My Gujarat,and my India,are bigger than some people think

Yoginder K Alagh | Charawak<br> Among characters in prehistory,which is part myth,the Charawaks are my favourite. They were outliers who always questioned and made fun of the rituals of dominant Brahmanical dictums.

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | New Delhi | Published: February 11, 2009 5:28 pm

Among characters in prehistory,which is part myth,the Charawaks are my favourite. They were outliers who always questioned and made fun of the ‘ex opere operato’ rituals of dominant Brahmanical dictums. Questions on Maya,on exploiting the present,and throwing the scriptures at the dispossessed when they asked the questions,disturb me; I hope they disturbed the Charawaks too. As a little boy in my village in the foothills of the Salt Range,now in Pakistan,I would cringe every time my grandfather abused his Jat Muslim peasant serf. For,Akbara would carry me on his shoulders,and his wife would envelope me in her love. I can still feel of the warmth of the dhusa (rough shawl) in which she kept me.

Romance is fun,but life is at best chaos,not always organized. The world of the outlier can be disturbing. For,by definition,there are no rules there. Now the story.

On March 2,2002,some of us felt it important to let our views be known on the violence in Ahmedabad. On March 3,one of the few surviving Gandhians,Chunnibhai Vaidya,affectionately called Chunni Kaka,called a meeting at Sabarmati Ashram. It was somewhat thinly attended,since Ahmedabad was smouldering and the scare of violence was still there. After some debate,it was decided to issue a statement and have a peace march.

By this time,Narayan Bhai Desai of the Mahadev Desai family had joined the group. The statement,jointly signed by Chunni Kaka and me,was widely reported in the national and global press. It was released by PTI,on Monday,March 4,2002. It read: “Prominent citizens on Monday accused the administration of conniving with fundamentalist forces of the majority community in brutalising the minorities… former Union Minister Y K Alagh told reporters here that the appeal was drafted after deliberations by at least 300 prominent citizens including people from all walks of life and communities at a meeting at Sabarmati Ashram on Sunday. Quoting the draft,Alagh alleged the state ‘abdicated its most primary responsibility of being objective protector of all citizens’. He demanded a thorough probe into the Godhra mayhem and the subsequent fallout by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court. Alagh said the people of Gujarat were ‘deeply upset’ with the spate of violence that swept the state. The appeal was signed among others by D N Pathak,Indu Kumar Jani and Nafeesa Baroot. An all-religion peace march will be taken out tomorrow from Sabarmati Ashram to Kochrab Ashram,also set up by Mahatma Gandhi in Ahmedabad,Alagh said.”

The rally the next day was also widely reported in the national and global press. Since the city was still very tense and police protection was not promised,(a few policemen did ultimately show up,though) only about 150 persons turned up at the Kochrab Ashram as against the normal crowd of about a thousand that a meeting called by Gandhians attracts. By the time the rally ended,however,more than 1,500 persons were there at the Sabarmati Ashram.

Now the plot thickens.

Amongst us outliers,as with the Charawaks,there are no rules. I had expected to get bad press from conservative elements of my own religion — for my Ram is a benign Purshottama. This turned out to be only partially so. But Upendra Baxi in his Second Gujarat Catastrophe (EPW,August 24,2002,p. 3526),quoting Escobar,characterised my views,and an invited paper I wrote on The Power House and its Nemesis (Seminar,May 2002,pp. 73-76),as “developmentalism”.

Baxi gave two arguments. First,my paper did not adequately describe the Gujarat violence,particularly the “violence against women”. Second,it was based on “the autonomy of a multitude of economic and social actors.” The important work of Escobar brought to my attention as the Chairman of the Scientific Steering Committee of MOST,the International Social Science Programme of UNESCO,was irrelevant to the discussion. However on the characterisation of the violence,one would have expected a scholar generally as careful as Upendra Baxi,with his legal referencing training,to have checked his facts.

In the May 2002 issue,I was commissioned to write on the Economic and Rehabilitation aspects of the riots,within a space restriction and this is precisely what I did. But the riots took place in end February-early March and Baxi was expected to check the literature on the riots on my characterization of the violence. Since my views on the Gujarat violence had been fairly widely reported,both in the print and in the electronic media,as shown above,I wrote to the Economic and Political Weekly to publish my version of the story,broadly as above. They did not do that,but only printed a very truncated version as a letter to the editor.

The story continues with another major actor.

A year later,Strobe Talbot came to India and,in a private dinner meeting,said that Gujarat would dismember India. Kanwal Sibal,the then Foreign Secretary,was compering the meeting unofficially,and asked me to comment. I agreed that what happened in Gujarat was reprehensible but pointed to the reaction of civil society in Gujarat to the events,and argued that we had the strength to emerge intact from the struggle.

Sheila Bhatt put this on the Internet: Rediff.com,February 11,2003. I got a lot of hate mail. I did not respond since I could understand the angst of those who had lost their near and dear ones.

Later,I was to go to IIT Kharagpur for a Jubilee Lecture. I took a car from Dum Dum and stopped for loochies and chholar daal on the way. After my lecture,I went to a village for some gupshup. The local leadership of the CPM,then in their fifties,must have been young when I worked at IIM Kolkata in the late sixties. They had a go at me for the riots in Gujarat. I agreed,but asked them: In that first protest at the Sabarmati Ashram,if there had been 10,000 protesters from all over the country rather than just a thousand,wouldn’t the outcome have been different? They were quiet.

The farther away we are,the easier it is to demonise,less easy to accost personally. I love my Gujarat. Possibly unlike Upendra Baxi who was born there and therefore takes his Gujarat for granted,being a product of the Partition and having lost my home,I have a great need to belong. I once mildly protested at being introduced as a ‘son in law’ of Gujarat: ‘when will I be called a son,’ I asked.

But there is also the issue that the farther away you are,the easier it is to stereotype. Arguing with a real person is different from slaying a demon in the mind. If I say that the walled city of Ahmedabad has in the last election voted in Muslim legislators to the Vidhan Sabha from non-minority constituencies,my Delhi and foreign friends don’t believe me. Also,when I say that in the central Gujarat districts where the maximum violence took place,apart from Vadodara,secular parties got the majority of votes and seats,I am not believed.

Farukh Sheikh was voted in from the walled city,for he is like the boy next-door. We don’t love the other caste or religion,but are a people whose dadi-maas engrained in us that we don’t kill. As Charawak,not belonging anywhere,I know that my Gujarat and my India are bigger than those who know it all.

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