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When the mob rules
By Rajdeep Sardesai

Amidst the kaleidoscope of images that one has encountered during the Gujarat violence in the last week, one incident stands out. We had just finished interviewing the Gujarat chief minister at his residence in Gandhinagar

Ahmedabad: Amidst the kaleidoscope of images that one has encountered during the Gujarat violence in the last week, one incident stands out. We had just finished interviewing the Gujarat chief minister at his residence in Gandhinagar shortly before midnight. As we were driving back to Ahmedabad, we were stopped by a mob of around 30 to 40 trishul and lathi-wielding youth. They asked us for our names, our religious identity and wanted to inspect our cameras. We desperately tried to flash our press credentials, but before we could react, one youth climbed on the bonnet of our Tata Sumo and proceeded to smash our windscreen. Claiming that if any one of us belonged to the minority community we would be killed, our identities were closely inspected. Then, after the car’s side window was also smashed, we were allowed to leave, but only after we had joined the chorus in chanting "Jai Shri Ram". 

All this, I might add, occurred on the main Gandhinagar-Ahmedabad highway, barely three or four kilometres from the chief minister’s residence. It drove home the point that in Gujarat no one, or no place was safe from the mob. After all, if one can be attacked just a short distance away from the chief minister’s residence, then what chance does the average person miles away in some remote township or village have if confronted by a similar group?

Indeed, one of the more revealing aspects of the Gujarat riots has been how it has spread beyond the traditional geographical confines of communal trouble. This was not just a walled city riot between Hindus and Muslims in the chawls of Dariapur and Shahpur where violence has become almost an annual ritual. This time, the violence spread to the entire business district of Ahmedabad, to middle-class localities, and even to areas adjoining government offices in Gandhinagar. The sight of people coming out of their Santros and Marutis and getting involved in the rioting and looting suggests that in Ahmedabad at least, the mob psychology and the communal poison has spread well beyond the conventional stereotype of only lumpen elements being involved in acts of rioting and arson. 

The Gujarat chief minister has been quoted as saying that the reaction was "an expression of anger" at the ghastly incident in Godhra, a statement that can be likened to Rajiv Gandhi’s infamous "when a tree falls, the earth is bound to shake" remark that was made after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots (I might add here that Mr Modi now denies having ever tried to rationalise the initial violence). Let's get this straight: Godhra was a horrific act of savagery whose perpetrators must be found, and if possible, hanged. It would also be foolhardy to try and rationalise the Godhra incident by claiming that the kar-sevaks had provoked the local Muslim community in the city. Nothing can justify what happened in Godhra on February 27, just as nothing can justify what followed all over Gujarat over the next few days. 

Let's also get another thing straight: the mob fury that we have witnessed in Gujarat post-Godhra is not just about avenging the killing of kar sevaks. It is primarily about a mindset that has complete disregard for law, rules of civilised behaviour and for human life. Worse, it stems from a belief that the state will not do anything to stop those who go around wantonly destroying life and property. This is where Gujarat has shown just how the government machinery can become completely paralysed, deliberate or otherwise, in the face of a communal riot. 

The reason is not difficult to find. Over the last decade, and especially since it first came to power in Gujarat in the mid-1990s, the Sangh Parivar has consciously used Gujarat as a laboratory for militant Hindutva. Long before the textbook controversy erupted at the Centre, there were already attempts being made in Gandhinagar to rewrite history. Even before the Staines incident in Orissa, there were reports emanating from several parts of Gujarat of attacks on small churches and Christian missionaries. And long before the cosmopolitan character of cities like Mumbai had been threatened, Ahmedabad was already being ghettoised. 

Not all the blame can be laid at the Sangh Parivar’s door. After all, it was the Congress chief minister Chimanbhai Patel who first exploited religious sentiments for political advantage. There is little doubt that the rise of the BJP in Gujarat was largely because the Congress chose to confuse secularism with cynical pro-minorityism and also encouraged criminal elements within the local Muslim community by projecting them as protectors of the faith. 

But if the Congress maintained a façade of secularism in Gujarat, the BJP has completely dismantled it. In Delhi, the NDA experiment ensures some check on the BJP’s politics, in Gujarat the party’s two-third majority in the state assembly means that there is no challenge to its dominance. The result is that the state administration is being forced to toe an ideological line for sheer survival. Crucial posts have been filled by Sangh Parivar leaders. The minister of state for home, Gordhanbhai Zadakia for example, is a Vishwa Hindu Parishad man who was appointed to the job on the recommendation of the VHP leadership. Mr Modi himself has never hesitated from getting involved in the VHP’s activities, whether it be in New York or Somnath. 

Is it any wonder then that when VHP activists took to the streets on day one of the riots, there was no one to stop them? After all, it was the VHP’s footsoldiers who led the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that eventually catapulted the BJP to power both in the state and at the Centre. For these footsoldiers, it is now payback time, and they seem determined to extract their price. In a sense, the mob that attacked our car in Gandhinagar wasn’t some anonymous, enraged group that had gone out of control. They were law-breakers who knew they could get away with their actions because the law-makers would protect them. In Gujarat, sadly, the line between the mob and the government has become a very thin one (NDTV).

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