On September 13 the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced that Narendra Modi, the current Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat, would be its Prime Ministerial candidate for the 2014 Parliamentary elections. The announcement was greeted with drum beats in the streets and the distribution of ‘sweats’, not only by BJP activists but also by many from the educated middle class/castes who in public might style themselves as ‘secular’ – a word often abducted by people of all political persuasions to signify what each of them desires it to conveniently mean.
The announcement was no surprise. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), formed in 1925 to establish a Hindu state and which supervises a cluster of organizations, including the BJP, had already made it clear that Modi would be the candidate. The internal differences over Modi’s selection were quite a delicate mediatized stunt. Perhaps the only notable dissenting figure was L.K. Advani whose bloody chariot journey had led to a series of anti-Muslim killings, enabling the BJP to come to power in Delhi in the 1990s. With Modi’s nomination, the dream of 85 year-old Advani of becoming Prime Minister is finally eclipsed. Three days later, however, Advani gave in, praising Modi’s development work.
The BJP likes to project Modi as the quintessential leader of India’s economic development. The Economic Times devoted its front page to saying that ‘India Inc. welcomes’ Modi’s nomination. Influential capitalists like Mukesh Ambani, Ratan Tata, Anand Mahindra and Sunil Mittal were all quoted as saying how pleased they were with Modi’s nomination which would ensure India’s development. With the heading ‘BJP Crowns Modi, Will India Follow?’ its front-page published a grand photo of Modi reading The Economic Times on his lawn, while four ducks looked at him as if in awe.
The intimacy between the BJP agenda and the ‘independent’ media like The Economic Times can’t be a closer fit. In the 2007 election in Gujarat, a key slogan of BJP was ‘Gujarati pride’ – defined, inter alia, against Islam – which was also one of the rubriques of its sister publication in Gujarat, The Times of India. In that election, Modi advertised himself as ‘development man (wikās pūrush)’ – a myth media has emphasised as never before. This development myth, however, conceals the fact that it has benefited some while the lot of the many continues to be poor and precarious. Modi’s neo-liberal development is based on the logic of casualizing labour, curtailing its rights and weakening, if not silencing, robust union mobilization.
Exploding this myth of development, in 2007 Fatima Begum observed: ‘Modi’s supporters say he’s done great work –yes, he has, he has made women like us widows, he has made our children orphans’. Begum is survivor of the state-engineered massacre in Gujarat in early 2002 when under Modi’s Chief Ministership over 3,000 Muslims were killed, with the absolute complicity and participation of the administration, including the police. Human Rights Watch noted: ‘under the guise of offering assistance, the police led the victims directly into the hands of their killers’ who roared ‘Go to Pakistan. If you want to stay here become Hindu’. In other instances, police simply killed innocent, helpless Muslims. Terrorised by the planned violence and impending death, when Muslims telephoned the police, they were told: ‘We don’t have any orders to save you’; ‘How come you are alive? You should have died too’.
Muslims were not simply killed; they were burnt alive, denying them even the Islamic injunction of burial. Those burnt alive included a former Member of Parliament, Ihsan Jafri. The barbarity presided over by Modi’s government knew no limit. Girls and women were raped and then killed. Even pregnant women were not spared; in one case a woman’s ‘womb was cut open with a sharp weapon and the unborn baby was taken out and both mother and the child were burnt to death’. In its editorial on Modi’s nomination, even the ‘liberal’ newspaper The Hindu chose not to mention the Gujarat massacre and Modi’s role in it.
Modi as Shaddād
An inquiry commission established by the Gujarat government exonerated Modi of any responsibility in the massacre. Most such commissions and court judgments - for example, the 2011 Court judgment over the burning of a train coach killing 59 Hindus - as a Tehelka report underscored, reek of inconsistencies, contradictions, haphazardness and what to some amounts to judicial majoritarianism, based on the fabricated facts of the police and the administration, forced confessions, the intimidation of witnesses, and selection of ‘appropriate’ judges through a variety of mechanisms. The courts reproduce, if unwittingly, what the state and sensational, biased media manufacture as ‘truth’.
Is it not contradictory that Modi stands exonerated of any role in the pogrom of over 3,000 Muslims in Gujarat whose Chief Minister he was, whereas even the construction of a toilet or fixing of a lamppost is squarely attributed to Modi’s personal achievement in the area of development? Didn’t Modi’s development render more than 250,000 Muslims as refugees forced to lead a sub-human life in over 100 temporary settlements and relief camps (with no basic amenities provided by his government) of which 19 camps (with at least 21,000 people therein) continued to exist as late as 2012? One camp with 6,000 people subsisted literally in a graveyard. How can such ‘development’ make life and death almost indistinguishable?
Modi’s development is grotesque because it terrorises Muslims into publicly disowning their Muslim identities and changing their names to Hindu ones. What kind of development is it which coerces a Muslim man, Mahboob, to become Jayent and a Muslim woman, Samina, to become Sharmila? Why is Corporate India silent about the denial of bank loans to Muslims and the systematic boycott of their businesses in Gujarat? An interesting response to such questions has come not from a political analyst but from a poet. The year Modi supervised the burning of Gujarat, in a public poetry session in the annual Aligarh Exhibition (numāish) I listened to Rahat Indori recite:
Qalam wālo siyāsī z̤ulm kī rūdād likh denā/Qayāmat jab bẖī likhnī ho Aḥmadabād likh denā
Hamārē mulk meñ alfāz ne ḥurmat gañwā di hai/Jahān jannat likhī ho tum wahān Shaddād likh denā
People of the pen, record the tales of political horror/when you write catastrophe, writes Ahmedabad. In our country words have lost their honour/where it is written paradise, write Shaddad.
Indori’s couplets (translation from Urdu into English is author’s) are as powerful as they are simple. To Indori, Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat and one of the deadliest theatres of the state terror in 2002, spells catastrophe (qayāmat). The claim that Gujarat epitomised a developmental paradise reminds us Shaddād, an unjust tyrant of a king (mentioned in The Arabian Nights and also commented upon by the sociologist Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddimah) who, intoxicated with his unbridled arrogance and acting like a God, built his own grandiose paradise.
In majoritarian arrogance, the French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has compared Modi to the authoritarian Indira Gandhi, for as the latter said ‘Indira is India/ India is Indira’, the former might have said unrepentantly that ‘Modi is Gujarat/Gujarat is Modi’. In July 2013 when a Reuter journalist asked him if he regretted what happened in 2002 (i.e., killing of Muslims), Modi replied: ‘someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is’. Modi blamed the victims, and noone has challenged him on this.
The language of disempowerment – the ‘Muslim Vote’
Historically, it would be inaccurate to say that the BJP alone is responsible for killing Muslims and creating camps. The so-called secular Congress Party is equally responsible for violence against Muslims as well as the minority Sikhs who still await justice for the massacre committed against them in 1984. Regional parties like the Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party) too have their own share in such heinous crimes. According to The New York Times, in the ‘riots’ of early this month in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India ruled by the Samajwadi Party, over 44 people were killed and 42,000 Muslims were reduced to living as refugees in various camps or with their relatives. The violence against Muslims started after a BJP leader circulated a fake video of two Hindus being attacked by a Muslim crowd. The state government run by the Samajwadi Party did little to immediately stop the violence.
Why is it that whether under the right-wing BJP, or ‘secular’ Congress Party or the socialist Samajwadi Party Muslims are killed with impunity and forced to become refugees? Paul Brass, the American political scientist had forcefully argued that ‘riots’ against Muslims were never spontaneous; they are deeply political, ideologically calculated and methodically planned. ‘Institutionalized riot systems’ is the phrase Brass uses. If the Muzaffarnagar incident is any indication, it shows that politicians are preparing for the 2014 Parliamentary elections. To that end, all political parties, including media such as NDTV, have habitually begun to ask which side will the ‘Muslim vote’ swing to.
In fact, Muslims rarely vote uniformly. ‘Hindu votes’ on the other hand is a term the media or politicians seldom use. But what the phrase ‘Muslim vote’ tells us is that Muslims are regarded as mere objects, not subjects: who speaks of ‘Muslim candidates’? Muslims have been disempowered: they are perceived as voters at best, not as likely Members of Parliament. Structurally intimidated and politically terrorised, some Muslims voted for the BJP in the state elections of Gujarat. This is paraded by the likes of NDTV’s Burkha Dutt as the ultimate expression of Muslims’ freedom of choice in the same way that the much-hyped Shahnawaz Hussain and Mukhtar Naqwi have come to be the well-known poster boys of BJP’s so-called ‘minority face’.
As India prepares for the 2014 elections, the two key political blocs –the National Democratic Alliance whose Prime Ministerial candidate Modi is and the United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress Party that has not declared its candidate yet – will generate more fear and alluringly false promises to create and extract the Muslim vote. The two ideological blocs, however, are not as different as they are presented in the media or as they portray themselves. Whether it is economy, foreign policy, domestic issues or national security/interests, there is barely any difference of substance between them; the difference, if any, is more in terms of degree, magnitude and form. To cite just one example, Shankarsinh Vaghela, earlier a hard-core RSS man and a top-level BJP leader from Modi’s Gujarat joined the Congress Party, which joyfully welcomed him. There have been umpteen such flows between the two above-mentioned political blocks/ideologies over a period of almost one century.