The other side of an election

Mention of the 2002 riots or secularism is strangely absent in the Gujarat campaign

One of the biggest casualties of the Gujarat elections is memory. The manner in which the polity is remembered and the act of contestation visualised completely erases the riots of 2002. The clerically minded might say that the file is closed, and the Special Investigation Team’s report has cleared Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was Chief Minister at the time. However, I do not think we are talking about the guilt of one man; rather, one is discussing the aftermath of an act of violence and how it filters into the layers of our memory, colouring everyday behaviour.

As one reads editorials, it is as if the riots never happened, or people write as if some great act of sublimation or exorcism has taken place. These riots were different. They affected ordinary life and even the mentality of Ahmedabad. In a sense it was a civic and cosmic catastrophe that is regarded as politically incorrect to talk about.

Telling stories

A few small stories from the aftermath might illustrate what I am worried about. The first comes from a concerned mother, a schoolteacher who asked me to talk to her children. She was concerned about the new metaphors and attitudes that had infected them. She had two children, the older was a girl of 12 and the younger a boy of 10. She said every time the two fought, the boy would tell the girl, “If you do not listen to me, I will do to you what Hindus did to Muslims.” The normalcy of rape and murder occupies a different colouration. One wonders whether a society recovers easily from such violence.


I remember a driver who was ferrying me around Ahmedabad, a gentle man, 30-ish and extremely informative and helpful. He drove us around the riot-hit areas and would keenly listen to our discussions about our interviews with victims and survivors. A few weeks later he was driving us across Ellis Bridge and he suddenly stopped midway. He said, “I have to tell you something. I was one of them. I joined the crowd during the riots. What should I do?” I was flabbergasted and yet impressed by the honesty of the man. At that moment, I sensed that Gujarat has never returned to normal after 2002. Instead it has followed an artificial process of normalisation, with the victim forced to abandon his sense of loss.

A façade of normalcy makes the society feel surreal. It also reveals that 2002 was not an example of the usual ritual of a riot, where victims return to the neighbourhood after a while. Tens of thousands of people did not return to their homes. These riots were also exterminist in nature. They sought the elimination rather than suppression of an ethnic group.

There has been an attempt to suppress the narratives of both victim and witness. I remember a woman being asked by a member of an audience in a TV programme why she did not return to normalcy and forget things. She answered, “I want to but you won’t let me.”

Probably one of the most ironic and poignant of these stories comes from R.B. Sreekumar, the police officer who took a courageous stand against the regime. He is a gregarious character who loves discussion. His wife told me that every time he went for a walk in Gandhinagar, bureaucrats in the park shied away from him. The stigma of bearing testimony is attached to witness and survivor.


How to move on?

I am not saying that one should not forget, that it is unhealthy to move on. Such memory erodes and can become acidic. But erasure and amnesia are not normal processes. They reveal the ailments of a society that is too quick to accept the logic and rationale of violence. Behind such normalisation is also a sense of fear, a sense that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is too powerful and the dissenter an easily disposable fragment of vulnerability.

Yet the communal card is not a tactic the BJP is going to forget, especially as the patina of development wears thin. As Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi becomes unpredictably impressive, as local politicians find usable issues, the BJP might begin to play its old games. In fact, ethnicity has almost been suppressed as an issue, and caste in its multifarious aspects has played out. In Gujarat today, there is a Dalit issue, a Patidar issue, and the BJP has long worked its spell around Mandir and Mandal. But as its Mandal charm wears thin, it might reveal its older and truer colours. In fact, one senses both a fear of talking about violence and a fear of such a violence. As politics changes and the current stalemates wear out, the BJP is bound to be tempted to return to its ancestral self, its attempts at a civility of table manners worn out by this reassertion of its primordial historical self.

The Congress’s abdication

There is a second failure of a more drastic kind, and it is the failure of the word secular. By tacit agreement, it is the new taboo word of Indian politics with the Congress, which once thrived on it, now completely wary of its use. Secularism as an electoral idea seems a nostalgia. It is as if the word secular is a ticket to doom and people are tired of the word and its connotations. The abandonment of the word secular is another epochal but unnoticed moment in this election. The wariness of Opposition parties to use this term is a tribute to the impact of the BJP in rewriting the discourse of politics, and it has also become an index of the cowardice and tiredness of an Opposition which has lost its chutzpah and imagination.

The silence of the lambs about broader issues and values has affected the quality of debate in many ways. The election is more a battle of interests rather than a debate about a future vision of society. It is reduced to a numbers game. One senses it particularly around two other silences. First, it is the somnolence of the Gandhian imagination. By beating the Patel drum, a Gandhian frame almost seems secondary to Gujarat. Gandhi appears like a secondary figure in the BJP pantheon. One senses a failure of the Gandhian imagination in confronting Mr. Modi and even a readiness to be appropriated. Second, the silence around the global controversies surrounding the Adani efforts seems intriguing. The controversy around the Carmichael coal mine has become a major environmental and rights issue in Australia but it has created few questions in Gujarat. Worse, the slow appropriation of the coast line raises little tremor of doubt.

The 2019 frame

There is a final element in this narrative. People mention it almost as an afterthought. It is the fear and silences around politics. The BJP is not only majoritarian but seems inevitable for 2019. Dissenters, minorities, many democrats express a sense of fear but as footnotes. My fear is that these events that look like footnotes will one day determine the future of our politics.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P. Jindal Global University

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 9:49:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-other-side-of-an-election/article20556397.ece

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