Sunday, Dec 22, 2002
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By Hasan Suroor
``What would they do now?" she asked with apparent concern.
It is a question which has since been asked by others in Britain with media reports highlighting the "anti-Muslim agenda" that propelled the BJP's election campaign. Fears have also been voiced whether the Gujarat "model" might be replicated in other States.
The Guardian, in a report headlined, "Fears For Secular India after BJP Win," noted that "India's moderate Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, will now come under intense pressure from hardliners and his Hindu revivalist allies to utilise Gujarat-style tactics elsewhere". It also pointedly recalled that the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, "presided over the worst riots in India for a decade...(and) in the run-up to the polls, Mr. Modi gleefully exploited his role in the carnage".
Western diplomats in India, the report said, took a "pessimistic view" of the BJP's triumph and one diplomat (presumably British) was quoted as calling it "very bad news".
The Independent attacked the BJP's election tactics, saying that it "shamelessly used the bloodshed (in Godhra) to unify the Hindu majority by persuading them they were under threat from Muslim extremism, including from neighbouring Pakistan". The newspaper also focussed on "fears" that the BJP might try again to exploit "India's explosive Hindu-Muslim divide in order to win votes".
British admirers of Indian democracy and its enlightened voters are astonished that the people of Gujarat chose to bring back to power a regime accused by independent human rights groups of colluding in crimes against humanity. "Why do you think they did it?", a bewildered India-watcher asked. He said he would be as disturbed if the far-right British National Party were to win a landslide victory after a racist "bloodbath".
Understandably, there has been no official comment, but it is well known that the British Foreign Office was extremely unhappy with the Modi Government's role in the Gujarat violence (remember the British High Commission's damning report that caused a furore in the Vajpayee Government?) and it cannot be assumed to be pleased with its return to power.
Privately, Labour Party supporters, particularly those on the Left, are concerned about the growing communal polarisation in Indian politics, and the increasing use by the BJP of rabidly anti-Muslim and anti-Christian organisations to win elections. Even those who would wish to believe that Gujarat is an "aberration"' acknowledge that they are perhaps being too optimistic. "Vajpayee's mask has eventually been removed from the BJP's face and its real face exposed," an old-time Labour activist, Parmajit Bahaiya, said accusing the BJP of spreading and then exploiting "misinformed prejudices and religious bigotry".
The cross-denominational South Asia Solidarity Organisation, which led a campaign against the BJP's alleged involvement in the riots, said the results were a "wake-up call for Indian democracy". It contrasted the situation in Gujarat with what happened in Uttar Pradesh where, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the BJP Government was dismissed and the party lost the subsequent elections. In Gujarat, on the other hand, despite the international condemnation of the allegedly State-sponsored violence not only the Modi Government was allowed to continue in power but it had now gone on to "legitimise" its actions, the group said.
Britain's Gujarati Muslims, some of whom lost their relations and friends in the Gujarat frenzy, feel let down by fellow-Gujaratis back home. "We are certainly disappointed but we accept the verdict. We have always maintained and will continue to maintain that it is not a Hindu versus Muslim issue but one involving the Hindutva versus the rest of India," a Gujarati Muslim businessman who did not want to be identified said.
There has also been criticism of the Congress campaign, which, according to India-based British commentators, was not simply geared to respond to the BJP-VHP "offensive". A South Asia Solidarity spokesperson, just back from India, said the party took the minorities for granted and even fielded candidates, accused of playing a dubious role in the riots.
Meanwhile, one is still groping for an answer to the question posed by the BBC interviewer.
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