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Gujarat: shades of black

About the author
Rajeev Bhargava, B.A.(Delhi), M.Phil, D.Phil (Oxford), is Senior Fellow and Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. His publications include Secularism and its Critics ed. (OUP, New Delhi, 1998), What is Political Theory and Why do we need it? (OUP, Delhi, 2010) and The Promise of India's secular democracy (OUP, Delhi, 2010)

I have recently returned from Gujarat.

Ever since the tumultuous events which followed the Godhra incident of 27 February 2002 – when the burning of two train carriages at Godhra, in which 58 Hindu activists were killed, was followed by organised massacres of around 2000 Muslims – I knew I had to go there. It is never easy to leave Delhi even during a break in the routine of lectures, workshops, seminars that normally beckon and bind us, academics. The visit was in its way ‘purposeless’, with no active motive beyond sheer curiosity.

Yet, can anyone worried about the fate of India not undertake this journey? For in travelling to and returning from Gujarat, one is not just visiting the site of terrible acts of massacre of people – and by people – for no other reason than a difference of religion. The journey is also about the attempt to understand why ‘ordinary’ people can turn, almost in an instant, into depraved killers – and why the wider circle of those who share only the same badge of religious or ethnic membership with them can consent to, even applaud, sometimes participate in, and later justify, their shameful acts.

These questions have been posed for at least a century – by the genocides of Armenians and Jews, of Cambodians and Rwandan Tutsis, by slaughters of civilians in ex-Yugoslavia, by the piles of corpses that accompanied the Japanese occupation of China or, indeed, the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Now, in Gujarat, they are posed with compelling urgency to all who care about India’s future.

The experience of Gujarat offers no easy answers. But the beginning of understanding may be to situate what is happening there in the context of the relation between three key phenomena: the underlying social impulses of egoism and altruism, the effects of rapid change on unequal societies, and the distinct dangers to democratic citizenship posed by religious communalism.

In following this path of thought, we may come closer to seeing the particularity of Gujarat in the context of its universal character as well as its global precedents and parallels. In this way, the meaning of what happened there might be discussed as widely as it deserves, as part of the unfinished story of the modern world.

A chloroform of hatred

Although it was too late to meet the Muslim victims in ‘riot-affected’ areas, we already had a good sense of the current mental state of Muslims: a sense of dread and vulnerability, a feeling of being cornered. We did meet one family. An elder showed us a bulky collection of clippings from local newspapers. He uttered not a word about their anti-Muslim vitriol or the local perpetrators. Younger family members stood by in an anger that would not be articulated and a rage that could not show. All hoped conditions in Gujarat would allow them at least to vote, to attempt to remove the BJP government of Narendra Modi.

We decided next to visit the minds of upper-caste, middle-class Hindus who we were told had justified the post-Godhra massacres. Were the stories about them true? Do they continue to condone the violence? Or do they distance themselves from the massacre and its perpetrators, or even feel any remorse? Three days of travel in the cities, towns and villages of central Gujarat shattered us. Communal poison is collecting in stepwells in drought-driven Gujarat, little pools and ponds, eddies that soil every footstep.

We met shopkeepers, small businessman, students, college teachers, a medical doctor, ordinary people in small towns. With the exception of a lone trader with a Gandhian background, there was a chilling uniformity in all accounts. What did Muslims expect after Godhra? They deserved what they received. Had they not brought the violence upon themselves? It was a lesson well taught, and one they needed.

Anyhow, it was coming for sometime. Hindu resentment against Muslims was mounting. Sexually promiscuous Muslim youths harass Hindu girls. Muslims monopolise the transport business and do not allow Hindu entrepreneurs to trespass. And, had we not heard? 500 cows had been slaughtered a few days before the Godhra incident. Even India Today carried this report, we were told. But why did the tribals (indigenous peoples) also target the Muslims? Because Muslim moneylenders had exploited them for centuries. ‘You just have to see the silver they have usurped over the years.’ And why did they spare the Hindu banias who had exploited them too? Because, hours after the Godhra incident, Muslim goondas had killed fifteen tribals in Surat!

These were brute facts, as ‘hard as rock’ that can be changed (it was said) only when Muslim behaviour is altered, not by weak attempts at dialogue or reasonable discussion, but by strong Hindu reaction. The very people who complained about unreasonableness in the Muslims had now mutilated facts, fallen prey to vicious rumour, and sealed themselves off from another point of view or any self-doubt. A certain kind of reasoning had first encircled and then strangulated itself.

Another ‘fact’ chilled to the bone: the Pavlovian regurgitation, by almost everyone we met, of the proportion of Muslims in the Gujarati population. Most said it was between 15–40%; a few even thought it was close to 50%. Not one person got the actual figure of 8.8% even remotely right.

I was reminded here of David Hume, who warns of animosities between groups that survive long after the original source of conflict has disappeared, like a patient who retains a phantom image of an amputated limb but continues to feel pain in it; and also of an old Jonathan Miller programme on British television. The image we create for ourselves, Miller showed, has very odd proportions: some parts invariably feel much larger than they look, like a wart on the nose, which may be small and harmless but is perceived by the brain as something large and dangerous, in need of urgent attention.

It would be a mistake to generalise. This was not the whole of Gujarat. We had not met representatives of every caste or religious community. We had not travelled everywhere. The Gandhians, I am told, are fighting back. But in everything we saw or heard there were no shades of grey. The same stereotypes, the same anti-Muslim stories relentlessly ricocheted on us, visit after visit, household after household.

I do not know enough about Gujarat to fully explain the ferocity of Hindu reaction there. Have we all been too complacent about our darker motivations? Do we all have a much greater capacity than we realise to shrug off wrong done to others in pursuit of self-affirmation? Are power and pride enhanced as much by hurting as helping others? I wonder. Perhaps the centuries of pacification that Gandhi had successfully tapped, and nearly institutionalised, had left dormant surpluses of youthful male resentment that finally found an outlet.

I am aware more generally of why things are the way they are in north India, in Gujarat and elsewhere. We all know the havoc caused by colonial classification in the reification of religious communities, the role of representative democracy in encouraging ethno-religious mobilisation and competition, the part played by brazen manipulation of symbols in directly undermining political opponents.

We know too of the relentless ideological and organisational work of militant Hindu nationalists who, day after day, every morning spew venom against the secular ‘Gandhi–Nehru vision of India’.

The dialectic of egoism and altruism

But something else is afoot in India. It is wrong to dismiss the violence and its links to terror, in this case mass terror, as ‘evil’. The point is: it is human. How, then, to understand it? Here, as in other deeply hierarchical societies, it is common to find a nexus between egoism and altruism. When such societies move towards egalitarianism, this nexus begins to dissipate and results in generalised egoism – a condition inextricably linked to the current experience of globalisation.

Let me explain. By egoism, I mean a perspective in which the self of only one person has value. All others possess only instrumental value, or else are completely bereft of value. Likewise, unconditional altruism – in the slightly extended sense I here use the term – recognises the value of all persons but one, namely one’s own self, which may have instrumental but no intrinsic value. Since the self may be conceived in individual and collective terms, two versions of egoism and altruism exist. Collective egoism, for example, values only a single community, one’s own. Other communities are value-less.

Consider now a society with a small number of egoists. What if a great many people neglect their own desires to devote their time and energy to fulfilling the interests of these egoists? Surely, the diligence of slaves and the magnanimity of saints will serve these egoists well. The few could live by egoism, and the many by altruism. In the course of fulfilling their own distinctive life-plans, both nurture the life-plans of the other. This is what I mean by the nexus between altruism and egoism.

This nexus frequently exists in profoundly hierarchical orders. Large numbers of people can be entirely self-abnegating only when they genuinely believe that their worth is significantly lower than that of others. Likewise, people are excessively self-regarding when they believe their value to be significantly higher than that of others. In a hierarchical order with widely held beliefs of intrinsic superiority or inferiority, egoism is the ideology of the ‘superior’, altruism, the natural ideology of the ‘inferior’.

When such hierarchical orders begin to collapse, when ideas of natural superiority and inferiority are delegitimised, those with a belief in their natural superiority can hardly be expected to surrender egoism. But individuals or groups now on the brink of acquiring self-worth cease to be altruistic. They think in terms of self-interest modelled on readily available conceptions of it in their society, usually the egoist one. History shows us that a collapse of any hierarchical order tends to usher in a period of generalised egoism.

This point can be reformulated. Hierarchical societies are arenas of massively repressed desires that have not even been expressed, let alone been fulfilled. When inegalitarian societies disintegrate, as indeed is happening in India today, a glut of desires rules. Constraints or norms, legitimate or otherwise, are likely to be brutally set aside. Since each person’s desire counts for as much as anybody else’s and must therefore be satisfied, there are simply no holds barred on the means deployed to satisfy them. Anything will do and indeed does. In such a social environment, generalised egoism and moral vacuity is not surprising or unexpected.

Altruism may be the general ideology of subalterns in any hierarchical society but it is not the only ideology by which they live. Local norms regulate their internal lives too. The collapse of altruism is likely to be replaced by a generalised egoism at the individual level that propels local norms to the status of potentially generalisable ethical conceptions. Henceforth, every group makes an unabashed bid to realise its sectarian conception of the good, conceived in exclusivist, communal terms.

Equality brings dogma and doubt

Indeed, a deeper mechanism pushes individual and collective egoism even further. In the 1850s, Alexis de Tocqueville drew attention to it and linked it to the process of equalisation. He argued that when people for the first time are permitted to enter the public arena, they bring with them not only their poorly conceived self-interest, but their norms too. Moreover, a diverse people naturally carry diverse sets of norms. The result is a proliferation of norms in the shared, public realm.

Two consequences follow. First, the adherence to a particular set of norms becomes more dogmatic. In the face of different, potentially conflicting norms, people display their own norms with a flourish; they foster a collective egoism.

Secondly, the proliferation of norms generates a lurking anxiety and doubt alongside this ostensible confidence. Slowly, a deep-rooted uncertainty grows around these recent entrants to the public arena. If theirs are not the only valid norms, perhaps they lack validity altogether?

It is an interesting psycho-cultural fact that when people are faced with innumerable but uncertain principles, they tend to fasten on to material interest and prejudice. In the midst of a world of evanescence and effervescence, at least these provide an anchor. In such circumstances, both individual egoism (the pursuit of pure material interests) and collective egoism (sustained by prejudice) proliferate. Morality with an impartial content, a regard and compassion for others, are among the first casualties.

In the 57 years of independent India, the country has possibly come the closest to genocide in Gandhi’s Gujarat. This could only have been made possible by the moral indifference or vacuity of large sections of people all over India. Ironically, Muslims have little to do with this transformation. Beneath the surface of religious communalism (the ego of collective religious selves) lies something deeper, more murky, the egoism fostered by caste-based identity and abetted more recently by economic globalisation.

My friend Sudipta Kaviraj describes what is happening in India as the revolt of the Indian elites against the rising assertiveness of the lower castes. Alas, it appears, in my view, to get deflected, with the brunt of the anger falling on the poor Muslim. The most obnoxious underside of this change is the conspicuous stigmatising of an entire community. Without a shred of moral content, the communal egoism of the many is pushing others to the edge of second-rate citizenship in their own homelands.

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