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GUJARAT RIOTS: NAMING THE GUILTY

Swami Agnivesh & Valson Thampu

Stating the obvious has become a high art since Gujarat began to burn. Countless high-decibel speeches continue to be made each day denouncing the VHP and Bajrang Dal for their role in the post-Godhra riots. Eloquent efforts to project the unspeakable agony of the riot-victims and pillory the sub-human callousness and mendacity of the Modi administration continue unabated. But all these would amount to nothing in the end unless we engage the crucial question as to who was responsible for this 'kalank' on the nation.

It is na´ve, even dishonest, to put the blame for this national scandal exclusively at the door-step of the Sangh Parivar. The biting irony in the Gujarat scenario is that the coalition partners and the other political rumps that prop up the BJP-dominated NDA government at the Centre bear the prime responsibility for the genocide in Gujarat. Among them the spotlight must fall squarely on Andhra Pradesh's Chandrababu Naidu. He would be fooling himself if he were to assume that, because he has kept his party out of the government, he would escape the condemnation for its failures. Admittedly, neither the NDA partners nor the TDP has advocated this anti-Muslim pogrom. Nor have their cadre workers participated in the systematic execution of Muslims or in the targeted destruction of their houses and business establishments. But the irrefutable fact is that, but for their unconscionable support to the NDA government, the tragedy of Gujarat would not have happened and continued so far. Modi could not have allowed the VHP-Bajrang Dal hit-squad to unleash a holocaust if a non-BJP government were at the Centre. That being the case, the hands of political tools like Chandrababu Naidu, George Fernandes, Mamta Banerjee, Farooq Abdullah and others are stained with the blood of the poor and innocent Muslims in Gujarat. It is they who have made it possible; and the one indulgence they will not be allowed is the luxury of ignorance.

There is no getting away from the awkward fact that the orchestrated economic and psychological pogrom that the Sangh Parivar has launched on the Muslims of Gujarat would have been simply impossible but for the assured support from the Central dispensation. The way the Ayodhya melodrama fizzled out proves this beyond any doubt. While the VHP-BD storm-troopers are very valorous in attacking the helpless members of the minority communities, especially their women and children, their bravery vanishes in the face of adversity and opposition. Crowds numbering 5 to 10 thousand people roaming around for days killing, burning and pillaging under assured state patronage is not a spectacle of courage but of cowardice. They should have proved their anti-Muslim valour in Kargil, instead. Or by flushing out the terrorists from the valley. They are not even known to escort the pilgrims along vulnerable routes! The eagerness to sink into unimaginable cruelty and bestiality under guaranteed immunity and state complicity is only one side of the coin. The other side is extreme cowardice in times of adversity and risk. All those who have lent their support to the BJP-led government at the Center have played a role in opening the door of immunity wide to these cowardly hoodlums to run amok in Gujarat. Morally, therefore, they are more culpable than these misguided and indoctrinated agents of terror.

At the secondary level, the opposition parties must be held responsible for the continuation of the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. No matter how loudly they might protest, the fact remains that they have not put their whole weight behind arresting this communal madness. Did they not fight like demons and coerce the Gujarat government to revoke its decision to allow its employees to join the RSS? Nothing comparable has been attempted so far in the present instance and one wonders why. Every life lost in, and every new wound inflicted on, Gujarat stains their forehead too with the blood of the innocents. It is not only Vajpayee who is failing through his calculated or compulsive indecision. His bewildered inaction is complemented by the ineffectiveness of the opposition parties, especially the Congress. The tragedy of India today is that she is fallen between these two stools. At a tertiary level, the Muslim leaders have much to answer for. To see this part of our story in the right perspective, a brief recap of the Godhra carnage is necessary. The Muslims in Godhra (40% approximately of the population) comprise largely of the Ganchi tribe, marked by near-total illiteracy and crass poverty. Their social image is amply indicated by the fact that they are deemed a 'criminal' tribe. Godhra itself is virtually divided into two segments. The Hindu dominated section is popularly known as 'Hindustan' and the Muslim-dominated section is nicknamed "Pakistan". The railway station is right in the midst of the Muslim settlement and virtually all the vendors on the platform are Muslims, which makes it possible for a huge mob to assemble at short notice. We were told by independent sources in Godhra that the so-called karsevaks would order tea from the Muslim vendors and force them to shout "Jai Shri Ram" before serving the tea. Those who refused to oblige would be roughed up. This is part of the background to the tragic event that claimed the life of 57 karsevaks on February 27.

Two aspects of this situation merit our attention. The first is the provocative conduct of the karsevaks, which the Muslims could not have mended. The second is the crass under-development of the Muslims in Godhra, which they could have done something about. The time is come for the minorities in general and Muslims in particular to realize that the perpetuation of their socio-economic under-development is a greater danger to them than even the brutality of the Sangh Parivar. The socio-economic backwardness of the minorities aids and abets the Parivar agenda to stigmatize and stereotype them. In this the Muslims oblige the Parivar more than any other religious community. Undoubtedly, it is on account of their retrograde and antediluvian leaders that the Muslim community is in such a sorry state today. The Muslim leadership, both of the religious and the political varieties, appear to be keener to control than to empower their fellow Muslims. Manipulating a people is easier when they are illiterate and economically dependent. But this tarnishes the public image of a community to such an extent that it becomes easy to caricature them as sub-human and detestable.

Egalitarian slogans and myths apart, no society anywhere in the world values human life equally. The life of the rich and the powerful is cherished and protected a great deal more than that of the poor and the socially worthless. Hundreds die in train and level-crossing accidents in this country without causing any heartburns anywhere. But 160 air passengers being held hostage for a week created paranoia in this country. That is a reality that should not be overlooked. For Muslim leaders to remain unmindful of the image of their community at this point in time is simply suicidal. Not being Muslims, we do not wish to counsel them on this count. But as those who love human beings more than religions and ideologies, we would argue that the all-round progress and empowerment of the Muslim community should be a greater priority for Muslim leaders than protecting a mosque or two. This could, we know, sound heretical. But it is a risk that we are constrained to take since our visit to the refugee camps in Gujarat. What struck us all through the time we spent in the camps in Godhra, Vadodara and Ahmedabad, was the crass poverty of the affected people. It is partly because they are so poor and under-developed that their heart-rending stories and miserable plight do not move those in administration to ameliorate their suffering. The quake, in contrast, made the nation melt into compassion because it affected the rich more than the poor. One wonders if the underdevelopment of the Muslims was not one of the reasons for the initial decision of the Modi government to sanction different amounts of compensation for Hindus and Muslims.

Arguably, the underdevelopment of the Muslims in Godhra was a key factor in the train tragedy there that catalyzed the state-wide carnage thereafter. Another aspect needs to be considered in tandem with this. Muslim spokesmen at every meeting on the subject that we have attended in the last one month have been quick to argue that Islam is a religion of peace and that according to the Quran, killing one person is tantamount to killing the whole of the human race and, likewise, saving one person is as meritorious as saving the whole of humankind. That is all very well, but the question that needs to be answered is what happens to all these noble sentiments at the practical level? Were the Muslims in Godhra, who would have laid down their lives to defend the Quran like their brethren elsewhere, aware of this tenet? Did this make any material difference to them when they were provoked? Admittedly, this one verse could have averted the Gujarat holocaust. But did the Muslims of Godhra care for the Quran when they were put to the test? And if they did not, were they Muslims at that point? Who is a Muslim, and who is not?

This total dichotomy between the noble values of a religion and the practical choices and ways of its followers is a serious issue and it is this that characterizes the disjunction between Hindutva and Hinduism. A Ram-bhakt, on his way to the sacred city of Ayodhya, presumably to build a temple for Lord Ram, a resplendent embodiment of dharma, has no qualms in conducting himself in an obnoxious and adharmic way. How does it come about that the presumed followers of a religion that teaches that the whole world is one family (vasudaiva kutumbakam) are so easily persuaded that eliminating people of other faiths is a religious service and the best way to honour their god? Religious leaders, not less than the storm-troopers of the Sangh Parivar, have to answer for the triumph of hate and cruelty in the religious sphere camouflaged as religious fervour. By nurturing their separate constituencies in a spirit of mutual competition and alienation, they have promoted total ignorance about each other among religious communities. It is this vacuum that the agents of communal mischief exploit to their advantage and to the subversion of our national destiny. Tragic and traumatic events like Godhra and the communal carnage thereafter must compel us to see through the scope for infinite mischief latent in all this. As a people we need to insist that those who play with human lives in the name of God, ideology or religion are enemies of God and people alike. The disturbers of peace must be seen as the enemies of development, which is what they really are. Gujarat will take years to recover from the economic set-back it has suffered in the hands of the Modi-dispensation and the VHP-Bajrang Dal marauders.

In the ultimate analysis, every one of us is responsible. One is reminded of the response of Acharya Vinobha Bhave to the question posed to him by a journalist after the assassination of Gandhiji: "Who killed the Mahatma?" After a moment of silent reflection Vinobhaji replied, "I. I have killed him". The profound truth that this great seer was making was that all of us play a role, through our omissions and commissions, in allowing a murderous state of affairs to come about. We may not be party to aggressive advocacies like wiping out the communities we happen to dislike. But as long as we create the impression that the stains of disastrous governance can be washed away with the waters of communal passion and vote banks can be formatted on tracks of hate and negativity, we are a party, overly or covertly, to the tragedy of Gujarat and the many tragedies that are sure to follow, unless we change our outlook.

The marauders and murderers who roamed about the streets of Gujarat and killed Muslims in their hundreds derive their encouragement and legitimacy from the subjective endorsement we extend to partisan and communal sentiments. The growing rapidity with which rational discourses on matters pertaining to religion disintegrate into hard and defensive feelings of distrust and hostility should be a cause for alarm for all those who care for justice and fair-play in public life. The gradual drying up of the well-spring of our compassion for those who seem to be different from us must be deemed a symptom of our national bankruptcy. Ram Rajya cannot be created by filling this land with Ram temples, certainly not by building them with a view to inflicting humiliation on another religious community. Ram Rajya should be built on the foundation of truth, social justice and brotherhood: on the spiritual robustness of loving and celebrating differences and diversities. The alternative is to imitate the Taliban in hijacking Gujarat to the dark ages.