The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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“Eight hundred fewer of them. So much the better.” The IT entrepreneur in Vadodara was referring to the official count of Muslim dead in the post-Godhra Gujarat carnage. “Is wakt thoda zyada ho gaya”, admitted the bank officer from Anand, “Lekin zaroorat thi.” (“This time it was a little too much, but it was necessary.”) “They are not like you and me,” the woman MP from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was emphatic, “They (the Muslims) want to be in camps just for show.” She was visiting women victims in refugee camps. “…certain kinds of dehumanizing beliefs about people, or the attribution of extreme malevolence to them, are necessary and can be sufficient to induce others to take part in the genocidal slaughter of the dehumanized people, if they are given proper opportunity and coordination, typically by a state.” Such is the considered view of Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, his seminal work on ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. The parallels with ordinary Hindus are disquieting.

Gujarat’s assembly election is meant to finally provide the answer to the question, “Does killing innocent Muslims win votes in India'” It is a watershed moment in India’s history of democratic politics. The last such moment in living memory was the national election of 1977, which, ironically, addressed the question, “Is dictatorship acceptable to the people of India'” Then, as now, the answer was going to impact the very foundations of India as a political entity. Mercifully, despite longstanding huffing and puffing among Indian urban elites about how all India needed to sort out its deep-seated indiscipline and resultant failures was a dose of good old authoritarianism, India’s dynastic dictatorship got turfed out by the electorate and the country continued to muddle along the path of democracy.

Another moment that comes to mind in conjunction with Gujarat 2002 is Delhi 1984. However, in that instance the question of whether slaughtering Sikhs gained votes in India was fudged by the simultaneity of the “sympathy wave” in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Perhaps it addressed a different question — “Does slaughtering Sikhs earn its perpetrators electoral punishment'” The chilling answer was, “no”. It was an answer that also got lost in the tidal wave of the Congress victory and in the rhetoric of falling trees and shaking earth. We did nothing with the lesson it delivered, that the Indian voter did not see it fit to punish the killers of innocent citizens belonging to an identifiable minority group.

Narendra Modi and the media have together succeeded in personalizing the battle in Gujarat to such an extent that we are in danger of missing the woods for the “Modi-fication”. If Modi wins, it may be victory for the politics of hate and mass murder. However, if Modi loses, it would not signify a new dawn of liberal humanism in India. The reality is that the BJP’s rise to power and Modi’s defiant confidence both ride on the widespread and deep-rooted prejudice against Muslims in the majority community in India, which has found expression in the aggressive new Hindu nationalism promoted and harnessed diligently by the sangh parivar. The entire political discourse in India has shifted in the last two decades. Hindutva politics has spawned a new consciousness, of which Modi is merely the latest crude manifestation.

It has long been known that one merely needed to scratch the surface of Hindu India to reveal “communal” animosity towards Muslims. It is hardly unique to Gujarat, being present in a fairly virulent form among the educated middle classes in Bengal. Reference to Muslims by derogatory slang is routine in Calcutta drawing-rooms. I recall a sweet little aunt once explaining a typical appalling remark about Muslims by complaining that Muslims were always doing everything in opposition to Hindus — “We fold our hands in prayer, they open them out”, she offered as example. While one-sided memories of past riots are common, hers was typical of middle-class Hindu objection to the mere fact of difference — Professor Higgins-like, “Why can’t they be more like us'”

In Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen writes of the evolution of the “eliminationist” ideology in Germany, that there too “the revolution was primarily the transformation of consciousness”, obtained without coercion. European anti-semitism had been a “corollary of Christianity” from the very beginning. The legacy of the medieval period was one of profound hatred and attribution of all malfeasance, though ultimately the church wanted not to kill Jews but to convert them. Goldhagen shows how, in the 19th century, the entire discourse about Jews was held within the cognitive model of the Jew as different from the German, as the binary opposite of the German, and not benignly different but malevolently so. Such views were not restricted to anti-semite polemicists, but formed the dominant view in society. Even “liberals”, who defended the Jews’ right of residence, subscribed to this underlying model.

Just as the Jew was seen as a Fremdkoerper, an alien body within Germany, so the sangh parivar’s conception of the Muslim as an alien in India finds wide resonance. “Jews became conceived more as a nation instead of a religious community…the very notion of ‘German’ included in it a Christian element.” Replace the terms with “Muslims”, “Indian”, “Hindu”, and Goldhagen’s chilling account of the harnessing of deep-rooted prejudices for the Nazis’ political project exhibits disquieting similarities, despite the many historical differences.

Indeed, while Goldhagen contrasts other genocides with the Nazi German one, his study also carries pointers to recognizing the signs of the deadly process of dehumanization of “the other” as an integral part of an aggressive nationalist consciousness. The sangh parivar has of course long found inspiration in Nazi ideology. It is the response of ordinary Hindus that is now the crux of the matter.

Louder than the clamour of the national media during the Gujarat carnage was the deafening silence of the absence of outrage in the wider society. The indifference of the majority community was one of the main differences of this round of violence observed by social workers in Gujarat. This is why Father Moses of Citizens’ Initiative said to me with a wry smile in the middle of the “troubles”, that what Gujarat needed most in this crisis was not food, clothes or funds, but “political opposition”. This is also why by “political opposition” one does not mean the Congress in Gujarat. It is the need for a political movement to counter the Hindutva political movement. But there is no sign of such a movement yet. Political opposition in Gujarat has been reduced to Shankersinh Vaghela opposing Narendra Modi — a case of BJP A-team versus BJP B-team. Pick a thorn with a thorn, say some. Perhaps, but it leaves the contest as a “family affair”.

“Had the Nazis been faced with a German populace who saw Jews as ordinary human beings, and German Jews as their brothers and sisters, then it is hard to imagine that the Nazis would have proceeded, or would have been able to proceed, with the extermination of Jews”, writes Goldhagen. Indeed, if the sangh parivar is faced with a Hindu population that sees Muslims as ordinary human beings, and Indian Muslims as their brothers and sisters, then it too will stop in its track. The reality is different.

India today shadows Germany of the past, where “Even liberal newspapers took to printing all manner of rumours and accusations (against Jews)…as if they had been proven facts”. “Also striking was the frequent broaching of the topic of sexuality…particularly charging the Jews with defiling unsuspecting German virgins.” Very few Germans defied the boycott of Jewish businesses. Rather, small businesses, the medical and legal professions, universities, all seemed eager to purge their institutions of Jewish influence. As in Nazi Germany, once Muslims were seen as Vogelfrei — fair game — local people joined willingly in their persecution. Like Germans, many today abhor the public violence, the damage to business, but do not challenge the fundamentals. As ordinary Germans even after Kristallnacht, after the Gujarat carnage, ordinary Hindus failed to exhibit outrage, while the perpetrators openly displayed their gaurav (pride).

Where is the evidence, Goldhagen asks, of the later proposition that the majority of Germans disapproved' India can show the evidence in Gujarat. A close-run race will not suffice. Only a massive defeat for the BJP, with a precipitous fall in vote share, would indicate a real rejection of the eliminationist ideology of the sangh parivar. The rejection, moreover, has to be based, not on concern for the pocketbook, but on a profound moral revulsion for the politics of persecution and murder.

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