Last updated March 6, 2002 11:58

On Events in Gujarat

What happened?

On February 27, assailants stopped a train on its way to Ayodhya and massacred 58 kar sevaks (religious activists) on their way back from Ayodhya where plans are afoot to construct the Ram Janmabhoomi temple. This was followed by reprisals all over the state of Gujarat against Muslims and then, communal riots.

The state government led by the Chief Minister has been slow to act, even callously apathetic. The central government has wrung its hands and belatedly sent in the army to assist, but with the exception of the Defence Minister, George Fernandes, no one has even bothered to visit Gujarat. The result is a situation of escalating violence, which is spreading from the cities where communal violence is more common, to the villages where it is more unusual.

For good accounts, see:
Gujarat riots: The story so far, Times of India, March 2, 2002
The Vicious Cycle of Violence, Outlook, March 1, 2002. Outlook has several related stories that are constantly being updated.
J. Sreenivas, Full 18 hours after Godhra: Gujarat police has an action-not-taken report, Indian Express, March 6, 2002.

Other media sources from India:

Where did all this begin?

The term ‘Sangh Parivar’ refers to the family of political parties and organizations espousing an agenda of making India a ‘Hindu-ized’ polity, where non-Hindus would declare their primary allegiance to such a state and accept their place as members of minority groups. These include the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads the ruling coalition at the center in India.

One longstanding political and religious objective of the Sangh Parivar has been to redress perceived ‘wrongs’ to Hinduism done by invading Muslim conquerors in the past. The construction of a temple dedicated to Ram at his purported birth-site is the first in this list. It involved years of campaigning in the courts and on the streets, culminating in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. This event was followed by communal riots all over India. Later investigations revealed, as usual, that very early into the game, local politicians, business interests and organized crime had taken the opportunity to further other agendas.

For almost ten years after the destruction of the mosque, activists have been waiting for the construction of the temple to begin. The VHP is planning to start this process on the 15th of March, for which activists have begun to gather in Ayodhya.

Gujarat is ruled by a BJP government, and India’s Home Minister (the person responsible for issues of law and order within the state) was elected to Parliament from Gujarat. The apathy of the government in responding to what would clearly be a critical situation after the Feb 27th massacre fills one with dismay and even despair.

See: Shekar Gupta, Backfire’s Burning Question, Indian Express, March 2, 2002.
Muzamil Jaleel, Gujarat burns, but Kashmir's cool, March 5, 2002.

Understanding Communal Violence

Are communal riots chronic and inevitable in India? No.

Without saying either, ‘Hindus and Muslims live everywhere in perfect harmony always,’ or ‘Hindus and Muslims cannot live together because of the past subjection by Muslims of Hindus’, we can understand communal relations in India as reflecting other changes and transformations in India’s economy and polity. In some places they are far tenser than others, reflecting demographics, pressure on land and other economic opportunities, and willingness on the part both of politicians and the voting public to exploit and permit the exploitation of difference.

Further reading:

Shashi Tharoor, India's Past Becomes a Weapon, New York Times, March 6, 2002.

Seminar #484 December 1999: MULTICULTURALISM a symposium on democracy in culturally diverse societies
Asghar Ali Engineer, Resolving Hindu-Muslim Problem: An Approach, Economic and Political Weekly, February 13, 1999. (free registration and login required.)
Gautam Navlakha, ISI: The Ubiquitous Enemy, Economic and Political Weekly, December 18, 1999. (free registration and login required.)
Communalism Combat
Romila Thapar, Communalism and History.
KN Panikkar, Communalism: A General Perspective.
In Defence of Democracy, Secularism and Civil Society, links to articles.
Also, for a survey of the debate on secularism in India: Swarna Rajagopalan, “Secularism in India,” in William Safran, ed., The Democratic Republic and the Problem of Religion, Frank Cass, London (forthcoming). (PDF, Adobe Acrobat Reader required)

Mushirul Hasan, Restore India's Dignity, Indian Express, March 6, 2002.

Why the army?

One consequence of repeated communal or caste violence in an area is that the police force, which is drawn from the local community and which is directed by local authorities, slowly loses its ability to enforce law from outside the conflict. After all, it is facing neighbors, uncles, sisters, nephews and friends in the melee. How long can police constables remain unaffected and outside the fray? The communalization of the police begins with them turning a blind eye selectively and then actively assisting in the violence. So, the army, which is still politically neutral and a familiar and experienced sight in disaster relief, is called out. The danger is two-fold, as other cases in India illustrate: one, trained to deal with a hostile enemy, will end up treating the people it encounters on the streets as such, and two, that it will also succumb to the same process of communalization over time.

What can we do?

When situations like this develop, we all bear some culpability for them, no matter where we sit. Our culpability lies in the organizations we support, the petitions we unthinkingly sign, in the narratives and interpretations of history we accept blindly, the politics we uncritically endorse and the money we spend without asking for accountability.

Let us accept responsibility for our own little patches of the universe.

·         When there is a move to start a new group on campus, before we sign forms and petitions, agree to advise, we should ask what its affiliations are and what objectives they espouse.

·         When in our communities, new organizations emerge with social or religious objectives, we should be alert to the political objectives they bring as part of the package.

·         We should be alert when we donate money to an organization that claims to work for social and political upliftment elsewhere. Investigate the organization and then, make an informed and generous donation. Too much money finds its way to destructive and divisive causes.

·         Also, sometimes we throw money at problems that need other solutions. We should consider the situation more carefully.

·         We should accept the limitations of our own passions— the foreign hand is only effective when a native heart is willing. How easily do we assign blame? How quickly do we accept explanations given to us?

·         Where do our analyses begin? In ‘who did what to whom’ or in ‘how have we remedied such situations in the past’? [Ram-Rahim Nagar: An Oasis of Peace, by Sanjay Pandey, Times of India, March 3, 2002]

·         Is our own house, residence hall, organization, community, place of worship or political organization free of the prejudices and hostilities that are causing the carnage in Gujarat? Let us set our own house in order before we rush in with remedies and recommendations to others.

What is happening is just terrible. Let us not compound it with our own inflamed passions and haste.

This week, let us practice restraint in our responses to events in Gujarat. Let us abjure quick assessments and judgments. Let us seek information and understanding rather than instant analysis. Let us seek voices as close to the ground in this effort as possible. Let us determine what is needed, before we rush into action. As students and teachers, let us use this moment to learn and reflect.

Swarna Rajagopalan
New Haven
March 3, 2002

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