Monday, Apr 08, 2002
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By Gail Omvedt
REVULSION SEEMS to be the predominant mood among most Indians following the Gujarat holocaust. Calm in most cities and States and now the anti-BJP vote in the Delhi municipal elections appear to indicate, at the very least, a pervasive uncertainty about the goals and means of Hindutva. Ram, after all, had been depicted as a noble hero, a fighter against injustice; not a deity whose name needed to be written in blood and fire on the bodies of the country's Muslim citizens.
It is important at this stage to look very seriously at how such pogroms could happen. It was not simply a matter of riots, of backlash against the brutal killings of Godhra: all evidence shows that it was pre-planned; that Muslim homes, Muslim places of worship and Muslim businesses were identified, pinpointed and destroyed without mercy. Children were burned to death in front of their parents; foetuses were ripped from wombs. Vicious looting and killing were led by the middle classes, while directionless OBC and sometimes tribal youth were pressed into service as mercenaries. The police stood aside; that this was a matter of policy was made clear after the slaughter subsided and the few police officers who had tried to take action were transferred. Even in the refugee camps, nothing has been done so far to show the terrified people huddling there that they are welcome back in their homes. Low-key but highly targeted attacks on businesses and individuals have continued for weeks after the main outburst. No wonder that the thousands in refugee camps are refusing to go home, that Muslims from outside employed in the State are leaving their jobs. The atmosphere of terror continues.
How could all this happen? The question needs to be taken seriously. India stands at a turning point: one path, still proclaimed by the forces behind the Government in power at the Centre, leads to a "Hindu Rashtra" in which all Muslims, Christians will exist at the will of the proclaimed majority, in which "Aryan" continues to be a banner of racial pride, in which history and education will be pressed into the service of self-justification. Gujarat may in many ways be an exception within India, but no one should have any illusions that the forces that ravage the State are absent elsewhere.
There are several ways in which Gujarat has been unique. First, it has been the only State where the BJP has been in power by itself for a significant length of time. The importance of political power in not only endorsing but intensifying and spreading religious hatred here becomes clear.
The infiltration of the RSS into the bureaucracy and the police; the opportunities for Hindutva forces to tighten their grip on educational and other institutions of civil society, and the powerful support for a murderous goondaism are all founded in the elected political regime of the State.
Second, Gujarat has not been, on the whole, a very progressive State. The pervasiveness of the caste system here is perhaps more longstanding than in many other parts of India: the first Sanskrit inscriptions of India, for instance those of the early Kshatrapa ruler Rudraman in the 1st century are found in Gujarat. Most other rulers of this time were still using Prakrit. Sanskrit is identified with the support of Brahmanism and varnashrama dharma; Prakrit, in most cases, meant a support of Buddhism and other shramana religions. Buddhism had very little hold in Gujarat; Jainism had some bases of strength, but it rather early became an enclave religion, content to accept the political hegemony of Brahmanism. Rajputs the "agnikula kshatriyas" whose duty was to destroy the mileccha, the barbarians, and uphold the varnashrama dharma became a powerful force. The State's economic prosperity, then, was surrounded by military and social orthodoxy.
During the colonial period, there was no strong upsurge of Untouchables, and in contrast to neighbouring Maharashtra, the non-Brahmans (or former Shudras) appeared ready enough to accept the hegemony of the upper castes. Patels identified as Vaishyas. There was no broad democratic movement of the sort that took place under the leadership of Phule and Ambedkar in Maharashtra, or Pandit Iyothee Thass and Periyar in Tamil Nadu. Among other things, this meant that little positive action was taken for ending untouchability. Dalit students, for instance, did not get entry into hostels until decades after they did in Maharashtra.
Even the ferment in places such as Uttar Pradesh, where OBCs and Dalits are now posed against each other, did not take place in Gujarat, Instead, in the post-Independence period, Gujarati OBCs got absorbed as lower "Kshatriyas" in the "KHAM" alliance of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims. This gave a foundation for Congress political power, but it provided no moral or ideological force for anti-caste social transformation.
A third factor is undoubtedly the unbalanced, inequalitarian and even faltering development Gujarat has undergone in the years of liberalisation rampant commercialism on the one hand, and pervasive drought and rural neglect on the other.
Finally, Gujarat has been the State of Mahatma Gandhi. The closed gates of the Sabarmati Ashram signal the failure of Gandhism in India. Gandhi had envisaged "Ram Raj" as a harmonious, morally ordered village-based alternative to what he saw as the evils of western industrial civilisation.
He had generally refused to condemn varnashrama dharma, and instead tried to reinterpet it in a way that would allow the removal of untouchability and other excrescences of the caste system. In his 1936 confrontation with Ambedkar, who had called for a radical revolt against the shastras, smritis and other religious texts of Hinduism, Gandhi said that "caste has nothing to do with religion... Varna and Ashrama are institutions which have nothing to do with castes. The law of Varna teaches us that we have each one of us to earn our bread by following the ancestral calling. It defines not our rights but our duties. It also follows that there is no calling too low and none too high. All are good, lawful and absolutely equal in status.
The callings of a Brahman spiritual teacher and a scavenger are equal, and their due performance carries equal merit before God and at one time seems to have carried identical reward before man... And there is nothing in the law of Varna to warrant a belief in untouchability. (The essence of Hinduism is contained in its enunciation of the one and only God as Truth and its bold acceptance of Ahimsa as the law of the human family)."
Underlying and giving meaning to this position of Gandhi was the general framework of elite thinking during the colonial period that "Hinduism" was the national religion of India. It is this basic theme which has to be re-examined today.
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