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Gujarat: which way forward?

By Balakrishnan Rajagopal

What is needed is an ideological remobilisation that can lead to a total societal response. If that cannot be done without religion, it must be appropriated from the Sangh.

AS WE drove into Ahmedabad from the airport in December, my friend showed me a patch on the road opposite the Police Commissioner's office where the tomb of a respected poet, Wali Gujarati, stood before rampaging Hindu mobs destroyed it during the pogrom that followed the Godhra train attack in Gujarat last year. The erasure of that place of worship is in fact a metaphor for the erasure of our memory of the violence and its causes, as Gujarat settles into a period of post-election `democracy'. Our memory is also littered with patches that conceal a massive amount of violence as we pretend that everything is back to normal.

Indeed, one of the most astonishing lessons of the Gujarat massacre is our capacity to forget, to simply get going. From the Partition violence to last year's violence in Gujarat, India, as a society, has never systematically grappled with the causes and consequences of mass violence and attempted to heal social wounds or rebuilt shattered institutions.

Yet, this is what most societies that witness horrific mass violence do. In countries around the world, from Germany to South Africa to Argentina to Cambodia, people struggle with the question of how best to acknowledge what happened and how best to ensure that it does not happen again. Ranging from truth commissions and international criminal prosecutions to educational reform, societies generate a range of strategies for dealing with these difficult questions of guilt, complicity and accountability. Such questions are never easily answered but the effort to try to answer them is itself part of a national cathartic process that leads to a more healthy society. Such a process is nowhere to be seen in India.

In Gujarat, it is obvious that the causes and consequences of mass violence are so complex that only a total societal response will begin to deal with it. By total societal response, I mean a response that starts at the level of each individual and family and encompasses every social, cultural, economic and political institution. At the individual level, it is evident that Gujarat has witnessed a complete breakdown of elementary social ties between communities. This ranges from the lack of ordinary social interaction such as dinners, friendship and neighbourly ties to active hostility between individuals of different faiths. Few Hindus have Muslim friends (or vice versa) or invite each other over for dinner.

This level of mutual hostility is comparable to the separation between whites and blacks in the U.S. before and during the civil rights movement, but at the social level, much improvement has been made in the U.S. in bridging this racial divide. It has been made possible only through a total societal response.

Additionally, this social disarticulation is strengthened by the strict Brahminical customs in Gujarat including vegetarianism. Indeed, it is one State where it is hard to find even eggs in the market. In such an atmosphere, there is hardly any scope for social interaction between Muslims and Hindus. This social disarticulation extends into economic, cultural and political spheres. For example, in the housing/rental market, there is blatant discrimination by both Hindus and Muslims and for some decades now it has been that way. There have always been Muslim apartments and Hindu apartments and the social norms including vegetarianism, prevent a free market from operating without constraints. If people do not live together, they do not understand each other.

Indeed, in the wake of last year's violence, there is a virtual ghettoisation of the Muslim community, for example, in the old section of Ahmedabad. While the VHP's much criticised call for economic boycott of the Muslims did not overtly succeed last year, the fact is that there is already a yawning chasm between Hindus and Muslims in the market place in Gujarat. This gulf is likely to grow in the coming years.

It is the deep social embeddedness of the hostility between Muslims and Hindus that makes it so challenging to deal with the aftermath of last year's pogrom. For, unlike initial estimates, the problem is not restricted to the penetration of the state by the Sangh, or even the collapse of the state. Rather, the social networks that underlie formal institutions are themselves deeply corroded or non-existent.

In these circumstances, it is rather meaningless to talk about re-establishing the rule of law because the social conditions for its establishment must first exist. The heroic attempt made by many human rights groups to bring accountability, including assisting victims to speak out, to re-file FIRs, to issue reports and so on, must continue. But in my view, these attempts will not truly address the root causes of the violence in Gujarat. Everyday acts by ordinary individuals, from kitchen table conversations to cricket matches, are as important to build trust and social capital. There are clear alternatives: between institutional reform and everyday acts of resistance and change.

In addition to individual acts of courage and responsibility, there is also a fundamental need for alternative social mobilisations that challenge the Sangh Parivar's monopoly over organising in Gujarat. The Sangh has successfully reached out to the common people and offers an attractive package of ideological purpose and material benefits that the secular political parties are unable to match.

The NGOs remain too weak, without a real mass base. The organisations that do have a mass base seem to have failed to stand up to the challenge. Part of the problem is that secularism as an ideology seems to be hopelessly weak when competing with religious mobilisation. What is needed is an ideological remobilisation that can lead to a total societal response. If that cannot be done without religion, it must be appropriated from the Sangh. It seems very difficult to rebuild the state and reestablish rule of law without such an ideological remobilisation and re-appropriation of religion.

It is also evident that a lot of ordinary people in Gujarat have blood-stained hands. The killings, mass rapes, destruction of property, arson, and other depraved acts have not been committed by special squads of the Sangh Parivar that then lie in wait. Rather, as numerous investigative reports have made clear, including that of the Concerned Citizen's Tribunal, the violence has been committed by local political and governmental leaders, with the active or passive assistance of the local people. They are not going anywhere.

Accountability under these circumstances is extraordinarily hard and must take a myriad forms to succeed. Even if the state is independent and capable of arresting everyone involved in the violence (which it is not), it may lead to a deep social schism due to the deeply embedded nature of the religious hostility in Gujarat. Indeed, when faced by similar circumstances, many societies have combined a variety of mechanisms of accountability. South Africa, with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission and limited prosecution/amnesty mechanisms, is a prominent example.

These debates are not new. In the Balkans, for example, there have been serious discussions about how best to build trust and social capital in a situation where neighbour has killed neighbour. The choices are not restricted just to criminal prosecutions. In India, such debates are hardly beginning. This must change quickly. Otherwise, the paradox of Gujarat — a developed State with a Gandhian tradition, strictly vegetarian and enforcing prohibition against liquor, but also a State with a history of communal violence, savage pogroms and state erosion — may be repeated all over India.

(The writer is the Ford International Assistant Professor of Law and Development and Director of the Program on Human Rights and Justice at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S.)

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