By Swapan Dasgupta
When it comes to commemorating or even celebrating anniversaries, Indians are inclined to be notoriously lax. The 50th anniversary of Indian independence in 1997 was, for example, perfunctorily observed and mainly as a sarkari celebration. The centenary of the foundation of New Delhi or, if you so wish, the loss of Calcutta’s pre-eminence in the political world, was, once again, a rarefied occasion with politicians unable to decide whether or not an imperial event should be acknowledged.
The arson attack on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra and the ensuing communal violence in Gujarat happened 10 years ago—a long enough time, going by strictly Indian standards, to leave the issue to polemicists and historians. Yet, and not surprisingly, the 10th anniversary of the Gujarat riots has become a media event or, to be more precise, an English-language media occasion. Over the past week, there have been innumerable articles on the plight of the victims, the tardy pace of the judicial process and lachrymose TV documentaries indicating that there is not enough justice to embrace Gujarat.
As is to be expected, there is an explicit political agenda behind reprinting the photograph of a trishul-brandishing, ugly rioter and Qutubuddin Ansari pleading for his life. However, what is interesting is that the hapless victims are no longer the primary focus. They have conveniently receded into the background as either lifeless statistics or labels such as Best Bakery, Gulbarga Housing Society and Naroda Patiya. Likewise, the rioters who were responsible for perpetrating beastly horrors have been reduced to a meaningless three letter word: the ‘mob’. They have lost all individual identities. Instead, the Gujarat riots have been sought to be reduced to one individual whose stern, bearded face stares at the reader and TV watcher.
To someone who didn’t live through those troubled times in 2002, it would almost seem that the rioters were personally led from the front by Narendra Modi: a khalnayak leading the flash mobs.
There is a compelling reason why the events in Gujarat have been portrayed in this fashion. It is not politically rewarding or expedient for the ambulance chasers to recognise that Modi inherited a Gujarat that was gripped by a pre-existing communal polarisation. You had to make a casual trip to Ahmedabad in the 1980s and 1990s to realise the extent to which both Hindus and Muslims deeply felt a dread of the ‘other’. It used to be said about localities such as Juhapura in old Ahmedabad city that you had to merely cross the road for a small riot to break out and another one when you retraced your steps. Curfew was the norm in Gujarat during the days Chimanbhai Patel and others before him ruled the state. Minor riots were almost a daily occurrence ever since the big Ahmedabad riot of 1969. The historically-minded can refer to a speech made by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha in 1970 to gauge the atmospherics of that time.
The reason for referring to the state of Gujarat 10 years ago is simple: the social polarisation was conducive to permanent tension among communities. As someone who had cut his teeth politically in that environment, Modi, it can legitimately be argued, was also infected by the sectarian virus. But so, for that matter, was most of Gujarati society. The communal polarisation that contributed to feelings of suspicion and even hate pre-dated Modi’s installation as Chief Minister in 2001. Gujarat was already a communal tinderbox even before Modi was brought back to Gandhinagar from his political exile.
Acknowledging the already tense environment of Gujarat before the arson attack on kar sevaks in Godhra is problematic. It prompts the awkward conclusion that the 2002 riots were the culmination of a process that began decades ago, when successive Congress chief ministers ruled the roost. More troubling is the grim truth that dare not speak its name: that the riots were blessed with a large measure of spontaneity. In fact, they may even have had a social sanction which, as Ashis Nandy has, for example, often observed, was absent from the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in Delhi.
If the historical context of the 2002 riots is taken into account, the 10th anniversary assumes a very different significance. There may have been lapses in the rehabilitation programme (something which can’t be said for the post-earthquake reconstruction of Kutch) and there may be grounds to believe that the post-riot investigations have not always been rigorous. But this cannot distract attention from the fact that riots have not recurred in Gujarat since then, not even in old Ahmedabad. It is not that the communal polarisation has given way to inter-faith bonhomie. There are still residual tensions but these have been significantly diluted in a decade that has seen Gujarat race ahead in chase for economic growth and prosperity. The incessant curfews of yesteryear have given way to vibrant cities where citizens are no longer afraid of enjoying their post-dinner ice cream on the streets. The administration has learnt the lessons of 2002 very well.
Sunday Pioneer, February 26, 2012