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Gujarat's proclivity to violence

The making of the carnage in Gujarat has its roots in the more pervasive and everyday culture of the region. It is distinctly linked to the retention of a social order that privileges hierarchy and relations of dominance and subordination to the growth of a backward capitalism, and to the failure of a political apparatus. In such a corrupted social sphere, it is not surprising that fundamentalisms have found ready and willing participants, says A.R. VASAVI.

THE recent carnage in Gujarat marked both a continuity and a new beginning in the production of communal violence. It was a continuation of the long years of sporadic communalism and the beginning of a new phase in which violence was organised and orchestrated with the abetment of the State. As so many others have observed, this regional and national shame and sorrow was orchestrated by members of the Sangh Parivar that is emboldened by the fact that the State is constituted by its members and that they will be protected by it. But, the making of this carnage has roots in the more pervasive and everyday culture of the region, the roots of which are more complex and are linked to the retention of a social order that privileges hierarchy and relations of dominance and subordination, the growth of a backward capitalism, and the failure of the political apparatus.

This culture consists of many facets that range from the continued dominance of the upper caste in the region to the new symbols and patterns of consumer capitalism. As the anthropologist Jan Breman has so well documented, Gujarat's agrarian social order still continues to retain its pre-modern structure and relations. The lower-caste groups form not only the pool of agricultural labour but are also tied in forms of agrestic servitude, including that of bonded labour (known is the region as hali) to upper-caste land owners. That caste segregation, difference, discrimination and hostility continue to mark the lives of people was evident in the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake, when even relief supplies and emergency aid were allocated on the bases of caste. As studies by institutions such as the Behavioural Science Centre in St. Xavier's College, Ahmedabad, and the NGO, Navsaran, have documented, atrocities against low-ranked caste persons are not only rampant, but basic rights such as the rights to minimum wages and access to resources are also constantly contested by the dominant land and capital owning caste groups. While large parts of the State's arid and semi-arid belt remain without adequate drought-proofing and drought-alleviation strategies, the landed, dominant caste groups and the successful trading community have hijacked the agenda of development. It is little wonder that despite the reliable documentation of the long-term negative impact of the Narmada dam, a large number of Gujarati peasants and middle classes besides the regular investors have invested substantially in the scheme and remain enamoured by the potential of the gigantic dam and are hostile to the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

The rejection of the ideas and practices of social and economic equality, human and citizenship rights, and secularisation of society can be linked to the growth of a cult of capital. Ithas meant the privileging of a culture in which capital accumulation by any means is the dominant norm. The implications are several. For one, occupational and life success are defined by the volume of one's wealth regardless of the sources and means of such wealth. Is it any wonder that Harshad Mehta, the nation's biggest stock scamster, had become the role model for many teenagers? Further, the need to retain the hegemony of the upper castes has led to the hostility and resentment against most Government directed social justice policies and programmes and to their subsequent thwarting. The resentment and violence that was evident during the anti-Mandal agitations testify to this.

A culture that privileges wealth accumulation by any means also negates the ability to generate and sustain an orientation to learning and knowledge. The result of this has meant the inability of the society to generate a broader culture in which the positive elements of its "traditions" could have combined to foster adherence to universalist values of tolerance, pluralism, civic engagement, and secularism. In fact, the disregard for even the rudiments of "modern" education has led, in Ahmedabad, to a shortage of mid-level professionals and the subsequent reliance on English educated mid-level professionals from other States to fill in this gap. But even among those who do occupy such positions and posts, most see their employment as only assured security and most moonlight as insurance agents or spend a large proportion of their working hours in transacting investments in stocks and shares. While Ahmedabad has always had the reputation of having the most complicated and effective ways to evade taxes, the large-scale collapse of high-rise buildings in the city, in the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake, stood as testimony to the rampant violation of building and civic regulations. Few regional cultures in the nation suffer from the "afflictions of affluence" as much as the dominant Gujarati culture.

The post-1991 liberalisation agenda has only strengthened this cult of capital. The established norm of accumulation is combined with the new culture of conspicuous consumption. But even as this consumerism marks Ahmedabad with its symbols of affluence and a good life, the lives of the working poor have been continually degraded. Since the 1980s, several unaccountable and irresponsible industrial houses have shut factories and workshops leaving the workers with no security or compensation. The State has compounded workers' distress by not providing sustenance or alternative livelihoods. As in most cities, Ahmedabad's informal sector has swelled with the displaced industrial workers and the growing rural immigrants. Forming the backbone of the city's menial and service labour force, the poor live in ghettoised settlements, the conditions of which would make Dicken's London look like paradise.

Such social and cultural conditions have been compounded by the growing criminalisation of politics, rampant corruption in all levels of bureaucracy and administration and the absence of any committed civil society. In such a corrupted social sphere, the long arm of fundamentalisms, of pan-Islamism and Hindutva has found ready and willing participants. Despite the increasing vitiation of the public sphere and the growing animosities and hostilities between different groups, the elite industrial houses have sought to invest in the famed entrepreneurial spirit of the region. Several successful industrial houses such as Nirma and Reliance have started educational institutions that focus on enhancing only the entrepreneurial and capitalist spirit of the region's people. The Gujarati diaspora has also not been an agency and source of genuine modernity. Instead, the NRI Gujarati has become an active agent in renewing "traditional" ties and buttressing the nostalgia-driven search for "Hindu" culture. Further, the absence of any substantial and widespread social reform movement (the Swadhyaya movement is restricted to a fringe area) has compounded the dominance of a caste and communal mentality.

In the context of such economic and cultural developments, the need to prescribe to and support the Hindutva agenda has several bases. For one, in its principles and orientations, Hindutva retains the caste-based hierarchical social structure and assures the dominant castes the rights to continue to enjoy the privileges of having a range of people to subordinate. Its symbolic and iconic significance lie in the promise Hindutva makes to retain the supremacy of a Hindu and, therefore, caste order. That people other than the upper caste groups are also subscribers and activists to this agenda testifies to the failure of any alternative social movement and orientation to have gained ground in the region and to the internalisation of the principles of difference and hierarchy among all sections of the people.


No space for the voices of the judicious and the tolerant.

Despite the slow, but sure, growth of the Hindutva agenda in the region, there have been few active voices against its growing presence and strength. Over the years, the agents of the Sangh Parivar have protested against an exhibition by M. F Hussain, assaulted students on a campus and have made demands for re-naming Ahmedabad as Ambavadi.

More significantly, these agents have become crusaders for the Ayodhya issue and while mobilising support among the young, and largely lumpen groups, have spearheaded a hate campaign against the religious minorities. Their activities have included the development of a list that identifies religious minorities, open support for acts such as the brutal killing of Staines and his children, participation in rituals in which Christian tribals have been re-converted to "Hinduism", and the free distribution of trishuls to large numbers of their supporters. Such activities have not only spread and strengthened the support base of the Hindutva mob but have led them to become brazen and brutal.

In the midst of such development there has been no space for the voices of the judicious and the tolerant. Observing such trends, many have commented on the irony that these violent incidents should have taken place in the land of Gandhi. Such commentaries overlook the fact that Gandhi did not call for a substantial re-working of the social order or for the eradication of the hierarchical structure of Hindu society. It has been the retention of this hierarchical order and the failure to have absorbed the ideals of modernity that have led to an emergent culture that is evacuated of even the most elementary positive "traditional" principles. Though several examples of this may be cited, perhaps what is striking in this context of violence is the fact that though vegetarianism is a much celebrated and vaunted practice in the dominant culture of region, people overlook the very principle of ahimsa, or non-violence against all creatures and fellow human beings, of which vegetarianism is only a part.

Gujarat today encapsulates all the symptoms and signs of a region in which the marketisation of society has been successful but in which neither democratisation nor secularisation have made much headway.

In a landscape in which capital, consumerism and communalism mark the everyday lives of people, there has been little scope for talk and debates about the civil, human, and citizenship rights of all people. The environment is marked by intense and insidious competition so much so that the businesses and lives of the religious minorities, especially that of the Muslims, have been construed as the source of a range of problems. Worse yet what makes this recent carnage a marker in the history of communal violence is its organisational structure. In many ways, the orchestration and implementation of the carnage in Ahmedabad and in the numerous towns and villages in the State are similar to the strategy elucidated by the Nazis . The distribution of hate mail and threat letters, the continued atrocities against the Muslims, and the disruptions of peace meetings testify to the extent to which the pogrom has wider acceptance and is embedded in a culture that has lost its principles of humanity and decency.

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