It takes some chutzpah for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to proclaim his horror of violence in student demonstrations and “anarchy” on the streets directed at a duly elected government when he himself was the product of one of the most violent student protests known to India after Independence. That protest included vicious attacks on police personnel, widespread arson and the destruction of public property, and was directed against a state government that had come to office only months earlier with a huge majority of 140 out of 184 seats — a rather greater proportion than the seats Modi and his party have won in the elections to the Lok Sabha in May 2019.
I refer, of course, to the student agitation that grew into the Navnirman Movement in Gujarat in 1974, in the course of which Modi cut his political milk teeth. Indeed, the Modi website devotes an entire page to the Navnirman agitation and boasts that it “propelled Narendra (sic) to the first post of his political career, General Secretary of the Lok Sangharsh Samiti”. It goes on to admiringly relate how “as a young Pracharak and associate of the ABVP, Narendra joined the Navnirman movement and dutifully performed the tasks assigned to him”. (It does not add that as a college drop-out, he could not have been a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad — hence, perforce, an “associate”).
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We are not vouchsafed the details of what these “duties” were but we do know of the havoc the movement wrought. What had started in December 1973 as student protest over canteen charges at the Morbi Engineering College spread to the L D College of Engineering, Ahmedabad on December 20, 1973 and by January 10, 1974 turned palpably violent. The next day, on January 11, 1974, the Navnirman Yuvak Samiti was formed. They called, says Gyan Prakash in his Emergency Chronicles, “for strikes, bandhs, conducted mock funerals of Chiman Patel (the Gujarat CM) and burned him in effigy”. Over the next two weeks, the strike burgeoned state-wide covering at least 33 towns. Not even the curfew imposed on 44 towns could stop the violence. By January 28, with the police unable to cope with the violence, the Army had to be called out. Wikipedia says, “at least 100 died, 1,000-3,000 were injured and 8,000 were arrested”. It was into this fray that our non-violent, peace-loving pracharak assiduously took over his “assigned tasks”.
We are not told what these “tasks” were but we do know that “the agitation helped local leaders of the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh and its student organisation, ABVP, to establish themselves in politics.” Wikipedia helpfully adds, “Narendra Modi was one of them”.
What did they do? They ensured, as Sagarika Ghose notes in her biography of Indira Gandhi, that “mayhem ruled in India”. She goes on, “ it was the most harrowing period in the governance of India, with gheraos, bandhs, calls for revolt and revolution, agitations and strikes”. Into this melee steps young “Narendra”. He goes about his tasks apparently oblivious of how, says another Indira biographer, Katherine Frank, “the state (Gujarat) was reduced to near anarchy. Shops and houses were looted, buses and cars burnt and government property destroyed”. Narendra Modi — the same one who is now denouncing arson, looting and the destruction of government property — it would appear, was unfazed by all this. Not a word of reprimand escaped his lips. He just went “dutifully” about his “assigned tasks” even as “the police could not contain the situation and were often the subject of attacks” (Frank). Student protesters also “attacked the vehicles and property of Congress (I) legislators and corporators” (Raghu Karnad, The Wire, December 16, 2019). Even this did not move the disciplined Narendra Modi, loyal pracharak that he was, to protest then as he doth protest today, with the consequence that, “in a month, over 103 people were killed in riots, 300 were injured and 8,000 arrested” (Frank).
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Inder Malhotra’s figures modify Frank’s a little but his testimony as one of the most important and influential journalists to cover Indira’s rise, fall and rise again (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989) bears recall: “For more than ten weeks, the state (Gujarat) was a virtual anarchy. At one time a curfew had been imposed in Ahmedabad and 105 other cities and towns. Looting of shops, burning of buses and government property and attacks on the police became routine.” Became routine? And yet what did our PM-in-waiting do? Nothing. He was reserving his righteous indignation for the time when his government would come under similar siege. The toll, according to Malhotra’s estimate: “103 people had been killed, 300 injured and more than 8,000 arrested”.
More important still was Malhotra’s penetrating observation that while “India was no stranger to street violence, all through the preceding quarter of a century neither side had transgressed certain self-imposed limits. In Gujarat, for the first time, this self-imposed restraint broke down”. And where was young Modi? Climbing, climbing, climbing the greasy saffron pole, so assiduously that he chose to ignore the Lakshman Rekha being crossed.
The Gujarat example set Bihar on fire — literally. “The ABVP (with which the reader will recall Modi was “associated”) formed the hard core of JP’s student revolutionaries” (Karnad). Their excesses may today be laid at Modi’s door. Karnad says: “… students torched government buildings, a public warehouse and two newspaper offices” — while Modi, the upcoming pracharak, took maun vrat. Yet, he has the gall as PM to tweet on December 16, 2019, that “never has damage to public property and disturbance of normal life been a part of our ethos”. “Never”? Then was the “arson and loot” of the Navnirman Movement and the “anarchy”, now deplored, which it engendered then, an aberration from our “ethos”? Or is sauce for the goose not sauce for the gander?
This article first appeared in the print edition of January 3, 2020 under the title ” ‘Anarchy, ours and theirs’. The writer is a former Union minister.
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