This year 2022 will be a year of birthdays. The 150th anniversary of Aurobindo’s birth. The 100th anniversary of the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi during the non-cooperation movement. The 80th anniversary of the launch of the Quit India movement. The 75th anniversary of India’s independence from British rule. The 70th anniversary of the first general election. The 60th anniversary of the Indo-Chinese war.
These anniversaries will surely be celebrated by the Prime Minister and his government with characteristic pomp and enthusiasm, with each event being used to further promote the cult of Narendra Modi’s personality. Moving speeches will be delivered by the Prime Minister, on the spiritual greatness of Aurobindo, on the struggle and sacrifice of our freedom fighters, on the seemingly deep and enduring roots of India’s democratic traditions, on the determination of his government to never allow Indian troops to be under-prepared in the face of a foreign adversary.
However, there will be an anniversary, the commemoration of which will, I suppose, be absent from the Prime Minister’s official calendar. This is the 20th anniversary of the Gujarat riots of February-March 2002. The word âriotsâ is, in fact, a euphemism; the most accurate term for what happened is “pogrom”, since the violence was primarily aimed at one community, the Muslims.
For the historian, there are striking similarities between the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and the pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi which had occurred 18 years earlier. In 1984, the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by his bodyguards provoked savage retaliation against thousands of innocent Sikhs who had nothing to do with the murder. In 2002, the deaths of 59 pilgrims in a Sabarmati Express bus sparked savage reprisals against thousands of innocent Muslims who had nothing to do with the arson.
In both cases, the state administration and the ruling party have stood idly by, allowing the violence to spread and the riot to turn into a targeted pogrom targeting a religious minority. In both cases, the politician who was in charge when the pogrom occurred – Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, respectively – drew substantial political capital from the violence, winning the elections held soon after, their campaigns filled with dog-whistles and slander against minorities.
There are visible similarities between these two pogroms, as well as some notable differences. On the one hand, Congress finally made amends for its poisonous demonization of the Sikhs in 1984. Granted, it took a long time. In 1999, shortly after taking the presidency of Congress, Sonia Gandhi visited the Golden Temple in an apparent act of contrition, although she did not offer a formal apology.
However, after the United Progressive Alliance came to power in 2004, its prime minister publicly apologized for what had happened under the leadership of a previous congressional prime minister. Speaking in Parliament in August 2005, Manmohan singh remarked, âI have no hesitation in apologizing to the Sikh community. I apologize not only to the Sikh community, but to the entire Indian nation, because what happened in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nation enshrined in our Constitution.
In fact, by the time Singh issued this apology, the Sikhs had largely reconciled with the nation. In April 2005, I visited the Punjab and had a long conversation with a group of Sikh teachers. I was told that with Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, General JJ Singh as (First Sikh) Army Chief of Staff and Montek Singh Ahluwalia as Vice Chairman of the (then very influential) Commission of planning, the Sikhs were finally assured that they would be treated as equal citizens of the country.
True, Congress did not anticipate this juxtaposition, but the fact that it did occur was of enormous symbolic significance, placing three Sikhs in positions of political, military and economic authority.
Twenty years after the pogrom against the Sikhs, the hurt feelings of this minority community had been considerably (but not entirely) assuaged. On the other hand, Muslims in Gujarat remain as fearful and anxious as they were in 2002 – in fact, possibly even more so. There was not the slightest sign of contrition, apology, from Narendra Modi or any other leader of the Bharatiya Janata party.
Modi and his party learned a lesson contrary to that of Dr Singh and Congress – namely that after having, through overt violence, subdued and intimidated the Muslim minority, they must now double down on the Majority Project and use their control of the state apparatus to firmly impose the will of Hindus on Indians of other faiths and Muslims in particular.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a BJP-led India with a Muslim prime minister, or a Muslim chief of staff, even if they are the most qualified candidates for these positions. Yet the discrimination goes much further and deeper. The BJP has no Muslims among its 300 or so Lok Sabha MPs. In addition, in its election campaigns, the party seeks to exclude Muslims altogether from its potential voters, playing variations on its theme of “Hinduism. khatre mein hain â (Hindus are in danger) at every national and state election (witness Uttar Pradesh more recently).
In everyday life on the ground, groups associated with dispensation from power roam the streets, looking for Muslims whom they can taunt, threaten, humiliate and deprive of their livelihood. Conventions are held in BJP-led states where speakers close to ruling party politicians call for the mass slaughter of Muslims.
At the time, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee believed that the violence in Gujarat in 2002 was a consequence of the chief minister failing to observe his “raj dharma “. However, as Narendra Modi’s later career shows, his own understanding of what a ruling politician should do is very different from that of previous prime ministers. The BJP led by Modi and Amit Shah presents itself as a party for, by and only Hindus. In this regard, Gujarat 2002 was a test of what is currently being attempted at the national level.
In his mea culpa for the riots of 1984, Manmohan Singh declared that they were “the negation of the concept of nation enshrined in our Constitution”. What happened under Narendra Modi’s watch in Gujarat in 2002 was likewise a denial of what the Constitution prescribes. Yet Modi doesn’t think he needs to apologize for what happened, partly because of vanity, but in large part because his ideal of nation seems antithetical to that enshrined in the Constitution.
The 17th century French writer FranÃ§ois de La Rochefoucauld described hypocrisy as “the homage that vice pays to virtue”. Indians will find this maxim abundantly illustrated in 2022. Although the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh did not contribute anything to the struggle for freedom, we will see the Prime Minister invoke this struggle several times during the year. While his Hindutva majorityism is at odds with Gandhi’s inclusive faith, we will also hear him praising Gandhi. Although Parliament is less and less (as New Delhi is increasingly polluted), we will see the Prime Minister inaugurate a new grandiose building supposed to represent “the spirit of democracy” and a “New India”.
Finally, Modi will claim kinship with Aurobindo although, in moral and intellectual terms, a yawning gulf separates our publicity-hungry prime minister from this brilliant and reclusive mystic.
By celebrating these various anniversaries in 2022, Narendra Modi will seek the glory reflected, while also twisting history to promote himself. At the same time, he is extremely unlikely to comment in public on what, from a personal and political point of view, is actually the most important anniversary for him this year – marking the 20th anniversary of the pogrom of the Gujarat that happened. under his care and whose long shadow still hangs over the Republic.
Post Scriptum : Those interested in learning more about what really happened in Gujarat in 2002 should check out these important works of documentation and analysis: Revati Laul, The anatomy of hate; Ashish Khetan, Undercover: My Journey into Darkness for Hindutva; RB Sreekumar, Gujarat: Behind the curtain; S Varadarajan, editor, Gujarat: the making of a tragedy.
RAmachandra Guha email address [email protected] His new book, Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom, will be released later this month.
This article first appeared in The telegraph.