April 11, 2002
It is difficult to establish the depth of the anguish I have felt in the last month, given the fact that Ahmedabad is my home; that I am a devout Hindu; and finally, I have been a supporter of the BJP for the past five-odd years. I even campaigned for the BJP in the last Lok Sabha elections as I sincerely believed that Atal Behari Vajpayee was the best prime ministerial candidate.
My response to aghast liberal friends used to be that the BJP would evolve like the US Republican Party with its fringe extreme right elements (like the Christian coalition) who would create noise but not make or execute policy. The carnage of the past month has shown this view to be naive and optimistic, and the liberal prime minister’s inability to act in the face of pressure from the extreme right underscores the extent to which a lunatic fringe has paralysed an entire state, with the official machinery all but looking away.
The first claim we repeatedly hear is that ‘‘Ahmedabad was a reaction to Godhra’’. Where have we heard this before? Every case of murder of innocents whether in Kashmir or the World Trade Center is linked by the jihadis to an earlier atrocity by someone else. At a seminar last week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the VHP general secretary of the US eloquently quoted from the Gita and claimed to the audience that Godhra mein adharam hua, and said that he was surprised that there wasn’t greater violence across the country.
Yes, Godhra was an outrage, and the perpetrators need to be swiftly tried and given the maximum legal punishment. But nowhere in its 18 chapters does the Gita talk about killing innocents in blind retribution. Blaming a collective for the actions of a few individuals, and unleashing mindless violence against them is the first attribute of terrorism.
Another common ‘explanation’ which should be quickly debunked is the idea that the violence was a spontaneous reaction of frustrated, unemployed youth. These youth need to be mobilised, and the biggest danger of the VHP/Bajrang Dal is their explicit hate-based mobilisation, which in turn gives them a street power with tremendous destructive capacity. By directing the frustrations of youth towards an imaginary ‘enemy’, the Bajrang Dal creates a Molotov cocktail that is waiting to explode. Again the parallels with how suicide bombers are recruited and how Hitler mobilised his young battalions against the Jews are for all to see.
The most dangerous aspect of the Hindutva brigade is the extent to which its cadre are indoctrinated, to the point of being incapable of individual rational thought. While this has been apparent in some of my discussions with the ‘faithful’, the biggest evidence is the various peace fasts, sit-ins and marches that have been attacked in the name of Hinduism. The intolerance in these people is shocking when one encounters them the first time, but on reflection it is probably no different from a conversation with a fidayeen, or a young lieutenant in the Gestapo who has been convinced that ‘‘Germany will be great once we get rid of the Jews’’’.
People often wonder how ordinary Germans allowed the holocaust to happen, and the answer is that they either chose not to believe it was true or let themselves be scared at the thought of individually opposing the forces at hand. The parallel with the silent majority of Hindus in India today is quite apparent. Given the sheer numbers in India, the VHP/Bajrang Dal are able to cause havoc even by mobilising a very small fraction of the population, and it is easy to get overwhelmed by the mistaken perception that they enjoy ‘popular’ support, when in fact all they have is a few thousand hooligans.
We are fighting a battle for the soul of India here. An important contributor to peace, as studies on communal conflict have shown, is the prevalence of institutions that allow people from different communities to interact with each other on a daily basis that prevents the dehumanising of the ‘other’ that happens in a riot. What this means is that we need to reach out to our Muslim friends and neighbours and feel their pain and insecurity and, in our own limited ways, assure them that nothing will happen to them while we are around. This will be difficult, and will take moral and physical courage — after all Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an intolerant Jew and Mahatma Gandhi by a fanatical Hindu. Like a friend told me, ‘‘We may have allowed ourselves to forget all of Gandhi’s teachings, but we should never have allowed ourselves to forget who killed him.’’
(The writer is a doctoral candidate in economics at Harvard University with a focus on political economy and development)
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