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Secularism in India after Gujarat 2002

Gujarat witnessed one of the deadliest riots in recent memory. Was it remarkable only in terms of its quantitative excess? Are there lessons to be learnt from this pogrom? Do we need to understand the specifics of this bout of sectarian frenzy to assess the prospects of secularism in India?

These are a few questions that Prof. Dipankar Gupta of Jawaharlal Nehru University has tried to answer. At the Seventh Prem Bhatia Memorial Lecture in New Delhi recently, Prof. Gupta, under the topic, “The limits of tolerance: prospects of secularism in India after Gujrat" focussed on some unusual aspects of communal violence, particularly its effects on the villages. 

"Gujarat 2002, has forced us to pay attention to the fact that the villagers are also getting increasingly ethnicised," remarked Prof. Gupta. He observed that this radically altered the framework of many sociological analyses of riots. His study revealed that villagers in Gujarat had attacked other villagers with a ferocity that was till recently seen in the urban areas only. There was, said Gupta, the Nellie massacre of 1983, but in that case the mob came from other villages and towns which were at some distance. But Gujarat 2002 gives ample evidence of ethnic hatred born, bred and expressed within villages. “Here the attackers were from families whom the victims knew very well and for a along time. In many cases the victims were even invited to attend marriages and other feasts in the homes of those who later came in mobs to brutalise them.” 
Why villages get involved in this way? According to his study, one point of view was that there was a spill-over effect from the urban centres to the rural countryside, but the focus of attention was still the cities and towns. "We know quite explicitly from our examination of the fact that villages may also be intended sites of sectarian violence," he said. In 1991 rath yatra ofLK Advani, Muslims were attacked in 32 villages in Bharuch and Surat districts. In fact, it was in 1987 that the first reports of Bhil tribals killing Muslims for a Hindu cause in Virpur came. The following is a brief account of Dr Gupta’s findings.

The village as Hindu Rashtra
Villagers are no longer tranquil as urban-rural interactions have become much more intense in recent years. With subdivision of landholdings there are few jobs left in the villages for agricultural labourers. They too are looking outside the village and getting involved with the issues and ideas that have a reach beyond the village. When the shilas bound for Ayodhya were passing through rural Uttar Pardesh, there were several instances of heated arguments between young Jats and their parents on the viability of the Ramjanambhoomi movement. While elders thought it was frivolous, if not actually objectionable, their children who had been to colleges in the neighborhood, and who looked at cities as escape hatches from village scrutiny and tradition, were of the opposite view.

All of this, with differing degrees of valiancy, has drawn the village to the larger project of Hindutva nationalism. As one drives from Vadodra to Bharuch one comes across signs like the one at village Bamangaon, which declares that this is a village “of the Hindu Rashtra”. In some predominantly Hindu villages, as in Nidral (Taluka Sanand near Ahmedabad) you may also be asked to give proof of your religious identity before you are allowed to enter. 

Without activism and the funds that poured in for the Hindutva cause from a variety of quarters, the triblas and Dalits could have pledged their allegiances elsewhere. Uttar Pardesh and Bihar are good examples of this contrary trend. This should have compelled us to highlight the partisanship of the more prosperous classes in rural India to the BJP and VHP, without whose help these Hindu organisations would not have got a foothold in the villages. 

We had heard riots were the handiwork of Dalits, tribals and socially underprivileged communities like the Chares of Ahmedabad. This may be true, but it does not mean that Patidars and Baniyas were not in the fray as well. Regardless of the depth of frustration in the ranks of Dalits and tribals, without the ideological, monetary and physical contributions of these so-called upper castes the Hindutva cause would not have stood a chance.

We can no longer ignore, post-Gujrat 2002, that villages can also become sites for ethnic riots. We need to integrate this with all the known and tested earlier observations on riots. True to the principle that rioters would rather kill than die for a cause, most rural riots take place in villages where Muslims are in minority. When mobs descend on Muslim majority villages, they do so only when they are emboldened by the fact that such villages are in a predominately Hindu vicinity. Rural rioters are as risk-averse as their urban counterparts. If the Bhils and Dalits are involved in the riots, today it is not so much because of class or economic reason, as it is because they believe that they will not be hurt if they go out minority-hunting. Into this breach the BJP and VHP have stepped in, and, in the absence of a better alternative, the Dalits, and tribals have joined them in order to get a sense of collective purpose and project for the future. 

Guilty must be punished
Secular ethics can be strengthened only when the act of vandalism is sternly dealt with and the guilty are made to for it pay for it. In Gujarat some secular parties wanted Narendra Modi‘s dismissal instead of demanding that the law be implemented and all those found guilty be punished. As they did not insist on punishing the guilty, Modi and his supporters could take recourse to the ambiguities in political procedures to fudge the issue of criminal responsibility altogether. 

In fact, the punishment of the guilty is not uppermost in the real agenda of political parties. If we can make these criminals run back and forth from the court on a number of grievous charges then that would teach them a lesson. Some of them might even be sentenced. This would give Muslims greater faith in the law.

With secularism that insists on the inalienable rights of citizens and on due process of law, it is easier to mount public pressure against minority hunters and sectarian killers. Unfortunately, several major secular parties have already compromised themselves on one or all of these accounts. 

Sense of belonging 
What good is democracy if a large number of minorities feel that it does not belong to them? While these communities are terrified by majotrianism for a period of time, we must realise that this damages the polity irreparably over the medium term. Terrorism breeds when minority aspirations are thwarted with undemocratic means.

In Punjab, secessionism did not happen because of economic reasons, but because ethnic power calculations were steadily displacing democratic politics. This is also true of Kashmir. In fact, Kashmir is perhaps the most obvious case one can make in this connection. And if Gujarat tends to get repeated it would happen elsewhere too.

¯ Andalib Akhter

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