The new millennium has not been kind to Gujarat. The devastating earthquake of January 2001 left long trails of loss and misery, and before one could come to terms with this immense tragedy, from February 27, 2002 onwards, a communal frenzy of unbelievable ferocity, brutality and hatred ripped Gujarat apart. The carnage went on for over two months and simmers under the veneer of calm even today.
Much has been written on the details of this communal frenzy when in the name of religion the very essence of religion was shoved aside. With the gruesome burning of the train at Godhra and its equally barbaric aftermath, a supposed revenge, not just Gujarat, the social fabric of the nation itself was ripped open, her multicultural society thoroughly ravaged. My purpose is not to chronicle yet again how brutal human beings can be or what force or shape hate can take but to narrate my very personal encounters in the city of Baroda during the riots and afterwards.
The curfew had kept many of us at home; my first foray into the riot torn areas was in late March when the university here organised a peace march through the old city. Under heavy police protection with the police commissioner and collector as guardian angels, we walked or drove in an open truck.
The streets were lined with people, mainly men; women and children crowded the balcony, young boys peeping from rooftops – curfew had been lifted for a few hours, there was space to breathe. Closed shutters with burnt black outline dotted the markets, with stray carts and cycles, charred and disfigured, shoved into corners. The devastation was staggering; nothing but rubble remained of a Muslim shop or home. Utensils that had once been the pride of a home were twisted beyond recognition, furniture that could not be looted was axed and destroyed. It was an attempt at annihilation not only of a people but of what stood as essential parts of their life. Such a systematic destruction needed power and strength but also time and patience. How could a mob resort to such a time-consuming, piece by piece torment? The few shops that had managed to open, were forlorn without customers; the odd pushcarts were empty with owners languishing by. Traders, Hindu and Muslim, had despair writ large on their face; there had been no business for over four weeks.
The usually crowded Navabazaar told the same story. It was deathly quiet that Sunday morning as I walked past the charred remains of once busy shops. Here too there was no business. Even distress selling had no takers; no one came. Suddenly the flamboyant rusts, oranges and yellows that used to spread cheer and warmth looked faded and worn out.
The reaction to the peace march was mixed. Some waved with appreciation, most remained indifferent and some expressed annoyance. Yet, if anyone suddenly recognised Mrinalini Devi Puar, chancellor of the university, Akkaraje, the princess to many, whispers spread the news, a smile and folded hands greeted her. It was almost surreal.
The squalour of the camps is well known. Distress was here at every corner as families huddled with little bundles if they had any, beaten, demoralised, robbed of their home, hearth and self-respect. They looked dazed, bewildered with a listless resignation waiting for life to change; children milled around trying to bring a bit of life in a world of no hope. A man stood in a corner bandaged from head to foot moving like a robot, his rough dark skin peeping out of the white bandage. He had tried to go back to his hut – the neighbours had attacked.
The women talked, very gently; occasionally with tears they told me about their loss, their fear. One kept repeating how the dowry she collected over the years for her only daughter was looted and taken in the twinkle of an eye. She had got her daughter married in the camp without any frills, without any of the pretty dreams to start her new life. She felt as if she had failed. Social workers promised to rebuild their homes but the neighbours did not want them; we distributed sewing machines, but Hindu merchants did not want to place orders with them; the vegetable vendor was given her handcart but would others allow her to stand in the market? We had no answer, no one could assure rehabilitation and acceptance. ‘Everyone is talking about rebuilding our homes, will anyone rebuild our mosques and dargahs?’ asked an innocent young person. Her faith had carried her through the trauma and it was the places of worship that she wanted back. Some of us had been talking of Hindus taking the initiative to rebuild the dargahs and mosques as a way of cementing the shattered relationship between the two communities. But this was a far cry. Already roads and temples had come up on these ruins. How much land can you allow for a different god?
If I did not see anger in the city camps I was surrounded by it in Tandalja, a mixed residential area in the new part of Baroda where riots had never reached in their earlier incarnations. It had been one of the largest camps with over 5,000 people but now, mid-April, the number had dwindled down to possibly a few hundred. The local administration had decided to close it and shift everyone to some large wedding halls in the mainly Muslim areas of the old city. That morning the water had been turned off, no provisions for meals had come, buses were standing to transport them to yet another temporary shelter. Many had left but about a hundred odd had refused to move. They were mainly migrant workers who despite losing their home had settled into a routine here, however dismal. The children had space to play and the men had possibilities though remote, of getting work as manual labour. Camping in a hall would be a different story. They, specially the women, were extremely articulate. Anger was in their eyes, in their tone, a reaction to the violence and injustice they had faced, the ignominy they had gone through. With the painful memory of the raging fire of their huts they refused to go to a camp where the two doors could be shut and the building torched. Could I assure them of protection? No one could, hatred had pierced too deep under the skin. They defied the administration and continued to stay there, out in the open, eking out whatever living was possible.
We tend to remember the sensational, the most brutal of atrocities haunt us and scare us. But there were these others, men and women, ordinary Indians who lived life with the same aspirations and frustrations that most Indians do, no different from the lives of the majority community.1 Suddenly, their world had split apart because of their faith, why? Why is it that religion became so central to the public space of our society? Why is it that difference rather than commonality became so basic to our perception? Obviously, there is no single answer, nor is there a consensus among social thinkers who try to find an answer. We can only grope for reasons knowing full well that the answer is unlikely to be definitive.
There is a feeling among many, specially old timers of Baroda, that things were different earlier, that till the 1940s, at least Baroda had a composite culture. It must have felt so: but did it really mean a common culture? There was possibly some respect for other religions but gestures like Hindu children being taken under the Tazia for good health or Muslim women sending offering to Shitlamata to guard against smallpox were more a kind of insurance against the uncertainties and injustices of life, specially for the dispossessed. It is true that in many areas Hindus and Muslims had lived side by side peacefully, respecting each other’s boundaries, but boundaries there were. To say that there was no undercurrent of hostility is a dream sequence. Hindus had not forgotten the destruction of the Somnath2 temple or the marauding forces usurping power; Muslims in turn suffered from the loss of power syndrome and ridiculed those who believed in many gods and many forms. In a land where there is a scramble for space and bare necessities, it is not difficult, in fact, it is almost imperative to construct an ‘other’. For each community, the bogey of ‘other’ was real, just as real was the disdain.
In a city like Baroda, Muslim areas are clearly defined. The strict vegetarians keep well away from the meat-eating Muslims or Christians. Despite occasional Diwali or Id visits, social intercourse is limited. Loudspeakers amplifying ‘Azaans’ compete with temple drums/chants in their decibels. As the communities lead separate lives with little interaction, other than possibly at workplace, the notion of ‘otherness’ with its preconceived ideas and prejudices gets more firmly embedded. So much so that more often than not in Gujarati parlance a Muslim or a Christian is referred to by her religion, only a Gujarati Hindu can lay claim to her land, i e, Gujarat. Obviously, the minority communities have no firm root in this land, they are defined largely by their faith.
Music has been hailed as a major expression of syncretic culture. As an example, we cite the Bhakti cult with saints like Kabir on one side and Sufi saints like Khwaja Nizamuddin Aulia on the other. True enough; the mystics had transcended the rigid boundaries of religion and preached love and brotherhood of human beings. But the Chistia is only one of the Sufi orders; others, for example, the Suhrawardiyyas, were far more puritanical and they had a strong presence in Gujarat of the sultans.3 And the concept of pollution entered the mind of the ‘Bhakta’ pretty early on. The dargah at Bereillysharif has attracted Hindu and Muslim artists for several generations. Yet the same Hindu artists have been loath to have any interaction with Muslims on a social basis. It was a compartmentalised harmony/disharmony.
The devoted admirers of Ustad Fayaaz Khan of Baroda considered him the greatest of singers but never touched a glass of water in his house. Besides, a turf war between ustads and pandits started even in the 19th century. While Raja Surendra Mohan Tagore composed English songs in classical ragas like Darbari, thanking the English crown for saving us from the polluting Muslims and academicians (pandits) tried to systematise Hindustani classical music through its ancient Hindu roots, the story has it that an ustad composed the song ‘Sur sangat raga vidya sangeet pramaan, jo kanthkar dikhawey, wako janiyey guni gnyan...’4 to underline that it was not so much the origin but the ability to perform that made a musician. This too is divided contentious territory.
Despite all the separation and suspicion, the two communities did live together in reasonable amity for decades and do so even now in certain areas. Why then this sudden flare-up? And why this extremely brutal long drawn killing/burning/looting spree? 58 people were scorched to death in Godhra when the S-6 bogey of the Sabarmati Express was set aflame and in the aftermath an estimated 2,000 people including some Hindus were killed not only in the violent rioting but also in police firing.
I am no psychologist to analyse or explain the psychology of hate or a sudden spurt of insanity. The idea here is to try to recount some of the circumstances that operate as a background to the carnage.
Obviously, politics has played a major part. Memories of partition, the Ram mandir/Babri masjid issue, cross border terrorism, have played a part in building up the concept of Hindutva and the consequent questioning of Muslim loyalty. But the Hindutva card could be played so effectively only because a strong base of suspicion was already there. For over a decade now there has been a deliberate attempt to portray that Hinduism is in danger and that the danger comes from Islam and Christianity. ‘Hindu girls are not safe with Muslims around’ or ‘it is not safe to go into Muslim dominated areas’ are statements often made by citizens of Baroda. In fact, Muslim majority areas are often referred to as mini-Pakistan and many stay away out of genuine fear.
The Congress policy of KHAM5 privileges added further fuel to the politics of alienation. ‘Muslims have been pampered far too much and they ought to be shown their place’ was again an oft-stated judgment from the upper stratum of Baroda society who felt that the Congress party to ensure their vote bank gave too many privileges to the Muslims. Nobody bothered to think that ‘pampering’ has meant ‘unilateral talaq’, the possibility of a woman having three co-wives with no redress and such other practices. If there was pampering it was of the extremist faction of Islam, not of Muslims in general. The Shah Bano case bowed down to the Muslim clergy. How did it affect Muslim woman? As for ‘showing their place’, since the crime was never delineated, it was difficult to understand what the tirade was for. May be ‘Godhra’ provided this delineation. ‘Showing their place’ was now replaced by ‘teaching them a lesson’. In a society where education does not necessarily teach one to reason, most do not bother about the impact of all this on the Muslim mind – or, for that matter, on the Hindu mind.
The Muslim then withdraws into the world where he has an identity. He displays his faith in his attire and the distinctive beard, in his language with an ‘Urduised’ Hindi as public means of communication, discarding the Gujarati that he spoke earlier. Ramzan fasts, daily namaaz, religious education, living in segregated areas, become key to his life. On the other side, a more Sanskritied version of Gujarati, religious discourses, observance of fasts, pilgrimage (sometimes organised by political parties), public festivals worshipping different gods become central to the Hindu’s life.
The abandoned mosque at Ayodhya which few were aware of or concerned with till the 1970s suddenly becomes essential to the survival of their community just as building of the Ram temple exactly at the presumed historical site becomes a symbol of survival for the Hindu. One just had to go to the railway station in 1992-93 and again in early 2002 to witness the large contingents of karsevaks or Ramsevaks travelling to rebuild a temple that may or may not have existed and may or may not have been demolished almost 500 years ago.
The invisible wall, the boundary of identity, the sense of ‘otherness’ is complete. Identity is a tricky matter, it is also an awakening and the Muslim is ready to take his rightful place in society. With greater education and better jobs, many are as well off as the so-called mainstream society. This too can be a cause of antagonism. While the majority community often cannot accept the equal status of a Muslim, the lack of acceptance makes the ordinary Muslim arrogant and rude.
In this atmosphere of continued strain, the economic situation of the past few years only aggravated the situation. The monsoon had failed repeatedly, recession had hit small industries, jobs, trade. For the first time riots spread into the villages of Baroda district and the immediate reason was largely the drought. In the adivasi area of Chhota Udaipur, in addition, there was incitement of tribals for protection of their ‘Hinduism’ as also a scramble for territory – the territory of moneylending.6 It was a good opportunity for getting rid of competition. In Baroda city, constant encroachment on farmland and orchards for factories, residential societies and chemical plants played havoc with space, yield and clean air.7 Unemployed youth roamed everywhere, ‘sale’ signs failed to attract customers, water was scarce, the ordinary Gujarati found it difficult to make ends meet. Added to the severe financial demands on social occasions like birth, marriage and death, globalisation, exposure to a new world of consumer goods gave an extra dimension to people’s needs, wants and frustration. A rise in education, of whatever quality, made competition for jobs or for small business far more severe. Neither the Hindu nor the Muslim remained confined to their traditional business spheres; both tried to take advantage of fresh opportunities in what one thought was a bright new world. Failure to find these opportunities led to rivalry, dissension and a changed dynamics among people. With an assurance that law would not touch them, looting and arson, even murder became a quick way out; the target was easy, the enemy had been set up over many years. In addition to the large number killed, over 1,00,000 people were rendered homeless. In the crossfire both communities suffered whether through loss of lives or income. The champions of Hindutva had not counted on negative externality; in its attempt to destroy the Muslims they destroyed the Hindus in a different way. If for the Muslim community the loss in the riots was Rs 3,800 crore, the loss for Hindus was Rs 24,000 crore. The rampage destroyed 1,159 Muslim-owned hotels but in the process 29,000 people connected with the hotel industry lost their jobs, of these only 700 were Muslims. When at the Handloom Expo of Ahmedabad in February-March, Muslim craftspeople, possibly about eight, were attacked and the Expo closed down, 325 Hindu artisans from different parts of India lost their business. Since the riots, in Ahmedabad alone 27 Hindus have committed suicide because of loss of business and income.8 This is friendly fire, to use Amartya Sen’s term.
The economic angle is only a part of the total scene. There are still many unanswered questions, many areas overlooked in the tragic saga of Gujarat, 2002. This has been an attempt at groping for some explanation. Maybe when a society is so deeply divided, when hate is so firmly internalised and the contours of evil finely etched, brutality comes with ease.
1 I had no first hand interaction with the families of the victims of the Godhra carnage who must have also suffered similar agony.
2 “We have not forgotten the plunder of Somnath a thousand years ago”, Pravin Togadia, The Times of India, December 3, 2002, front page.
3 A History of Sufism in India by S A A Rizvi, Vol 1, Munshiram Manoharlal Publicatioins, 1986.
4 ‘Only the one who can actually demonstrate through the voice a knowledge of melody, rhythm and raga can be considered a true musician.’
5 Kshatriya, harijan, adivasi, Muslim. One wonders why the privileges did not unite the dalit, the adivasi and the Muslim. Economic rivalry is only one reason, the continued wooing of the adivasis to the Hindu fold would be another. Besides, casteism is an all-India phenomenon, Muslim treatment of dalits and adivasis were not necessarily exemplary.
6 For further discussion see G N Devy ‘Tribal Voice and Violence’, Seminar 513, May 2002.
7 See Udit Chaudhuri, ‘Gujarat: The Riots and the Larger Decline’, Economic and Political Weekly, November 29, 2002, pp 4483-86.
8 Asian Age, December 2, 2002.
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