Any judicial verdict, including one where investigations had been closely monitored by the Supreme Court, leaves some people disappointed.
So it was with the Ahmedabad trial court judgement that exonerated Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the grave charge of conspiracy in the horrible riots that gripped the State in March 2002. In this case the disappointment was particularly pronounced because the attempt to rule Modi out of active politics through a judicial pronouncement had the fulsome backing of some of the most powerful and influential individuals throughout the world.
Modi may have secured the categorical endorsement of the people of Gujarat for three consecutive Assembly elections, but to those who set themselves up as moral guardians of Indian politics, he was forever the “mass murderer” who had to be prevented from assuming higher office at any cost. The trouble with Modi, as they saw it, was that far from limiting the question of culpability to an individual, he had enlarged the number of accused to include the six crore Gujaratis for whom he claimed to speak. In that sense, last week’s judgement didn’t merely exonerate the Chief Minister who was at the helm in 2002, it liberated the entire State of Gujarat from a heartless taint.
The people of Gujarat, barring a small number of extremely motivated activists, had maintained a discernible silence for the past 12 years or so. This wasn’t because they were in a state of denial — a little probing reveals that the traumatic events that began with the arson attack on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra haven’t exactly been forgotten. Yet, the reason why rekindling memories of that horrible week wasn’t appreciated — and let us not forget that even the Opposition Congress in the State stopped using the 2002 riots as a campaign theme — was because of an earnest desire to look ahead and rebuild the State after two back-to-back tragedies: the earthquake of January 26, 2001 and the riots of March 2002.
This was something that Modi understood and acted upon. Even the Chief Minister’s worst detractors will not deny that the post-Godhra riots have not been repeated. For a State where communal rioting was endemic throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and where daily life was all about water shortages, power cuts and incessant curfews, a riot-free 12 years has been a stupendous achievement. What is more, this social harmony has been brought about by a new form of politics — one where the State did not tailor its priorities to suit religious communities.
Contrast this unwillingness to view compartmentalise the province into religious units with States where the thrust of the administration is to shower particular communities with exceptional favours. Gujarat has not had a communal riot since 2002 but such riots have been endemic in Uttar Pradesh where Akhilesh Yadav practices the most perverse variant of secular-communalism. Contrast the prevailing social equilibrium in Gujarat with the simmering tensions that are being observed in States such as Assam, West Bengal and Bihar.
To the critics of Modi, the Chief Minister is said to be viscerally anti-Muslim. They have pointed to his opposition to special scholarships for Muslims and the fact that the term Muslim does not appear in the blog that appeared last Friday and even managed to temporarily overshadow the English-language media’s gush-gush coverage of everything to do with the Aam Aadmi Party — the flavour of the festive season.
I am heartened by this omission. This is not because there isn’t many Muslim self-identities. There is and a religious identity should be respected. However, there is a big difference between a socio-religious Muslim identity and its use as a political football. This would be as true of a Hindu identity or a Christian identity — a possible reason why the more menacingly vocal representatives of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad view Modi with deep suspicion, and even hostility. Modi has incurred the displeasure of the certifying authorities of Indian secularism precisely because he has shunned religious characterisation. In a normal place this would have made him too secular; by the logic of the Nehruvian consensus he is labelled majoritarian and, by implication, communal.
The great thing about these labels of abuse is that they are born of expediency. Arvind Kejriwal wasn’t debunked as a Hindu bigot for not including a Muslim and Sikh representative in his Cabinet. Nor has anyone with common sense questioned his use of aam aadmi because it does not accord a separate place to the religious minorities.
Of course, such intellectual generosity would be unimaginable when applied to Modi. When the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate writes in his blog that “my emphasis has always been on developing and emphasising a spirit of unity”, he is attacked for failing to highlight India’s social mosaic. This mosaic is, needless to say, a reality. The point of contention is whether politics involves disentangling each separate strand or positing the commonality of interests of all India. By suggesting a “vote for India” in the coming general elections, Modi is challenging the principle of divisive politics. He is also debunking the construction of aggrieved victimhood which formed the basis of the unrelenting onslaught against him for the past 12 years.
The professional tribe of ambulance chasers who propped up the distressed widow of a former Congress MP who was killed in the 2002 riots weren’t interested in securing the punishment of the real perpetrators of communal violence. They were in the business of creating resentful citizens. That project hasn’t succeeded but the larger challenge to the emotional balkanisation of India remains.