Many commentaries in earlier numbers of Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), as well as various reports of human rights groups,1 point to the deeply fractured character of contemporary Gujarat society in which the Muslim minority, cutting across class and gender, has been viciously stigmatised and subjected to unspeakable brutality. For example, K Balagopal has powerfully captured the profound sense of hatred, ‘intense and inflamed’, that Hindus in common have for Muslims in Gujarat today. Thus, according to him, ‘cutting across divisions of caste, class, gender, town and country, Gujarat is one mass of hatred for Muslims’.2 These writings, supplemented to some extent by my own impressions,3 have prompted me to focus here on two major implications of the communal divide in Gujarat – viewed from the perspective of the Muslim underclass. I should qualify my observations by emphasising that I am simply stating what appears to me to be implicit in the above mentioned writings for understanding the plight of the underprivileged among the Muslim minority in the state, particularly in those areas where the incidence of violence has been high. The following are the dimensions of the tragedy in Gujarat that I wish to highlight: (i) the principal victims of the violence and ghettoisation are by and large poor Muslims in rural and urban areas. They exist today outside the margins of mainstream Indian society in two very fundamental senses: firstly, in terms of material well-being, and secondly, as citizens; (ii) the alienation of poor Muslims is attributable to the process of saffronisation, which diverts attention from the sources of poverty and oppression in Gujarat society. The real oppressors of the underclass at large therefore continue to prosper.
Broadly speaking, the Muslims on whom attention is being focused here comprise those who live essentially in a state of poverty because their labour fetches them extremely low returns (whether through wages or by own account work). Moreover, they neither have assured employment nor do they enjoy any kind of social security. They include those who fall in the informal sector, such as agricultural labourers, daily wage workers in factories and workshops, piece rate workers, construction labourers, and domestic servants. They also include large numbers of own account workers, such as rickshaw pullers, petty shopkeepers, hawkers of vegetables, fruits, bakery products, snacks and beverages, and so on. The two categories together constitute what may be deemed here as the unorganised sector of the economy in the sense that there is no collective organisation or association to protect the common interests of those who practise a specific occupation, whether it is wage work or own account work.
To appreciate the tragic nature of the lives of such people following the post-Godhra carnage in Gujarat, what needs emphasis here is that they are simultaneously victims of poor material circumstances and communal hatred. Ironically, they are victims twice over. In terms of class, the poor among the Muslims share, no doubt, the fate of their Hindu counterparts not only in Gujarat but also elsewhere in the country to the extent that they are citizens of the ‘sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic’ of India in only a token sense. Indeed, the poor, irrespective of community, have been betrayed by the political establishment right from day one of independence, since they do not, even today, have access to justice, ‘social, economic and political’ in any meaningful sense, nor do they enjoy ‘equality of status and opportunity’, which, according to the Constitution, should be secured to all citizens. In fact, with the strident promotion of liberalisation and globalisation by the Indian state in the course of the last decade or so, the ranks of such oppressed people have swelled phenomenally.
While the poor cut across all communities, there are certain unique circumstances in Gujarat that render the plight of poor Muslims, especially in the areas affected by communal violence, as considerably worse than that of their counterparts elsewhere in the country. The poor Muslims here are not only economically marginalised but, as Muslims, they are also subject to virulent social ostracism and hate by Hindus, including many among dalits and those adivasis who claim to be Hindus. The irony is that, generally speaking, these dalits and adivasis share the same life chances as those of poor Muslims. The latter are, therefore, alienated not only from the fruits of their labour but also from even those who share the same material circumstances. They are despised, hated, and humiliated in village communities and urban neighbourhoods in which they have lived for decades or even generations along with their Hindu neighbours. Several poor Muslims to whom I spoke underscored their perception that the antagonism of Hindus against them was unprecedented. As one of them said despairingly, ‘since even the sarkar (the government) has let us down, our only hope for survival now is in the hands of Allah.’ Why are such Muslims in this doubly alienated condition?
Absence of Mobilisation
To a large extent the sharp communal divide in contemporary Gujarat has much to do with the fact that no other basis of mobilisation has penetrated the political imagination of the people at large. In this connection, two major lacunae in the political landscape of Gujarat are apparent: firstly, upper caste dominance has not encountered any serious challenge; and secondly, in the context of the industrial sphere, the attenuation of the labour movement has meant that the contradiction between labour and capital has lost its cutting edge. These points are briefly touched upon here.
Ghanshyam Shah has pointed out that the state ‘has not witnessed an anti-brahmin or backward caste movement.’ Further, assertions by depressed castes against the iniquities of the caste system have not made much headway, and in any case have been ‘at low ebb’ during the last 10 years.4 In this respect Gujarat is a major contrast with Maharashtra and peninsular India where the backward castes launched movements against upper caste hegemony during the later colonial period. Therefore, upper caste dominance, which is synonymous with the principal sources of social, cultural, and material oppression, has remained largely uncontested in Gujarat. Ironically it is these very upper castes that provide a model for emulation by subordinate castes through the process of sanskritisation. Thus, instead of contestations by middle and lower castes exposing the contradictions in caste society, the desire for a better status has led to a higher level of cultural integration with the ‘great’ Hindu tradition through the process of sanskritisation. An instance is the sanskritisation of a section of the kolis of central and north Gujarat, culminating in their assertion of kshatriya status.5 Significantly, and ironically, even dalits and adivasis have sought respectability through sanskritisation.6
There has also been a drastic decline in the challenge to capital, for which the experience of textile workers in Ahmedabad, once a bastion of working class consciousness, provides an outstanding example. According to Jan Breman, the trade union movement, which used to be the main platform of resistance against the owners of the once flourishing textile mills, has lost its former momentum.7 The withering away of the labour movement has occurred at a moment when collective action might have been the only decisive way of exercising countervailing pressure against the negative impact of the liberalisation wave on labour. As shown by Breman, the closure of many textile mills in the recent past was a direct consequence of the policy of liberalisation that relieved employers of the obligation to provide security to their workers. Large numbers of regular workers have thus been unceremoniously shunted into the informal sector. The majority of them are now victims of acute poverty.8
It is in such a scenario, devoid of contestation against caste and class oppression, that the significance of the penetration of the Sangh parivar into Gujarat society needs to be understood. Its ideology, typically designated as Hindutva, is the only major force that has captured the imagination of Hindus at large. The basic premises of Hindutva, drawn from the writings of its major exponents V D Savarkar and M S Golwalkar, have been lucidly presented by Sumit Sarkar,9 and I shall highlight only the points that are helpful for explaining the double alienation of poor Muslims in Gujarat today.
Of paramount importance is the premise, derived from the emphasis on the unity of religion and culture, that India is fundamentally a Hindu nation whose identity is inextricably bound up with the religion of the Hindus. Inevitably, this conception of nation privileges the Hindus as citizens par excellence and excludes all non-Hindus, who may stay on in the country wholly subordinated to the former. Even more ominous is a distorted form of nationalism, which postulates that Muslims are the most dangerous threat to the nation, and that the ‘real’ national struggle has been against Muslim rule and Muslims generally. In the light of this perverse obsession with grappling with the hateful internal enemy, the Muslims – and by extension other minorities, especially Christians – it is perfectly logical that Hindutva would display what Sarkar aptly calls ‘an enormous silence’ on vital issues concerning mass poverty and social justice.10
Constructing the ‘Enemy’
The contemporary political scene in Gujarat, dominated as it is by the Sangh parivar, faithfully resonates with the basic thrust of Hindutva, as spelt out here. As the demonisation of Muslims constitutes the major point on the political agenda, other critical issues arising from caste oppression or class domination and exploitation are liable to be either marginalised or deflected on Muslims in general. It is not surprising, therefore, that even among dalits, adivasis, and other low status categories constituting the underclass, it is the Muslim who is perceived as the main enemy. Muslims are depicted not only as criminals and exploiters, but also as lustful beasts – ever ready to violate Hindu women.
The process by which Hindutva is incorporated into the social imagination of persons or groups of persons may be described as saffronisation. The process, which developed momentum following the war with Pakistan in 1965,11 has imparted a lethal dimension to the wave of religiosity encompassing various sections of Gujarat society. Indeed, saffronisation has upstaged sanskritisation and constitutes the decisive frame of thought and action of those who assert their Hindu identity. Whereas sanskritisation implies the adoption of the symbols and style of life of upper castes, saffronisation uses the same markers to cultivate antagonistic relations with minorities. The consequence is a perverse empowering of the oppressed members of the Hindu fold, including dalits and adivasis, whose identification with the Hindu religion is achieved negatively by hating those who subscribe to other faiths.
As Hindutva is the only compelling force in contemporary Gujarat, the possibilities of mobilising the poor on issues that critically affect their well-being are drastically diluted. Inevitably, and ironically, it divides them on communal lines. Returning to the ‘informalised’ workers in Ahmedabad described by Breman as an example,12 instead of perceiving the state and the inhuman market forces engendered by it as the principal sources of their misery, they hate each other on lines defined by their respective communities. Contradictions along which battle lines between oppressor and oppressed ought to be drawn in the political economy have been eclipsed by contradictions based on religion, in terms of which Muslims are marked out as the main enemy.
The process of saffronisation offers the dalits and adivasis street power during riots, which includes the possibilities of unrestrained looting of the properties of Muslims. Indeed, as Hindutva forces dominate the state, it is not surprising that sections belonging to such groups have been inspired by an enormous perverse zeal to kill, hack and burn Muslims, in spite of the fact that the latter might be as oppressed as they are.
In such circumstances the poor Muslim indeed stands totally abandoned by the rest of society. In every respect that the community as a whole has been victimised, the trauma for those who are poor is manifold. The intensity of the ghettoisation suffered by the Muslims in general is formidable, but it is even worse for those whose meagre possessions have been destroyed. Even their labour power, the pre-eminent means of keeping body and soul together, carries little value in a social setting where the community is subjected to the economic boycott called by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a key constituent of the Sangh parivar.13 The following is an example based on interviews at a relief camp for Muslims at Kadi, in Mehsana district. The Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation has a number of establishments in the area manufacturing items such as metal sheets and bars, chemicals, cotton based oil, and ceramic products. The units, many of which are said to be controlled by patels, a dominant caste, employ large numbers of casual labourers. I was informed (on April 10) that the Muslim labourers had been sacked en masse at the instance of the VHP.
The problem is compounded by the failure of the government to ensure that the Muslims whose homes have been destroyed along with all their basic possessions are properly rehabilitated through adequate compensation. Barely had the riots died down, the government resolved to close down relief camps by stopping the supply of rations. The intention was to force the inmates to return to the neighbourhoods and villages from where they had fled, and thus maintain the fiction that the state had returned to normal. But it is evident from the same reports that the saffronised Hindu population still sees them as aliens. The most humiliating conditions continue to be imposed upon them. These include, coercing them to withdraw cases against perpetrators of brutal acts of violence, and further, that they should give up the crucial symbols of their cultural identity and merge with the Hindu majority. Thus, the Muslims who have lived for generations in a certain space are made to feel that they are refugees in their own homeland. It is difficult to imagine how those whose only asset is their labour power can survive under these conditions. Such Muslims were second class citizens because of their poverty. But now even their attenuated citizenship is sought to be obliterated altogether because of their religion. It is the cruelest of ironies that no power and no institution in this so-called secular democratic republic – not even the president and the highest judiciary – have intervened at the time of writing to provide succour to the victims of such monumental injustice.
1 The commentaries that I have especially drawn from appeared in EPW, Vol 37, Numbers 11, 15, 16, 20, 22, and 28, 2002. Those from which specific points have been made are cited below. The reports include the following: (i) Syeda Hameed et al, The Survivors Speak, Citizen’s Initiative, Ahmedabad, April 2002; (ii) Kamal Mitra Chenoy et al, Gujarat Carnage 2002, [no place; no date]; (iii) People’s Union for Democratic Rights [PUDR], ‘Maaro! Kaapo! Baalo!’ [Kill! Hack! Burn!], Delhi, May 2002; (iv) Indian Social Action Forum, Gujarat: Laboratory of Hindu Rashtra, Delhi, [no date].
2 K Balagopal, ‘Reflections on “Gujarat Pradesh” of “Hindu Rashtra” ’, EPW, 37(22), 2002, p 2117.
3 I visited some parts of Gujarat in April 2002 as a member of a PUDR fact-finding team.
4 Ghanshyam Shah, ‘Caste, Hindutva and Hideousness’, EPW, 37(15), 2002, p 1393.
6 A M Shah, ‘For a More Humane Society’, Seminar, 513, 2002, p 59.
7 Jan Breman, ‘Communal Upheaval as Resurgence of Social Darwinism’, EPW, 37(16), pp 1485-88.
8 Ibid, p 1487.
9 Sumit Sarkar, Beyond Nationalist Frames, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2002, pp 244-62.
10 Ibid, p 249.
11 Shah (n 4, p 1391) points to the building up of ‘religion-centred nationalism’ following the war on the Kutch border in 1965.
12 Breman, n 7.
13 See Gujarat Carnage 2002 (n 1), p 10, which reproduces a translation of a VHP leaflet.
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