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Failing to understand Gujarat

Failing to understand Gujarat

Author: Amberish K Diwanji
Publication: Rediff on Net
Date: December 20, 2002
URL: http://www.rediff.com/news/2002/dec/20amber.htm

It was a chance remark made by a Gujarati Hindu colleague to his Muslim colleague. "Thank God Modi won otherwise I don't know what would have happened to the Hindus."

The remark was not made with malice, but revealed a deep-rooted fear that few understood -- certainly not journalists, certainly not the Congress -- but caretaker Chief Minister Narendra Modi did.

What happened in Godhra was terrible and the culprits need to hang for it. And what happened after Godhra is equally terrible, and every person guilty of murder, rape and arson deserves the maximum punishment as per the law, including death. Neither incident is condoned or justified; it is not the business of individuals to take law into their hands.

But in this legalese what was missed was an understanding of the soul of Gujarat.

Gujarat is an awesome state. In the years leading to Independence, this small, semi-arid state that then accounted for barely four per cent of the country's population, gave undivided India three of its four greatest leaders: Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Yes, Jinnah is hated by many Indians, but no one can deny that this native of Gujarat was instrumental in creating Pakistan. I wonder if anywhere in the world, two Fathers of the Nations actually hailed from just one province? It would be a rare instance.

Clearly, there is something about Gujarat that it could produce men of such amazing brilliance. But tragically, these three men represented three amazing different school of thoughts, which only reflects the history and culture of Gujarat.

Gujarat lies on the famous trade routes between India and West Asia. Thus it is not surprising this state abounds in traders, who bring with them the culture of desiring peace, of consensus, of bartering.

But Gujarat also suffered at the hands of invaders over the centuries. The infamous raids by Mahmud of Ghazni on the Somnath temple in the 11th century, some say 11 times, some say 17, is seared in the memory of every Hindu Gujarati, perhaps more deeply than anything else. And the fact that Gujarat has been happy hunting ground for raiders and invaders from the northeast -- Turks, Afghans, Mughals -- and the southeast -- the Marathas, and later the British -- is not forgotten.

The Gujaratis have been hurt and humiliated by this violence, and sought to reclaim their ground. Perhaps the earliest indication comes from the fact that just a few years after Gujarat state was formed, Baroda, earlier under Maratha rule, was renamed Vadodara, harking back to an earlier Gujarati name.

But the Gujarati-Marathi violence that occurred when Bombay state was formed soon petered out. Gujaratis and the Marathi-speaking people mixed easily, and since the latter tended to become professionals, so they were not competing for the same space.

This was not the case with the Muslims.

Muslim rule over parts of Gujarat had been much longer and deeper. After Independence, interaction between the two communities that existed in the work place and in localities stayed at that level. The two communities did not intermarry save a rare case, had different diets that limited interaction, and finally, with both communities looking at trading as their primacy choice of occupation, there was always the element of competition.

Many people lament how is it that the state that produced Mahatma Gandhi also produced so much violence and such a deep-rooted Hindu-Muslim divide. They forget that the same state produced Mohammad Ali Jinnah, whose insecurities led him to demand -- and get -- Pakistan.

As a state that lies on the trading routes and with an amazingly long coastline, Gujarat has been a state of people coming and going, bringing with them their ideas and religion. So much flux and movement made the average Gujarati - whether Hindu, Muslim, or Parsi - living in a fluid society hold on fast to the one thing that remained rooted: his religion and its rituals. It is hardly surprising that unlike neighbouring Maharashtra, Gujarat never had a line of reformers who challenged Hindu orthodoxy. Even Mahatma Gandhi, who allowed Dalits into his Sabarmati Ashram, a revolutionary step then, went on record to say he accepted the caste system.

The average Gujarati thus was a deeply religious, orthodox person, and over the decades, politicians only exploited the various divisions within this society. Of all the divisions, the Hindu-Muslim divide was the deepest, and now the widest, and which exploded post-Godhra.

In the book 90 Minutes at Entebbe by William Stevenson, the author describes how an elderly Israeli, a Holocaust survivor who the hijackers failed to recognize as Jew, complained in Tel Aviv that what was the purpose of Israel if it could not protect Jews. Her remarks produced an uproar and played a catalyzing effect in pushing the government to take military action, thus leading to the raid at Entebbe.

In that sense, for Hindu Gujaratis, the burning of the train at Godhra in a state where the Gujarati Hindu now ruled after 600 years kindled the desire for revenge. For the Hindu Gujarati, the sentiment during the rioting was: 'Enough is enough' and 'The Muslims had to be taught a lesson,' a remark that harked back to all the attacks and raids by Muslim kings and sultans, both real and imagined, in the centuries gone by.

Tragically, few Indians elsewhere understood the Gujarati's reaction, yet most Hindu Gujaratis, whether in Mumbai or abroad, understood the sentiment. This is not to say that all Gujaratis approved the cruel killings; in fact some of the most trenchant critics of Modi and the Hindus on the rampage were Hindu Gujaratis.

But in the initial days, what emerged was a flawed understanding of the anxieties at play, and which only added to the chaos. It is then hardly surprising that with such flawed perceptions at work, few were able to understand the undercurrents at work during the Gujarat election or predict Modi's win.

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