such as the various levels of the state administration. And when the Congress, as part of its ‘welfare populism’ went through the motions of announcing measures that would benefit its socially and economically marginalised constituency, the real managers of the economy and the public arena drifted towards an opposition that was gradually being dominated by the BJP.
This was the period that the agitational politics mounted by social groups increasingly backed by the BJP, left the Congress governments in a state of political crisis. Organisational weakness obstructed substantive civic response on the part of the Congress to these agitations against benefits directed towards backward castes. As a consequence, the government simply retracted its policy measures. Welfare populism antagonised the elite. Its retraction and failure disillusioned the dispossessed. The Congress could not herd its own constituency. That constituency was now available to be politically recruited, at a time when the flavour of Hindutva was being systematically imparted to the society and polity by the hydra-headed Sangh Parivar, through its numerous organisations.
The Gujarat polity had been in an organisational vacuum from the time of the Congress split till the rise of the BJP. The seeming stability of Gujarati politics was to a large measure based on a stable sub-stratum of caste networks. That stable network which enabled the Congress Party to recruit its caste base also enabled the BJP to recruit its constituency. Welfare populism had given way to spiritual populism, the crucial difference being the latter’s level of organisational capacity. The BJP, through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, had created a dense complex of agitprop organisations that could engage in sectional caste-specific propoganda and simultaneously season it with the larger Hindutva ideology of the caste-Hindu leadership of the RSS and the BJP. The process by which a tribal population of 14 percent is conscripted into Hindutva’s ranks also renders an 8 percent Muslim population completely dispensable to an electoral politics many of whose rules have been redrafted by a vaishnavite orthodoxy. When reluctant Hindus become majoritarian enthusiasts, minorities too large to be ignored and too small to make a difference have no place under the protective umbrella of competitive politics.
In the 50 years after Indian independence, Gujarat has been transformed. It has been the laboratory of Gandhian politics, of civic institutions, the cooperative movement and the Hindutva campaign. It has become more urbanised, more industrial, has seen more social mobility, and become more prosperous. It has also seen the re-emergence of an organised mass politics. The earlier phase of that organised politics, under the Congress, consciously divided the polity of the state along caste lines. The second phase, under the BJP, consciously divided the polity along communal lines. A state predominantly of Hindus had become a state predominantly of Hindutva. In 50 years a ‘Hindu unity’ had been engineered in a caste-divided state, and Muslim life had become as dispensable as the Muslim vote. The map of Gujarat in 1947 and the map in 1991 tell a chilling story. The price, paid and yet to be paid, cannot be counted.