Modi's victory: Almost always communal, can Gujarat change?

One of the panellists on CNN-IBN said that Narendra Modi visited Madhavsinh Solanki, a former Congress Chief Minister of Gujarat now in a hospital bed, and asked to be blessed that he should break the latter’s record of 149 seats in the 182-member Assembly. This was contested by analyst and journalist Swapan Dasgupta, who said it was a courtesy call and “That’s all there is to it”.

It so happens that a person who has been seen as the most communal person in India was visiting another in whose term of office also Gujarat had seen a rash of communal violence. At that time, Solanki was seen as complicit because he just could not rein in the rioters. Using a red-herring, Solanki had complained to Rajiv Gandhi that the groundnut oil lobby was behind the crisis in the state. The groundnut oil business was a strong base of the Patels.

Communalism was not new to Gujarat.   It has been persistent but with breaks in between as if the sides were pausing to catch their breath. AP

Though Solanki had a massive mandate, the rise of the anti-reservationists in 1985 was alarming because the state, though communal for long, was getting riven by casteism. The Congress had used what was called the KHAM combination, an acronym for Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis, and Muslims, and the anti-quota students could upset the combination. He saw meritocracy as caste politics.

When the youth took to the streets and widened the agitation, it suddenly turned – or I dare say, was turned – communal. Of a night, a few Muslim shops were found inexplicably burnt down and the word was out that it was a communal action. The implication was clear; the KHAM was under threat and it could not be from its constituents. If it became communal, the minorities would remain with Congress to secure protection.

The agitation was given a bad name in a state which has had a long history of communal riots. After what appeared random was actually carefully managed. Selected Muslim-owned shops were targeted to initiate a communal situation. It could not have been planned by the anti-reservation protesters. Moreover, a few years prior to 1985 Gujarat had been communally peaceful.

The then Telegraph correspondent, Tushar Bhatt and I for The Hindu were two who stayed our ground trying to distinguish which part of the crisis that Gujarat was enveloped in was communal and which was anti-quota stir. Solanki asked me over for tea and suggested that a wrong picture of Gujarat was being presented outside Gujarat and “our small errors were not being ignored”. The drift, that coming from a suave man, was clear. He threatened that I may not be allowed to his briefings.

But communalism was not new to Gujarat. It is not as if it was brought to the stage by Narendra Modi after the warm up during the Ram Mandir campaign and the later Rath Yatra by LK Advani.   It has been persistent but with breaks in between as if the sides were pausing to catch their breath. It is a long-enduring malaise of that region which has never learnt its lessons from the damage caused to the entire society by a single act of communalism.

The “An inquiry into the carnage in Gujarat”  after the post-Godhra riots of that year by a Concerned Citizens Tribunal 2002 which Outlook published in November 2002, 16 districts saw “some 685 incidents” of which 578 were in 1969 alone, the “worst riots in that ten year period” of 1961-71. The death toll was 1,100. Hitendra Desai, who was Chief Minister in 1969 had recounted to me how horrors included people being thrown into a well. The Concerned Citizens panel speaks of a person being burnt alive.

Solanki government deployed the Army but refused to allow it to act by not issuing order by executive magistrates on a case by case basis, a requirement when a place was not under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. When nine persons - all drum (percussion instrument) makers - were burnt alive within a few meters of an Army picket, pressure built on Solanki to use them. The Army complained that the awe of the olive green uniforms would be lost. The Union Home Minister intervened and asked the government to use the Army personnel or send them back.

In the four years since 1987, as many as 106 communal incidents have been recorded. Given the proportions of the populations, it is not hard to guess who held the upper hand in these riots. The state has been complicit always either by being willingly blind to it or entirely incompetent, or as in 1985, even fomenting it.

Before and during Modi’s tenure, certainly till 2002, communal riots were common and post Godhra, after the worst was over, the minorities have been under pressure seeking justice, unable to integrate themselves back into the larger inter-communal society. One is either communal or if protective of the minorities; the latter are actually seen as anti-Hindu, pro-Muslim by a society blinded by majorityism.

It was at a wedding I was attending in Ahmedabad that the word of the Godhra horror reached us. The news of the inconceivable level of violence was in itself stupefying but the host and I realised that the tinder of communal violence had been lit and mischief of great proportions would grip Gujarat. The backlash would be ensured. It was not prescience but the understanding that the two communities have not lived in peace at least over three decades and that communalism was at the heart of the society.

The society was divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the threshold was such that communal dimensions easily emerged.  Even newspapers – there were no television and social media then but rumours were routine and believed – took subtle sides because the tradition then was not to name the communities involved in a riot.

They would not, especially, because they expected not to, even identify the dead or injured lest it triggered another round of violence somewhere else. Yet the Gujarati print media had a subtle way of conveying the identities. A Hindu hurt or dead was a ‘jan’ and a Muslim injured or dead was an ‘ism’. This code was easily understood.

A mosque attacked or damaged was only a ‘place of worship’ targeted in the understated journalism of those days. It had its own merit in helping peace. That was before the hurtful, in-your-face, no-holds-barred journalism looking for breaking news came into being. Journalism was intended not to stoke the fires.

So Modi is not alone in being accused of being a fomenter of communal trouble. Gujarat had this unique modus operandi of discrimination against minorities. Even in 1985, people were located through the voters’ list and harassed. There were areas where social boycott was practiced till passions cooled and economic dependence on each other overwhelmed other considerations. It has been cyclical and now, dormant.

Now that he has won the state on a claimed dependence only on a development plank, would communalism disappear? Hard to say; history does not change course very easily. But one can be sure of inter-communal détente.

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