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HOW THE IRON MAN STIRRED THE WITCH’S BREW

In March 2011, I had visited Boru — a rehabilitated village — and Halol — a temporary relief camp — near Godhra, Gujarat, to interview a few families that had survived the blood bath of 2002. In Halol, the displaced Muslim population had asserted repeatedly that tribal people had been mobilized by the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to perpetrate the horrors on them. Since that trip, I had always wanted to investigate the factors that had led to a section of Gujarat’s tribal people — a sizeable vote bank that numbers approximately 45 lakh and accounts for nearly 17.57 per cent of the population — to turn against another, equally marginalized, community.

In September this year, I was offered an opportunity to explore the old question by a news report in The Telegraph which noted that of the 32 people who had been convicted by a trial court for the Naroda Patia massacre — 97 Muslims were slaughtered in this ghetto in Ahmedabad — 11 were members of the Chhara community. A formerly nomadic tribe, the Chharas, in popular imagination, are chiefly associated with ‘witch’s brew’, a kind of unlicensed liquor that is manufactured, heavily consumed and sold by them. The Chharas are also loathed for being petty criminals and occasionally admired for their street theatre. In 1871, the colonial State declared the Chharas a criminal tribe. The community was denotified as late as the 1950s and resettled in Ahmedabad’s Chharanagar, which, like the Muslim-dominated ghetto of Juhapura, resembles a maze of serpentine lanes, clogged sewers, cheap restaurants and shops.

I travelled to Chharanagar two weeks before the first phase of elections in Gujarat and talked to the Chharas not only about their ties with the other denotified tribes such as Kaikadi, Vagri, Bajania and Nat but also with the Muslims who reside in neighbouring Naroda Patia. My aim was not to record the social, political and economic marginalization of denotified communities. That the Chharas do not own land titles in Chharanagar (thereby raising the possibility of forceful eviction), have a paltry employment rate (3 per cent in the public sector according to some estimates), have been denied the right to secure employment or admission in educational institutions on the basis of a DNT certificate, and suffer from a high rate of alcoholism are established facts that puncture holes in Narendra Modi’s claim of inclusive governance. My primary interest was to investigate the modus operandi of an institutionalized communal agenda that has succeeded to a certain extent in weakening the solidarity that binds Muslims to Chharas on account of a shared history of neglect.

Such an investigation would perhaps mount a challenge to the notion of communal conflagrations being inherently binary entities. The violence in Gujarat in 2002 is still widely seen as one in which Hindus inflicted grievous harm on Muslims. The truth is that no community — be it Dalit, tribal or those that belong to the upper echelons of the Hindu varna system — remains neutral during episodes of communal violence. But it is the invisibility of marginalized communities such as the Chharas that made them particularly vulnerable to diabolical plans of turning them into foot soldiers for the carnage.

The findings of a survey conducted by a Dalit activist of the Jati Nirmulan Samiti that offers a break-up of the data of arrests made by the police in Ahmedabad during the riots on caste and community lines are pertinent in this context. The data read as follows: Brahmin-2, Vaishya-2; Patel-19; Other Upper Castes-9; Dalit-747; Other Backward Classes-797; Muslim-1,358. The data reveal two disturbing trends: first, the official crackdown against the perpetrators proceeded in a discriminatory manner. What else explains the arrest of a large number of Muslims even though they were the primary targets? Second, compared to affluent castes, socially disadvantaged communities featured prominently in the violence. These findings suggest that the process of mobilization of the army of rioters took into account ascriptive identities — caste and community — and their positions within the broader social hierarchy, thereby mirroring the inherent prejudices of upper caste Hindus who view marginalized communities as utilitarian resource pools to be used to exterminate their perceived enemies.

The willingness to participate in violence among marginalized communities can, at times, seem to be a matter of personal choice. But what is often ignored is the role of incentives. Ironically, these incentives can take the form of basic provisions that the welfare State is mandated to provide each citizen. During my meeting with a tribal activist and academic in a private university in Gandhinagar, I was told that in Panchmahal, one of the three districts in Gujarat that witnessed massive tribal participation in the riots, the tribal people had been promised ownership of Muslim landholdings if they participated in the violence. On another evening, this time in Chharanagar, I sat listening to the chilling account of Guddu Chhara, who led the massacre of Muslims in Naroda Patia. Guddu, a petty businessman with a chequered criminal record, was assured that his business would operate unhindered after the purge. The threads of the different narratives seemed to indicate that one of the abiding legacies of Narendra Modi has been his perverse success in linking the welfare services provided by the State to a devious communal charter for the people from the margins.

But the mobilization of peripheral communities can also be a consensual affair. The credit for this equally disturbing trend goes to the slow but steady indoctrination of Gujarat’s tribal communities into a communal ethic by conservative religious sects. What is interesting to note is that the success of the indoctrination programme can be attributed to the hope of a realignment of established class hierarchies. For instance, tribal communities are often encouraged to shun their animistic roots and embrace the Hindu way of life with the promise that it would catapult them to a position to challenge the Patel community that has become synonymous with political power and material affluence. And it is not as if tribal communities in rural Gujarat are only susceptible to such divisive doctrines. I was told of the existence of video footage of a young Chhara woman in Ahmedabad, a member of the local Durga Vahini, airing her hatred of Muslims on record with impunity.

For the Chharas, sporadic participation in the communal violence has reinforced age-old social prejudices concerning their criminal tendencies, further impeding the community’s integration with the mainstream. This is especially ironic, given the fact that there are numerous recorded instances of Chharas protecting Muslims. Sunil Tamaichhe, a member of the community, had, in fact, been rewarded with the Indira Gandhi award for National Integration in 2003. On entering Chharanagar, I had passed a Muslim gaddawala store, the only shop that had not been destroyed even when Naroda Patia burned in the distance.

In a state that has confined the Mahatma to the trappings of iconolatry — solemn-faced tourists being lectured by eager guides about the Gandhian way of life at the Sabarmati Ashram is a common sight — one has to return to that remarkable man to understand that the violence that the State inflicts on polarized communities may not always be explicit. By taking over the role of the sole mediator between communities with a fractious past, the State has effectively curtailed the chances of these communities directly interacting with one another to find a mutually acceptable solution to contested claims.

A classic instance of this form of manipulation is evident in Ahmedabad’s spatial transformation into a city that is segregated on religious and community lines. India’s first-ever Muslim property show was hosted in the city this year in which realtors — Patels as well as Muslims — teamed up to provide exclusive residential as well as commercial accommodation to the minority community. Ahmedabad’s posh western suburbs have already been demarcated as ‘Hindu-only’ areas. Chharanagar — the hub of 15,000 Chharas and some other denotified tribes — and Naroda Patia — a Muslim-dominated slum — are surrounded by Sindhi enclaves. Social interaction among the Chharas and the Hindu localities is minimal. While the community’s commercial exchanges with Muslim neighbours have survived — most of the eateries that serve meat in Chharanagar are owned by Muslims while the Chharas provide the manual labour — there is a slow and painful process of reconciliation that is now under way 10 years after the violence.

Significantly, the social reconciliation has been strengthened by a unique theatrical initiative on the part of the Chhara community. Budhan Theatre — named after a member of Bengal’s Sabar community who had been killed in police custody — is a troupe that has pioneered a community movement to discuss urgent social and political issues. My first evening in Chharanagar was spent watching its young members rehearse a few scenes from Mazhab Hame Sikha Ta Aapas Mein Bair Rakhna, a production thematically linked to communal harmony. The importance of Budhan Theatre is manifold. It offers the Chharas an opportunity to preserve the community’s link with street performance which is integral to their cultural life. Through its performances in festivals or government functions, Budhan Theatre also helps the community enter into a dialogue with the State about its history of institutionalized apathy. But Budhan Theatre’s most critical contribution has been in the form of workshops that are aimed at reopening the clogged channels of communication with other marginalized communities — Dalits, Muslims and other denotified tribes — in a bid to resist further fragmentation on social and religious lines.

There is a line of dangerous opinion that says that the model of governance being followed in Gujarat is inclusive. The penury and social discrimination of the Chharas located not in the distant Dangs but in Ahmedabad raise serious doubts about this claim. The other argument that inclusive governance has rendered the communal question redundant is equally contentious.

My memory of Ahmedabad’s dazzling, populous malls and smooth roads is overshadowed by another one in which ordinary people — taxi drivers, shop-keepers, passsers-by — on being asked directions to Juhapura, looked at me quizzically and then enquired why I wanted to visit ‘mini-Pakistan’.