India: Gujarat riots - communalization of state and civic society

By Prof. Jayanti Patel

(A Report from Ahmedabad, Gujarat)

"The connotation of the word secular should mean negation of all religions"

Communal riots are an indicator of socio-cultural schism existing between the communities. Every communal riot not only deepens this schism and hardens the socio-cultural divide, new found factors and reasons get added to the divide. The recent communal riots in Gujarat and the horrendous carnage perpetrated during these riots have shocked all sensible persons and has reemphasized the need for bridging this gap and evolving an integrated and harmonious human society which is an essential component of a nation. It is necessary to analyze the causes behind the communal riots and widespread violence in Gujarat as well as their dangerous implications.


It could be observed that riots are no more instantaneous incidents caused by some mischief-mongers, and riots themselves being thinly spread and/or of short duration. They have become a form of collective violence - something like a continuous battle between two communities. Over the years they have become more organized, planned and devastating. Despite the efforts of well intentioned and sober people from both the side, the suspicion and hatred have steadily penetrated the masses and spilled over into rural areas as well. The influence and impact of people advocating tolerance, amity and harmony have dwindled to such an extent that now they find themselves not only impotent, helpless and ineffective but often ridiculed or attacked for their views. This regression of liberal ethos and assertion of fascist psyche by fundamentalist groups and leaders amongst the masses are portents of the horrible future ahead.

We must understand that the communal violence in Gujarat was triggered by the Godhara carnage, where more than fifty people were burnt to death in the coach of a train, attacked by a big Muslim mob, armed with weapons and inflammable material. The resultant shock and repercussions were widespread. However, the economic, political, social, psychological and cultural climate prevailing in Gujarat was responsible for its widespread, intense and unremitting nature. The identification and evaluation of these causes and finding its remedy is necessary if we want to stop its recurrence and reverse the process of communalization of our society.


It is surprising - and many people are surprised - how and why the tolerant, mild mannered, amicable and peace-loving people of Gujarat have, since 1942 have come to acquire such a violent communal personality since the inception of the state. Many find it ironical that Gandhi�s Gujarat can behave in such a fashion. It may sound rhetorical but let me add that it is also the Gujarat of Mohammad Ali Jinnha, Chundrigar, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Advani, K. K. Shastri (VHP president), and Pravin Togadia (VHP secretary)! This is just to point out that Gujarat�s socio-cultural milieu has diverse strains and its simplification as one homogenous entity could be misleading.

Geographically Gujarat is a border state; its northern border touches Pakistan. After partition hoards of Gujaratis and Sindhis came to Gujarat as �NIRVASIT�. Their traumatic experience of the partition added to the psyche of Gujarat � along with the historical story of the demolition of the Somanath temple. To these, the riots of forties, fifties sixties and seventies � largely initiated by Muslims, have contributed to the popular perception of a Muslim as aggressive and communal person.

The violent clashes between the two communities during these riots led to the segregation of Hindu and Muslim localities. This segregation affected the younger generation as they had no live social contacts with each other, they studied in different schools and the link of friendship or communication or understanding each other�s feelings, became very tenuous. As the frequency of riots increased (nearly more than a score in six decades), socio-cultural bonds between the communities started fading. Lack of neighborly relations and communication provided the fertile ground for the fundamentalist propagandists to cause misunderstanding, suspicion and hatred between the two communities. Further, amongst the Muslims, Madrasas became the recruiting grounds for the fundamentalists. In this atmosphere even the farfetched rumors like poisoning of the water supply or milk-distribution system acquire credence.

Events of last decades, like upsurge of Muslim fundamentalism, conflict in middle-east and Kashmir, disintegration of USSR and formation of the Muslim republics, increasing terrorist attacks and hijackings, cases of Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin, along with the climate created by the issues of Ramjanmabhumi controversy and individual cases like Shahbanu case (reiterating separate Muslim personal law) at home have reinforced the perception of categorizing Muslim personality as aggressive, amongst the Hindus. Rise of Taliban, attacks on Hindus in Kashmir, on World Trade center, Jammu-Kashmir legislature, Indian parliament etc have reinforced this perception and has got extended even to the educated middle-class Hindu.

The issue is not whether the inference on the part of the Hindus in context of these problems was right or wrong. What matters is the perception that has developed in Hindu psyche and which has hardened their attitude towards Muslims as a whole. This perception was a contributory factor in the widespread and immediate flaring up of riots in large part of Gujarat in the wake of the shocking carnage at Godhara.


There is a causal link between violence and deprivation. Any form of deprivation leads to frustration which in turn produces anger responsible for aggression or an act of violence. Sense of deprivation is a personal perception. When a gap between expectation and achievement develops due to change in economic, social and political situations or psychological reasons, deprivation sets in at individual and/or group levels.

The economic situation is particularly related with Ahmedabad. Besides, Ahmedabad being the main city of Gujarat, whatever happens here has, sooner or later, repercussions or contagious impact on other parts of Gujarat as well. During last three decades a large number of textile mills in Ahmedabad have closed down. This has adversely affected the economic life of many, especially the economically disadvantaged sections of both the communities. A large number of mill-workers became unemployed. Most of them belonging to Muslim and backward class communities and even middle class Hindus were forced to search for alternative means of livelihood. They felt deprived and frustrated. The persistence of this situation over the years has provided a mass of people readily available for any aggressive act. Another incidental, yet significant aspect of this closure of mills is related with an agency which could defuse communal tension and maintain communal harmony. A major union of the textile workers known as Majoor Mahajan (inspired by Gandhiji and run by Gandhian leaders) was reduced to irrelevance. It lost the capacity to influence the working class communities and defuse or minimize or stop the communal violence. It is interesting to note that where such labor unions are strong (e.g. Ahmedabad Electricity Company � started by Humanists) they can pre-empt or contain the effects of the riots. It seems that in absence of such an agency appeals for peace or �Shanti Yatra� have no tangible impact.

After closure of the textile mills, unemployed mass of the mill-workers was in search of jobs. Some were absorbed in the power loom industry. But many of them were enticed by the illegal activity like smuggling and bootlegging. As Gujarat is a border state Pakistan-Gujarat border became a route for smuggling and Pakistani agent provocateurs. Extensive sea coast has attracted smuggling from the Middle Eastern Muslim countries. Naturally many Muslims got recruited in this activity. With the passage of times they became transformed into organized gangs and acquired arms and some position in their community as they provided patronage. Another group of organized crime was connected with bootlegging. The prohibition policy of Gujarat has also promoted similar types of gangs in both the communities, dealing in alcoholic drinks. Similarly, though on small scale, a flourishing tribe of the foot-path vendors have come into existence. They are also protected (on payment of �haptas�) by some gangs. Thus a core of well organized gangs is operating in different spheres and localities indulging in systematic arson, killing, looting, or intensification of violence in the process.

Power politics oriented election strategies is a significant political factor that has contributed to deepening the communal divide. The sizable Muslim community votes can be a key-factor in capturing power in Gujarat. To create a solid vote-bank the Congress strategists evolved the popularly known KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adiwasi, Muslim) model. To compete against the Congress and break its politics of vote-bank BJP resorted to Hindutva-card, isolating Muslims and winning a large number of Hindu community votes.

The prevailing situation in Ahmedabad is significant since whatever happens in Ahmedabad may have a contagious effect in other parts of Gujarat. The contagious effect is not only due to economic factors, socio-cultural factors have added a new dimension to the situation and intensified the contagion. It is worth noting that since last decade a virulent campaign of Hindutva is carried out and VHP, with its subsidiaries like Bajarangdal, Durgavahini etc. has taken hold on Gujarat�s public life. Under the patronizing eyes of BJP and the Sangh-Parivar, they have almost turned fascist threatening and attacking even secularist and rationalists, in the name of preserving �Hindu-Culture (!)�. During last riot it was seen that they were well informed about minority community as to who lived where and who owned a particular shop or business premises, and attack them accordingly. This shows that they are organized, their actions are planned and they are prepared and supported by the party in power so that they could terrorize the people.Godhara incident was just an excuse to launch their assault. It is true that the Karsevaks travelling by that train had behaved badly and were harassing other passengers, particularly Muslims. On Godhara station also their behavior was the same. However, burning the whole coach (it is said that the plan was to burn the whole train) and more than fifty of its occupants (including ladies and children) spread instant horror, anger and hatred throughout Gujarat. A �Bandh� (voluntary curfew) was called and observed on the next day. Overnight the VHP and its subsidiary groups became active and well organized and planned attacks on Muslims and their business premises were carried out. Hundreds of people of both the communities (more than 800) have lost their lives, unbelievable mayhem and atrocities have been directed against men, women and children, thousands of business premises and houses have been ransacked and burned, more than fifty thousand people are living in relief camps or with relatives and/or friends.

The assaults on the Muslim community were not carried out by a few people or small groups but the mobs of thousands of people. Actually not mobs, because they were planned attacks by organized and armed groups marching like a battalion. Against these odds it was impossible for few well meaning people to protect the people of the other community residing amongst them. Some Muslims, who had acquired guns, responded to these attacks by private firing which infuriated the mob further.


What was the response and role of the governmental machinery to this situation? It seems that BJP ruled government simply closed its eye in the initial period. Some ministers were accused of leading attacking groups, hindering or directing the police in a specific way. The news of the Godhara carnage spread like a fire and massive onslaught was mounted against Muslims in urban and even rural areas. The whole Gujarat (except Saurashtra region) was engulfed in violence. Members of minority communities residing in many villages either fled or were killed and their houses and shops demolished. Organized and disciplined groups planned their attacks and went from one place to another. Instead of taking stern action to protect the innocent people (who had nothing to do with the Godhara carnage) BJP and VHP officials went on recounting the horror of Godhara carnage and Muslim involvement in it only. It is surprising that the Modi-government claims to have controlled the situation. The mayhem has lasted for forty five days and yet there is no sign of its abatement. Most parts, including the central business area, are under constant curfew and every day there are reports from different areas about clashes, stabbing, police firing, etc.

It is reported that police were rather supporting or looked the other way when these attacks were going on. Perhaps the majority of Hindus in police forces were sympathetic to the Hindu sentiment which was further reinforced by the Godhara incident and directions from some ministers; as a result they failed in their duty to maintain law and order impartially.

Armed forces were called belatedly to control the situation and curfew was clamped in many areas. Even after a month and a half many areas are under curfew and civic life is paralyzed, people earning their bread by daily work are in pitiable condition. But, it seems that certain organized groups are moving from one area to another and keeping the fires of violence burning, government seems to take no steps against such groups or their leaders who are openly propagating communal hatred and advocating violence. On the contrary it seems to be endorsing the violence by saying that it is the reaction or retaliation (on innocent people! Because they belonged to the Muslim community some of whose members were responsible for the Godhara episode?) of the majority due to the Godhara carnage.



Assessment of the action or inaction of the government machinery and the near apathy of the civic society during the riot has highlighted the problem of their role in the society and their relationship with each other. Historically speaking, in a multi-cultured Indian society, to build an integrated nation-state it was wise to opt for a secular democratic state and society which would support it. However, in reality we have failed to build institutions and inculcate the civic-culture as prerequisites for its realization. Primarily it is necessary to correctly define the concept of a secular society or state. Our interpretation of secular as SARVADHARMA-SAMABHAV, protecting every religion and their diverse mode of belief structure, their separate social and civil code, varied customs, mores and faiths, and even education system is not conducive in building an integrated national society or human identity. Our identity is basically communal and has proved to be an obstruction in building a nation-state. It is clear that in interpreting the meaning of the word secular we have disregarded the spirit of the enlightenment and renaissance which was instrumental in building a modern state and the civic society in the west. It seems that we have to interpret the correct meaning of the word secular in our law enforcement. The connotation of the word secular should mean negation of all religions (SARVADHARMA-ABHAV).

The moot question is, if a ruling party is biased towards a particular community how it can create a nation in a multi-cultural society? It can never favor a democratic system or culture. That is to say, when the state itself becomes a protector and promoter of a specific culture which is basically exclusionary in its political practice and draws its sustenance by constantly constructing �the hated other�, the logical implications are most frightening in terms of the preservation of secular democracy and a state that recognizes the rights of all its citizens including minorities.

In this situation the functioning of any form of government is bound to be vitiated. Even a democratic government would succumb to fissiparous movements and civic disharmony. The Indian constitution provides for a democratic form of government. But without proper institutions to support it and the civic culture which could safeguard it, our democracy has remained notional or nominal. In this situation it could be easily subverted by the communal movements and fascist forces. Our political system has fallen prey to the maneuvering of the power politics. There are no effective civic organizations to watch over and guide the democratic process. Further our civic culture lacks the spirit of the democratic way of life. In absence of democratic culture and values necessary for the healthy functioning of the democratic system, we have been reduced to mobocracy, representatives elected by mobs, driven by faith and feelings. To remedy the situation and evolve a democratic culture and organizations from the grass root level the movement for empowerment of the people is a must. The movement should seek to generate co-operative politics, consensus regarding norms of democratic behavior and provide an organizational foundation for the functioning of the democracy. Of course, in the prevailing ethos it would be necessary to have commissions or citizens councils to monitor their functioning and see that they do not become capricious or arbitrary and destroy human rights.


It may be argued that removing the Modi-government, giving effective powers to the military may bring the situation under control. Also, it is necessary that political parties and leaders and police officers who have failed in their duty be punished. To assess the role of various groups, parties, administration and police a commission of impartial citizens should be appointed and their findings considered as an indictment and criminal actions should be taken against those responsible for the perpetration of violence. heir findings considered as an indictment and criminal actions should be taken against those responsible for the violence and But these are short term measures. They must be buttressed by the planned action to reverse the process of communalization of political and socio-cultural life of the Gujarat. Peace marches and �Dharna" to awaken common sense may have symbolic value but we must strive to remove the basic causes responsible for the communal disharmony. Our action must be directed to evolve a policy of de-communalization of the prevailing ethos, disband the fascist forces, build the bridges of communication and bring about socio-cultural harmony between the communities. It is high time that the sensible and enlightened people from both the communities were brought together and build institutions which would further their effectiveness. Political action to dislodge the BJP government and its allies should be supplemented by building citizens� councils and youth forums (something like EKATADAL) which would fight the fascist forces. They could also fill the vacuum left by the erosion of the labor unions and the Mahajan-system (guilds of the professional classes) in Gujarat.

For the creation of the positive climate it is necessary to take certain actions like common civil code, making religion a personal affair and banning all religious demonstrations and processions etc., prohibiting any type of special benefits on religious or communal grounds e.g. land for place of worship, help for Hajj, special schools, charity, etc., to religious organizations. Desegregation of schools and residential areas would be ideal but in the initial stages starting communication between the youth, joint clubs and cultural activity groups may be initiated.

An ideological campaign to counter the communalist propaganda of the VHP and Muslim fundamentalists, etc. should be on our agenda. This campaign should emphasize the secular, rational and scientific outlook and inculcate humanist values and a common sense of citizenship in the people.


Looking at the factors and forces responsible for the riots and every riot becoming more organized, widespread, and use of more and more lethal weapons it can be assumed that soon it would take the shape of pitched battles, like a civil war. If this scenario continues we would be having a situation similar to Palestine or Bosnia where communal strife has led to civil war. If we want to save our nation from such a fate a concerted economic, political and socio-cultural program should be initiated and followed vigorously.


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