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Blame the Middle Classes


The Times of India, Jan. 8, 2008

Photo: Ashis Nandy

Now that the dust has settled over the Gujarat elections, we can afford to defy the pundits and admit that, even if Narendra Modi had lost the last elections, it would not have made much difference to the culture of Gujarat politics. Modi had already done his job. Most of the state's urban middle class would have remained mired in its inane versions of communalism and parochialism and the V.H.P. and the Bajrang Dal would have continued to set the tone of state politics. Forty years of dedicated propaganda does pay dividends, electorally and socially.

The Hindus and the Muslims of the state - once bonded so conspicuously by language, culture and commerce - have met the demands of both V.D. Savarkar and M.A. Jinnah. They now face each other as two hostile nations. The handful of Gujarati social and political activists who resist the trend are seen not as dissenters but as treacherous troublemakers who should be silenced by any means, including surveillance, censorship and direct violence. As a result, Gujarati cities, particularly its educational institutions are turning cultural deserts. Gujarat has already disowned the Indian Constitution and the state apparatus has adjusted to the change.

The Congress, the main opposition party, has no effective leader. Nor does it represent any threat to the mainstream politics of Gujarat. The days of grass-roots leaders like Jhinabhai Darji are past and a large section of the party now consists of Hindu nationalists. The national leadership of the party does not have the courage to confront Modi over 2002, given its abominable record of 1984.

The Left is virtually non-existent in Gujarat. Whatever minor presence it once had among intellectuals and trade unionists is now a vague memory. The state has disowned Gandhi, too; Gandhian politics arouses derision in middle-class Gujarat. Except for a few valiant old-timers, Gandhians have made peace with their conscience by withdrawing from the public domain. Gandhi himself has been given a saintly, Hindu nationalist status and shelved. Even the Gujarati translations of his Complete Works have been stealthily distorted to conform to the Hindu nationalist agenda.

Gujarati Muslims too are 'adjusting' to their new station. Denied justice and proper compensation, and as second-class citizens in their home state, they have to depend on voluntary efforts and donor agencies. The state's refusal to provide relief has been partly met by voluntary groups having fundamentalist sympathies. They supply aid but insist that the beneficiaries give up Gujarati and take to Urdu, adopt veil, and send their children to madrassas. Events like the desecration of Wali Gujarati's grave have pushed one of India's culturally richest, most diverse, vernacular Islamic traditions to the wall. Future generations will as gratefully acknowledge the sangh parivar's contribution to the growth of radical Islam in India as this generation remembers with gratitude the handsome contribution of Rajiv Gandhi and his cohorts to Sikh militancy.

The secularist dogma of many fighting the sangh parivar has not helped matters. Even those who have benefited from secular lawyers and activists relate to secular ideologies instrumentally. They neither understand them nor respect them. The victims still derive solace from their religions and, when under attack, they cling more passionately to faith. Indeed, shallow ideologies of secularism have simultaneously broken the back of Gandhism and discouraged the emergence of figures like Ali Shariatis, Desmond Tutus and the Dalai Lama - persons who can give suffering a new voice audible to the poor and the powerless and make a creative intervention possible from within worldviews accessible to the people.

Finally, Gujarat's spectacular development has underwritten the de-civilising process. One of the worst-kept secrets of our times is that dramatic development almost always has an authoritarian tail. Post-World War II Asia too has had its love affair with developmental despotism and the censorship, surveillance and thought control that go with it. The East Asian tigers have all been maneaters most of the time. Gujarat has now chosen to join the pack. Development in the state now justifies amorality, abridgement of freedom, and collapse of social ethics.

Is there life after Modi? Is it possible to look beyond the 35 years of rioting that began in 1969 and ended in 2002? Prima facie, the answer is 'no.' We can only wait for a new generation that will, out of sheer self-interest and tiredness, learn to live with each other. In the meanwhile, we have to wait patiently but not passively to keep values alive, hoping that at some point will come a modicum of remorse and a search for atonement and that ultimately Gujarati traditions will triumph over the culture of the state's urban middle class.

Recovering Gujarat from its urban middle class will not be easy. The class has found in militant religious nationalism a new self-respect and a new virtual identity as a martial community, the way Bengali babus, Maharashtrian Brahmins and Kashmiri Muslims at different times have sought salvation in violence. In Gujarat this class has smelt blood, for it does not have to do the killings but can plan, finance and coordinate them with impunity. The actual killers are the lowest of the low, mostly tribals and Dalits. The middle class controls the media and education, which have become hate factories in recent times. And they receive spirited support from most non-resident Indians who, at a safe distance from India, can afford to be more nationalist, bloodthirsty, and irresponsible.