26 July, 2003
Gujarat experiment is a success, declared Ashok Singhal, after
the massacre of over 2000 Muslims in Gujarat and the election of the
Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He and other BJP leaders
went on to assert that this success would be replicated
all over India.
Its recent defeat
at the polls earlier this month in Himachal Pradesh and elsewhere has
confounded this prediction. But the apprehension is acute that the BJP
will try to translate further violence into votes in Madhya Pradesh,
in Rajasthan and elsewhere where elections are forthcoming. How should
we understand the normalisation of political violence in the worlds
biggest democracy today? In the western media, HinduMuslim violence
in India is regarded largely as an internal matter, the latest manifestation
of an endemic and unchanging problem. Pankaj Mishra, for example, writing
in the New York Times on the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhis death
on 31 January, has made a direct connection between his assassination
by a Hindu fanatic in 1948 and the recent wave of political violence
in Gujarat (The Other Face of Fanaticism, New York Times
Magazine, 2 February 2003). Interviewing the brother of Gandhis
assassin, Gopal Godse, Mishra quotes him as saying that India has finally
turned its back on Gandhi and come close to embracing his brothers
This view of the
rise of Hindu fundamentalism takes no account of the changed political
context. Rajeev Bhargava avoids this fatalistic interpretation. He suggests
we look to the experience of globalisation for causes of the Gujarat
massacre; to the disorientation, the weakening of traditional boundaries
and the generalised egoism brought by economic success.
Extending this argument
to a larger view of globalisation and its effects, Tom Nairn has argued
that the doctrine of free trade, with its absurdly parched philosophy
of humanity and society has been a key factor in the changing
character of political violence.
I would go further.
In India at least, the threat of genocide only appears like an atavistic
throwback. In fact, it is a thoroughly contemporary response to international
events, such as the war on terror. It has been refashioned as a strategy
of electoral politics and benefits from improved communication technologies.
Its advocates skilfully negotiate the gaps between English and regional
language debates, and exploit their critics inability to do so.
may be murderous, but it is also worldly and requires careful political
analysis, not just denunciation. The worst of it is that this claim
of an unchanging identity is all too often assumed, even by critics
and opponents. As a result, the adaptation of mass murder to electoral
politics does not become exposed as the bizarre mutant of democracy
that it is.
In Gujarat last
December, for example, the Hindu nationalist BJP state government won
elections campaigning on national security and Hindu pride. The two
issues were interwoven: Hindu assertion, backed by state terror, was
the guarantee against the threat of Muslims, who in this view were all
Never before had
elections at the state level been fought on a national issue, with such
a deft appeal to regional identity at the same time. The international
panic about Islamic terror has been projected on to domestic events,
to make greatly enlarged claims for local politics. And such is the
momentum of this rhetoric that even its opponents watch their words.
The Gujarat election
followed the burning of a train compartment containing 58 Hindus, many
of them Hindu militants by a Muslim crowd in February 2002. Violence
swept across Gujarat, in an orchestrated series of revenge
During the violence,
those who sought police help were told, We have no orders to save
you, in the words of a Human Rights Watch report, and had to confront
mobs of up to 10,000 people alone. The violence was remarkable for its
brutality, and for the intensity of media scrutiny accompanying it.
For once, no one, at least in Gujarat, could say they did not know who
was behind the violence. This itself signalled a momentous change from
The main opposition
party, the Congress Party, has ruled the country for forty years. It
claimed it was opposing the BJP on strictly secular principles, but
confined such views largely to speeches in New Delhi. In Gujarat, the
Congress leader was a decades-long member of the hardcore Hindu militant
group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteer Corps).
The campaign platform was cow protection, a staple of conservative Hindu
politics. The Congress candidate against the Gujarat Chief Minister
Narendra Modi demanded that a Ram temple be built in Ayodhya, the erstwhile
campaign promise of the BJP.
split, the Congress election manifestos in English and in Gujarati were
completely different. The English document copiously defended secularism,
diversity and religious tolerance, while the Gujarati manifesto studiously
avoided any mention of these things.
The Congress Partys
manifesto for the Gujarat elections demanded a white paper on
the Godhra episode, and called the polls a battle for the
soul of India. But the Gujarati newspapers did not report this,
because no mention was made of it in the Congress party manifesto in
Gujarati. The Gujarati manifesto, instead, referred to a battle between
humanity and demons, the latter being Hindu
nationalist argot for Muslims.
A Congress spokesman
explained the difference between manifestos as a mistranslation.
In fact, a social divide was reflected here, between secularisms
advocates, mainly English-speaking, and the Gujarati reading public.
The mistranslation was a routine one, only revealed in an
Indian Express news dispatch, in a report which only Anjali Mody of
The Hindu followed up.
the new politics
There has always
been a split between the hurly burly of local campaigning and the lofty
debates of national politics, maintained precisely through the gulf
between English and regional languages. English is the language of statecraft
and secularism, while regional languages such as Gujarati are more porous
to local cultural forces, partly because they escape scrutiny from metropolitan
But improved communications,
including cell phones, cable and satellite television, now allow national
politics to beam into towns and villages directly, bypassing local intermediaries.
This is both a problem and an opportunity, exposing the hypocrisies
of national leaders but publicising their statements too.
The BJP, for many
years in opposition against the erstwhile-ruling Congress Party, has
defined the terms in which this split public can be reconstituted. They
have aligned their national politics with the more communal campaigns
at the local level, using the power of the religious image to bypass
the gulf in language and literacy. Simultaneously, the inability of
their opponents to bridge this gap has been critical for their success.
In the process, they have come to dominate the rhetorical field of politics.
In a poor country where Hindus are 80 per cent of the population, arguments
for state protection of minorities have been hard-pressed to withstand
Hindu chauvinisms assault. Deliberately engineered riots against
Muslims have been an indispensable tool in this connection. Together
with vicious rumour mongering, which a state government is well placed
to carry out unopposed, fear and suspicion resulting from violence project
a deeper divide than actually exists between the religious communities.
new and violent forms of politics, then, result not from poor communication
or undemocratic politics. They depend on improved communication, and
are oriented to electoral politics and popular consent. By synchronising
local with national campaigns, they reap the benefits of synergy, galvanising
local volunteers with the excitement of participation in nationwide
conversations, and generating political brand images that are reproduced
from state to state. The appeal to lower castes, long subject to benign
neglect or worse, can be exhilarating, especially to the youth amongst
This is also a short-term
game of diminishing returns, tearing away at the tissues of society
in order to win elections. For all its success in dominating political
rhetoric, the BJPs record of governance is so poor that it currently
controls only two of the twenty-two states in the Indian union, one
of which is Gujarat. It has taken all of this carnage (over 2000 dead,
community relations wrecked, and billions of rupees in damage) to win
one state election.
The threat of replicating
the Gujarat experiment all over India is one that the BJP
is clearly eager to act on, in the assembly elections due in several
Indian states later this year. Part of the problem in responding to
this threat is that its opponents have not presented credible alternatives,
or been able to operate simultaneously at local and national levels
with the same dexterity as the BJP. This is a set of issues distinct
to current politics; to extrapolate it from Hindu nationalism fifty
years ago misses all the developments during this time.