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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.
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