May 26, 2020
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Reminding, A Rough Art

One would never wish 2002 to have an encore, but to discount that possibility would mean being lulled into complacency.

Reminding, A Rough Art
Illustration by Sorit
Reminding, A Rough Art

Put your finger on a colony in an Indian city where builders do not sell houses to Muslims for fear of scaring away Hindu buyers and where kirana shops do not sell eggs during Navratras. Chances are you will invariably select a city in Gujarat on which to pin this flag of ill-fame. I do not, however, have to go that far. Ten years ago, when identifying a house that could become my “permanent address”, I settled on this colony on the edge of the Indian capital, kissing the road that is a porous border between Uttar Pradesh and the capital. The builders were willing to accept almost the entire value of the property in “white”, bringing down the “cash-down” component of the price. The brokers discreetly ferreted out our religious and caste identities. But only after the deal was clinched was the scribe in me able to get the story: builders did not sell the first houses in their properties to Muslims because there would be no takers then for other units. This has not changed in a decade, and even now, only venturesome shopkeepers sell eggs during the twice-a-year nine-day period of Navaratri.

A few months ago, there was a virtual panic in one of the many malls that have mushroomed near our home. An archetypal bade mian kept going in and out, raising suspicions. Being regulars in the coffee parlour that was the scene of action, we knew there were others too who often behaved similarly. But only he evoked suspicion because he was identified as a Muslim.

In 1985, a close Sikh friend and his brothers decided to alter their look as they did not wish to be looked on with suspicion. They say the Sikhs have “moved on” and the Congress has apologised for 1984. But I’m not sure if those who went through the experience have forgotten the trauma. Younger Sikhs have no memory of it, except those carried forward in texts and family tragedies. But for Muslims, there are bigger giveaways: their names.

There are few politicians in independent India who have been as unwavering and unrelenting as Narendra Modi. In months, he will lead the BJP to its third post-2002 assembly elections. His campaign plank will be unapologetic—altered for just a few add-ons like “development and growth”. There is no challenge to Modi within the BJP in Gujarat; it’s unlikely he will face any from outside. Even if Modi is electorally grounded—bogged down in a legal quagmire—the idea that he has come to represent will only be furthered.

Modi is viewed alternately either as a megalomaniac or as a dictatorial leader. In the media-driven search for catchphrases, Moditva is projected as the “new idea” and the debate is whether it goes beyond Hindutva or is just the implementing strategy of the larger goal. Neither opinion dissects the man and the ideology that groomed him. The two views also fail to comprehend the complex relationship between organisation, leader and the original ideology.

Why did Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi willingly pay with his vice-chancellorship of Deoband’s Darul Uloom? “Moving on” is a nice phrase, but instead of contesting the suggestion and asking ‘How can Muslims forget 2002?’, we must understand where Vastanvi suggested the community “move to”. By projecting the development of Gujarat as his priority, Modi is telling his electorate what Francis Fukuyama recently said the Chinese government was doing: presenting a “growth-promoting dictatorship” as better than a messy democracy that affects governance and social stability.

Muslims in Gujarat have greater stakes in the “system” in Gujarat than elsewhere, where they are numerically significant. In multipolar states, social cleavages are deeper, and Muslims have greater political options. But Gujarat has largely been bipolar, with the BJP neatly taking over from the Swatantra Party of yore in the early 1990s—then overtaking the Congress.

The riots of 2002 were the extreme manifestation of a belief system. To further that belief, one does not require riots to occur regularly. The reminder of a possibility is a sufficient deterrent for the minority to ‘behave’. The Ayodhya agitation may never again draw trainloads of karsevaks, but the idea lives. It survives everywhere, be it in our colony or in Modi’s mind. One would never wish 2002 to have an encore, but to discount that possibility would mean being lulled into complacency. During the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, liberals and radicals said it was a passing phase, and “Indians were inherently secular”. They may not have become completely communal yet—but religion is still a major basis of social identity.

Sadly, Lennon’s song remains only a romantic draw:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
And no religion too,
Imagine all the people living life in peace.

(The columnist is the author of The Demolition: India at the Crossroads, HarperCollins.)

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