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The Muslim Question In Gujarat

By Vidya Subrahmaniam

09 October, 2007
The Hindu

Five years after Narendra Modi’s stupendous victory in the Assembly election, Gujarat is set to go to the polls again — admittedly in entirely different circumstances. Election 2002 was surcharged with sectarian emotion. The violence inherent in the Godhra aftermath extinguished all debate, forcing the Congress, the principal opposition party, to conduct a low-key campaign that skirted the most obvious election issue: The sadism visited on Muslims.

In 2007, Mr. Modi gives the appearance of having moved on. Already in campaign mode, he avoids the past election’s caustic references to Godhra, mullahs and Mian Musharraf, focussing instead on the “11 per cent growth” Gujarat has achieved with him as helmsman. If he brings up the Ramar Sethu issue, it is not with the intensity expected of him.

The 2007 election in Gujarat is what psephologists would call a “normal” election, unattended by passion, and without an overarching issue. Yet this normal election seems no less contemptuous of a community that forms over nine per cent of the State’s population. In 2002, the debate targeted Muslims. In 2007, the debate has bypassed Muslims. The community has been kept out of the discourse by an unspoken consensus that includes Mr. Modi, the Congress and the anti-Modi dissidents.

In an interview with The Hindu en route from Ahmedabad to Vadodara , Mr. Modi described Gujarat ki seva, seva, seva ( service, service and service of Gujarat) as his single mission. The mission obsessed him, he said, adding proudly that under him Gujarat had become the “number one State in Asia.” Among his achievements in five years: an almost four-fold increase in agricultural income from Rs.9,000 crore to Rs.34,000 crore; rise in cotton production from 23 lakh bales to 1.23 crore bales and uninterrupted electricity supply to rural homes. As he spoke, it was apparent that he had programmes for every section — women, adivasis, farmers and so forth.

Yet the Chief Minister was to turn hostile on the question of Muslims. Asked where Muslims figured in his vision of Gujarat, he flared up: “I don’t like this thinking. I work for five-and-a-half crore Gujaratis. For me, anyone who lives here is a Gujarati, and I will not allow politics to come into this.”

If only this were true. In Vadodara, Professor Ganesh Devy, literary critic, activist and director of the Tribal Academy at Tejgadh, took me on a tour of Tandalja and Vasna Road, two parallel streets only six metres apart. The first was a mostly Muslim area, the second housed Hindus. The contrast wrenched the heart. Mounds of rotting garbage, dark, damp, crowded homes, and desolate young men standing in groups made the Muslim part instantly recognisable. The brightness of Vasna Road equally identified it as a Hindu area. The divide is as much physical as mental — and as much in Vadodara as in other Gujarat cities. It is a symbol of complete, absolute Muslim isolation in a State that Mr. Modi claims is “number one in Asia.”

It is perhaps a consolation that unhygienic and wretched as their living conditions are, these Muslims at least live in their own homes. There are many who don’t. In October 2006, the National Commission for Minorities reported that over 5000 displaced Muslim families lived in “sub-human conditions” in 46 makeshift colonies spread across the riot-affected districts of Gujarat.

The NCM team, which visited 17 camps, accused the Gujarat Government of refusing to fulfil “its constitutional responsibility.” It also contradicted the Chief Minister’s claim that the families had opted to live there: “In view of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Commission finds this viewpoint untenable and evasive of a government’s basic responsibility.” The team’s findings brought help to the displaced families — but from the Central Government which announced a compensation package.

However, to blame Mr. Modi alone for the social and political exclusion of Muslims would be to turn away from a truth that involves a much wider spectrum. Holding centre-stage at the dissident-led farmers’ rally in Rajkot was Gordhan Zadaphia, the Home Minister who stood by Mr. Modi during the 2002 pogrom. A compact disc showing crucial details of his whereabouts at the time of the riots is currently before the Nanavati Commission of Enquiry.

Recently, Mr. Zadaphia told The Indian Express that while he accepted moral responsibility for the 2002 violence, that was not why he turned critical of Mr. Modi. “What happened in 2002 was different”, he said, tracing his revolt to the government’s indifference to the “issues of poor people, farmers and rural folks.” No mention of Muslims.

Little wonder then that the main complaint aired from the Rajkot platform was that Mr. Modi had deserted his Hindutva roots. The BJP dissidents turned on Mr. Modi for forsaking the agenda that brought him to power. They accused him of betraying the Hindu community on Ayodhya and warned him not to raise the Ramar Sethu issue: “Don’t you dare talk of Ram Sethu, Modi.” After the meet, I spoke to some of the rebels. Their unanimous verdict: Mr. Modi could no longer lay claim to the title ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat.’

The Congress has not ridiculed itself to this extent. But its leaders seem convinced that to talk secularism in Gujarat is to commit suicide. Asked why the Congress associated with men like Mr. Zadaphia who were identified with the 2002 violence, Shankarsinh Waghela argued that people called him a “BJP man.” Further that the Congress was a ‘samudra’ (sea) that absorbed all ideologies. Other Congress leaders said they did not want to dilute the anti-Modi movement by raising the Muslim issue.

A veteran of many elections put it this way: In Gujarat, there are two currents of opinion. One is against Muslims, the other against Mr. Modi. If the first were raised, Mr. Modi would revert to his post-Godhra violent image which would compel Gujaratis to side with him against a “much worse” enemy. The most secular among Congresspersons buy this theory. Their case: the ideological compromises are necessary to win this do-or-die election.

The KHAM formula
It is a sad state of affairs in a party that in the late 1970s crafted the ingenious KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) formula. KHAM brought the depressed, marginalised classes on one platform and delivered stunning results for the Gujarat Congress. In 1980, it won 141 out of the 182 Assembly seats, and in 1985 it bettered the record with 149 seats. The Congress achieved its majorities — far larger than what Mr. Modi secured in 2002 — by mobilising the lowest in the social order. KHAM was more than an electoral strategy. It was a daring effort to empower the historically subjugated classes.

Tragically, for that very reason, the alliance invited the backlash of the forward castes. Brahmins, Banias and Patidars, who mobilised themselves through the medium of the 1985 anti-reservation protests, gradually shifted towards the BJP, going on to form the party’s core. Yet the forward castes could never win power on their own. And thus began the calculated dismantling of KHAM. Using the proxy of Hindu unity, the BJP and the sangh parivar targeted the KHAM communities, enticing Kolis, Dalits and Advasis into joining their majoritarian project.

The Congress helplessly watched as Hindutva forces penetrated the Adivasi areas of central and east Gujarat. The cultural indoctrination focussed on showing up the tribal culture, including their forms of worship, as inferior. Tribal villagers I met spoke of being visited by the various Hindu sects. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad distributed Ganesh and Ram idols in the villages, because of which today Ram is a recognised name among tribals. Yet the political influence of Hindutva remained limited in the tribal belt.

In 2002, this barrier too was breached with the co-option of tribals into the anti-Muslim pogrom. This was not voluntary, and as Professor Devy pointed out in his essay, “Tribal voice and violence” (Seminar, issue 513), the Rathwa tribals in Tejgadh and Panval were uninfluenced by the communal argument. So the arsonists pushed the commercial angle with the focus on Muslim moneylenders. Today, there is regret in these areas for the 2002 aberration.

Whether the Congress will benefit from this is anybody’s guess. Because in 2007, the authors of KHAM are in league with the destroyers of KHAM. What place can Adivasis and Muslims claim in a party that is firing at Mr. Modi from the shoulder of his more Hindutva opponents?

Copyright © 2007, The Hindu


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