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Lecture Series on Roots of Sectarian Conflict

Publisher: Cambridge University Press (June, 1991)

Publisher: Cambridge University Press (June, 1991)

Let me turn my attention to Gujarat which is the news all last week. The Hindu Muslim riots of the last week have probably taken 1000 lives. The government estimates 600, safe bet in India to jump that by some number. Mostly Muslims were burnt and murdered by Hindu zealots. This too is terribly sad and tragic, especially because it need not have been so. This was avoidable. Yes, the Muslim attack on Hindu militants on the train was dastardly and inexcusable. But given that attack, the government should have done what governments do. Two things, one to anticipate that there will be reprisals and go out there and make sure those reprisals are not carried out. And second, focus your energy on apprehending the criminals and bring them to justice. The state did not undertake these functions. And the result has been a grotesque tragedy. The roots of the conflict, the roots of the Hindu-Muslim violence, are both within Gujarat and in the national situation. Let me very briefly speak to both of them.

First, the national situation. The main thing that is going on here is that India’s ruling Hindu party, BJP, is losing popularity. Those of you who know Indian political situation know that within the BJP that there are both more extreme and more moderate tendencies. India’s Prime Minister, Mr. Vajpayee, represents the more moderate tendencies and then there are other groups even within the party and especially those affiliated to the party that represent the more extreme tendencies. Whenever BJP tends to lose popularity, it generally strengthens the hands of the more militant supporters of the BJP. This happens because they are better organized, they are capable of mobilizing. The moderate folks came into power riding the extreme tiger in 1992. Now, as the leaders smell electoral losses, the recent elections in four states are a clear sign, now the only major state the BJP controls is Gujarat. Nearly all other states, while Congress is back in power in about 12 different states, BJP is losing power. So as they smell electoral losses, the question is, do they really have a winning strategy that can improve open mobilizing anti-Muslim-Hindu cohesion as a source of victory. I doubt it. So the national leadership of the BJP has really not been as decisive as it could have been given what happened.

Imagine the reverse situation, if Gujarat was ruled by Congress and had Muslims unleashed the revenge on Hindus. If you know Indian politics, it would not take much imagination to realize what would have happened. President rule would have been imposed, government would have been blamed as incompetent and unable to stop violence and army would have immediately been sent to curb the violence. None of this happened. The main drama is, of course, within Gujarat. So let me speak a little but about Gujarat. Gujarat, ironically, is one of India’s most industrialized and prosperous states so any flip understanding that this is all rooted in poverty has to be carefully modified. It is also home of Mahatma Gandhi. Unfortunately, it also has a considerable history of political violence; especially riots and violence calculated to bring about desired political goals. This has been a pattern in Gujarat for the last 30 to 40 years.

In 1970s, for those of you who know the region or Indian politics, in 1970s there was the Nav Nirman movement that eventually brought about the Emergency in India. In the 1980s, and I want spend an extra minute on this, there were the anti-Solanki riots by Patidars, this is getting too specific for those of you who don’t know Indian politics, but let me focus on this because this is really quite important for understanding what is going on today. And this was a turning point, like I spoke about a turning point in Kashmir, the 1980s was again a turning point in Gujarat politics. What happened was, again Mrs. Gandhi was part of the political drama, a political coalition was established by the Congress party, by Indira Gandhi’s supporters, that essentially excluded the dominant caste of the state, the Patidars. It was instead a coalition of a variety of middling and underprivileged groups, it was called the KHAM alliance, an alliance of Kshatriyas, Adivasis, Harijans, and Muslims. And this was a very effective coalition that displaced the old ruling forces in the state of Gujarat, especially the Patidars. Now in the 1980s, what happens is when Mrs. Gandhi’s Solanki, who runs Gujarat wins popular support and comes to power in the state, the Patidars, especially the Patidar youth, unleash a lot of violence against so-called reservation policies. And the whole state is mired in violence over and over again under the rubric of anti-reservation riots. And why is this important?