Plumbing new depths

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

No Indian Prime Minister has justified a communal pogrom the way Vajpayee has. The BJP's Goa conclave marks the lowest point in Hindutva's hardline evolution, underlining the need to punish the BJP politically.

ATAL BEHARI VAJPAYEE'S public address at the April 12 BJP National Executive meeting in Goa has rudely convulsed the secular conscience of India's citizens. Many were jolted out of the complacent assumption, promoted by sections of the media, that Vajpayee is some kind of "moderate" or "liberal" - "the right man in the wrong party" - a leader "secular" at heart, whose political "compulsions" regrettably drive him from time to time to compromise with Hindutva. Yet others attributed the tone and tenor of his speech to his interaction with the party's young "hardliners" immediately before the Goa meeting, such as Pramod Mahajan, Arun Shourie and M. Venkaiah Naidu, or to the temporary "influence" of L.K. Advani, which made him reverse the stance he adopted during his April 4 Gujarat visit.

The significance of Vajpayee's address goes much beyond his personal "unmasking". His adoption of a virulent communal posture - which looks at Indian society in terms of a division between Hindus and Others, and accords social and political primacy to the majority community - is shocking, but not really surprising. Vajpayee has never claimed to be secular in the sense of separating religion from politics, or even to have cut his umbilical cord to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Several public statements can be readily cited, which indicate Vajpayee's ideological-political inclinations: for instance, "the Sangh is my soul" (1995), "I will always remain a swayamsevak" (September 2000), the Ram temple agitation is a "national movement", not a sectarian-parochial one (December 2000), and his Uttar Pradesh election speech in February 2002, in which he chided Muslims for not voting for the BJP, but also warned them it could come to power without their support. These are not aberrations. Nor is his annual obeisance to the Sangh in the form of guru dakshina. Vajpayee is as dedicated to Hindutva or "cultural nationalism" as any RSS pracharak.

The true significance of Vajpayee's disquisition in Goa lies in its relationship to the BJP's recent rightward evolution, and secondly, in the new low political depths it plumbs. Never before has a Prime Minister of India, of whatever persuasion, descended to making a hate-speech against Muslims or Christians, castigating them as "outsiders". Never before were our religious minorities humiliated by a Prime Minister who would want them to feel grateful for being "allowed to pray" - that is, for exercising their fundamental constitutional right.

Never before has an Indian Prime Minister used such aggressive body language to justify the Gujarat pogrom by citing the "who-cast-the-first-stone" argument. Vajpayee blamed the victims of India's worst communal pogrom for their own suffering. No other Prime Minister has so blatantly undermined public confidence in the rule of law and in the possibility of minimal justice for all in this society.

We now know, from numerous independent media accounts, and from several highly credible and sensitive reports*, that the Godhra killing of 59 Hindus was not, causally, "the first stone". The post-February 27 carnage in Gujarat, which has claimed upwards of 850 lives, would probably have occurred even if the Godhra incident had not. The conditions were ripe for the massacre of Muslims in that "Hindutva laboratory" State. Elaborate preparations had been under way for weeks before the massacre, in particular after kar sevaks were dispatched daily to Ayodhya following the stepping up of the temple campaign.

For instance, according to sources in Vadodara, lakhs of anti-Muslim leaflets were illegally printed on slow treadle machines - which must have taken months. Bombs and trishuls were stockpiled over a period of weeks. The gap, exceeding 24 hours, between the "trigger event" and the anti-Muslim violence - in contrast to, say, the immediate reaction in Delhi to Indira Gandhi's assassinatio - only confirms the organised, unspontaneous, planned nature of the pogrom.

Reconstruction of the Godhra incident, for example in the Citizens' Forum report, suggests that it was a spontaneous, rather than an elaborately planned, over-reaction to the daily harassment of local Ghanchi Muslims (oil-pressers by occupation) by communally charged kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya. Had there been serious preparation for the attack on the Sabarmati Express, scheduled to reach Godhra at 2-55 a.m., there would have been a large crowd on the railway platform at dawn. There was not.

When the train rolled in five hours late, there were only a handful of vendors, porters and passengers on the platform. An altercation broke out between the kar sevaks and Muslim tea vendors. It was only when a rumour spread that young Sophia Khan had been dragged into coach S-6 that a crowd gathered near Signal Fadia, a basti known for communal tension and criminal activities.

Seven weeks on, the government has failed to provide credible evidence linking the Godhra episode to a "conspiracy" involving Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence or even an organised group in Gujarat or elsewhere. Nor can it explain why towns such as Ratlam, which are physically far closer to Godhra, and which have a similar composition of Hindus, Muslims and Adivasis, did not register any "retaliatory" violence, while distant Ahmedabad did.

The reasons are self-evidently Gujarat-specific and political. They have to do with the Narendra Modi government's conscious decision to support the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's February 28 bandh call and the authorities' decision to transport the bodies of the Godhra victims by train to Ahmedabad in a ceremonial manner calculated to inflame passions. It is impossible to separate the post-February 27 violence either from the Modi government or Gujarat's communalised context.

The fact that Vajpayee stooped to endorse Modi's "action-reaction" logic to justify violent retribution upon a falsely constructed collective culprit (Muslims) speaks of an utterly debased mind. The logic of such revenge is ultimately the logic of "getting even" with history, of Nazism, of barbarism. That is now unfolding before our eyes.

Clearly, the BJP has decided to embrace a virulent form of Hindutva, one that bases itself on a contemporary version of the "Two-Nation" theory. Its disgraceful defence of Modi, its coercive tactics in the NDA, its prolonged refusal to discuss Gujarat under Rule 184 in the Lok Sabha, and its wholly unapologetic, brazen, attitude towards the continuing climate of fear, intimidation and terror in Gujarat all confirm this. The very fact that the BJP seriously threatened to hold mid-term Assembly elections in Gujarat in a vitiated atmosphere, and used it as a bargaining chip in negotiating with its allies, testifies to its cynicism.

The consequences of this stance are already apparent. Thus, BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra made a revoltingly aggressive statement likening the Congress to the pre-Partition Muslim League - merely because the Congress expressed concern at the butchery of Muslims (although not to the exclusion of concern for Hindus too). And one cannot fail to note Modi's deviousness in transferring honest police officers who tried to maintain a semblance of impartiality, or his gross insensitivity to traumatised Muslim children in thrusting examinations on them at centres located in areas where Muslims were butchered.

Gujarat is a fit case for compelling the State government to abide by the Constitution under Article 355 and for imposing President's Rule under Article 356. True, Article 356 has been repeatedly misused to dismiss Opposition governments. The demand for its use is being voiced by forces with an extremely dubious record. But there could be no fitter case than Gujarat to which the following description from the Constitution applies: "a situation has arisen in which the government of the State cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution."

The constitutional machinery patently broke down in Gujarat on February 28 when scores of citizens were massacred with the full complicity of the state, and when it could not even protect a guardian of the constitutional order, a High Court Judge, who happened to be a Muslim.

It is precisely for such contingencies that President's Rule was envisaged. The Gujarat situation cannot get normalised with Modi's replacement alone. If hardcore sanghis like Goverdhan Zadaphia or Ashok Bhatt were to take over, it could worsen. It is essential, but not enough, that Modi be sacked. The whole government must be dismissed and Gujarat placed under President's Rule with advisers of impeccable integrity and experience, recommended by Parliament as a whole.

It will take months for Gujarat to recuperate and achieve normalcy in any real sense. Such normalcy must include reconciliation between estranged neighbours and communities, full physical, psychological and economic rehabilitation, and restoration of public confidence in the impartiality of the government as regards different religious groups.

The danger of half-hearted reconciliation should be obvious. If the one lakh Muslims who are in relief camps - and three or four times as many, whose livelihoods have been affected - are forced to fend for themselves without state and community assistance, they will probably leave Gujarat altogether, or create "safe" ghettos for themselves. The greater the ghettoisation, the greater the mutual estrangement of religious groups, the lesser their social interaction - and the greater the scope for conflict.

That is the last thing Gujarat needs. Indeed, it would be a recipe for another communal pogrom. That is precisely what Hindutva craves most. If the BJP succeeds in its game plan in Gujarat, by whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria, it will replicate the same trick nationally - if necessary, by staging another Godhra. If the Nazis could stage the Reichstag fire, the BJP can create a Godhra-II, through agents provocateurs.

These comparisons are not far-fetched. In foundational premises of its ideology and politics, the BJP shares a great deal with the Italian fascists, the German Nazis and the Taliban. They all reject the emancipatory heritage of the Enlightenment. They privilege tradition (itself ill-defined and distorted) over modernity. They are profoundly intolerant of difference. They hate democracy and equality. And they do not believe in just and fair means to achieve just ends. They are prone to despotic methods and barbaric violence.

It will take a lot of effort to fight a force like the BJP-RSS-VHP. It has already captured a number of institutions and key positions in government and civil society. It has a dedicated, if fanatical, cadre. Even in the short run, it will not be possible to isolate the Hindutva forces unless the perpetrators of the Gujarat violence are severely punished for their grave crimes, along the lines described in the previous Frontline column (issue of April 26), and unless the BJP is politically punished, that is, made to pay a heavy price through systematic boycott and isolation.

One wishes this would happen both nationally, in the National Democratic Alliance, and in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is about to form a government with the Bahujan Samaj Party. Regrettably, the BSP leadership seems to be bent on using its Dalit base as virtual common-fodder for Hindutva - for dubious, at best petty, short-term gains.

Fighting Hindutva will be a long haul. But the struggle would not even have been joined unless the Opposition mounts relentless pressure on the NDA, both inside and outside Parliament, through dharnas, rallies, public meetings and mass mobilisation. The People's Front should consider launching a relay dharna in Gujarat's major cities.

The Opposition will do well to join hands with citizens' groups such as SAHMAT, Aman Ekta Manch, People for Secularism and the Citizens' Initiative (Ahmedabad), which have done a great deal to highlight the Gujarat issue and collect donations for the victims' relief. For instance, SAHMAT mobilised artists to donate their paintings and raised Rs.5.5 lakhs through their sale.

One thing is clear: it will be a crying shame if the BJP is allowed to go unpunished for its grievous assault on India's secular-democratic-constitutional order, and on the foundations of this plural, diverse, multi-cultural society.

*Citizens' Forum: Gujarat Carnage 2002, by an independent fact-finding mission composed of S.P. Shukla, K.S. Subramanian, Achin Vanaik, and Kamal Mitra Chenoy; State-Sponsored Carnage in Gujarat, Report of a CPI(M)-AIDWA delegation; The Survivors Speak, by a Women's Panel sponsored by Citizen's Initiative, Ahmedabad; Ethnic Cleansing in Ahmedabad, by SAHMAT; and A Report on the Gujarat Carnage, prepared by the People's Union for Civil Liberties.

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