Gujarat state is the testing ground for fundamentalists' `Hindutva' strategy of demonizing Muslims to solidify power


Toronto Star Oct. 26, 2003 original

AHMEDABAD, India-Clad in a traditional sari, Abeda Begum could be any Hindu woman hunched over her work, rolling incense sticks for 30 cents a day.

But to her Hindu neighbours across the street, she is a marked woman: a Muslim, living in a marked home, on the wrong side of the divide.

The address stencilled on her doorframe - IRC 212 - announces a shelter donated by the local Islamic Relief Committee. It also signifies something more stark.

This was ground zero for the Hindu fundamentalist pogrom that left nearly 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 ones.

Now, many Indians fear the country's secular foundations are also being shaken.

In the aftermath of the riots, Gujarat's Hindu fundamentalist government handily won re-election on a platform of "Hindutva" - an ideology that stresses the Hindu-ness of India and the pre-eminence of its religious majority. Nationalist politicians whipped up communal passions on the campaign trail by demonizing the Muslim minority and effectively sanctifying the pogrom.

Today, not a single perpetrator has been successfully prosecuted by the state government.

That miscarriage of justice prompted a stinging rebuke of Gujarat by the federal supreme court, which last month ordered a retrial because of alleged witness-tampering.

Yet from her perch along the muddy, garbage-strewn alley where chickens and cows jostle for space with pedestrians, Begum saw it all: the slaughter that spared the animals but claimed so many humans.

Her Muslim neighbours fled for their lives. Their Hindu attackers charged down the path in hot pursuit. And the state police watched from the sidelines.

There is a dead end where the mob of thousands doused her Muslim neighbours with kerosene and burned 92 of them to death. Among them were the mother and sister of Begum's husband.

She looks after one of the orphaned survivors, 12-year-old Samina Begum, daughter of her slain sister-in-law. They work together rolling the incense sticks with their blackened hands, their only source of rupees since Begum's husband was let go by Hindu employers in an economic boycott.

"I'm doing all this work because the Hindus won't keep Muslim workers any more and our houses were destroyed, so we have to start from scratch," Begum says plaintively, adjusting the folds of her purple sari.

"I've left everything to the Almighty."

The flowing saris worn by women like Begum often leave their midriffs partly 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 dialect and watch the same movies.

Yet they remain worlds apart.

A busy boulevard at the end of the muddy path is the green line that
jaywalkers never traverse.

Downtown, the Sabarmat River that is holy to Hindus is rarely crossed by Muslims.

And in the old city, an historic red-brick wall has been sealed off and
reinforced by barbed wire to block human passage.

Fundamentalists 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 apply the lessons of Gujarat to next year's national elections.

"Now, politics in India will be based on Hindutva," boasted Praveen Togadia, international secretary-general of the fundamentalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or World Hindu Council.

Basking in the triumph of Gujarat's fundamentalists, he described the state as a "Hindutva lab" for India, which he vowed will one day be a Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu nation. When that happens, "all Hindutva opponents will get the death sentence."

The orgy of rioting that erupted in Gujarat last year was the culmination of decades of communal hatred in the Hindu heartland of northwestern India, a place that is perhaps burdened by too much history and too little tolerance.

News spread quickly in February, 2002, when a Muslim mob burned a train carrying Hindu activists returning from a trip to the temple town of Ayodhya, 1,000 kilometres away in Uttar Pradesh state.

The VHP had been campaigning to build a new Hindu temple on the ruins of the 16th-century Babri mosque - which its members had razed a decade earlier, claiming it stood on the birthplace of their god-king Lord Ram.

(This month, VHP supporters resumed their protests in Ayodhya, prompting police to deploy tear gas and riot sticks in arresting more than 17,000 people. Uttar Pradesh authorities were determined to prevent a repetition of the 1992 mosque demolition that sparked nationwide riots.)

Against 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 of retaliation.

What she hadn't counted on was the calculated retribution of the Gujarat government. While Hindu mobs attacked innocent civilians, state authorities egged them on or watched in silence.

In a report on the violence, We Have No Orders To Save You, the New
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.

In the eyes of Idrish Pathan, that verdict still stands today. He remembers every detail of the attacks, right down to the moment someone severed his forearm.

"The mob was blind," Pathan says softly. "Someone chopped my hand with a dagger."

He motions awkwardly to his stump, then discreetly hides his arm behind his T-shirt.

A motorized rickshaw driver, he was forced into retirement at age 22 because he could not steer his vehicle with just one hand.

Now, he volunteers for Action Aid, a local group trying to foster communal 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 mob."

When Pathan approached police to identify his assailant, he says, they
shooed him away with a warning: "This is retaliation for Godhra."

Shomit Mazumdar lives on the other side of the divide.

Like 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 says
bitterly. "I would have had more for my lifestyle."

He rages not only about the spectre of Islamic violence but also the menace of Muslim men seducing Hindu women.

"Muslim boys, even married ones, try to have friendships with Hindu girls. I 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.

"I personally feel they're spoiling the lives of these Hindu girls. Our
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.

Mazumdar's hopes for redress lie in the VHP's vision of Hindutva that would transform secular India into a unified Hindu state.

Renouncing the past half-century of pluralism, he wants Gujarat and all of 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 ourselves," says
Mazumdar, dressed in a crisp shirt, pressed pants and polished loafers as he sits in an air-conditioned office near the river.

"This is what we call Hindutva. It's a way to protect us against our only
enemy, the Muslims."

He has no blood on his hands, has never wielded a sword against people like Pathan.

During 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 often faulted.

"It's time that the Hindus fight violence with violence," he says
approvingly. "We're being taught how to protect ourselves.

"It was very necessary to respond to Godhra. Now is not the time to follow Gandhi's way."

Gujarat is Gandhi's home state, the place whence he preached pluralism and non-violence. His serene ashram, or religious retreat, sits on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, though it attracts few visitors today.

In deference to Gandhi's principles, alcohol is still banned in Gujarat. But the blood still flows and the hatred spills over. The Mahatma's teachings are largely ignored.

Today, the Congress party that was Gandhi's power base is in opposition both locally and nationally. In its place, Gujarat is governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Chief Minister Narenda Modi, whose wide-eyed denunciations of Muslims made him notorious - and also won him another term in power.

Modi not only failed to protect Muslims from mobs but famously offered them only half the financial compensation promised to Hindu victims.

Among Modi's most promising lieutenants is Mayaben Kodnani, a gynecologist 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 furnished home.

Flanked by sculptures of Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning, Kodnani explains that Hindu tolerance has reached its limit.

"You see, the Hindus are never aggressive - they are peace-loving," she begins, fingering her gold necklace absent-mindedly.

"But 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 (infidels) 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 this?"

Muslims are also disloyal to Mother India, she argues.

"During cricket matches, the Muslims here cheer for Pakistan."

In the face of such provocations, Kodnani says, Hindutva is the solution. If Muslim babies are inculcated from birth with talk of jihad, Hindus must rally to their own patriotic propaganda so their religion can claim its rightful place, she believes.

"Everyone who is living in Hindustan (India) must be a Hindu. Hindutva is a way to make them patriotic."

Local 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.

`It's time that the Hindus fight violence with violence. We're being taught how to protect ourselves'

Shomit Mazumdar, Hindu businessman

The heart and soul of the family is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or National Volunteer Corps. Boasting more than 36,000 social programs, it is arguably the most successful non-governmental organization in Indian civil society today.

Its vast network of charitable organizations makes it a formidable presence at the grassroots, whether offering aid after natural disasters or building medical clinics and schools. In the same way that Islamic fundamentalist groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood make inroads in the Middle East, the RSS reaps substantial political dividends from its charitable work.

"Hindutva is political Hinduism in the same way as Islamic fundamentalism is political Islam," says Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre.

The basic building block of the Hindutva corps is the shakha, a local "unit" that moulds boys into the loyal foot soldiers of a paramilitary movement. At dawn and dusk every day across India, thousands of boys gather under the saffron flag of the RSS and pledge allegiance to Hindutva.

Dressed in khaki shirts and shorts accented with saffron scarves, two dozen 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.

The boys 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 history and culture."

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."

But the shakha is about more than fun and games. There are summer training camps across the country where children learn martial skills, recalling the RSS's fascist roots as a nationalist movement founded in the mid-1920s and modelled on the Nazi party.

The long-standing 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 incendiary
campaign against Christian missionaries culminated in the 1999 murder of missionary Graham Staines and his two sons when a Hindu mob burned their car. Last month, an Indian court convicted 13 people for the murders.

But Hindutva's flirtation with fascism and fundamentalism is leavened by its dedication to good deeds.

On a tour of Mumbai's slum areas, Patel wears a traditional white kurta pyjama outfit as he points out computer labs and dressmaking lessons provided by the VHP. There is a mobile clinic to dispense medicines for the poor and new classrooms that foster future loyalty among underprivileged students.

A jovial man with a flowing beard, Patel is a professional engineer who is keen to show off the VHP's charity work. He resents the unflattering media coverage that focuses on his group's destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

"Now," he frowns, "we are known only for one thing - Ayodhya."

A few moments later, however, he forgets himself and returns to his
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 god-king.

A Hindi slogan alongside the image of Ram proclaims: "Take the name of the Lord to every house and the temple will be built in Ayodhya."

Patel explains proudly that this is a "cow-saving chariot," one of 500
specially outfitted vans that tour the countryside to discourage the
slaughter of an animal considered sacred by Hindus.

This popular campaign is a perfect vehicle for the VHP's broader agenda, deftly blending religious reverence for cows with political ambitions for bricks and mortar.

By tending the grassroots, the VHP is building a groundswell of support and leaving its rivals in the dust, says Nair, the human-rights advocate.

"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 thuggery."

Nair credits the Hindutva activists for rolling up their sleeves to win the hearts and minds of India's devout rural masses.

The VHP's hard work stands in sharp contrast to the lethargy of secularists and leftists who lack the commitment of Gandhi's generation a half-century ago, he says.

"The Hindu fundamentalists are the only ones who go village to village and hold meetings."

For RSS national spokesman Ram Madhav, shakhas and the Ayodhya temple campaign hold the potential to touch and transform every Hindu.

" We appeal to his heart and soul, not just the political animal in him," he explains at RSS headquarters in New Delhi.

"These 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!"

In fact, 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.

Godse faulted the Mahatma for being too soft on the Muslims - and betraying his Hindu heritage - when agreeing to partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.

It is still possible to retrace Gandhi's final steps in the manicured garden where he was shot and died almost instantly. Many of those who make the pilgrimage to his stately colonial bungalow mourn not only the Mahatma's passing but also the fading of his influence.

"Let all of us, Hindus, Mussulmans (Muslims), Parsis, Sikhs, Christians live amicably as Indians, pledged to live and die for our motherland," reads a quotation from Gandhi affixed to a pillar in the central hall. His
inspirational message is muted, however, by a sign at the rear exit
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.

On this day, a group of office workers - Christian and Hindu - has come together to pay homage to Gandhi.

They have few illusions that his legacy has much resonance in modern India. Their own friendships defy religious boundaries, yet they are not sanguine about their fellow Indians.

"Today's generation doesn't know what Gandhi stood for, they're not taught about Gandhi," says Krishna Joshi, 41, who works as a researcher.

A Hindu, she blames the communal violence in Gandhi's home state on
political gamesmanship that has distorted her normally tolerant religion.

"Gandhi believed in protecting the minority," adds her Christian co-worker, Premi Britto. Today, she adds, "he would be disappointed, deeply pained and sorrowed."

At the Gandhi Museum near his burial place, a Muslim scholar toils in the desolate library, a lone figure beneath the ceiling fans. Asad Mohammed Khan, 29, worries that Hindutva threatens to replace the Mahatma's message of secularism.

"Ghandi said that unity is strength," Khan explains. "But now some people want to destroy that India.

"They 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."

But Gandhi is long gone, and the Congress party he fostered as a vehicle of secularism is in retreat.

Today, the BJP and its ideological cousins are in the ascendant, recasting the education system, rewriting textbooks to glorify Hindu history, promoting Hindutva to reverse decades of supposed Gandhian appeasement of religious minorities.

In his private mansion in the exclusive Golf Links enclave of the national capital, VHP president Vishnu Hari Dalmiya, a wealthy industrialist, entertains top government ministers and plots strategy for a Hindu revival.

The secularism of India's founding fathers "is not working, it's not
working," says Dalmiya, 75, sitting in his study surrounded by statues of Hindu gods.

"The minority classes are getting much more privileges than the Hindus - the Hindus are neglected."

More than half a century after partition, "the Muslims still have the upper hand," Dalmiya asserts, adding that they should have been expelled back then.

Distracted by a hangnail on his ring finger, he summons a servant with a pair of cuticle scissors, then returns to his theme: Foreign influences - by which he means Islamic, Christian and Western - are diluting India's Hindu heritage.

"Among the young, there is no doubt of a cultural invasion coming from the Western world," Dalmiya frets. "The young generation, you find most of them in jeans, and young people don't pay much attention to religious rituals - they celebrate Christmas, they celebrate Valentine's Day, they celebrate birthdays with cake and candles."

Only Hindutva can protect the majority from the 120 million Muslims who amount to a "fifth column" and from the external threats separating women from their saris.

"They 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 after jeans."

The VHP's doomsday scenarios are familiar to Syed Shahabuddin, a former diplomat who now heads the All India Muslim Consultative Committee.

His cramped offices are across town from Dalmiya's Golf Links enclave, in the heart of an Islamic slum where the sewers are overflowing and the garbage is piled high.

Shahabuddin believes the government he once served has been hijacked by Hindu fundamentalists. He says Hindutva has become a slave of history, obsessed with past grievances, from the Muslim conquest of 500 years ago to the partition of the subcontinent just over 50 years ago.

In the Hindutva view, "Muslims were responsible for partition, so Muslims are really Pakistani fifth columnists," Shahabuddin explains.

"They're trying to instil an ideology of hatred and fear in the Hindu mind. Hindutva is reaching fascist proportions."

As appalled as he was by the massacre in Gujarat, Shahabuddin fears
Hindutva's hidden agenda is more insidious.

With Muslims making up an estimated 12 per cent of India's 1 billion people, they are too numerous to expel or exterminate; instead, the strategy is to hem them in with Hindutva.

"They're wise enough to realize that Muslims can't be liquidated or pushed out of India, so they're making life difficult for them," Shahabuddin says."

But Hindutva, if it tries to obliterate the religious identity of Muslims, the Muslims will not stand for it."

Among 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 police
commissioner's office, though the security forces did nothing when it was overrun.

The structure sustained heavy damage and the holy books were blackened by 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 with two
attendants - who happen to be Hindus.

Indeed, Hindu devotees still come to the shrine, seeking cures and other miracles from the Sufi saints who are revered in this mystical strain of Islam.

Looking back on the fighting and suffering, the mufti ponders his fate. He 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 midday nap.

"Though this is a religious site for Muslims, 90 per cent of the worshippers 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 dirt-encrusted mat, awaiting his explanation.

"Whosoever comes here, whether Hindu or Muslim, seeks favours by praying before God," the mufti says. "God is great."