Enigma of Gujarat

Print edition : November 18, 2011

The different aspects of the State since its formation in 1960 are comprehensively captured in eight articles.

FOR observers from outside Gujarat, the State has always remained an enigma wrapped in profound paradoxes. Looking at it from the prism of contemporary history and politics, analysts have not been able to comprehend why the State, despite being a part of the erstwhile Bombay State until 1960, finds itself an exception to the dominant political culture of India. What are the unique events that have shaped the character of the State and its rulers and people, making them different not only from their own glorious past but also from the rest of India?

The book under review answers the question insightfully and comprehensively through eight distinct articles on different aspects of the State. Edited by Nalin Mehta, Honorary Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, and Mona G. Mehta, who teaches politics of South Asia at Scripps College in Claremont, California, United States, the book seeks to focus on the change and continuity in the State. Apart from the editors, six inquisitive scholars of history, political science, anthropology, sociology and media studies explore key trends and events with fresh eyes, to shed new light on hidden corners and to discern new meanings.

The editors introduce the subject aptly in the introduction: The region now known as Gujarat has always been a crucible for ideas of India. Gujarat, in many ways, is a land of firsts. It is the land where the British encounter first began in 1608 when William Hawkins docked his ship in Surat. It is the land of Somnath, of the invasions from Ghazni which, seen through the jaundiced lenses of colonial-era history, turned into a defining leitmotif in the hagiography of 20th century Hindu revivalism.

They point to the other firsts. It was on the Sabarmati river that Mahatma Gandhi first set up home when he returned from South Africa and began transforming Indian nationalism from an elite debating club to a mass movement, his creative methods of passive protest arguably drawing as much from the colonial experience as from indigenous Kathiawadi and Vaniya traditions.

The iconic Sardar Patel first mastered the mechanics of creating a party machinery on his home turf. Gujarat's soil gave Indian nationalism some of its earliest torchbearers: Dadabhai Naoroji, Badruddin Tyabji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Dinshaw Wacha, Rahimtulla Sayani all of whom presided over the annual sessions of the Indian National Congress in its early decades. It also produced Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Westernised no doubt, but also a Gujarati Khoja who would change the subcontinent's destiny.

The editors quote Romesh Thapar, who had presciently noted in the pages of Economic and Political Weekly in 1975 that the turmoil of Gujarat may well be a precursor of larger things to come, including the political drift that led to the upheavals of the Emergency period and the subsequent formation of the first Janata Party government in 1977 at the Centre.

Gujarat saw independent India's first police action in Junagarh in 1949; the movement against corruption in public life launched by the Navnirman Samiti in 1974, which arguably produced India's largest public protest since the anti-British agitations; the State also produced the most ubiquitous acronym in Indian politics: KHAM, or the Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim coalition. The editors suggest that the cynical pursuit of this caste arithmetic kept the Congress firmly in power until the mid-1980s, and in 1985, it led to the first large-scale anti-reservation violence.

The Navnirman (social reconstruction) movement began as students' protests against rising food prices and the poor quality of food available in hostels in Ahmedabad. This soon won support from all sections of society and became a mass movement against the corruption-tainted Chimanbhai Patel government. The Chief Minister was forced to resign and the Centre imposed President's Rule in the State. The movement inspired Jayaprakash Narayan to give a call for a total revolution.

The Navnirman movement caused a serious setback to the Congress. The party devised the KHAM strategy to return to power in 1980, but it alienated the upper castes, who first organised an agitation against reservation for backward classes in 1981. This agitation turned into communal riots in 1985, and was a precursor to the upper-caste protests across northern India when Prime Minister V.P. Singh announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1990. The editors believe that the anti-reservation violence became an important factor in the gradual saffronisation of the State.

The political scientist Nagindas Sanghavi explains this transition with clarity in his essay. He argues that although the legacies of Navnirman fizzled out, the 1985 riots and the fallout of KHAM politics greatly eroded the Congress' base. The commercial culture of Gujarati society precludes the growth of ideologies, organisations or parties that are inclined towards radical or revolutionary transformations. The anti-reservation riots alerted the higher castes about the possibility of losing government jobs and educational facilities and made them more assertive and aggressive in their political activism. They began to support the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which opposed KHAM and led the anti-quota agitation. The bureaucracy lost its image of impartiality and let its anti-Muslim prejudices exacerbate.

Ornit Shani, an academic in Israel, cites independent evidence to suggest that State authorities and government officials aided the systematic persecution of Muslims in Ahmedabad and in large parts of Gujarat during the post-Godhra violence in 2002. In her essay, she probes how the system of corruption around illicit alcohol permeated socio-political arenas, compromising the law enforcement agencies in ordinary times. She suggests that this had an unexpected impact in 2002, when vested interests harnessed the bureaucratic inclination to toe the line of the political masters during communal violence. She observes that once a governance system is compromised in everyday life, it becomes subservient; it cannot be expected to function impartially in times of strife and as such can be misdirected for any purpose.

Citing the Sachar Committee report on Muslims, she gives an instance of how the State government reversed a long-standing policy of reservation for two backward Muslim communities. In 1978, the Baxi Backward Classes Commission in Gujarat recognised and included in the list of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) a few Muslim groups, among them Muslim Julaya and Muslim Ghanchi. In 2003, the State Welfare Department rejected their caste certificates, asking the candidates belonging to these groups to produce records for the period prior to 1978. As the Baxi Commission recognised these groups only in 1978, documents prior to this period were unavailable.

AT A REFUGEE camp at Bapu Nagar in Ahmedabad following the riots in 2002. Ornit Shani, an academic in Israel, cites independent evidence to suggest that the authorities aided the systematic persecution of Muslims in Ahmedabad and in large parts of Gujarat in 2002.-AFP

In her essay A river of no dissent: Narmada movement and coercive Gujarati nativism, Mona G. Mehta shows that the political dominance of Hindutva stands on the strength of coercive nativism forged during the Narmada movement. A manifestation of this is available when the critics of the Sardar Sarovar Project are dubbed as opponents of Gujarat's development. She sees this more as a failure of alternative voices to effect sustained political change than as an electoral success of the BJP.

She also draws our attention to an important conundrum of democracy in the State: a popular consensus garnered through the instruments of democracy, such as free media, public debates and the rights of assembly and protest, to produce exclusion, ultimately undermining the substantive ideals of democracy. She argues that democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society have not only failed to protect the rights of minority citizens and viewpoints but have become unwitting conduits for their marginalisation in the State. Democracy, she says, is profoundly vulnerable to popular support for exclusionary politics. Ironically, she concedes that the same democracy offers the most compelling possibility for an inclusive political future.

In his essay on spatial segregation and the infrastructure of violence in Ahmedabad, Arvind Rajagopal suggests that violence created an alibi for enhanced ghettoisation. Successive communal riots in Ahmedabad, he says, both consolidated and accelerated what urban planning accomplished in ordinary conditions spatially separating Hindus and Muslims from each other and further clustering the members of each community. In some areas, this led to the shrinkage of Muslim-occupied territory.

Rajagopal argues that Gujarat's exceptional success' as the poster child of neoliberal development was complemented by the manner in which it had normalised an exceptional social order predicated on accelerated practices of social segregation, which in turn enabled anti-Muslim violence (and its rhetorical justification).

Parvis Ghassem-Fachandy, an anthropologist, adopts an ethnographic approach in his essay. He argues that the Gujarati disgust for meat became an important cultural relay for the vegetarian politics in the State. He then shows how the insistence on an identity formulated in the language of non-violence renders a permissive identification with violence. This, according to him, explains the utter lack of reflection in Gujarat about 2002, despite its strong Jain and Bhakti traditions, and the paucity of an internal public debate beyond the usual binaries of us versus them. No wonder then that when Chief Minister Narendra Modi undertook a three-day sadbhavna fast in October, ostensibly to promote communal harmony, there was no sense of remorse expressed either by him or his supporters for the 2002 carnage.

Little scope for dissent

In his essay, Nalin Mehta cites the legal battle between the eminent sociologist Ashis Nandy and the Government of Gujarat over a newspaper article written by Nandy decrying the communalisation of Gujarati middle classes. The Supreme Court dismissed the government's plea that Nandy's article was communal and struck down its prosecution of Nandy. Mehta argues that the Nandy case shows that Moditva and its brand of authoritarian development offer little scope for dissent.

Anindita Chakrabarti, an academic with the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur specialising in social movements, discusses the trajectory of two social movements in Gujarat one Hindu and the other Muslim. Her study of Tablighi Jamaat's (TJ) role in the rehabilitation work following the 2002 riots has shown that despite being apolitical, it came under state surveillance. According to her, the concept of secularism, as perceived through the eyes of the religious actors, is a covenant between the state and the religious groups. Despite its reticence, the TJ is perceived as political by others. Similarly, she found the Hindu religious movement, Svadhyaya, to be in close contact with the state machinery through a series of legal cases relating to the unresolved question of succession within the movement. She finds it too simplistic to suggest that both these movements erode the secular fabric of the State by virtue of their interface with politics.

The year 2010 marked not only the 50th year of the institution of the linguistic State of Gujarat, but also the 150th year since the first indentured Indians set foot in Natal (South Africa). Goolam Vahed, Associate Professor of History at the University of KwaZulu Natal, and a Gujarati South African himself, highlights the distinct migratory history of Gujarati South Africans and the importance of these histories in the perceptions of community identity. He points out that despite the growing sense of being Hindu or Muslim, Gujarati Hindus and Muslims in South Africa are not antagonistic to each other, at least not openly. Developments in India, by and large, have not sparked tensions between the two communities in South Africa, he observes.

In their introduction, the editors recall the poet Sundaram's tribute on the occasion of Gujarat's founding day, when he lauded its role as the traditional entry point to India and as a melting pot of cultures. They point out that Gujarat's reputation as a tolerant society and its mercantile ethos have been cardinal pillars of its self-image over the centuries. Even as it remains an industrial powerhouse, they ask: The important question is, can it produce a novel and inclusive politics in the present era to recover this glorious image?

In a sense, Narendra Modi symbolises the enigma of Gujarat. He represents the serious divide between Gujarat and the rest of India because of his perceived role in the 2002 pogrom. In recent days, he has only reinforced this perception by seeking to victimise police officers who have sought to present evidence against him. The book helps us to understand this divide better by dissecting the various dimensions of contemporary Gujarat, which continues to be Hindutva's least-explored laboratory.

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