Once again Gujarat will take the monstrous distinction of experiencing the worst communal violence in a nation-wide campaign of the Sangh Parivar. Indeed, it promises to be a lot worse this time around with a BJP government in Gandhinagar, the structures of the state, including the police forces, highly communalised, and with a BJP-led government in power in New Delhi apparently unrestrained by its allies, and certainly pulled by the bloodthirsty forces it has so long nurtured. The widely publicised image of a young Muslim man begging mercy from his unseen assailants, his eyes seeking a small scrap of humanity in them, possibly vainly, haunts the mind relentlessly.
Gujarat has become a byword for casteism and communalism. Violence against lower castes, tribals, Muslims and Christians has become routine over the past two decades, during which an entire generation has grown to maturity, ignorant of the civility of which Gujarat once boasted. It is, after all, a distant memory even for one who has participated in its graces, not knowing they were the last. Expressions of contempt for the lower castes, Muslims, Christians, the poor and the tribals, hitherto beyond the pale of polite conversation, have become the common currency of drawing room conversations of the Gujarati well-to-do. Even the "I'm a liberal secularist, but..." type of qualifiers are dispensed with. As a Gujarati, it is tempting to just hang one's head in grief, shame and silence.
But surely it might be a little more useful, and not impertinent, to dwell on the underlying structures out of which this savage distinction springs. For it may well be that this is where the country as a whole is rapidly heading. Gujarat is simply ahead in the form of capitalist development combined with upper and middle caste and class Hindu assertion which has become so widely accepted as the way for India. As Marx admonished the Germans prone to feel superior about the depradations of capitalist development in England, "The story is about you".
While the first large scale post-independence communal riots took place in 1969, it was not until the 1980s that frequently violent political assertion of the upper castes and classes became routine in Gujarati politics. For the 1970s had been a decade during which this assertion found more peaceful and "respectable" outlets: Gujarat was, after all, the western wing of the politically ambiguous JP movement and elected the country's first Janata Morcha ministry under Babubhai Jasbhai Patel as the apogee of the non-Congressism of the upper and middle castes and classes which had been gathering force even before Mrs Indira Gandhi's populist phase, which they so came to hate, properly began.
The 1980s witnessed an acute class-caste polarization as some of the worst anti-reservation riots in the country occurred in Gujarat. The OBC/SC/Tribal/Muslim based (the famous KHAM strategy, remember?) Congress Government under Madhavsingh Solanki, and other Congress governments which followed, foundered on the impossibility of a government in contradiction with civil society: political power that did not reflect social and economic power was unsustainable. The upper and middle castes and classes registered their frustrations on the streets. As riots and agitations became the stuff of Gujarati politics, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP made accelerated gains, finally being able to form governments in the latter part of the 1990s. Gujarat shows few signs of looking back now. Its minorities are regularly cowed by violence. Its urban geography, reconfigures by riots with blatant connections with real estate transactions, now features "borders" between communities. As I write Muslims who managed to weather 1992-3 but for whom this has been the last straw (how much can anyone be expected to take?) Are leaving the state, with wounds of betrayal. They leave behind property and position, now to be grabbed by those who feel secure in current conditions. Such are the gashes which together make up the tearing of the "social fabric".
This horrifying reality is made up of certain traits of Gujarati society which set it apart from the rest of the country by degree, not fundamental difference. Gujarat is highly industrialised to the extent that the agrarian propertied have made some of the deepest inroads into urban sectors of the economy. More than in most states, the divides between the agrarian and industrial propertied have been blurred with the propertied groups sporting fairly uniform, if also competing, interests. The control of labour is chief among them and much of the worst "communal" violence occurs in South Gujarat, a centre of hothouse agricultural as well as industrial development in the state, the part of the Golden corridor which northward up from Vapi to Godhra and beyond along the Bombay-Delhi railway line via Ratlam. Among the 9% Muslims of Gujarat, there is also a bourgeoisie and riots present their Hindu counterparts with plum opportunities to settle business scores.
Like UP, Gujarat has a disproportionally high upper caste population, just under 15%. Unlike UP, however, over the last century the technically middle-caste patidars, who constitute 12% of the population, have experienced a rise in their socio-economic position, such that in the late 20th century, no part of upper class/caste society could condescend to them. While, until recently, an important axis of Gujarati politics revolved around the political competition between upper castes and Patidars, the BJP succeeded in more or less uniting them. With the high rate of development, these upper and middle caste and class groups represent an immense concentration of socio-economic and political power.
Gujarat is probably unique for the sheer number of castes it features - more than 80 Brahmin and 40 Bania castes alone, e.g. It has only a weakly developed linguistic or cultural unity, probably as a consequence of this (though a history of political fragmentation combined with the creation of modern Gujarat state out of three quite distinct regional societies also played a role). Hindutva has provided the ideology with the best prospect of unifying predominantly Hindu upper and middle caste/class formation. All over the country, Hindutva attempts to unite upper and, if less successfully, middle castes, to constitute a more coherent power group. The survival of important middle caste parties in UP and Bihar which remain opposed to Hindutva is more due to their underdevelopment than the commitment of the Yadav leaders to secularism. There important conflicts still divide the middle agrarian castes from the urban upper castes as they do not in Gujarat and much of the rest of the country. There even when the middle-caste based regional parties remain separate, they have not proved hostile to Hindutva as was imagined in the days when the CPM managed to constitute the United Front Government of "democratic and secular forces" out of them.
A final factor contributing to the political dominance of Hindutva in Gujarat is the large numbers of emigres. In many ways Gujarat has long been something of a decapitated society - many of its most economically, socially and culturally advanced members living in Bombay or Calcutta or other parts of the world. Today these emigres constitute a central bulwark of the NRI community, particularly in the US and the UK, and provide many of the chief personnel of the overseas organizations of the Sangh Parivar.
Gujarat may be merely in the vanguard of the overall trend of the development of the rest of the country. This is the reason why the problem of the hegemony of Hindutva in Gujarat needs to be taken very seriously. Pointing to yhe roots of Hindutva in our current model of development is not to say that it is an unstoppable force. Few things in history are inevitable, no matter how much they look like that in retrospect. Deepest among the political tragedies in India is that lower castes and classes who have the deepest investment in secularism as well as egalitarian economic development have only ever been offered populist and opportunistic forms of political mobilization. This cycle has surely run its course in Gujarat where the Congress's lamentable record in the 1980s seems to have more or less extinguished it as anything other than a protest vote repository. Even as the Congress party, where it is successful today, is necessarily based among the lower socioeconomic class/caste strata in the country, it is evading its vocation of being their authentic party, still hankering after being the party of the upper strata of the country. The Left too often seems to be happier performing small but ultimately unsustainable little feats of parliamentary political engineering rather than expanding its base among these groups country-wide, as its own convictions require of it.
The powerful can no longer be shamed into demonstrating a modicum of liberalism and secularism. It is only when secularism becomes more than the profession of one's good breeding, becomes the true property of those who could not care less about such snobbish distinctions, who are able to question the roots of communalism in inequality, that it can become the political force this country now badly needs. Only then will Indians have earned the privilege of looking back on Gujarat of the turn of the century as a horrific but also now past, peculiarity in the van of a road which the rest of India mercifully did not take. If this does not happen, Gujarat could well be the image of the country's future.
A shorter version had appeared in The Hindu, March 6, 2002