| Tridents are stubborn things
“Freedom is an easily spoken word
But facts are stubborn things.”
— John Cornford, “Full Moon at Tierz”
Even those who dislike all that the Bharatiya Janata Party stands for and all those who sail under the saffron flag, will be compelled to admit that the year 2002 has been the year of saffron.
The keynote of the year was struck with the pogrom in Gujarat in February-March, although the official discourse on the matter and conventional wisdom on it insist on using the bizarre euphemism “communal riot” to describe the events. The year ended with what can only be described as a popular endorsement of the violence: the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi returned triumphantly to power with a thumping majority. A substantial population (nearly 40 per cent) voted against the BJP but this was not enough to dispel the impression that the people of Gujarat had no reservations against Modi and the violence with which his government was implicated earlier in the year.
It is said that during the revolt of 1857, the very name Cawnpore incited the bloodlust of the British troops as it reminded them of the massacres carried out there by the Indians. Cawnpore became the metaphor for revenge and the British killed indiscriminately in North India. The name Godhra performed the same function for the Hindu population of Gujarat. It provoked them to perpetrate acts of terror and murder against Muslims.
What happened in Godhra is still not known and given the opacity of Indian political life it probably never will be known. A bogie of a train was burnt by an incensed mob, and people inside were roasted alive. The unanswered questions about the incident continue to dance on the dead bodies. Why only that particular bogie' How did the mob gather in the short time the train was at the station' Who pulled the chain to make the train stop' Where did the inflammable material come from' What about the forensic report which said that the inflammable material was actually inside the compartment' Why the sudden act of violence against the kar sevaks' What caused it' There are no answers to these questions. But this did not take away the edge from the avenging zeal of the sangh parivar.
The consequences of the event have thus somewhat overshadowed the event itself. Godhra was Gujarat’s Reichstag fire. Students of the history of Nazi Germany know that on February 27, 1933, Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch ex-communist, set the Reichstag on fire as an individual act of protest against the injustice done to the working class. The entire Nazi leadership deliberately read it as the product of a well-planned communist conspiracy. Violence and repression were let loose and in their wake came elections which put Hitler in power with 44 per cent of the vote. An individual’s act was deliberately projected as the manifestation of a political conspiracy and violence unleashed against a political group. In Gujarat, a mob’s action, coincidentally on February 27, the date of the Reichstag fire, was used as the pretext to kill and plunder members of a community. In both cases, election victories resulted. In both cases, a political party orchestrated the violence and the government stood by and in some cases even participated. The analogy is frightening.
The fear was aggravated by assertions from the leadership of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad that Gujarat was an experiment which could be repeated in other parts of India. The BJP has not gone to this extent, but it is clear that influential leaders and the rank and file see Gujarat as a kind of model. There is also the widespread recognition within the BJP, pace whatever Atal Bihari Vajpayee says, that Hindutva and the sentiments associated with it constitute their electoral winning ticket.
The articulation of such feelings has to be seen in two separate contexts. One is the external context in which the global rise of Islamic terrorism and the consequent demonization of Islam are marked. This feeds into the easy stereotypes peddled by the sangh parivar and often unquestioningly accepted by even educated members of the majority community. The other is internal to India. The heady mix of Hindutva, Hindu self-aggrandizement and aggressive nationalism — the three constitutive elements of the sangh parivar’s message — touches a subterranean chord in the new-rich and middle-class Hindu mind, in India and in the Hindu diaspora. The emotional and political presence of Hindutva thus cannot be wished away.
The instrumentalities of Hindutva are quite evident: mobilization along religious lines, violence against minorities and a thrust towards making India into a Hindu rashtra. The implications of these are equally clear. They involve a complete redefinition of the Indian republic. It means the end of secularism and perhaps even the end of democratic and liberal values in society. Radicals of a particular persuasion might argue that these so-called values have, in any case, been non-existent in India so they cannot come to an end. The point is to understand that Indian democracy, for all its fragility, and Indian society, for all its shortcomings, have space for various kinds of opinions, lifestyles and practices. This space has allowed forms of extremism, colour saffron and colour red, to flourish. It is the manifestation of this variety which is under threat from the monism of the sangh parivar. One of the measures of a civilized society is how it treats its minorities. It is this that is under threat from the activities of the sangh parivar.
It can be argued that in modern Indian political life, there have always existed certain extremist elements but eventually the working of the system has tamed them. Witness Jawaharlal Nehru, fire-eating socialist in the Thirties, the voice of the moderate establishment as prime minister. Witness Jyoti Basu and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), destroyers of public property and purveyors of revolution in the Sixties, the voice of law and order and masters of the art of electioneering in government — revolution no longer even a blip on their computer screens. Similarly, the argument runs, the sangh parivar, over time, will be tamed by the system and appropriated by the mainstream. A corollary of the argument says that just as when the CPI(M) turned to parliamentarism, a disgruntled and disillusioned group turned to armed revolution, the cornerstone of communism, similarly, the BJP’s turn to governance and economic reforms under Vajpayee has created disaffection. Modi represents this disillusionment and the emphasis on Hindutva, a repackaging of the BJP’s principal identity kit. Narendra Modi, this argument would say, is the BJP’s Charu Mazumdar. As misdirected, as destructive, and as irrelevant.
Unstated in the above argument is the prescription that the sangh parivar, especially its political wing, should be accommodated within the political system. This is the only viable mode of containing it. Ostracism and confrontation can only aggravate the problem. The argument makes a distinction between Vajpayee and Modi. This distinction between governance and Hindutva may not be tenable since within the BJP there are persons like Arun Jaitley who appeared to be committed to governance and not ideology but are now some of the strongest advocates of Modi and his line. The line of accommodation was tried by none other than Franz von Papen, the leader of the Centre Party vis à vis the Nazis. One knows the consequences. Can India take the risk'
This will be the moot question for 2003 and may remain so for some more time. In its resolution, the secular, rational and liberal voices will perhaps have the least say. Already, the VHP has announced that its next target will be the secularists.The upholders of reason, secularism and liberal values have already been relegated to the status of the tiger, India’s most endangered species. Here we stand, for we know no other.