INDIA'S `LAB' FOR DIVISIVE POLITICS
Gujarat state is the testing ground for fundamentalists'
of demonizing Muslims to solidify power
MARTIN REGG COHN
Toronto Star Oct. 26, 2003 original
India-Clad in a traditional sari, Abeda Begum could be
woman hunched over her work, rolling incense sticks for 30
cents a day.
her Hindu neighbours across the street, she is a marked
Muslim, living in a marked home, on the wrong side of the
stencilled on her doorframe - IRC 212 - announces a shelter
donated by the local Islamic Relief Committee. It also signifies
was ground zero for the Hindu fundamentalist pogrom that
2,000 Muslims dead in the coastal state of Gujarat last year.
In an explosion
of mob violence that stunned the world, Begum lost her home
- and some loved
many Indians fear the country's secular foundations are
aftermath of the riots, Gujarat's Hindu fundamentalist
handily won re-election on a platform of "Hindutva" -
an ideology that
stresses the Hindu-ness of India and the pre-eminence of
majority. Nationalist politicians whipped up communal passions
campaign trail by demonizing the Muslim minority and effectively
not a single perpetrator has been successfully prosecuted
miscarriage of justice prompted a stinging rebuke of Gujarat
federal supreme court, which last month ordered a retrial
because of alleged
her perch along the muddy, garbage-strewn alley where chickens
cows jostle for space with pedestrians, Begum saw it all:
the slaughter that
spared the animals but claimed so many humans.
neighbours fled for their lives. Their Hindu attackers
down the path in hot pursuit. And the state police watched
is a dead end where the mob of thousands doused her Muslim
with kerosene and burned 92 of them to death. Among them
were the mother and
sister of Begum's husband.
after one of the orphaned survivors, 12-year-old Samina
daughter of her slain sister-in-law. They work together rolling
sticks with their blackened hands, their only source of rupees
husband was let go by Hindu employers in an economic boycott.
doing all this work because the Hindus won't keep Muslim
more and our houses were destroyed, so we have to start from
says plaintively, adjusting the folds of her purple sari.
left everything to the Almighty."
saris worn by women like Begum often leave their midriffs
exposed, which might seem immodest in an Islamic country.
But here it is the
local Hindu fashion, adopted by Muslims as their own in a
state where people
of both religions wear the same clothes, speak the same Gujarati
watch the same movies.
Yet they remain worlds apart.
A busy boulevard at the end of the muddy path is the green
jaywalkers never traverse.
the Sabarmat River that is holy to Hindus is rarely crossed
And in the old city, an historic red-brick wall has been
sealed off and
reinforced by barbed wire to block human passage.
proudly call Gujarat a testing ground for their hard-line
ideology of Hindutva. And Ahmedabad is on the front lines
of a battle that
could remake the country's religious landscape, as politicians
lessons of Gujarat to next year's national elections.
"Now, politics in India will be based on Hindutva," boasted
international secretary-general of the fundamentalist Vishwa
(VHP) or World Hindu Council.
in the triumph of Gujarat's fundamentalists, he described
as a "Hindutva lab" for India, which he vowed will
one day be a Hindu
Rashtra, or Hindu nation. When that happens, "all Hindutva
get the death sentence."
of rioting that erupted in Gujarat last year was the culmination
decades of communal hatred in the Hindu heartland of northwestern
place that is perhaps burdened by too much history and too
spread quickly in February, 2002, when a Muslim mob burned
carrying Hindu activists returning from a trip to the temple
Ayodhya, 1,000 kilometres away in Uttar Pradesh state.
had been campaigning to build a new Hindu temple on the
ruins of the
16th-century Babri mosque - which its members had razed a
claiming it stood on the birthplace of their god-king Lord
month, VHP supporters resumed their protests in Ayodhya,
police to deploy tear gas and riot sticks in arresting more
people. Uttar Pradesh authorities were determined to prevent
a repetition of
the 1992 mosque demolition that sparked nationwide riots.)
that backdrop, Begum feared trouble last year when she
got wind of
the violence at Godhra railway station, 100 kilometres to
the east. Hearing
that 58 VHP activists had been burned to death, she braced
for another cycle
she hadn't counted on was the calculated retribution of
government. While Hindu mobs attacked innocent civilians,
egged them on or watched in silence.
In a report on the violence, We Have No Orders To Save You,
York-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch concluded
that senior state
officials were complicit in the carnage, allowing the ringleaders
to go free
and covering their tracks.
eyes of Idrish Pathan, that verdict still stands today.
every detail of the attacks, right down to the moment someone
"The mob was blind," Pathan says softly. "Someone
chopped my hand with a
awkwardly to his stump, then discreetly hides his arm behind
rickshaw driver, he was forced into retirement at age 22
he could not steer his vehicle with just one hand.
he volunteers for Action Aid, a local group trying to foster
harmony in the neighbourhood.
But his own attempts at securing justice have proved futile.
"The police did nothing," he says dejectedly. "They
were all with the Hindu
When Pathan approached police to identify his assailant,
he says, they
shooed him away with a warning: "This is retaliation
Shomit Mazumdar lives on the other side of the divide.
Pathan, he nurses grievances about the injustices of communalism
though he rues the loss of land, not a limb. Mazumdar, 29,
is still seething
that he had to sell his family home in Ahmedabad's old city
at a loss
because of communal tensions.
"If I'd had that property, things would have been different," he
bitterly. "I would have had more for my lifestyle."
not only about the spectre of Islamic violence but also
of Muslim men seducing Hindu women.
boys, even married ones, try to have friendships with Hindu
tell you, most Muslim guys are very good looking, and Hindu
girls are very
innocent - once they give you their heart, it's easily broken.
personally feel they're spoiling the lives of these Hindu
blood gets hot. We can't stand them."
It's a common refrain among fundamentalists. A VHP pamphlet
urges Hindus to " ensure that our sisters/daughters
do not fall into the love-trap of Muslim
boys" and calls for an economic boycott of Muslims.
hopes for redress lie in the VHP's vision of Hindutva that
transform secular India into a unified Hindu state.
the past half-century of pluralism, he wants Gujarat and
India to embrace the religion of the majority Hindus, who
make up 80 per
cent of India's 1 billion people.
"With Hindutva, we're trying to maintain and protect
Mazumdar, dressed in a crisp shirt, pressed pants and polished
loafers as he
sits in an air-conditioned office near the river.
is what we call Hindutva. It's a way to protect us against
enemy, the Muslims."
no blood on his hands, has never wielded a sword against
the riots, he was safely behind police lines on the Hindu
side of the
bridge spanning the sacred Sabarmat River, where he now lives
and works. But
Mazumdar has no regrets about the bloodshed and hatred for
which Hindutva is
"It's time that the Hindus fight violence with violence," he
approvingly. "We're being taught how to protect ourselves.
was very necessary to respond to Godhra. Now is not the
time to follow
is Gandhi's home state, the place whence he preached pluralism
non-violence. His serene ashram, or religious retreat, sits
on the outskirts
of Ahmedabad, though it attracts few visitors today.
to Gandhi's principles, alcohol is still banned in Gujarat.
the blood still flows and the hatred spills over. The Mahatma's
are largely ignored.
the Congress party that was Gandhi's power base is in opposition
locally and nationally. In its place, Gujarat is governed
by the Hindu
nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Chief Minister
whose wide-eyed denunciations of Muslims made him notorious
- and also won
him another term in power.
not only failed to protect Muslims from mobs but famously
only half the financial compensation promised to Hindu victims.
Modi's most promising lieutenants is Mayaben Kodnani, a
and political firebrand who sits in the provincial assembly.
She can rouse
Hindu crowds on the streets but is poised and soft-spoken
in her tastefully
by sculptures of Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning,
explains that Hindu tolerance has reached its limit.
"You see, the Hindus are never aggressive - they are
begins, fingering her gold necklace absent-mindedly.
from birth, when a Muslim child is still innocent, his
brain is washed
so that he believes he will go to heaven if he converts kaffirs
or else kills them."
Hence, the Hindu backlash.
"They were provoked by the Muslim people," Kodnani
says. "I think the
mentality of Hindus is becoming aggressive. How much longer
can we tolerate
Muslims are also disloyal to Mother India, she argues.
cricket matches, the Muslims here cheer for Pakistan."
face of such provocations, Kodnani says, Hindutva is the
Muslim babies are inculcated from birth with talk of jihad,
rally to their own patriotic propaganda so their religion
can claim its
rightful place, she believes.
who is living in Hindustan (India) must be a Hindu. Hindutva
way to make them patriotic."
politicians like Kodnani, and the top leadership of the
ruling BJP in
New Delhi, draw their inspiration from their fellow travellers
in the Sangh
Pariwar - the "family" of hard-line Hindu movements.
time that the Hindus fight violence with violence. We're
how to protect ourselves'
Shomit Mazumdar, Hindu businessman
and soul of the family is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
or National Volunteer Corps. Boasting more than 36,000 social
is arguably the most successful non-governmental organization
civil society today.
network of charitable organizations makes it a formidable
at the grassroots, whether offering aid after natural disasters
medical clinics and schools. In the same way that Islamic
groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood make inroads
in the Middle
East, the RSS reaps substantial political dividends from
is political Hinduism in the same way as Islamic fundamentalism
political Islam," says Ravi Nair, executive director
of the South Asia Human
Rights Documentation Centre.
building block of the Hindutva corps is the shakha, a local "unit" that
moulds boys into the loyal foot soldiers of a paramilitary
dawn and dusk every day across India, thousands of boys gather
saffron flag of the RSS and pledge allegiance to Hindutva.
in khaki shirts and shorts accented with saffron scarves,
boys assemble outside a park in downtown Mumbai at sunset
for their daily
training. Each recruit salutes the flag sharply with a hand
that chops the
air and smacks the chest.
dutifully sweep the grounds, then snap to attention at
the sound of
a whistle. For an hour, they drill and chant, sing and play
games. It is not
merely male bonding but a Hindutva indoctrination session.
"Hindutva gives me happiness," exclaims
Nikhil Sabnis, 16, a volunteer who
leads the drills. "These boys are from poor families.
They lack the money to
buy cricket bats and balls. Here, they learn about Indian
And Hindu pride.
"You see the discipline?" exults
Sanjay Patel, 39, a VHP district
vice-president. "The continuity is important, like a
mantra. Every day, all
over India, millions of people participate at the same time."
shakha is about more than fun and games. There are summer
camps across the country where children learn martial skills,
RSS's fascist roots as a nationalist movement founded in
the mid-1920s and
modelled on the Nazi party.
RSS slogan, "One nation, one people,
one culture," is
reminiscent of the Nazi chant, "One people, one Reich,
one Fuehrer." Another
popular slogan, "Awakening of Hindus is awakening of
the nation," is the
antithesis of Gandhian pluralism.
Muslims are not the only villains in their sights. The group's
campaign against Christian missionaries culminated in the
1999 murder of
missionary Graham Staines and his two sons when a Hindu mob
car. Last month, an Indian court convicted 13 people for
flirtation with fascism and fundamentalism is leavened
dedication to good deeds.
tour of Mumbai's slum areas, Patel wears a traditional
pyjama outfit as he points out computer labs and dressmaking
provided by the VHP. There is a mobile clinic to dispense
medicines for the
poor and new classrooms that foster future loyalty among
man with a flowing beard, Patel is a professional engineer
keen to show off the VHP's charity work. He resents the unflattering
coverage that focuses on his group's destruction of the Babri
"Now," he frowns, "we
are known only for one thing - Ayodhya."
A few moments later, however, he forgets himself and returns
obsession with Ayodhya, posing beside a VHP van decorated
with a colourful
mural of the proposed new Ram temple painted beside a picture
of the Hindu
slogan alongside the image of Ram proclaims: "Take
the name of the
Lord to every house and the temple will be built in Ayodhya."
explains proudly that this is a "cow-saving chariot," one
specially outfitted vans that tour the countryside to discourage
slaughter of an animal considered sacred by Hindus.
popular campaign is a perfect vehicle for the VHP's broader
deftly blending religious reverence for cows with political
bricks and mortar.
the grassroots, the VHP is building a groundswell of support
leaving its rivals in the dust, says Nair, the human-rights
"You're talking about moulding the formative minds
of children," he says. "A
militaristic view is inculcated in children and they very
easily become foot
soldiers, stormtroopers. It starts as morning drills, but
later it becomes
credits the Hindutva activists for rolling up their sleeves
to win the
hearts and minds of India's devout rural masses.
hard work stands in sharp contrast to the lethargy of secularists
and leftists who lack the commitment of Gandhi's generation
ago, he says.
Hindu fundamentalists are the only ones who go village
to village and
national spokesman Ram Madhav, shakhas and the Ayodhya
campaign hold the potential to touch and transform every
We appeal to his heart and soul, not just the political animal
in him," he
explains at RSS headquarters in New Delhi.
are the kinds of things that make a mark on you if, at
age 6, you
start singing patriotic songs," he says enthusiastically. "And
yet we are
portrayed as the killers of Gandhi!"
it was a Hindu fundamentalist and former RSS member, Nathuram
Godse, who assassinated Gandhi in his New Delhi residence
in 1948, five
months after India won independence.
faulted the Mahatma for being too soft on the Muslims -
his Hindu heritage - when agreeing to partition of the subcontinent
India and Pakistan.
still possible to retrace Gandhi's final steps in the manicured
where he was shot and died almost instantly. Many of those
who make the
pilgrimage to his stately colonial bungalow mourn not only
passing but also the fading of his influence.
all of us, Hindus, Mussulmans (Muslims), Parsis, Sikhs,
amicably as Indians, pledged to live and die for our motherland," reads
quotation from Gandhi affixed to a pillar in the central
inspirational message is muted, however, by a sign at the
directing visitors to "the path along which Gandhi walked
to the prayer
ground on his last day."
A line of cement footsteps in the shape of his sandals eerily
marks the way.
day, a group of office workers - Christian and Hindu -
together to pay homage to Gandhi.
have few illusions that his legacy has much resonance in
Their own friendships defy religious boundaries, yet they
are not sanguine
about their fellow Indians.
generation doesn't know what Gandhi stood for, they're
about Gandhi," says Krishna Joshi, 41, who works as
A Hindu, she blames the communal violence in Gandhi's home
political gamesmanship that has distorted her normally tolerant
"Gandhi believed in protecting the minority," adds
her Christian co-worker,
Premi Britto. Today, she adds, "he would be disappointed,
deeply pained and
Gandhi Museum near his burial place, a Muslim scholar toils
desolate library, a lone figure beneath the ceiling fans.
Khan, 29, worries that Hindutva threatens to replace the
"Ghandi said that unity is strength," Khan explains. "But
now some people
want to destroy that India.
want a battle between Hindus and Muslims and so you see
it all over
the media: Hindutva, Hindutva."
Poring over leather-bound volumes of the Mahatma's collected
works in the "Gandhiana" section, the scholar has no doubt what his
verdict would be.
"Gandhi was a great man," Khan says. "He
would oppose Hindutva."
is long gone, and the Congress party he fostered as a vehicle
secularism is in retreat.
the BJP and its ideological cousins are in the ascendant,
the education system, rewriting textbooks to glorify Hindu
promoting Hindutva to reverse decades of supposed Gandhian
private mansion in the exclusive Golf Links enclave of
capital, VHP president Vishnu Hari Dalmiya, a wealthy industrialist,
entertains top government ministers and plots strategy for
a Hindu revival.
of India's founding fathers "is not
working, it's not
working," says Dalmiya, 75, sitting in his study surrounded
by statues of
minority classes are getting much more privileges than
the Hindus - the
Hindus are neglected."
than half a century after partition, "the Muslims
still have the upper
hand," Dalmiya asserts, adding that they should have
been expelled back
by a hangnail on his ring finger, he summons a servant
pair of cuticle scissors, then returns to his theme: Foreign
influences - by
which he means Islamic, Christian and Western - are diluting
the young, there is no doubt of a cultural invasion coming
Western world," Dalmiya frets. "The young generation,
you find most of them
in jeans, and young people don't pay much attention to religious
they celebrate Christmas, they celebrate Valentine's Day,
birthdays with cake and candles."
Hindutva can protect the majority from the 120 million
amount to a "fifth column" and from the external
threats separating women
from their saris.
must practise their own culture, practise their own dress.
I find the
sari so graceful a dress. Women look so beautiful, I don't
know why they go
doomsday scenarios are familiar to Syed Shahabuddin, a
diplomat who now heads the All India Muslim Consultative
offices are across town from Dalmiya's Golf Links enclave,
the heart of an Islamic slum where the sewers are overflowing
garbage is piled high.
believes the government he once served has been hijacked
Hindu fundamentalists. He says Hindutva has become a slave
obsessed with past grievances, from the Muslim conquest of
500 years ago to
the partition of the subcontinent just over 50 years ago.
Hindutva view, "Muslims were responsible for
partition, so Muslims
are really Pakistani fifth columnists," Shahabuddin
trying to instil an ideology of hatred and fear in the
Hindutva is reaching fascist proportions."
As appalled as he was by the massacre in Gujarat, Shahabuddin
Hindutva's hidden agenda is more insidious.
Muslims making up an estimated 12 per cent of India's 1
they are too numerous to expel or exterminate; instead, the
strategy is to
hem them in with Hindutva.
wise enough to realize that Muslims can't be liquidated
out of India, so they're making life difficult for them," Shahabuddin
if it tries to obliterate the religious identity of Muslims,
the Muslims will not stand for it."
the targets of the Hindu mobs that ran riot in Ahmedabad
last year was
a dilapidated mosque in the centre of the old city.
The Hajrat Pir Noorsha Dargah mosque is next door to the
commissioner's office, though the security forces did nothing
when it was
sustained heavy damage and the holy books were blackened
fire. But the mufti, 40-year-old Akbar Miyan Bapu, is back
in his mosque,
sheltering under its corrugated roof.
Bapu takes solace from the fact he survived the attack along
attendants - who happen to be Hindus.
Hindu devotees still come to the shrine, seeking cures
miracles from the Sufi saints who are revered in this mystical
back on the fighting and suffering, the mufti ponders his
seems a picture of serenity, his hands stained with saffron
and his eyelids
painted with kohl.
"Whatever has happened has happened," Bapu
muses, rubbing his eyes after a
this is a religious site for Muslims, 90 per cent of the
are Hindus. They walk around the mosque four times."
The mosque's enduring attraction for people of all faiths
is no great
mystery. Bapu's Hindu attendant sits cross-legged on the
awaiting his explanation.
comes here, whether Hindu or Muslim, seeks favours by praying
before God," the mufti says. "God is great."