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Ripping up the rainbow

Incandescent: Hindutva zealots rage against the arrest of Sadhvi Pragya, a Hindu ascetic, under suspicion of a terror attack.


There was a faint chill of approaching winter as I got into a taxi late one night two years ago. Tehelka, the newsmagazine I work with, had just broken a major investigation. It was an hour past midnight. The airwaves were still crackling with the amplifying shames of the story as television anchors quizzed a conveyor belt of public figures on its implications.

In February 2002, 59 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya – the symbolically surcharged birthplace of Lord Ram – had been burnt alive in a train by a Muslim mob in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Over the next week, retaliatory Hindu mobs hacked and burned 2,500 Muslims across the state. As the world watched in shock, an impenitent government led by the rightwing Hindutva Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) put out smart theories about ‘action and spontaneous reaction’ – Hindu retaliation for Muslim crime – and refused to apologize.

A year later, though evidence of his culpability was piled high, Gujarat strongman Narendra Modi – an inscrutable fascist and skilled demagogue – was re-elected as chief minister of Gujarat on a mega vote: a terrifying reflection of popular Hindu sentiment in the state. Success can be a tremendous sanction. With the fig leaf of the popular mandate in his pocket, even India’s liberal élite began to look the other way.

Now four years later – coincidentally just as Mr Modi was gearing up for another election – our investigation had ripped off the scab. Going undercover for six months, our journalist had exploded the myth of ‘spontaneous reaction’ and nailed not just the State’s apathy but its active collusion in the pogrom of 2002.1 He caught an array of senior officials on hidden camera boasting about how they had burnt and killed Muslims in 2002 and how the state apparatus had not only looked away but often actively participated in the massacres. They spoke also of staged arrests, charade trials and government-manufactured witnesses bribed to lie.

Beneath the skin

We thought the story explosive. These were not just victims casting allegations; these were actual perpetrators owning up to the crime. The story would have detonated any mature civil society. At the very least, it would have warranted the dismissal of the government. But here, after the first excited burst of airtime, it fell into a paralytic well of silence. The government at the centre, now led by the Congress Party – supposed custodian of India’s grand secular-liberal ethos, a party that had steered India to independence and had inherited Nehru and Gandhi’s legacy – ducked for cover, too terrified of the ‘Hindu vote’ to go on the offensive. The Muslims of Gujarat cowered angrily, fearful of backlash. And Mr Modi? He won yet another landslide victory.

In the period since, Mr Modi has undergone a telling metamorphosis. Though he has refused to express even cosmetic regret, liberal media houses have invited him to their ‘leadership summits’; Ratan Tata – the internationally celebrated Indian corporate giant – has publicly endorsed his governance in Gujarat; other corporate czars have touted him as a prime minister-in-waiting, and even as news of continuing miscarriages of justice trickle in from his state, middle-class Indians now openly toast his probity and iron strength of purpose.

Gujarat is a symptom both of old passions beneath the skin and of new directions India is taking. A symptom of the raging chaos India can become if the rhetoric of pluralism and equal citizenship that gave it birth is leached further from its psyche.

That chilly night two years ago, as I pulled away from the television studios after the story broke, my taxi driver, a kindly man with a courteous air, asked me what all the fuss was about. I told him the brutal story. He listened patiently, then told a story of his own. ‘I was in Bombay from 1988 to 1996,’ he said. ‘The Muslims had become so aggressive, we Hindus couldn’t walk the streets. Even the police threw up their hands. That’s when Bal Thackeray [leader of the Shiv Sena, an extreme right, chauvinistic Hindu party known for vigilantism] took matters into his hands. He beat the Muslims, burnt their houses and stripped them. I was there. I saw it. Since then, there is peace. Now the Muslims don’t speak up. Many of them have left Bombay. Bala sahib did the right thing.’  

The disembodied voice streaming out of the night stood for a vast hinterland of similar thought.

A soaring idea

Modern nations are usually built on a principle of natural logic. But India’s creation in 1947 as a polyphonic secular democracy was an act of unparalleled inspiration and audacity which defied logic. There was nothing that suggested such a nation could be willed into being; and survive. Quite apart from its many fractious and daunting multiplicities – ethnic, religious, lingual, caste, class – India was a Hindu-majority country. The birth of Pakistan – an Islamic state wrested out of a brutal Partition on either side of its border – could have been reason enough to bury the idea of India as a rainbow nation of equal people and equal religions. But inexplicably – flying in the face of logic and apparent reason – India’s founders persisted. And so, a soaring idea was born.

India: a modern democracy, straddling a billion people, a dozen major religions, more than 24 official languages, and hundreds of different dialects, castes and tribes, that went straight from centuries of colonial rule to complete and inclusive adult suffrage. In one fluid leap of the imagination. A Hindu-majority democracy that enshrined the rights of minorities as equal citizens.

Nobility, of course, has a way of sliding into the banal. As the first acetylene years after Independence receded, the idea of India was slowly reduced to clichés. ‘Unity in diversity’ is the one we all grew up on as schoolchildren. We laughed at its pieties and parroted its lessons – opaque to its hard-won significance. Still, it slipped into our bloodstream, unconsciously tuning our vision. India had remained a fractious nation, rumbling beneath the surface with unresolved tensions. If you were a Hindu, inevitably, you would have swum in an atmosphere of prejudice against Muslims. Mutterings against ‘these people’ and their dirty ghettoes, their mushrooming children and three wives, their covert allegiance to Pakistan. If  you were Muslim, you would have both feared Hindu contamination and Hindu domination. Occasionally, you might have erupted in belligerent assertions. The wounds and resentments of Partition were still raw; new governments had added new mistakes. But still, the official line held – casting a balm of pragmatic courtesy over the faultlines. Unity in diversity: such clichés were bridges that pointed to a healed future. Everyone was nailed to that higher bar.

Fear and loathing

In the early 90s though, the vocabulary that taped the nation together was violently ripped apart by a chauvinist Hindu right-wing movement. In a tactically spectacular move, its charismatic leader LK Advani rode a chariot across the country urging Hindus to throw off their historical stupor – a stupor that had enabled centuries of Islamic and British colonial rule – and reclaim their rightful place as the dominant race in a modern nation.

These were not just victims casting allegations; these were actual perpetrators owning up to the crime

Advani’s exhortation had two main planks: the first was a call to hate Muslims, the second, a call to hate oneself. Hindus were injected with a deep self-disgust, upbraided for being effeminate, effete, accommodating, internecine. The ravages of medieval India were hauled out as evidence. You have always let others invade and subjugate you, you have let yourself and your temples be desecrated, roared the demagogues. From this humiliating story of emasculation and injury arose a belated, almost psychopathic desire for ‘masculinity’: an appetite for brute domination. Not a modern desire to confront differences through the rule of law, but a crude desire for reprisal.

Hinduism was being refashioned into Hindutva. An ancient, open, impossibly diverse religion, whose variants often shared nothing in common but a philosophical core, was being remoulded into an organizing principle for a European-style majoritarian nation-state.

The ironies, of course, were laughable. Both classical Hinduism and its many tribal and pagan versions have traditionally placed the female principle, Shakti – with all its complex attributes and gift for canny accommodations, argument and anarchy – as its organizing genius. Rejecting this unique trait, Hindutva ‘defenders of tradition’ seek to throw tradition aside and remodel Hindus along much more prudish, masculine and homogenizing lines, imitating aspects of Protestant Christianity and Islam – cultures they, ironically, profess to hate.

Chain of blood

LK Advani’s journey by chariot unleashed a causal chain that is still reverberating through the country two decades later. Its immediate call to action was the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of the gods in the Hindu pantheon and protagonist of the beloved epic, Ramayan. The story went that in the 16th century, a temple built on the exact birthplace of Lord Ram in Ayodhya was destroyed by a general in the Muslim invader Babur’s army. A mosque – Babri Masjid – was built in its place. The Hindu Right could not have chosen a more dangerous and potent rallying point. In urging Hindus to correct this ‘historic wrong’, Advani, and the political spectrum he represented, pressed a detonator. They ripped the founding story – the wise fairytale – that had taped the nation together.

Cultural tensions that had bubbled beneath the skin since Partition, finding release in occasional sputtering violence, were now given volcanic mouth. Brazen majoritarianism was legitimized. The self-defining clichés of unity slipped. 

On 6 December 1992, thousands of saffron-clad Hindutva zealots stormed the Babri Masjid and hacked it to the ground – in full view of the world. Bloody riots broke out across the country; Bombay was the worst. A few weeks later, serial bomb blasts sponsored from across the border ripped through the city: the first of ominous Muslim retaliations. A lethal chain of ‘cause and effect’ had been set in motion. The burning of the train carrying Hindu pilgrims (by all accounts an accidental act of Muslim mob fury); the organized pogrom of Muslims that followed in Gujarat; the paranoid silence that greeted Tehelka’s damaging investigation are all a piece of that.

The genie was out of its bottle. Almost 18 years later, India is still fumbling for ways to put it back in.

Trick mirrors

If India were not such a vast and complex country, a giant causeway of trick mirrors, where each story is only as true as its counter story, you could be forgiven for thinking it is falling apart. Over the past year, Hindutva mobs have ransacked churches and killed scores of Dalit Christians in the states of Orissa and Karnataka (both ruled by the BJP or its affiliates). The immediate kindling: the brutal murder of a Hindu religious leader in the region. The combustion? Old lava beneath the skin: resentment against Christian missionaries and their project of conversion.

Equally, the past year has seen some of the worst terror attacks in the country. Serial bomb blasts in Delhi, Bangalore, Jaipur, Assam, Gujarat. Culminating – for now – in the assault on Mumbai on 26 November 2008. Two five-star hotels, one hospital, one railway station, one café, 24/7 television and the whole world as witness: ten boys holding a country hostage. The Hindu rage of 1992 seems to have found its Muslim doppelgänger. Ordinary people must now suffer alternating waves of hate and revenge.

Before the hate and revenge though, there is always the rhetoric. Identity politics has a way of spawning colourful characters, the silver-tongued orators who stir the simmering brew. A few months ago, working on an interview series called ‘Provocations – Ideas of India’, I began to seek out people with vastly, often violently, different views on India. Late one afternoon, I got a call from Prakash Sharma, the national convenor of the Bajrang Dal – one of the most disruptive rumps of the Hindutva bandwidth, accused of engineering the ransacking of Christians’ properties in Orissa. He was in Delhi and ready to meet me. It wasn’t the most opportune of calls. I was dressed for late summer in spaghetti straps; I expected him to be appalled.

It was a curious meeting. Sharma looked every bit the stereotype: a badger with bushy eyebrows, booming voice and hair-trigger aggression. But he also had an unexpectedly disarming capacity for irony. For three hours he equivocated about violence and Muslims. Hindus like him had nothing against Muslims per se, he said, but why did they live in such a closed universe? Why did they take their cultural cues from Arabia? Why did they cheer for Pakistan in cricket matches? Why were they bent on altering the country’s demography? Why did they refuse to assimilate? Hindus, he said, were a tolerant, liberal people. They had 320 million gods. To absorb one more Christ or Muhammad into the pantheon was child’s play. India was, after all, a Hindu country, so why couldn’t Indian Muslims just call themselves ‘Muhammad-believing Hindus’? You could counter his reasoning, but he did not represent reason, his area of operation was the subterranean, the irrational, the lurking id in you that said, yes, why don’t they assimilate? At one point, after a particularly heated exchange, he suddenly laughed and said: ‘Pardon me for shouting, I am from the Bajrang Dal, I am trained to shout.’ When I pointed out that he was leaping from issue to issue devoid of logic, he said humorously: ‘To leap is my job. I am from the Bajrang Dal’ – a self-deprecatory reference to his outfit’s acrobatic assaults. Through the afternoon he had not seemed the least uncomfortable about what I was wearing. As we left though, he held my photographer back and said, ‘Hinduize your madam a little, she doesn’t think like a Hindu.’

Peace train: Muslim clerics make a symbolic journey to promote communal harmony.


The fragrance of home

Exactly a week later, I walked up a narrow stairwell in a Muslim locality to meet Yasin Patel, a former office bearer of SIMI – the Students Islamic Movement of India. A politically strident organization, SIMI is widely held to be the nursery of Muslim radicalism in India. Within hours of any terror strike both government and media habitually put out stories attributing the strike to SIMI. It is a convenient scapegoat, an effective palliative.

India was, after all, a Hindu country, so why couldn’t Indian Muslims just call themselves ‘Muhammad-believing Hindus’?

However, a Tehelka investigation in July last year had made a dent in the consensus. It had exposed disturbing stories of scores of innocent Muslims arrested under the SIMI smokescreen.2 Yasin Patel was one of them. He had been arrested under a draconian anti-terror law and kept in jail for 22 months. His crime? Pasting a poster that said: ‘No Democracy, No Secularism, No Nationalism, Only Islam.’ He was Sharma’s counterpart – the extremist Muslim viewpoint. Intellectually, he was far more convincing. He argued cogently about the ills of nationalism and the charade of secularism. He lashed out at the Indian justice system, but swore allegiance to the rule of law. He was maddening and dogged about Islam’s position on women but incisive in his criticism of Hindu society – chaotic, casteist, misogynistic. Provocatively, he believed India could only progress under Islamic rule: red rag to the Hindutva bull. But at the end, in a suddenly plangent note he said: ‘See, Shomaji, actually there is no fight. I have been to the US and Saudi Arabia but when I go to Ahmedabad [his hometown in Gujarat] a kind of fragrance fills my soul. My home there has now become a terrible, dirty colony, but still in my dreams I see the Ahmedabad of my youth. One feels a great love for one’s birthplace, but you can’t hawala [whisk away] that love and turn an untruth into a truth. I am only demonstrating for you why Muslims cannot subjugate themselves in the way the Hindutva brigade would like us to.’ 

Tiring of rage

If Yasin Patel and Prakash Sharma were the only face of India, you could be forgiven for believing its cultural collisions were nearing an endgame. But for every story in India, the counter story is also true. Barely a week after I met Yasin Patel, 6,000 influential Muslim clerics issued a fatwa against terror and boarded a symbolic ‘peace train’ to Hyderabad – a metaphorical masterstroke that sought to reverse LK Advani’s divisive chariot trip two decades earlier. There is also a growing sense within the BJP that communal politics have now hit a point of diminishing returns. Inevitably, ordinary people have started to tire of the cost of rage. They want more governance, less hate. Immediately after the Mumbai terror attack of 26 November, four crucial state elections were held: terrorism did not feature in any of their electoral considerations. Most heartening, under relentless pressure from civil society groups, justice has begun its slow cycle in Gujarat. Several high-ranking police officers and ministers have recently been arrested for the pogrom of 2002. Narendra Modi is starting to look just a little lacklustre.

The point is, inclusiveness in India is not a luxury. Not an act of voluntary chivalry. It is a pragmatism this magnificent country demands of anyone who dreams of ruling it. It is the unique natural logic out of which we were born as a modern nation state. Each generation might wish to adapt the fairytale, polishing the plotlines, deepening the complexities. But the storyline has to hold, pinned to its visionary cliché: in India, the only unity is through diversity. There is no other route.

Shoma Chaudhury is executive editor and a founder member of Tehelka magazine (www.tehelka.com)

  1. The Tehelka investigation into the Gujarat massacres is available online at http://tinyurl.com/2adzp5
  2. Online at http://tinyurl.com/6gtn93

New Internationalist issue 422 magazine cover This article is from the May 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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