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Book Review

Book Review: ‘Gujarat, Cradle and Harbinger of Identity Politics’ maps the Gujarat model of communalism

Print edition : Jun 09, 2022 T+T-

Book Review: ‘Gujarat, Cradle and Harbinger of Identity Politics’ maps the Gujarat model of communalism

“Gujarat, Cradle and Harbinger of Identity Politics: India’s Injurious Frame of Communalism” by Jan Breman and Ghanshyam Shah (Tulika Books, 2022)

“Gujarat, Cradle and Harbinger of Identity Politics: India’s Injurious Frame of Communalism” by Jan Breman and Ghanshyam Shah (Tulika Books, 2022)

This book of essays analyses the intersections between caste, class, politics and economy that turned Gujarat into a Hindutva laboratory and also traces the Sangh Parivar’s journey from the conceptualisation of Hindu Rashtra to its slow but steady actualisation.

Once imagined as a secular democratic republic built around the core values of justice, liberty and fraternity, India today stands at the brink of an uncertain social and economic future. While scholars quibble over the correct terminology for the present state of affairs—Hindu Nazism, proto-fascism, authoritarianism or majoritarianism—there is little doubt that the phase is marked by spiralling right-wing extremism not seen before in the post-independence period.

Communal polarisation is at its peak, threatening to tear asunder the social fabric; the economy is in the doldrums, with unemployment at an unprecedented high. Even as the portents of the future unravel, it seems necessary, even urgent, to revisit history. While the Sangh Parivar is obsessed with history for its own reasons, two scholars of long standing have made it their mission to also look at the past, to make sense of the present.

Jan Breman first arrived in India in the 1960s as a PhD student. Over the next four decades, he kept coming back to south Gujarat to study the changing contours of rural and urban labour. He is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Amsterdam and senior fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research.

Ghanshyam Shah, a former Professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, has produced a rich repository of academic research based in Gujarat over an equal number of years. He was earlier Director and Professor at the Centre for Social Studies, Surat; Dr. Ambedkar Chair Professor at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie; and Fellow-in-Residence at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Study, Wassenaar.

In Gujarat, Cradle and Harbinger of Identity Politics, Breman and Shah have curated essays written over three decades pertaining to Hindutva in its current form and its antecedents in Gujarat. They have also revised and added new chapters to make the book comprehensive.

They analyse the intersections between particular aspects of caste, class, politics and economy that supported the rise of majoritarian hegemony in Gujarat and turned it into a Hindutva laboratory, a model that is now being replicated across the country. A vital aspect of their study is the focus on the caste of the oppressors, in this case the ruling Brahmin-Baniya bourgeoisie.

Volunteers of the RSS participate in a drill on the occasion of Dussehra in Ahmedabad on October 6, 2011.
Volunteers of the RSS participate in a drill on the occasion of Dussehra in Ahmedabad on October 6, 2011. | Photo Credit: SAM PANTHAKY

In essay after essay, Breman and Shah show how a privileged minority has lorded over a subordinated and marginalised majority. It is Shah’s case that Gujarat’s ‘good governance’ model, which embodies the spirit of mercantile capitalism and hegemonises a Brahminical world view, facilitated the flourishing of the Brahmin-Baniya bourgeoisie.

The protagonists of the Hindutva ideology constructed savarna Hindus as ‘we’, with lower stratas under their hegemony, and Muslims and Christians as the ‘other’. In the process, the system of governance tamed the oppressed through co-option and chauvinist cultural intoxication.

The authors argue that communal Hindutva politics was invented and conceptualised by the upper strata of society as a religion-centric cultural community versus the imagined other, to inculcate and legitimise their hegemonic idea of social order and religion, and thus perpetuate their dominance over society.

Birth of militant Hinduism

Breman and Shah trace the history of the Congress, the Hindu Mahasabha, and the Gandhian era to show how militant Hinduism was not an anomaly but an offshoot of these social formations. For instance, until the mid-1930s, leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha were active Congressmen. And in Gandhi’s opinion, they were “conservative” but liberal, “very large-hearted and not anti-Muslim”.

During Gandhi’s time itself, there was a large section of pro-Hindu Mahasabha Congressmen who were busy reorienting Hinduism in the form of other institutionalised religions as conceived by the Arya Samaj and colonial discourse to counter Islam and Christianity.

By the early 1920s, the Arya Samaj’s shuddhi programme for (re)converting Christians and Muslims to the Hindu fold was boosted by this group. A campaign for the expansion of gymnasiums for Hindu youths to strengthen their physique for self-defence to counter “enemies” was also started.

The well-known litterateur K.M. Munshi, who was close to V.D. Savarkar’s Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Maha Sabha, had differences with Gandhi about his non-violent ways. Ironically, Gandhi asked him on the eve of Independence to rejoin the Congress. He later became the architect of the campaign to rebuild the Somnath temple allegedly destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni and others. Interestingly, in the Introduction to the book, the authors say that Gandhi was assassinated by a “fellow traveller of Hindutva politics” soon after Independence.

The two writers provide insights into the gradual growth of communal politics under the colonial project of modernity and governance, while delving into accounts of communal riots.

Riot rashtra

Tension between Hindus and Muslims is not a new phenomenon in Gujarat. Mutual prejudices between the two communities have deep historical roots. But since the 1960s, the scale of the riots has increased considerably in terms of area, period and casualties. Between 1963 and 1968 alone, there were 29 communal clashes of varying intensity in Gujarat.

September 25, 1969: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi surveys the riot-affected areas in Ahmedabad, accompanied by Shriman Narayan, Governor of Gujarat.
September 25, 1969: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi surveys the riot-affected areas in Ahmedabad, accompanied by Shriman Narayan, Governor of Gujarat. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Several aspects of the 1969 riots, one of the worst in the history of Gujarat, remind one of the pogrom of 2002. Both appear to be planned incidents, with mob fury being particularly vicious. The State government’s reluctance to use force and the barbarous nature of the violence in 1969, as recounted by the authors, does not seem very different from the violence of 2002. But the rioters of 1969 were textile workers who had lost their jobs when the mills closed down. The “wage hunters and gatherers” were forced to seek work in the informal sector. The breaking of the workers’ unity and trade unions left many of them, migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and other parts, vulnerable to exploitation in mob action.

In 1981-82 and 1985-86, a new wave of unrest took place when the higher castes in Ahmedabad protested against reservation for Dalits and OBCs. Heeding a call by the Hindu Raksha Samiti to bring the economic life of the city to a standstill, all textile mills closed their gates. The Textile Labour Association, founded by Gandhi in 1920, supported this call.

In doing so, the union gave a clear signal that it supported a movement that rejected the ruling Congress party and was preparing the ground for a takeover by the BJP. What started as a middle-class campaign against a reservation policy favouring backward castes soon turned into a Hindu-Muslim conflict. This resulted in the Ahmedabad riots of 1985, wherein the BJP changed its policy and decided to mobilise rather than antagonise the subaltern castes.

Two approaches

Propertied savarna classes dominate the composition of both the Congress and the BJP. The Congress, however, managed to use the rhetoric of socialism until the end of the 1970s. From the early 1970s, it evolved social engineering modes of co-opting deprived communities into sharing political positions within the party. Hence, despite following a neoliberal economic policy since the early 1980s, the party enjoyed a pro-poor image among the electorate.

But after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the party was directionless and caught in an identity crisis. The time was ripe for the BJP, which had built itself up brick by brick since Independence. It first captured Gujarat civil society and then State power. Until the 1960s and 1970s, it did a good deal of groundwork, silently using middle-class students’ movements and coalition politics to prepare its socio-political base.

In the late 1980s, the pro-Narmada dam campaign provided similar opportunities to strengthen its base among the dominant savarnas.

March 1, 2002: A house in Gulbarg Society, Ahmedabad. On February 28, a mob attacked this Muslim neighbourhood in the heart of Ahmedabad. Most of the houses were burnt, and at least 35 residents, including a former Congress MP, Ehsan Jafri, were burnt alive, while 31 others went missing after the incident, later presumed dead, bringing the total deaths to 69.
March 1, 2002: A house in Gulbarg Society, Ahmedabad. On February 28, a mob attacked this Muslim neighbourhood in the heart of Ahmedabad. Most of the houses were burnt, and at least 35 residents, including a former Congress MP, Ehsan Jafri, were burnt alive, while 31 others went missing after the incident, later presumed dead, bringing the total deaths to 69. | Photo Credit: SIDDHARTH DARSHAN KUMAR

While strengthening its foothold among the savarnas, the Sangh Parivar crafted a strategy to co-opt deprived communities with the samrasta (harmony) theory. The BJP, after its conspicuous defeat in the 1984 Lok Sabha election, opted for militant Hinduism to counter the soft Hinduism of Congress. The RSS deputed its organisationally and ideologically experienced and politically well-versed pracharaks (party workers) for party work and campaigns.

Narendra Modi was one of the pracharaks in Gujarat. He was politically ambitious and had ground-level experience from the mid-1970s. As Chief Minister, he strove to discipline the party and move towards the mission of a Hindu Rashtra. Under his leadership, the BJP in Gujarat was transformed completely. Subsequently, the ghettoisation in Ahmedabad, conversion and reconversion in the Dangs, and the co-option of Dalits into the Hindu fold concretised the Gujarat model.

Recording history

As a society, we have a duty to record and remember the past, to study the changing contours of power, so that attempts to repeat it can be prevented. Therein lies the importance of this book, to understand how the Sangh Parivar moved from the conceptualisation of Hindu Rashtra to its slow but steady actualisation.

Breman and Shah write: “After gaining power at the State level, the Hindutva-centric party used government patronage to consolidate its majoritarianism and construct the society of their ideal—Hindu Rashtra.”

Lastly, they discuss the framing and impact of majoritarian rule in the shifting canvas of Hindutva supremacy from the regional to the national level. The authors believe that the trend of India’s nation-state is a progression of inequality and insecurity, victimising targeted sections of the population.

If the study of Nazi Germany or the Holocaust has taught us anything, it is that persecution does not take place overnight. It is a slow process of subjugation and deprivation of rights. This book documents history in the making.

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