Books | End of an Illusion

How corruption and divisive ideology systematically eroded the Indian dream. An extract

Ashoka ModyAt 7:43 a.m. on February 27, 2002, the Sabarmati Express from Ayodhya pulled into the Godhra Junction railway station in eastern Gujarat. On board were kar sevaks (religious volunteers) returning frustrated from Ayodhya. They had been unable to begin building their much-cherished temple to Lord Ram on the site where frenzied kar sevaks like them had demolished the Babri Masjid in December 1992. Many kar sevaks belonged to the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the VHP, the principal instigator of the fever to build a temple in place of the masjid. These angry Hindus returning form Ayodhya had picked fights along the journey and were itching form more.

At the Godhra Junction railway station platform, some of the younger kar sevaks refused to pay a cigarette vendor and threw tea in the face of a tea vendor. Allegedly, they also molested a girl. Godhra was a Muslim-majority town, where Muslims lived in ghetto-like conditions. After the train moved away from the station, Muslims threw bottles, stones, and burning rags at the train cars. One car caught fire, and fifty-nine kar sevaks perished.

According to one account, rather than the angry Muslims outside, passengers on board accidentally ignited the cooking fuel they were carrying. But, in the fog of what precisely happened, a competing narrative, that the Muslims had conspired to kill the kar sevaks, proved powerful. Over the next several days, Hindus slaughtered Muslims throughout the state of Gujarat. Approximately two thousand people died, the vast majority of whom were Muslims. With the police standing to the side, young Hindu men, often in saffron-colored headbands that signified allegiance to Hindutva, wantonly destroyed the lives and livelihoods of Muslims. They brutally raped Muslim women. Many of the Hindutva marauders, the anthropologist Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi has written, belonged to a “generation of underprivileged and upwardly aspiring youngsters motivated towards extralegal violent acts by organizations such as the Bajrang Dal.” The sociological roots of the violence in Gujarat were similar to those during the 1992-1993 riots in Mumbai. Gujarat’s textile mills, once a source of good jobs as in Mumbai, had largely closed down. To young men with few options, violent Hindutva was a magnet.

Some contemporary reporting blamed Narendra Modi and his government for doing little to stop the massacre of the Muslims. The “fish rots from the top,” one early news report stated, adding that the lines between the government police, and Hindutva organizations had become “totally blurred.” In a nationally televised interview on March 1, Modi said that “every action inevitably produces a reaction,” a statement that reinforced the sense of his government’s complicity in the massacre. On April 12, at a conference of BJP leaders in Goa, Prime Minister Vajpayee repeated the theme of just retribution: “if there had been no Godhra, the tragedy in Gujarat would not have occurred.” Then, in a conventional Hindutva tirade, Vajpayee added, “Wherever there are Muslims, they do not want to live with others. Instead they want to preach and propagate their religion by creating fear and terror in the minds of others.”

Vajpayee rejected the calls to fire Modi. Instead, he asked Modi to seek a fresh electoral mandate. Modi welcomed this instruction because he now had the Hindutva momentum behind him. When the Election Commission refused to hold early polls, citing the atmosphere of anger and hostility, Modi kept the anti-Muslim sentiment inflamed, pitching his dark message to a national print and television audience. Unable to break though that rhetoric, Congress Party leaders, including Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, desperately attached themselves to Hindu voters. But such “soft Hindutva”-appeal to Hindu symbolism but without the ritual violence-proved just as inadequate as similar efforts by Sonia’s husband Rajiv in 1989. In December 2002, Modi won a landslide victory. Praveen Togadia, a leader of the strident Vishwa Hindu Parishad, said that the “successful experiment” in Gujarat’s Hindutva “laboratory” gave reason to anticipate more such success elsewhere in the country.” Hindutva itself is development,” he boldly declared. “We will colour the whole country in saffron.” In March 2005, the United States denied Narendra Modi an entry visa for his role in religious persecution. Indian courts cleared him of any responsibility.

International accolades of India’s high GDP growth rates and its IT industry continued to pour in. In his elite echo chamber, Vajpayee was convinced that Indians shared his sense of economic good feeling. He called new elections, which the BJP contested on the “India Is Shining “slogan. Narendra Modi, who by now had become a folk hero of Hindutva, campaigned for the BJP in the final days of the drown-out polling schedule.

But with agriculture in distress and too few urban jobs, many Indians found the “shining India” language jarring. At the national level, the BJP lost to the Congress Party, which promised an employment guarantee program. In the Andhra Pradesh legislative assembly election Chandrababu Naidu, absorbed in his cyberworld also lost.

Two decades of India’s economic promise from 1985 to 2004, came to an end. The neglect of education, health infrastructure, cities and the environment had continued. The justice system remained sclerotic and arbitrary. Indian democracy was in peril of moral seizure. Corruption and criminal in politics were thriving. Hindutva’s emphasis on a dividing line between friend and enemy was a legitimization of violence on a scale seldom before seen. Under Vajpayee’s “moderate” Hindutva, his education minister had begun rewriting school textbooks with a Hindutva flavor. In 2002, Vajpayee had made no effort to stop the Hindutva cancer in Gujarat. In February 2003, he had a portrait of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar-author of the divisive and violent text Hindutva—hung in an alcove opposite Mahatma Gandhi’s portrait in the Central Hall of the Indian Parliament. In June 2004, Vajpayee briefly wondered aloud if the Gujarat massacre of Muslims had proved the BJP’s undoing in the national election. But he did not follow through.

Vajpayee lost the 2004 election because he offered little economic hope to most Indians. And he could not match Narendra Modi’s Hindutva fanaticism to win votes. For the sake of India’s economy and democracy the Congress Party-led coalition had much work to do. Unfortunately, hubris had set in.

Ashoka Mody
Juggernaut, Pg 536, Rs 719



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