GUJARAT AFTER GODHRA: REAL VIOLENCE, SELECTIVE OUTRAGE

(Har-Anand, Delhi, December 2002)

EDITED BY PROF. RAMESH N. RAO & DR. KOENRAAD ELST

 

Introduction by Koenraad Elst

In the Gujarati town of Godhra, on 27 February 2002, a Muslim mob set on fire a train wagon carrying passengers returning from a Hindu pilgrimage to Ayodhya, killing 58. This incident ignited a cycle of communal violence affecting much of the state of Gujarat, which remained in a state of crisis or at least unease for six months. More than a thousand people (about 800 Muslims and 250 Hindus) were killed in riots, and many more rendered homeless and forced to seek shelter in refugee camps. Strangely, the effective cut-off date for this period of tension was another violent incident: on 24 September 2002, two Muslim terrorists entering the Hindu Swaminarayan shrine of Akshardham in Gandhinagar. The events of Godhra and Aksardham define the time-bracket of the present study.

This book presents a collection of reports from and comments on the crisis provoked by the Godhra pogrom. The focus of their attention is as much on the media coverage of the events as on the events themselves, for if any event ever showed up the nexus between physical violence on the streets and verbal violence to the truth, it certainly was the Gujarat crisis. Several recurring observations by the authors may be summarized thus:

1. There is an acute problem of double standards. The extremely brazen-faced application of double standards in the name of secularism was a ubiquitous feature of the media's reporting and comment on the Gujarat riots. By now the complaint that "you secularists weren't half as indignant, in fact entirely uninterested, when a quarter million Hindus were cleansed from Kashmir" is entirely worn out and boring, but only because it remains unanswered and hence in need of being repeated.

2. There is a problem of crass rumor-mongering. It is all very well for intellectuals in their air-conditioned offices to bemoan the unbelievable impact of either mean-spirited or silly rumours in the genesis of communal riots among the common folk. But in this instance, in their own reports on and analysis of communal violence, factual data were just as shamelessly replaced with invention, rumors and conspiracy theories. In this respect, religious extremists such as the Shahi Imam have behaved themselves better than the secularist campaigners who pose as the guardians of modernity and the scientific temper. Arundhati Roy risked the international fame she so clearly cherishes by going public with blatant lies about atrocities against named Gujarati Muslim women who turned out to be either non-existent or abroad at the time of the riots. Perhaps a fiction writer can afford this, but the news media with their deontology of accuracy and objectivity made themselves guilty of similar howlers. Internationally influential media like the Washington Post copied from an Islamist website rumors about Hindu provocations behind the Godhra carnage, falsely claiming a Gujarati journalist as source, and never publishing a correction when the journalist in question denied ever having put out such a story. With such media, who needs rumors?

(3) The failure of the state makes people desperate: The Indian people are frustrated at the state's inability to protect them. In this respect, it doesn't seem to make much difference whether India has a Congress or Janata/Samajwadi or BJP government. And though Indian governments of every stripe have modernized their security apparatus and intensified their anti-terrorist efforts, the development of technology makes it unlikely that the authorities will win this stand-off any time soon. For a determined guerrilla fighter, it becomes ever easier to work ever bigger destruction with ever lighter equipment. While this is no reason to give up the struggle against terrorism, it highlights the need of a more radical solution: either a political agreement which will satisfy the terrorists to the point of making them lay down their arms (as advocated by most secularists, who insist on "dialogue with Kashmiri militants" and the like), or a decisive strike against the political and logistical bases behind the terrorist frontlines, combined with an ideological offensive against their justifying assumptions.

(4) The masses have been radicalized: A large part of the secularists' indignation provoked by the Gujarat riots has been directed against the Hindu masses, including Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. For as often, it was mainly these layers of Hindu society who had enthusiastically participated in indiscriminate violence against their Muslim neighbors. Whether or not a leadership role is attributed to Hindutva organizations, the overriding fact is that the Hindu masses proved ready to heed calls for "teaching the Muslims a lesson". This readiness cannot be explained as the instant effect of a crash propaganda campaign, but is clearly based on a widespread and firmly entrenched anti-Muslim sentiment. Once the media had branded BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the main culprit for the wave of anti-Muslim retaliation, his popularity only rose. The Hindu electorate will indeed support a government which shows strength against the perceived threat of Islamic terrorism allegedly lurking in Muslim neighborhoods. This was proven in Mumbai after the riots of early 1993: the Shiv Sena was rewarded by the electorate for its active role in countering Muslim rioting, even when this included indiscriminate violence against ordinary Muslims. The next elections gave the Shiv Sena a landslide victory, even in constituencies traditionally antagonistic to the Shiv Sena such as Tamil and Gujarati Hindus. There is only limited truth to the occasional media construction of an antagonism between the Hindu masses with their basically secular attitudes and the ideologized Hindutva vanguard with its alleged virulently anti-Muslim agenda.

(5) Mujahedin seek active or passive support among the Muslim masses: Part of the implicit justification of an indiscriminate anti-Muslim attitude on the Hindu side is the suspicion of collusion between the masses and the militant vanguard on the Muslim side. According to Che Guevara, a guerrilla fighter moves among the masses like a fish in the water, and this description fits the understanding between the Muslim masses and the militants during the expulsion of the Hindus from the Kashmir Valley in 1989-90. It is unlikely that this situation prevailed in Gujarat, though, where organized militancy may be a palpable threat but is not an everyday reality yet. At the same time, however, Madrassah education may have the effect of slowly increasing support for the hard-liners among the Muslim masses. In that case, Gujarat and other parts of India may well be tomorrow's Kashmirs. It is necessary to be aware of these possible future scenarios, for the behavior of mobs is not only determined by their experiences of the immediate past but also by their vague apprehensions about the future.

(6) There are limits to the Hindu capacity for tolerance: In spite of strong and widespread anti-Muslim feelings, Hindus have shown remarkable patience and forbearance in past instances of Islamic terrorism. There was no retaliation after the numerous selective mass killings of Hindu and Sikh villagers or bus passengers in Jammu and Kashmir, nor after the attacks on Hindu pilgrims there; nor after the Mumbai bomb blasts (March 1993); nor after the bomb attack against a BJP gathering in Coimbatore (February 1998); nor after the attacks on the Parliament buildings of Srinagar and Delhi (September and December 2001). After handfuls, dozens or hundreds of Hindus were massacred, Hindus all over India maintained calm and refused to take their anger out on their Muslim neighbors. This should be kept in mind when assessing the Hindu loss of self-control after the Godhra massacre. In spite of secularist predictions that the communal situation in Gujarat was fast spinning out of control, possibly for good, this Hindu self-restraint re-asserted itself after the Akshardham massacre. Given this persistent Hindu attitude of self-restraint, which makes violent retaliation against Islamic aggression the exception rather than the rule, the motives behind the unwarranted secularist alarmism should be questioned.

(7) There is a nexus between India's vanguard secularists and anti-Indian forces in Washington and Islamabad: Not everyone reacted to the outbreak of the Gujarat riots with anger or sadness. On the contrary, it can rationally be inferred that many in India's secularist circles were elated, not to say euphoric. Suddenly they were back in business, enthusiastically accepting invitations for lecture tours in the USA and Pakistan. The BJP's term in government had, after all, been very disappointing for them. They had been predicting for years that a BJP Prime Minister would prove to be Hitler and Khomeini in one, and that the Muslims would be thrown into the Arabian Sea if not into gas chambers. In the four years since March 1998, they somehow had to face down the fact that India's streets remained peaceful and that the BJP government was extreme only in its humdrumness. In 1999, they tried to make the most of a spate of incidents between Christians and non-Christian tribals in which a few Christians got killed (mercifully far fewer than the periodic harvest of martyrs in Pakistan). They falsely blamed Hindu activists for some inter-Christian rape cases and for a series of bomb attacks against churches, which turned out to be the handiwork of a Pakistan-based Muslim group, Deendar Anjuman. Before ill-informed but consequential international audiences such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, they managed to uphold their original story, but in India the campaign to blame Hindu activists for everything had badly lost its credibility. And so, the Gujarat crisis came as a great boon to the professionals of secularism. It gave them such a strong warrant for anti-Hindu and anti-Indian propaganda that some of their star spokespersons shed all inhibitions and volunteered for performances on Pakistani propaganda platforms. The latter gladly highlighted the secularists' line of blaming the state and central governments of complicity in the riots, so that the guilt for the "genocide" of Gujarati Muslims would not just fall on particular Gujarati Hindu groups but on Hindu society and on the Indian state as a whole.

In conclusion, then, we may say that this way, the Gujarat crisis has at least served to throw light on some of the problems of India's opinion climate as related to the country's communal antagonism. In its Indian version, secularism, rather than being the cure-all which many inside and outside India believe it to be, is a profoundly problematic concept to begin with, and a thoroughly tainted one in practice. This is all the more sobering because its putative antagonist, religious bigotry, remains a real threat to society as well. That too is an inescapable, albeit banal, conclusion imposed upon us by the Gujarat crisis.

*****

 

 

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