Riding the hate wave

Print edition : January 03, 2003

The pro-Hindutva mood in Gujarat is at an all-time high, and the polarisation between Hindus and Muslims has become a pervasive phenomenon.

THIS time, we had to show them. We couldn't let them get away with this (Godhra), or even more Hindus would have died than Muslims," said Pramodbhai (name changed), owner of a taxi service in Baroda. Pramodbhai drove this reporter around central Gujarat two weeks before election day.

Rioters on the rampage in Ahmedabad, a day after the attack on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra.-SIDDHARTH DARSHAN KUMAR/AP

"Whatever happens, Narendra Modi will return. For three days after Godhra, he let us react. He said `do what you want, you won't be caught.' The police won't do anything. Godhra was pre-planned. Later, it was a Hindu reaction," he explained.

In many ways, Pramodbhai's response typifies the pro-Hindutva mood in Gujarat. Those outside Gujarat find it difficult to understand how a party that is known to have supported the carnage of more than 1,000 people has come to power. But, by playing on people's fears and by fierce anti-Muslim propaganda, the BJP has managed to gain support.

"Pay your homage to the Godhra martyrs. Cast your vote," read a huge BJP advertisement in the Gujarati media on election day. In his last campaign speech, Narendra Modi told his audience, "You decide whether there should be a Diwali in Gujarat or whether firecrackers should burst in Pakistan." He added, "Friends, when you all go to vote this time, if you press your finger on the hand symbol you will hear the screams of Godhra! The pain of Godhra. I took a vow on the Godhra platform that I would not spare the sinners of Godhra. I'll teach a lesson to the merchants of death... If your son can't return home safe in the evening, what's the use of money or development?"

For the past 10 months, the BJP has ensured that this sustained propaganda has seeped deep into the psyche of different caste and class strata in Gujarat. There was virtually no escape from being reminded of the burning train.

Sprawled across the streets of Gujarat were posters of the burning Sabarmati Express, portraying Narendra Modi as the saviour. As part of Modi's anti-Pakistan rhetoric, posters depicting Modi and Musharraf as adversaries were put up across the State. It prompted a Congress(I) leader from Madhya Pradesh, who was campaigning in Gujarat, to comment, "I didn't know Musharraf was contesting elections in Gujarat." T-shirts were distributed with the slogan: `I will not make my village another Godhra.' The Chief Minister described the charred bodies in graphic detail at public rallies.

At a roadside tea stall in the Dariyapur area of Ahmedabad. The city is virtually divided into two by the Sabarmati river the walled city, with a large impoverished Muslim population, and new Ahmedabad, home to the elite and the middle classes.-INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

By manipulating people's insecurity, Modi pulled off a brilliantly Goebbelsian trick; he projected himself not as the instigator of violence but as the protector of Hindus. "There's no security. We could walk out of the house and terrorists could shoot us. See what happened at Akshardham. It could happen anywhere," said Jayaben (name changed), a middle-class housewife from Maninagar, Modi's constituency in Ahmedabad. "Modi will do something to protect us. During the riots, he helped Hindus," she said. In cities such as Ahmedabad and Vadodara, interaction between Hindus and Muslims had declined sharply ever since ghettoisation set in after the 1985 riots.

Ahmedabad is virtually divided by the Sabarmati river into two different cities - the walled city, which is the poorer of the two with a larger Muslim population, and new Ahmedabad, which consists of the elite and middle-class areas. During the riots, people in the new city celebrated weddings while people in the poorer areas were killed.

Middle-class Gujaratis view Muslim areas as `mini-Pakistans' and as `breeding grounds for criminals'. Rajat (name changed), a chartered accountant, told this correspondent: "All this talk about soft and hard Hindutva is bogus. Hindus have always been soft. This is the first time we stood up and fought. There was a feeling of frustration owing to the overprotection of the minorities. This tempo was so strong that lakhs came out on the streets. The police couldn't do anything." Rajat belongs to the same class of upwardly mobile people who looted the shops on the posh C.G. Road after Sangh Parivar goons broke in. A section of Ahmedabad's elite excitedly rushed to the stores, grabbed whatever they could and filled their cars with such goods. They even sent messages on mobile phones informing their friends of the booty. Yet, Rajat says: "They (Muslims) are all anti-socials. But we are described as dangerous."

The sentiment in Ahmedabad's ghettos is no different. People refer to narrow lanes as `borders' that divide Muslim bastis from the Hindu ones. Even though they live so close, poor Hindus and Dalits harbour the same prejudices against Muslims. "All of them do illegal businesses," said Hiren (name changed), a Dalit youth who is a local BJP leader. However, Hiren's work is not very lawful either. He boasted, "I haven't worked a day in my life. I earn my living through cheating. I take hafta." He also bragged about leading a mob during the riots. A month after our conversation, Hiren was arrested for bootlegging. "After the BJP government came, Hindu bootleggers have become more powerful than the Muslim ones," he said.

The BJP attracts Dalit youth like Hiren by giving them opportunities to flex their muscles in their neighbourhoods. But the BJP government has done nothing to create employment for them. Hiren is from Ahmedabad's old textile mill area, Gomtipur, where more than a lakh workers, including his father, lost their jobs when the mills closed down. But instead of new jobs, the BJP only has Hindutva to offer. For several Dalits, it is a way to gain social acceptance with the upper castes. Even as the economic recession in the State worsens, growing numbers of urban unemployed youth are recruited into the Sangh Parivar. The lumpenisation of this section is complete. The Sangh's fascist ideas also appeal to a large section of the aspiring lower middle class. Several Sangh workers are also teachers, a fact that enables the widespread infusion of the Sangh's propaganda and ideology among students. The fact that Gujarat is the most urbanised State in the country, with a 38 per cent urban population, has made the spread of communalism relatively easy.

Over the past 10 years, the Sangh, through its Vanvasi Kalyan Kendras, has been trying to gain ground in the Adivasi areas of central and south Gujarat, where the Congress(I) has an old and strong support base. The Congress(I) retained a large majority of the seats in these regions. These were precisely the areas that were targeted during the communal violence. The BJP has swept the polls in the riot-hit areas of Panchmahal, Dahod and Vadodara, winning every seat in this "Congress(I) bastion". Its propaganda has seeped so deep that the tribal people have started talking about Godhra instead of basic survival problems. "This has always been a Congress(I) area, but now the BJP has also become popular. During the riots, the BJP bailed us out when we were arrested. The Congress(I) didn't help us. If Muslims harm our religion, why should we let them?" asked Ramsinh Dhabi (name changed), from Bhilpur village in central Gujarat. Several poor Adivasis from this drought-hit region were paid and given liquor to be part of the Sangh mobs. They were told that they would not be arrested.

The Sangh Parivar has been working hard to make inroads into the region. "This is supposed to be a safe seat for the Congress(I). But not anymore. After Godhra and the Gaurav Yatra, Adivasis have accepted kattar (hardline) Hindutva. They think the Congress only supports Muslims. After Godhra, they looted Muslims," said Rajubhai Rathwa, a BJP panchayat leader. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has also been mobilising support. "We do a lot of work within villages. We want to awaken Hindus," said Madhusudan Pancholi, a local RSS leader.

While the Sangh's cadre have been systematic and organised, the Congress(I) has been complacent and virtually non-functional. In fact, the party's rout even in its strongholds is, in some way, an anti-incumbency vote against MLAs who have done nothing for their constituencies. When Adivasis here talk of their problems, they do not blame the BJP government, but the local MLA.

Hindus in Gujarat still have to open their eyes to Hindutva's divisive agenda. The polarisation is so pervasive that no one in Gujarat is ever allowed to forget the distinction between the two communities. While creating electoral bases through violence and hate, the Sangh Parivar has been ripping apart the State's social fabric. It has succeeded in creating such fear and paranoia that people like Pramodbhai believe that they are only safe if others are killed.

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