Many books have been written about the Gujarat riots of 2002 in the years since then—these include hard-hitting investigations that exposed holes in the official version of events and poignant narratives that examined living in the aftermath of violence. Now, a new book by journalist and filmmaker Revati Laul attempts to get into the minds of the perpetrators of the violence, and the ones who celebrated as human beings lay dying around them.
The Anatomy of Hate, published by Context/Westland, has three protagonists—a man who rejected the hatred he grew up with when he began working with Muslims, one who was part of some of the most heinous crimes committed by the mob, and another who burnt down houses belonging to Muslims in 2002 and later rebuilt them.
“We all live in the company of stories that validate us. But there are no stories that describe the guilt and fear of having been part of a crime,” said Laul, who is based in New Delhi.
In an email interview with HuffPost India, Laul spoke about why she wanted to understand hate and how she realised that “extreme prejudice” could be unlearned.
It’s been 16 years since the Gujarat riots. What drew you back to write about them?
I think the violence of 2002 formed the base, the new saffron roots for our current politics. And while we’ve talked endlessly about the rise of the right, the lynch mobs and the politics of hate, we don’t really know much about the people who made up those mobs. We know the effect of the hate crimes, we know the politics and surround sound of it because now we are all living with it. But we don’t know what makes a mind turn,the emotional Richter scale of someone growing up in the 1980s and 1990s who is drawn to the Sangh. We don’t know what makes that person take part in the massacres of 2002. And we also don’t know what happens to this individual after. And until we can step into those shoes or try and look closer, we don’t really understand hate. So how can we expect to change it?
But this is gyan that came to me in the course of my research and reading on the subject. The reason I am writing this started out as a story that fell into my lap by sheer coincidence, 15 years ago. I was NDTV’s Gujarat correspondent in the year 2003, one year after the riots. And everywhere I went, everyone amongst the Hindu middle class would say to me over and over – “Behn, aapko samajh me nahi aayega ki humney bawaal ka support kyun kiya (You will never understand why we supported the mob violence)” That made me stop in my tracks and ask myself this: ‘What is the point of all the work I do as a journalist if I am always preaching to the converted?’ But on the other hand, how do I reach out to the other side—to people who don’t think like me, without preaching from a pulpit, without talking down to them or being patronising?
The answer fell into my lap a year later, when I met a man who made me change almost everything I knew about mass violence. He was finishing a master’s in social science when the riots happened. And he went around town as Gujarat burned with his friends voyeuristically, to watch the action. He said to me, “All of Gujarat was cut into two halves during the riots—those who were being cut and killed and those who were out celebrating. I was on the side of those who were celebrating.” Once the violence abated, this man had finished his degree and started to look for a job. With a social science background, the obvious choice was to look in NGOs since this was a sector that was just opening up—international NGOs and the possibility of a decent salary. So after cheering on the destruction of Muslims, this man got a job in an NGO that was rehabilitating them. And that’s when his whole world came apart. He started to see how the diet of hate he had been brought up on was built on entirely false pretexts. He was confronted every day with Muslims that did not fit the description he had carried around with him—the Satanic people who did everything upside down. And this confrontation with reality was terrifying. When I met him, he was undergoing a metamorphosis. And this meant he had to tell himself that everything he was brought up with was a lie. Rejecting that was almost impossible. It meant cancelling out everyone from his life. When I heard his story I was transfixed. Why had I never imagined that hate and extreme prejudice was not fixed? That it could change. And in describing it as fixed, was I guilty of fixing it?
We all live in the company of stories that validate us. But there are no stories that describe the guilt and fear of having been part of a crime. So where does the middle class that isn’t proud of what they’ve done go? To the politics that says it’s okay to forget, it’s okay to pretend everything is fine. And we aren’t allowing for any other conversations either. Most of all, this man answered the question I had asked myself. How do you reach out to the other side? By telling them their own stories, with all the attendant guilt and fear and uncertainty. Certainty is a fascist space. It is absolute, it leaves no room for openness, for conversation.
When I heard his story I was transfixed. Why had I never imagined that hate and extreme prejudice was not fixed? That it could change. And in describing it as fixed, was I guilty of fixing it?
But it took me ten years to convince this man to let me tell his story. Because it means stoking the pain, opening up the wounds that had healed. Finally, he let me in to that world and I knew this was it.
Your book focuses on the lives of three perpetrators of the riot. What did their stories reveal to you?
So having stumbled onto the light end of the spectrum that made up the mob, and got the first of three protagonists to agree to let me tell his story, I moved to Gujarat in 2015 to find other stories. I had to see what the other end of the spectrum looked like. Which led me to the story of Suresh. His story attracted me for two reasons. He committed some of the most heinous crimes from 2002. He raped women and children and was part of the mob that pulled out the foetus from a pregnant woman. But for me, what was key in Suresh’s story was to look past the hideousness of his crimes to what lay underneath. He bragged about his crimes to an investigative journalist. The bragging was my clue to the real story. Suresh wasn’t just a singular entity. He represented the collective fantasies of a large group of people who wanted him to do what he did. His bragging gave him popular support. It fulfilled the group’s fantasies. So what was that group that supported Suresh? And why? And there was another equally bewildering reason to write about Suresh. He committed these crimes against Muslims while being married to a Muslim woman. By the time I finished researching Suresh’s story, what I found was this. It disturbed me not because I didn’t understand where he came from, but because I did.
How do you reach out to the other side? By telling them their own stories, with all the attendant guilt and fear and uncertainty
In between the man who underwent a metamorphosis and Suresh, is the story of a third person. He came from an extremely underdeveloped part of Gujarat and is from the Bhil tribe. He burned down houses of Muslims in 2002. And later rebuilt them. Through him, I ask the question—if the only way for this man to move out of extreme poverty and the drudgery of farming in a time of diminishing returns was to associate with the Sangh, with the umbrella of Hindu right wing groups, what was he supposed to do? If we want people to act differently, are we creating alternatives for them to support themselves? And most of all, what gave him his sense of self?
By the time I finished researching Suresh’s story, what I found was this. It disturbed me not because I didn’t understand where he came from, but because I did.
Tell us a little about the reporting and writing process that went into the making of your book.
Much like my protagonists, I did all my research and writing from a place of great fear. I didn’t think I could get this done. I didn’t have the resources to stay in Gujarat for three years, I didn’t think I had the nuance or the writing skills. I had to battle my way through each of these and it was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. It was the biggest emotional churn I have ever put myself through. Let me illustrate this with one example. I realized towards the end of my writing that I was writing about violence because it is also the pivot around which my own life revolves—professionally and personally. I have lived in fear of my father growing up, he was a scary man to be around. Wonderful and intimidating with an underlying anger and latent violence that was always present. In asking my protagonists to empty themselves out, I had to empty myself out. I had to turn the gaze on myself in order to let go of my fears one by one, draft by draft, until, I think, the eighth and final one that is now the book. Serious food binges, outbursts with friends, lovers and family, meltdowns were all in the mix and if I knew that this is what I had signed up for, I may never have done this. On the other hand, I am a masochist.
The Gujarat riots are, thus far, one of the last widespread acts of mass violence spanning many cities in the state. Since then, the model seems to have changed to smaller, more localised conflicts that still seem to have similar social, political, and economic effects—the sole exception being a lower immediate death toll.
The Gujarat riots changed the course of our political history. It brought the politics of hate from the fringe to centrestage. Having achieved that, it was perhaps only possible for this model to sustain itself as a national model in a mutated form. But this suggests that the entire political trajectory was planned or that the Sangh is a singular, cohesive unit, which it’s not. It tries to be but nothing in this country can ever be a singular conversation, not even this. So the way I see it is this: the Sangh is both hyper-planned and very arbitrary. They have probably become much more cautious about supporting or enabling mobs where there is the possibility of legal tangles and court cases slapped on them. We seem to have moved into a similar space as Pakistan was under Benazir Bhutto. Where she came in on the strength and support of various non-state actors and warlords and had to give into their arbitrariness ever after.
But I also look at this another way. The writing of this book has made me acutely aware of the fact that we are a non-normative society. We don’t do anything by the book. Therefore power also lies outside officially mandated spaces. So it would be a mistake to look only at what the Sangh says and not at how people often use them selectively and disregard some of what they sign up for and pay obeisance to what they must. Therefore, the large factory of hate, having been built in 2002, does not need to replicate itself whole. But enable start-ups and franchises and also overlook the misdemeanours of rogue elements that are also their supporters.
The writing of this book has made me acutely aware of the fact that we are a non-normative society. We don’t do anything by the book. Therefore power also lies outside officially mandated spaces.
It would, therefore, be instructive to look at the mutating forms of hate in terms of what they do to disrupt their original model. Does the splitting away of Pravin Togadia from the VHP mean anything? Are there various political rivals working at cross-purposes in the BJP? And what does the average person do after voting for the BJP in an election? Does the MLA in a Gujarat state assembly have the same real power today as she did in 2002? Or has the political perception shifted to a much more centrist space where state assemblies may see themselves as beholden to the centre more now than two decades ago? If this is even partly true, then why do we often write about these elections as if it’s the same kind of power game when the power centres may have shifted?
What are your thoughts on this present moment we are living through—where then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi is now Prime Minister, and a Bajrang Dal leader is the prime accused in the killing of a cop?
I think this is a time for all of us in the middle class—you who reads this piece, me who is speaking to you, to look closely at the everyday that makes up the anatomy of hate. If we choose not to talk to people like ourselves, are we condemning ourselves to shrinking the liberal space? Are we perpetuating what we don’t want despite ourselves? What sort of conversations do we need to have that are different if we want a different politics? And that must start by looking past Modi at what he is standing on. At the politics we have willed ourselves into. And the various disaggregated and shaky parts of the edifice this establishment stands on.
What’s one other book—related or unrelated—that you would urge our readers to pick up?
Please do read Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers—Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, published by Princeton University Press in 2001. He bends all previous writing on genocides and mass violence and explains how the ordering of people into categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’—original inhabitants and settlers—is a colonial phenomenon. Colonisers could only see people as outsiders and insiders because they were outsiders. So they used this gaze to create and re-order people they conquered further into categories of us and them. And it has led to the kind of post-colonial polarization, mass violence and re-ordering of histories from the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda to the Hindus and Muslims in India. He also gave me the talisman I used as the reference point for my writing. It appears right at the start of the book, on page 8, in fact. And it is this. “We may agree that genocidal violence cannot be understood as rational; yet, we need to understand it as thinkable. Rather than run away from it, we need to realise that it is the “popularity” of the genocide that is its uniquely troubling aspect.” It isn’t the individual crimes in 2002 or in the singular act of a tiny mob in Bulandshahr this week that needs explaining as much as the group aspect of it.