When the state looks away

Gujarat 2002, like Delhi 1984, is a case of state culpability. One was ideological, the other strategic.

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Published:March 1, 2017 12:05 am
Gujarat riots, 2002 Gujarat riots, 2002 riots, anti-Sikh riots, 1984 anti-Sikh riots, 1984 riots, indian express editorial page, indian express Gujarat 2002 was different from Delhi 1984, only in that the Delhi violence was strategic, whereas the Gujarat pogrom were primarily ideological. (Express Archives)

February 28, 2002, had a routine beginning for me. I was in Varanasi, evaluating a student programme of the University of Michigan as a professor. Those were not social media times. While cable TV had emerged, news from Gujarat was still not filtering in, as it did in a torrent later.

When I arrived in Delhi that evening, PBS Newshour, a television news show in the US, called. They wanted me to go live to discuss the Gujarat riots at 4:30 a.m. IST, which would have been 6 p.m. on the US East Coast, saying the killings were gruesome. I could not say yes for I was to fly to the US at that time. They knew that Yale University Press had just published my book Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India. The book had three chapters on Gujarat.

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As the phone call ended and I switched on TV, a certain clarity emerged. I witnessed an exchange between M.J. Akbar, then with the Congress, now a BJP junior minister, and Arun Jaitley, then India’s law minister, now its finance minister. “Hinduon ke kanun mantri ho, ya Hindustan ke” (Are you the law minister of Hindus, or the law minister of India), thundered Akbar. Jaitley was nonplussed.
By midnight, it was clear that Muslims had been slaughtered in large numbers, in
retaliation for the alleged Muslim burning of two carriages of a train carrying Hindu nationalist kar sevaks (volunteers) in Godhra.

As I arrived in Michigan, it also became clear that the state government had not just failed to prevent retaliatory attacks on Muslims, but had simply looked on, or abetted. To identify those who burned Sabarmati Express was the government’s constitutional responsibility; it was not the government’s job to allow, or abet, tit-for-tat killings.

Some days later, I was on a CNN show with then-chief minister, Narendra Modi. That morning, Celia Dugger of the New York Times had published a story in which she described watching a mass burial of Muslim children in Ahmedabad (NYT, March 7, 2002). On CNN, Modi argued that things were under control and the design of those who had partitioned India (Pakistani Muslims, in other words) would be defeated. He had no words of sympathy for Gujarati Muslims.

The three most important questions about Gujarat 2002 are: Who should bear the responsibility for the mass violence? Did Gujarat 2002 have any parallels? And what should be done?

Two analytically separable issues are at stake here — legal and political. Unfortunately, the two have often been conflated. We, the social scientists, can’t determine legal culpability. That is the domain of the courts. Our tools of inquiry concentrate on groups, organisations and large social aggregates (classes, castes, ethnicities, nations). We don’t analyse individuals, except in an abstract sense.

That is not altogether helpful to courts, for they are not in the business of establishing group culpability. They need to ascertain which specific individuals are responsible for which specific acts of carnage. Some punishments have been meted out, including to a minister in Modi’s Gujarat cabinet. But Modi is the highest object of liberal and leftist ire.

He not only remains legally untouched; he is now India’s prime minister. Activists might keep legally pushing, as they should if they are convinced. But I don’t think social scientists can analytically go any further. Law is not a branch of social science. We can provide data and arguments on groups and organisations, not on individual culpability.

However, we can legitimately probe a matter of great political and moral relevance, namely, the distinction between riots and pogroms. The former is a case of government failure; the latter of government culpability. Which category applies to Gujarat 2002?

A pogrom is defined as “a mob attack, either approved or condoned by authorities, against the persons and property of a religious, racial, or national minority”. Gujarat 2002 fits this definition well. Dozens of eye-witness stories can be cited. The non-state organisations, most closely allied with the BJP government, approved of violence. The VHP called it “the first positive response of the Hindus to Muslim fundamentalism in 1,000 years”. The RSS said: “Let the minorities understand their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority,” not in laws. Finally, the courts sentenced a minister in Modi’s government to jail for leading mobs. In short, it was not a case of the government trying to prevent massacres, but one in which the government looked the other way, and considerable abetting also took place. It was a pogrom.

Unfortunately, it was not the first pogrom of independent India. One is reminded of the Delhi massacre of Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. In Delhi at the time for graduate research, I watched a Sikh neighbour’s house attacked by a mob in Safdarjung Enclave. Though the city was under curfew, I could drive all over New Delhi, but there were no Sikhs on the street, not even in taxi stands, inconceivable in 1984. Trilokpuri was the biggest site of brutality. The cops were nowhere to be seen. Mobs attacked wantonly.

Gujarat 2002 was different from Delhi 1984, only in that the Delhi violence was strategic, whereas the Gujarat pogrom were primarily ideological. Hindu nationalism is ideologically anti-Muslim, but Congress ideology has never been anti-Sikh. That is why Sikhs have returned to the Congress, but Muslims continue to stay away from the BJP. That is also why Gujarat 2002 comes closest to the anti-Jewish pogroms of pre-revolutionary Russia.

That, despite the evidence of complicity, both Congress and BJP governments were re-elected after the massacres points to the dark belly of India’s democracy, which can turn brutally majoritarian. Luckily, no pogroms have taken place since 2002. India’s democracy now allows small riots and quotidian acts of prejudice, some quite awful, but it permits no big communal conflagrations, excepting those that get linked to national security.

Lower levels of communal violence, however, cannot be a matter of celebration. The majoritarian threat remains. Citizen oversight and the use of institutions checking executive power are the main vehicles of hope.

The writer is director, Centre for Contemporary South Asia, Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University

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  1. H
    Hemant Kumar
    Mar 1, 2017 at 4:38 am
    This writer is digging grave of 2002 Godhara riots. He should become a CHANDAAL. The likes of him, poison the minds of Muslims and instigate riots. The poor are killed. In fact, he is worse than the rioters and murderers. There is difference between Sikhs and Muslims, that is why they have returned to Congress. Sikhism is an offshoot of Hinduism and therefore it is liberal compared to Islam which doesn't leave its perceived enemies till one dies. There is no room for forgiveness. This writer wants to make Rahul PM in place of Mr. Modi. Muslims also recognise that likes of this writer have fooled them and snatched their livelihoods from them and pushed them from the cliff. These writers are cheaters to both Hindus and Muslims. They are danger to peace and harmony. After 15 years they are celebrating annivarsary of Godhara.
    Reply
    1. H
      Hemant Kumar
      Mar 1, 2017 at 3:38 am
      When IE publishes articles which audience would like censored, it is acting like untethered bull indulged in immoral practices and when we comment it treats them as obscene. This is called inequality and restriction of freedom of speech. The govt. should make laws for censoring such articles. What is sauce for goose is sauce for er. Media is hypocrite.
      Reply
      1. R
        Ram Chandar
        Mar 1, 2017 at 2:20 am
        Oye Bhappaylt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Chill out. What happened in Gujarat was a defensive action of Hindus against political Islam and not against religion Islam. Sirji you don't seem to distinguish between two Islam. Also you have no idea of ethical dualism in Islam. I respect your choice to live in fool's paradise and keep on attacking the Windmills like Don Quixote,
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          IslamForFoools
          Mar 1, 2017 at 2:23 am
          Blame goes to musselman and Islam who as usual started riots and terrorism. Blame Mecca median, Allah and mohemmed d
          Reply
          1. I
            IslamForFoools
            Mar 1, 2017 at 2:24 am
            Kil those who speak of Gujarati riots against Hindus
            Reply
            1. J
              Jay
              Mar 1, 2017 at 1:55 am
              In today's world the only way to make bread and butter is by spewing venom against Modi for journalists. Obviously this author also wants to make some money using Modi
              Reply
              1. R
                Rajat
                Mar 1, 2017 at 2:05 am
                "Sikhs have returned to the Congress, but Muslims continue to stay away from the BJP."lt;br/gt;This is because Sikhs are Indians, but muslims are not. Anything pro-Hindu is anhetical to muslims, even the moderate ones.
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                1. R
                  Rajat
                  Mar 1, 2017 at 2:48 am
                  Agree. Many are earning this way only.
                  Reply
                  1. R
                    Rohmmell
                    Mar 2, 2017 at 1:54 am
                    What about Dhulagarh,West Bengal in 2016, don't Hindu lives matter at all?
                    Reply
                    1. S
                      Sri
                      Mar 2, 2017 at 12:13 am
                      If it is your intention to tell thr bluff untill it sticks I will tell you as many times that you are all fake i intellectuals and your bias is seen from first sentence itself. Infact the w article reads like a gossip and the tone is as if you have been accepted as an intellectual by everyone. No. I would think u r a hate preacher under the garb of an intellectual.
                      Reply
                      1. Z
                        zizek
                        Mar 1, 2017 at 5:41 am
                        "By midnight, it was clear that Muslims had been slaughtered in large numbers." ---Don't forget that Hindus were also slaughtered.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;"in retaliation for the alleged Muslim burning." --- When Muslims do, it becomes alleged but even when there is no conclusive evidence of Modi's complicity, they go shouting that Modi is guilty.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;What events you focus at and how you look at it is driven by prejudices (good or bad). For libtards, even if parion led to millions of deaths and migration (for which Jinnah is responsible), they go on to say that in the end, Jinnah was a secular just based on a speech given by him after all this. So, keep on ranting and no one will be convinced.
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                          Joe
                          Mar 1, 2017 at 3:05 am
                          I believe most Hindus in our country are decent people and would not like to be affiliated with the the likes of people like you who claim to represent their faith.
                          Reply
                          1. J
                            Joe
                            Mar 1, 2017 at 2:59 am
                            If you think labeling someone a leftist if enough to convincingly demolish their arguments, I'm afraid you are the .
                            Reply
                            1. J
                              Joe
                              Mar 1, 2017 at 2:56 am
                              Your prejudice is pretty clear are not fooling anyone.
                              Reply
                              1. V
                                Vikrant
                                Mar 1, 2017 at 2:48 am
                                The most gruesome riots in recent Indian history happened in 1947. Now if you just do not consider the events preceding these riots and just look at riots then the devastation of that riots were much higher. So shouldn't Nehru, hi and all other Congress leaders culpable of much more heinous crime? Bracket Nehru, hi, Patel, Indira and Rajeev in a bracket for being responsible for much more brutality and failure than Modi. If they are real intellectuals and not paid agents then the author will do so.
                                Reply
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                                  Ajay G
                                  Mar 1, 2017 at 6:22 pm
                                  Last speech of Indira hi….” every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it “
                                  Reply
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                                    ak dev
                                    Mar 1, 2017 at 10:27 pm
                                    Many articles on 2002 Gujarat Riots appearing in last two weeks in IE can't be a coincidence. Intellectually dishonest left liberals are once again trying to divide people to affect election in UP. Particularly this author has deliberately used words that will provoke people's sentiments. Select English media provide convenient space to these bas tards to continue poison people's mind.
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                                      ak dev
                                      Mar 1, 2017 at 10:38 pm
                                      This author is part of Hate-Modi gang in USA.
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                                        anand
                                        Mar 1, 2017 at 11:52 am
                                        As you sow so you reap!
                                        Reply
                                        1. A
                                          anand
                                          Mar 1, 2017 at 12:01 pm
                                          Whether your sermons are applicable to the so called minorities!
                                          Reply
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                                            anand
                                            Mar 1, 2017 at 11:58 am
                                            Yes sir. However if someone tests the patience to the extreme as it happened in Godhra, results will be not to your liking. Even a docile cow will fling it's horns if cornered. The sooner sicularists realise the better it would be.
                                            Reply
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