Memorial to a Genocide: Insist on justice

Would those who encouraged the victimisers to kill in Gujarat be willing to apologise or make a conciliatory gesture to the victims? That would be a confession of guilt and guilt is what Narendra Modi is constantly denying 

Romila Thapar 

In 1947, Partition was accompanied by massacres so gruesome that many said they would not allow this to happen again. But we have been through three genocides since then and the perpetrators of the violence continue to be powerful members of our society. The three I am referring to are the anti-Sikh genocide in Delhi in 1984, the anti-Muslim in Gujarat in 2002, and more recently, the anti-Christian Dalit in Orissa. Genocide seems to follow a pattern in India post-1947. In each case it is the majority Hindu community that targets and kills those of a minority community of a specific and different religion, and in numbers far larger than are killed in communal riots. The justification for the killings is said to be some action on the part of the non-Hindus that is said to have angered the Hindus who then seek revenge. But, apart from the accusation being true or not, does any such action justify genocide? The actual motive often lies in the politics of the region. Religious antagonism or conciliation is what gets discussed in the aftermath, while the political and economic motives get brushed aside.

This raises many questions. These are not irrelevant and we need to have clear answers. 

Does this have to do with religion or with the way religion is mobilised politically with religious organisations becoming the agencies of political ideologies? Are Hindus by nature more given to killing, despite all the hype about belonging to a non-violent and tolerant culture? Or, why is it that the agencies of law and order — the police and administration — seem not to protect those attacked when they are members of a religious minority, or Dalits or women? Are they so infiltrated by religious extremist influence — Hindus in the main — that they do not bother to defend those attacked? 

Or, does nationalism define ‘Indian’ now to mean ‘Hindu’, and therefore the Hindu has primacy as citizen? Does this make non-Hindus dispensable? One wonders what has happened to the earlier concept of being Indian, a category inclusive of all communities; a concept that my generation of Indians stood by? If the violence is spontaneous, and in the name of a religion, then it is a blot on the religion of the community that perpetrates the violence, be it Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. If it is orchestrated by the State, then a State resorting to genocide can hardly claim to be a well-administered State. Only an incompetent government is unable to control what turns into genocide. This negates claims of good governance.

Given the scale and type of violence, there is little doubt that in Gujarat the police and administration were ineffective, to say the least. These are agencies which, now, all over the country, see themselves not as those whose duty it is to protect citizens, but rather as primarily having to be subservient to political authority, their function being to carry out the orders of those governing. There are a few, but unfortunately too few, who still see themselves as protectors of citizens and defenders of the rights of citizens. Among these few, there have been some police officers and administrators who have suggested that the violence in Gujarat was orchestrated by those governing. Their views cannot be easily dismissed.

If the administration in Gujarat is as efficient as is projected by Modi and his supporters, then some questions still remain to be answered. Even on the specific issues linked to the genocide, there are gross inefficiencies. 

The assault on women is particularly vicious. Women are the most devastated victims because the attack on them cuts both ways 

Of those accused of setting fire to the coaches at Godhra, I am told that 84 are still awaiting judgement. Ten years is a long time for there to be no judgement on what is held to be a simple case of arson. Is it a simple case of arson? Why is it that almost 50 per cent of the persons said to be missing — over 200 persons — cannot be traced, and records are missing? As is usual in such incidents, the paying of full compensation has been delayed. This smacks of normal corruption in the administration from which the Gujarat administration is obviously not free.

Going beyond 2002, there is a need to understand why there was a genocide, particularly in Gujarat. The anti-Sikh and anti-Christian Dalit killings were concentrated in limited areas, but, in Gujarat, the killings were widespread. If Gujarat is a well-administered, prosperous state, where was the need for the killings?

The patedars lived off the rich income from their lands, there was money pouring in from Gujarati NRIs living in the West, and the corporates were investing in Gujarat. What is it that the rich Hindus feared and fear? Is it that there would be a loss of subordinated Muslim labour, employed by the patedars, if the standard of living of the labourer improves? The import of unskilled labour from UP and Bihar seems to point to a problem with local labour. Is there a competition for employment, making it necessary to destroy skilled Muslim artisans? Is there a fear of the upward mobility of Muslim OBCs and Dalits, also asking for quotas? Why is the Gujarat government unable to bring water to parched areas to relieve the desperation of farmers? 

The enrolment of the Scheduled Tribes in the killings also needs investigation. In all tribal societies of central India, the money-lender — the dhiku — is the object of antagonism, and for obvious reasons. Who are the money-lenders in the tribal areas of Gujarat? Where they are Muslim, the instinctive dislike can be channelled into violence. But there has to be some agency legitimising this violence. Who is that?

If the State is so well-administered then how can Hindu extremist gangs vandalise teaching departments in a university — the Faculty of Fine Arts in the MS University in Baroda — manhandle the faculty, and have the department closed? All this is done in the name of one action of the department having supposedly hurt the sentiments of some Hindus. What was once the prestigious MS University is now powerless to defend its employees and to take action against political gangs. Is this a demonstration of good administration?

The assault on women is particularly vicious. Women are the most devastated victims because the attack on them cuts both ways. It is bad enough that they are raped, but the fact that they are raped by the attacking community makes them doubly unacceptable to their own community. This attitude has not changed since 1947. Why do we avoid acknowledging that rape is also an index of
sexual perversion?

The rath yatra of BJP to Ayodhya was flagged off from Somnath. It was described as Hindus avenging their trauma— even if it was late by a thousand years

Where communal conflicts occur we need to know much more precisely the identity of the perpetrators of the killings and rape, and that of the victims. Categories such as ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ are at one level, too broad. A closer look at neighbourhoods, communities, who employs whom and what they work at, relating to both victims and victimisers, would tell us something about whether the antagonism is spontaneous or is rooted in other factors.

In addition to all this, there is an ideological build-up of almost a century in Gujarat, encouraging hatred between Hindus and Muslims. Two major theories have enflamed this.

There has been a historical distortion of the raid of Mahmud on Somnath. It has been converted into the theory that it resulted in trauma among the Hindus which they have nurtured for a thousand years. This theory was first put forward by British colonial historians in the 19th century. It was then taken up by KM Munshi and people of his ilk, who turned it into popular historical novels, eagerly read by the Gujarati middle class.

The rath yatra of the BJP to Ayodhya was flagged off from Somnath. It was described as the Hindus avenging their trauma — even if it was late by a thousand years. Munshi left out crucial evidence in his version of the raid by Mahmud, such as major contradictions in the Persian and Turkish texts about the event and what was attacked; as also that the Sanskrit inscriptions refer to commercial deals involving the estates of the temples in the town and their trade with Arab traders, a couple of centuries after Mahmud; or that the temple was restored by a Jain ruler and was in use for a long period before it declined. This nullifies the idea of Hindu trauma.

Nationalism emerges when society modernises with the growth of industrialisation and capitalism. We choose what goes into the construction of our nationalism. The choice draws from the way we interpret our historical past or our imagined historical past and this often depends on the requirements of the present. Therefore, history is central to the construction of nationalism.

Mahmud’s raid on Somnath was converted into an idiom of Hindu-Muslim relations by the British. Subsequently, both Hindu and Muslim historians of the earlier 20th century continued to present it in the same way. The wider context of the event in local history and what followed was ignored. There was just the repetitive chorus of Hindu-Muslim antagonism. 

The other idea which also had a political fall out effect in later years was that of asmita — the unity of being Gujarati, or Gujarati-ness. This was based on Hindu Gujarati culture of the upper castes. Muslims and Christians were therefore aliens.

This view also reflects the theories of Savarkar and Golwalkar that only Hindus could be citizens of India, because India is their pitri-bhumi, the land of their ancestors, and their punya-bhumi, the original home of their religion.

It is not surprising that Modi has chosen Vivekananda as his symbol, since Vivekananda’s definition of Hinduism was upper-caste and exclusive. This is also linked to the definitions of Indian culture by the more influential NRI groups, which again do not include non-Hindu culture as Indian. Such groups are vocal in legitimising Modi’s Gujarat.

This inevitably raises the question of secularism. Should we continue to define secularism in a specifically Indian way to mean merely the co-existence of all religions, irrespective of the status they may have? Given that the followers of these religions in India have an unequal status, there is bound to be conflict. This was a definition specific to Indian nationalism at a time when communal politics were coming to the fore. Today, we need to return to the original meaning of secularism. As originally discussed, a secular society is one where all human rights are ensured by the State, and where religious organisations do not control the essentials of the social, political and economic functioning of a society.

Genocides are frightening because killing is seen as the political solution to problems…Ghettos are easy to control and easier to destroy, as we know from the extermination of Jews in Germany

Gujarat is not a secular state since it does not conform to either of these two definitions. Neither does it have religious co-existence, nor are the functions of civil society kept distinct from religious organisations or from political organisations with a religious ideology. To that extent itssystem of governance negates one of the fundamental principles of the Indian Constitution.

And what about the victims of genocide?

We hear so much these days about cultivating a sense of forgetting and forgiving, and even repentance. Victims cannot forget what they have been through. The resulting fear and hatred, festers. This would also apply to those who have suffered in communal riots and terrorist attacks by a variety of religiously inspired organisations — Hindu, Muslim and Sikh — that bring death and destruction. 

Apologies from the perpetrators of violence could be a prelude to the process of reconciliation. But the right conditions have to exist for this to happen. Reconciliation requires an equal parity between victimisers and victims, where the victims are no longer victims but have the power to propose and implement reconciliation. It would require an acknowledgement from the victimisers that they have victimised the victims. But would those who encouraged the victimisers to kill, in Gujarat, be willing to apologise or even make a conciliatory gesture to the victims? That would be a confession of guilt and guilt is what Modi is constantly denying. If this is not likely to happen, then the victims can only choose the pursuit of punitive justice.

Genocides are frightening because killing is seen as the political solution to problems. These are the beginnings of fascism, which targets a particular community as the internal enemy. This encourages the isolating of that community, forcing it to live in ghettos. Ghettos are easy to control and easier to destroy, as we know from Gujarat, and as we also know from the extermination of Jews in Germany.

To recognise the initial stages of fascism and to confront it, it is necessary to prevent it from being seen as a political solution. To insist on
justice, therefore, is, at this point, an imperative.  

Romila Thapar is an eminent historian and Professor Emeritus,Centre for Historical Studies (CHS), School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru, University, Delhi 

Editor's Note: The Mumbai-based Citizens for Justice and Peace and Jamia Millia Islamia hosted ‘Memorial to a Genocide: (Gulberg, Gujarat 2002-2012)’ in Delhi in October 2012. Among other events, the sensitive installations included a photo retrospective, a missing persons’ wall and survivors’ conversations. Eminent historian Romila Thapar inaugurated the ‘Memorial of Resistance’. Among others, Anusha Rizvi, director of Peepli Live, social activist Harsh Mander, journalists Rajdeep Sardesai and Vinod Mehta, and academics Prabhat Patnaik, Mukul Keshavan, Anuradha Chenoy and Dipankar Gupta participated in the panel discussions. We reproduce the presentations of Romila Thapar and academics Mukul Mangalik and Shiv Visvanathan. Pictures and posters: Binita Desai, Chinar Shah, Kanishka Prasad, Ram Rahman, Teesta Setalvad.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2012