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Obituary of a Culture
by Saima Alvi
26 August 2002 14:55 UTC
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Slightly biased article but still a good read. saima

Obituary of a culture

THE massive carnages at Rwanda and Bosnia have taught
the students of genocide that the most venomous,
brutal killings and atrocities take place when the two
communities involved are not distant strangers, but
close to each other culturally and socially, and when
their lives intersect at many points. When nearness
sours or explodes it releases strange, fearsome

Those shocked by the bestial or barbaric nature of the
communal violence in Gujarat would do well to read
some accounts of the carnages in Rwanda and Bosnia. In
both cases, the two communities involved were close to
each other and ethnic cleansing took the forms of a
particularly brutal, self-destructive exorcism. And
the same thing happened during the great Partition
killings in 1946-48. The ongoing death dance in West
Asia, with the Arabs and Israelis locked in an embrace
of death, is another instance of the same game.

Gujarat was being prepared for such an exorcism for a
very long time. It is a state that has seen
thirty-three years of continuous rioting interrupted
with periods of tense, uncomfortable peace. During
these years, a sizeable section of Gujarat’s urban
underclass has begun to see communalism and rioting as
means of livelihood, quick profit, choice
entertainment, and as a way of life. Riots have, in
addition, ensured temporary status gains for this
underclass; they are considered heroes in their
respective communities during riots and for brief
periods afterwards – an important reward for persons
at the margins of society.

Rioting everywhere is pre-eminently an urban disease.
Demographers of riots – from Gopal Krishna to Asghar
Ali Engineer, and from P.R. Rajgopalan to Ashutosh
Varshney – have shown repeatedly that it is even more
so in India. The icing on the cake is that the urban
middle class in Gujarat is now the most communalised
in the country; it has become an active abetter and
motivator of communal violence. Sections of it
participate in the loot enthusiastically, as we have
seen in the course of the recent riots; those that do
not often participate in the violence vicariously.

(For the last hundred years or so, the so-called
non-martial races of the subcontinent – Bengali babus,
Kashmiri Muslims and Gujarati upper castes, for
instance – have had a special fascination for
violence, particularly if someone else was doing the
fighting and risking their lives. However, in recent
years, this fascination and the search for redemptive
violence, which bestows heroic stature by being
expiation for one’s own ‘passivity’ and ‘effeminacy’,
have often found direct expression in public life.)

Unlike in places like Uttar Pradesh, cities matter in
Gujarat. Urbanity is a crucial presence in Gujarat’s
political life. The state has fifty cities, many of
which have already become cauldrons of communal hatred
and paranoia. The result is that Gujarat is now a
classic instance of the urban-industrial vision,
decomposing and spitting out in a blatant form the
violence that the vision has always hidden in its
belly. The state has not only been riot-prone but at
war with itself. Even after the present riots die down
– available data show that riots last longer in
Gujarat than in other states – it would be at best a
temporary truce. Tension and hatred will persist and
both sides will remain prepared for the next round.
Gujarat is and will continue to be an arena of civil
war for years.

This situation has come about not because the
Inter-Services Intelligence or the ISI of Pakistan –
omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent like God
himself, according to many Indians – has planned it
that way. Nor because the minorities have been the
main victims in the recent riots. This situation of
civil war has arisen because minorities now know that
they cannot hope to have any protection from the state
government. Lower-level functionaries of the state
government have been complicit with rioters many times
and in many states. But this is probably for the first
time after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 that the entire
state machinery, except for some courageous dissenters
among the administrators and in the law-and-order
machinery, has turned against the minorities.1

The minorities of Gujarat are by now aware that, for
good or worse, they will have to prepare to protect
themselves. This is a prescription for disaster. It
will underscore the atmosphere of a civil war and
create a new breeding ground for terrorism. More than
Operation Blue Star, the anti-Sikh riots spawned
terrorism in Punjab in the 1980s; the two decades of
rioting in Gujarat has by now similarly produced the
sense of desperation that precedes the breakout of

In the early 1960s, when I first went to Gujarat as an
adolescent student, it was difficult to believe that
Gujarat could ever have a major riot. People talked of
riots that had taken place in the past and the state
did have a history of small riots and skirmishes. Many
Ahmedabadi Hindus seemed afraid and suspicious of the
Muslims, but they were afraid and suspicious mostly of
non-Gujarati Muslims, many of them labourers in the
huge textile industry of Ahmedabad. They took the
Gujarati Muslims, a large proportion of them business
castes, as a part of Gujarat’s landscape, though there
was clear social distance.

In retrospect, the picture was remarkably similar to
that of Cochin, which I studied a few years ago as a
city of religious and ethnic harmony.2 The only
difference probably was the more than moderate dislike
for the Muslim as representing a tamasic principle in
Ahmedabad’s predominant Jain-Bania culture. That
dislike was, however, ‘balanced’ by a similar dislike
for the westernised outsiders congregating in the new,
fashionable institutions being established in the
city. Traditional Ahmedabad kept away both.

The 1969 riots began to change the city radically,
though at the time the changes were not that obvious.
Like all riots in South Asia, that one too was
organised, and it was organised with great managerial
panache by the RSS. The violence paid rich dividends.
So did the imaginative hate campaigns unleashed by the
Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the RSS. Together they gave
a kick-start to the process of ghettoisation of the
Muslims and the growth in the power of Mafia-like
bodies in both communities, always itching for a fight
and acting like protectors of the Hindus and the
Muslims at times of rioting.

However, the growth of this criminal sector was
disproportionately high among the young, unemployed
Muslims. Understandably. The existing social distance
between the communities had already acquired another
tone. Facing discrimination in job situations and
housing, many among the unemployed Muslim youth began
to take to professions in which slum youth everywhere
in the world specialise – illicit distillation, drug
pushing, protection rackets and petty crime. And they
always seemed ready for street violence. The situation
worsened once Ahmedabad’s famed textile industry
collapsed. The changing political culture of the city
ensured that this collapse, too, affected the Muslims

The dragon seeds sown by the 1969 riots have sprouted
over the years. Gujarat’s regular annual harvest began
to include gory communal clashes and mob violence. We
saw the full flowering of this culture during the
Ramjanmabhoomi movement. As the great charioteer Lal
Krishna Advani moved through Gujarat, he left in his
wake a series of riots in which, according to Achyut
Yagnik, for the first time, women and children were
seen as legitimate targets of attack and atrocities.
Riots were now becoming more brutal and barbaric.

During the last decade, Gujarat has kept up with that
tradition. In the ongoing riots, women and children
have not only been attacked but also often killed with
a sadistic glee that will be inconceivable in a
civilised society. Even in the attack on karsevaks at
Godhra, the one that precipitated the riots, it now
transpires that the main victims were women and
children. The following is an extract from a widely
circulated eyewitness account, which some of the
readers might not have seen. It is written by an
officer of the Indian Administrative Service:

‘Numbed with disgust and horror, I return from Gujarat
ten days after the terror and massacre that convulsed
the state. ... As you walk through the camps of riot
survivors in Ahmedabad, in which an estimated 53,000
women, men, and children are huddled in 29 temporary
settlements, displays of overt grief are unusual. ...
But once you sit anywhere in these camps, people begin
to speak and their words are like masses of pus
released by slitting large festering wounds. The
horrors that they speak of are so macabre, that my pen
falters... The pitiless brutality against women and
small children by organised bands of armed young men
is more savage than anything witnessed in the riots
that have shamed this nation from time to time during
the past century...

‘What can you say about a woman eight months pregnant
who begged to be spared. Her assailants instead slit
open her stomach, pulled out her foetus and
slaughtered it before her eyes. What can you say about
a family of nineteen being killed by flooding their
house with water and then electrocuting them with
high-tension electricity?

‘What can you say? A small boy of six in Juhapara camp
described how his mother and six brothers and sisters
were battered to death before his eyes. He survived
only because he fell unconscious, and was taken for
dead. A family escaping from Naroda-Patiya, one of the
worst-hit settlements in Ahmedabad, spoke of losing a
young woman and her three month old son, because a
police constable directed her to "safety" and she
found herself instead surrounded by a mob which doused
her with kerosene and set her and her baby on fire.

‘I have never known a riot which has used the sexual
subjugation of women so widely as an instrument of
violence as in the recent mass barbarity in Gujarat.
There are reports every where of gangrape, of young
girls and women, often in the presence of members of
their families, followed by their murder by burning
alive, or by bludgeoning with a hammer and in one case
with a screw-driver.’4

Gujarat disowned Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi long ago.
The state’s political soul has been won over by his
killers. This time they have not only assassinated him
again, they have danced on his dead body, howling with
delight and mouthing obscenities. The Gandhians, in
response, took out some ineffective peace processions,
when they should have taken a public position against
the regime and the Nazi Gauleiter ruling Gujarat. One
is not surprised when told by the newspapers that the
Sabarmati Ashram, instead of becoming the city’s major
sanctuary, closed its gates to protect its

Almost nothing reveals the decline and degeneration of
Gujarati middle class culture more than its present
Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. Not only has he
shamelessly presided over the riots and acted as the
chief patron of rioting gangs, the vulgarities of his
utterances have been a slur on civilised public life.
His justifications of the riots, too, sound uncannily
like that of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president
and mass murderer who is now facing trial for his
crimes against humanity. I often wonder these days why
those active in human rights groups in India and
abroad have not yet tried to get international summons
issued against Modi for colluding with the murder of
hundreds and for attempted ethnic cleansing. If Modi’s
behaviour till now is not a crime against humanity,
what is?

More than a decade ago, when Narendra Modi was a
nobody, a small-time RSS pracharak trying to make it
as a small-time BJP functionary, I had the privilege
of interviewing him along with Achyut Yagnik, whom
Modi could not fortunately recognise. (Fortunately
because he knew Yagnik by name and was to later make
some snide comments about his activities and columns.)
It was a long, rambling interview, but it left me in
no doubt that here was a classic, clinical case of a
fascist. I never use the term ‘fascist’ as a term of
abuse; to me it is a diagnostic category comprising
not only one’s ideological posture but also the
personality traits and motivational patterns
contextualising the ideology.

Modi, it gives me no pleasure to tell the readers, met
virtually all the criteria that psychiatrists,
psycho-analysts and psychologists had set up after
years of empirical work on the authoritarian
personality. He had the same mix of puritanical
rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of
the ego defence of projection, denial and fear of his
own passions combined with fantasies of violence – all
set within the matrix of clear paranoid and obsessive
personality traits. I still remember the cool,
measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of
cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every
Muslim as a suspected traitor and a potential
terrorist. I came out of the interview shaken and told
Yagnik that, for the first time, I had met a textbook
case of a fascist and a prospective killer, perhaps
even a future mass murderer.

The very fact that he has wormed his way to the post
of the chief minister of Gujarat tells you something
about our political process and the trajectory our
democracy has traversed in the last fifty years. I am
afraid I cannot look at the future of the country with
anything but great foreboding.

The Gujarat riots mark the beginning of a new phase in
Indian politics. We talk of terrorism in Kashmir and
the North East and proudly speak of subduing the
terrorism that broke out in Punjab. The total
population involved in these cases, particularly the
section that could be considered sympathetic to
militancy, has always been small. Even if we believe
that Pakistan’s ISI and the Indian Army between them
have persuaded all Kashmiris in the Valley to support
militancy, these Kashmiris add up to only three
million, one-third the size of the city of Delhi.

The forces the Gujarat violence might have released
are a different kettle of fish. They seem to have done
what the Partition riots did. Also, given that they
have been arguably the first video riots in India –
riots taking place in front of TV cameras – their
impact will be pan-Indian and international. The
minorities all over the country have seen the
experiments in ethnic cleansing and the attempts to
break the economic backbone of the Muslim community.
The sense of desperation brewing among the Gujarati
Muslims is likely to be contagious.

I wonder what we should do with 120 million bitter
Muslims, a sizeable section of them close to
desperation. Will it be another case of Palestine now
onwards, at least in Gujarat? Prima facie, Modi has
done his job. The Sangh Parivar’s two-nation theory is
genuine stuff and has already initiated the process of
a second partition of India, this time of the mind.
We, our children and grandchildren – above all, the
Gujaratis – will have to learn to live with a state of
civil war. The Gujarati middle class will have to pay
heavily – culturally, socially and economically – for
its collusion with the recent pogrom.

1. This point has been indirectly made by Tridip
Suhrud, ‘No Room for Dialogue’, Economic and Political
Weekly 47(11), 16 March 2002, pp. 1011-2.

2. Ashis Nandy, ‘Time Travel to a Possible Self:
Searching for the Alternative Cosmopolitanism of
Cochin’, The Japanese Journal of Political Science
1(2), December 2001, pp. 293-327.

3. The Godhra incident, which precipitated the recent
riots, was partly a product of this larger process,
not a conspiracy of the ISI, as the Sangh Parivar
claims. Nor was the incident the result of a
provocation by karsevaks so severe that the Muslim
victims of the provocation had to burn alive scores of
train passengers, most of them women and children, as
some politically correct secularists have begun to
insist. For the moment, I am ignoring the even more
inane attempts to explain away the Godhra episode as a
non-event. In some ways, the episode is a typical
example of the chain of events that have characterised
a huge number of communal riots in recent times –
deliberate provocation leading to violent reaction
from desperate, angry youth in slums and ghettos,
followed by fully organised, large-scale attacks on
Muslims in general.

4. Harsh Mander, ‘Cry, the Beloved Country:
Reflections on the Gujarat Massacre’, unpublished
report circulated over the Internet, 21 March 2002.

5. Ibid. See also Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth,
‘Whither Gujarat? Violence and After’, Economic and
Political Weekly 47(11), 16 March 2002, pp. 1009-11.


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