by Bernard D’Mello
“Numbers sanctify”. The context is very different, but I couldn’t keep my mind off that quote from Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. After all, the alleged mastermind of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat will soon be sworn in as India’s prime minister, at the head of a government in which his party, the BJP, will have a majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, with the Congress party reduced to a shadow of itself. If one goes by the BJP’s presidential-style campaign, Modi has ostensibly earned his place as India’s prime minister on the basis of his “performance” in Gujarat. Frankly, we are yet to decipher the full meaning of this denouement. What a travesty of democracy and secularism!
Basically, in this national election to India’s 16th Lok Sabha, the BJP’s money has beaten the Congress’s money. According to theHindustan Times (April 13, 2014), going by the estimate of “media buyers and sources close to the BJP’s campaign”, the party was supposed to end up spending about Rs 50,000 million on all media — print, television, outdoor, Internet and radio — “to block out all other political parties”. A former Chief Operating Officer of Rediffusion Y&R, a media buying agency, is quoted as saying that “The BJP’s spending is at least four times that of the Congress”. Add to the Rs 50,000 million media-spend all the other election-related expenses of the BJP, especially those on private aircraft and helicopters, and the figure would exceed what Barack Obama spent on his presidential campaign, according to Siddharth Varadarajan, former editor of the The Hindu newspaper. Surely all this has influenced the electoral outcome, and, more ominously, will sway the policies of the BJP-led government that will soon be sworn into office, not to forget the adverse effects on the character and integrity of Indian democracy itself. After all, isn’t it wealth that has influenced the election results to gain political power and establish its control over the government that will soon come into office?
Big media has been celebrating the election campaign just gone by, in the process, making a lot of money. The contribution of the commercial media is hardly in the nature of real debate; it’s propaganda through and through, much of it bought and paid for. The money that flows into the coffers of bourgeois political parties is unaccounted, with most of the contributions made by cash, which makes a total mockery of political equality at the polling booth. Money and wealth, and the associated power they bestow, have hijacked the electoral process.
Was the election campaign then really worthless? Congress and the left did manage to raise some relevant issues of livelihood, but they were portrayed by big media as lacking credibility. Nevertheless, over the years popular forces have come to the fore, against all odds in these neo-liberal times, and have generated a “countermovement” (in Karl Polanyi’s sense of the term) against the devastations neo-liberal policies have let loose. The two Congress Party-headed United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments that have just gone by had been forced to bring in the Forest Rights Act (the FRA, in its full form, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers [Recognition of Forest Rights] Act, 2006), the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREG) Act (originally in 2005), the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR, 2013), and the National Food Security Act (2013).
These laws have upset the votaries of neo-liberalism no end; they never tire of complaining that the stipulation of payment of the minimum wage in the MGNREG works has led to a rise in the agricultural wage rate affecting the very viability of Indian agriculture. Or that the LARR will lead to inordinate delays and huge increases in the capital cost of infrastructural and industrial projects as a result of a three-to-four-fold increase in the cost of land, rendering the projects economically unviable. Similarly, project authorities that require the diversion of forest land have to, under the provisions of the FRA, first prove that the rights of forest dwellers have been assured and that they have obtained the consent of the gram sabhas (village councils). Attacks on the food security law have been vicious, especially by the devotees of fiscal conservatism/the Treasury View. Big money and its ideologues have been immensely disappointed with the UPA government for conceding some of the demands of the “counter-movement”, and with wealth dominating the political process, Congress and the left have not been able to take credit and gain electoral advantage from the institution of the progressive laws just mentioned. Basically, money and wealth, hijacking the electoral process, have effectively violated the integrity of India’s democratic system.
What then of secularism? The BJP has its roots in the political project of Hindu nationalism that goes back to 1914, in the formation of the Hindu Mahasabha, and 1925, in the establishment of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This project has reformulated Hinduism as Hindutva (literally, Hinduness), which is, in many ways, the anti-thesis of Hinduism, but is singularly appropriate to political mobilisation. This Hindutva nationalism has been projected as synonymous with Indian nationalism, sidelining what was anti-colonial and secular. Of course, secularism in India has merely meant the coexistence of all religions and, with Hinduism being the more socially dominant vis-à-vis other religions, this leads to inequality as far as the latter are concerned. Indeed, matters of religion have never been segregated from state functions, and the struggle between those who want a secular democracy and those who want to establish a Hindu state seems to have moved quite significantly in favour of the latter.
The struggle has witnessed the involvement of some ex-Armed Forces and some in-service officers in the political project of Hindutva nationalism, as well as the participation of Hindutva militants in a series of terrorist acts — bomb blasts in Malegaon (in 2006 and 2008), on the Samjhauta Express (in 2007), at Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid (2007), at the Ajmer Sharif Dargha (2007), and Modasa (2008) — including an ex-army major and a serving Lt-Colonel in one of these operations. And, there is evidence of RSS sanction at the highest level for these crimes (see an essay by Leena Gita Raghunath published in Caravan, February 1, 2014). So also there is evidence, according to a Cobrapost probe, of the engagement of retired military officers who trained a 38-member squad, a “Laxman Sena”, to demolish the Babri Masjid (Mosque) on December 6, 1992. Indeed, Central Bureau of Investigation officials have confirmed that “there is no new revelation in it” and that all the disclosures had already been included in the charge-sheet that the agency had filed.
The insidious spread of Hindutva nationalism in public life in India is not new. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, in his An Autobiography (also known as Toward Freedom, published in 1936) wrote: “Many a Congressman was a communalist under his national cloak.” Indeed, in the 1950s, Congressman K M Munshi (1887-1971) exploited the so-called collective memory of the “trauma” suffered by Hindus following the raid of Mahmud of Ghazni on the temple of Somnath and encouraged the turning of it into a political slogan. And so the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 came to be justified as avenging the Somnath temple raid of 1025 AD, this, after nearly a thousand years! In 1998 at its Panchmarhi Convention to chart out a political strategy, the Congress Party even went to the extent of endorsing “soft Hindutva” themes in order to steal a march on the BJP.
Clearly, the roots of Hindutva national chauvinism run deep. One has only to make a comparison of the Shiv Sena-led pogrom against Muslims in January 1993 in Bombay1 under a Congress government in the state of Maharashtra with the one in Gujarat led by the RSS and its Sangh Parivar organisations, including the BJP, from February 27 to mid-May 20022 when a BJP government was in power.
The Bombay pogrom too was “pre-planned”. The religiosity of the maha aartis (songs praising and lamps offered to a Hindu deity in mass ceremonies) used for propaganda and mobilisation by the Hindutvadis often were “open provocations”, but the police did nothing. In Gujarat on February 27, 2002, in the aftermath of the Godhra tragedy, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi connived with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to immediately brand the tragic episode as a Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence conspiracy, the Union Home Minister L K Advani following suit, and the former then allowed the VHP to take the dead bodies of the kar sevaks to Ahmedabad by road in a procession to incite Hindu passions, and even supported a bandh called by the VHP, both to incite religious hatred against Muslims.
In Bombay in January 1993, the Hindutvadi marauders had “carefully prepared lists of houses, businesses, vehicles, etc of Muslims, and they precisely targeted them”, just like their counterparts in Gujarat in 2002 had, according to Human Rights Watch, “computer printouts listing the addresses of Muslim families and their properties, information obtained from the Ahmedabad municipal corporation among other sources”. While in December 1992 the public anger of Muslims after the demolition of the Babri Mosque was countered by police brutality, in January 1993 in Bombay, when the pre-planned attacks on Muslims took place, the same police “looked the other way”. Most likely, “there were unwritten indications from the top not to intervene”, just as in Gujarat in 2002, the Chief Minister Narendra Modi, at a meeting at his residence in the evening of the day of the Godhra tragedy, advised (ordered?) senior bureaucrats and the top guns of the police that “this time the situation warranted that the Muslims be taught a lesson . . . it was imperative that [the Hindus] be allowed to vent their anger” (according to the Indian Police Service officer, Sanjiv Bhatt, who was present at this gathering).
In Bombay in January 1993, the Army “was restricted to meaningless flag-marches”; in Gujarat in 2002, there was a deliberate two-day delay in deploying the Indian Army to restore law and order. In Bombay in January 1993, the Union Defence Minister Sharad Pawar was trying to settle political scores with the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Sudharkarrao Naik and vice versa, with both openly levelling charges against each other, even as the Shiv Sena “openly claimed ‘credit'” for the pogrom. In Gujarat in 2002, more sinisterly, the VHP leader Ashok Singhal viewed what his forces had done as “a matter of pride” and “a befitting reply to what had been perpetrated on the Hindus in the past 1000 years” and his compatriot Pravin Togadia was proud of the “Hindu awakening”, even as Prime Minister A B Vajpayee blamed the Muslims when he rhetorically asked as to “who lit the fire?”
In Bombay in January 1993, in the “targeting of isolated Muslim homes and businesses, there was a clear attempt to bring about a geographical division of the city on communal lines”, just as in Gujarat in 2002, the Hindutvadi attackers targeted — looted and burnt — Muslim properties and establishments, even those with Hindu names, leaving the Hindu-owned ones unscathed, a clear attempt to bring about a similar spatial division of the city along communal lines. Indeed, in Bombay in January 1993, the “Shiv Sena-led mobs” went on “an unprecedented spree of murder, loot, and arson for 10 days as the chief minister, defence minister, police, paramilitary, and Army watched on, and as the prime minister doled out assurances to delegations in Delhi”, just as in Gujarat in 2002, such attacks lasted three days with total state complicity, and continued sporadically until mid-May 2002.
But, of course, in the aftermath of 9/11 and with Washington’s declaration of the global “war on terror”, the Sangh Parivar was emboldened in Gujarat in 2002 to prove that it could be more sinister, more evil and wicked than the Congress and the Sena had been in Mumbai in January 1993. I cannot but remember the nine-month pregnant Kausar Bano‘s killing at Naroda Patia in Gujarat in 2002; whatever the highly-paid lawyers defending the Hindutva brigade might have argued, the barbarity, the savage cruelty, nothing could have been more sinister than that. It would, of course, take many years if one were to plod through the investigative files, the judicial records and reports of the commissions/tribunals of inquiry, the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team, and other agencies, and whatever has been gathered that records what the survivors of the pogrom have underwent.
But here is the point of recalling all that I have written: the alleged mastermind of the pogrom will soon be India’s prime minister. So far, the Indian courts, despite prima facie allegations of gross criminal misconduct against Narendra Modi and other powerful persons, for instance, in Zakia Jafri’s case (she is the widow of the ex-Member of Parliament, Ehsan Jafri, who was murdered in the Gulberg Society massacre), have been reluctant to initiate criminal court proceedings against the accused because of their high rank and the power that they wield. Now that Modi is going to be in the prime minister’s chair, the chances that the principle of equality before the law will be upheld are miniscule. After all, even the initial charges against Modi are of gross criminal misconduct — promoting enmity between Hindus and Muslims, making statements that could lead to harm to Muslims, acting in a manner prejudicial to inter-religious harmony, engaging in acts that promote national disintegration, and in unlawful activity with the intent of causing harm to Muslims.
That such a person will now be the prime minister of India is itself a further reflection of the rottenness of India’s liberal-political democracy.3
1 For Bombay 1993, we draw on The Bombay Riots: The Myths and Realities — A Report by Lokshahi Hakk Sanghatana and Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Bombay, March 1993.
2 For Gujarat 2002, we draw on When Justice Becomes the Victim: The Quest for Justice After the 2002 Violence in Gujarat, authored by Stephan Sonnenberg, International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, Stanford Law School, May 2014. humanrightsclinic.law.
3 See my “‘The Near and the Far’: Why Is India’s Liberal-Political Democracy Rotten?” Economic & Political Weekly, June 1, 2013, pp 36-46.
Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai.