May 1, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/ Ghanshyam Shah

Political scientist Ghanshyam Shah has studied India's minorities -- Dalits, Muslims and tribals -- for over 30 years. Professor Shah, 64, who earlier headed the Centre for Social Studies in Surat, currently teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

He shared his experiences with Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt to provide us an understanding of the Gujarat riots. The first of a two-part interview:

What was your first reaction when you heard about the Godhra incident?

I was numbed. I thought it is some kind of terrorist act. We didn't know at that time that karsevaks were on the train. It didn't require any great intelligence to predict that there would be repercussions. By evening we came to know about the Vishwa Hindu Parishad bandh. We were sure this would lead to a series of riots in Gujarat. Godhra was such a shocking incident.

Any person with a little knowledge of Gujarat could predict on the evening of February 27 that Godhra would lead to unprecedented riots. For two reasons. First, the event itself; second was my reading of [Gujarat Chief Minister] Narendra Modi. I was sure this man would aggravate it. Ten years ago, [political scientist and thinker] Ashish Nandy interviewed Modi. Nandy was shocked after the interview. He said Modi is a textbook fascist.

We had an acute sense of helplessness because we knew it was futile to talk to anyone in the government in Delhi. Everything was an action replay of past riots. Many editors invited me to write, but I could not. What was new to write about?

What were your findings about the 1969 riots in Gujarat?

One, it was planned. Second, the state Congress-O government led by Hitendra Desai was ill-equipped and indifferent. For three full days, the state government could not control the situation. The military had to be eventually deployed. Shoot-at-sight orders were issued. In 1969 I remember Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was then in the Opposition, asked in Parliament, 'Who started the riots in Gujarat?' I asked in The Times Of India how do you decide who started the Gujarat riots?

I reconstructed the starting point. Six months before the riots a communal tempo was built up in Gujarat. Events like the 1965 war with Pakistan, shooting down of Chief Minister Balwantrai Mehta's plane, Shambhu Maharaj's anti-cow slaughter movement were used to raise nationalist and anti-Pakistan rhetoric in Gujarat. A few months before the bloody riots of 1969 the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh arranged a camp in Ahmedabad where they formed a Dharma Raksha Samiti; through it the VHP got its agenda.

In Ahmedabad more than one lakh mill workers were retrenched. In Delhi, instability within the Congress intensified. All these contributed to the 1969 riots. In a number of areas a list was prepared of Muslim homes and they were burnt down. The Government of India instituted the Reddy Commission to look into the 1969 riots. The commission said the riots were planned. It said there is a possibility of the RSS and Jan Sangh's involvement. At that time the Muslims were not as well organised as they are now. Now you can see planned retaliations by the Muslims.

In 1969 the country was shocked because these were the bloodiest riots after 1947. In Ahmedabad alone, 700 people were killed, the majority of them Muslims who belonged to the working class. The rioters who killed Muslims and burnt shops were skilled. The majority of participants in the 1969 riots were from outside Gujarat, mostly from Uttar Pradesh. But that probably is not the case today.

At that time [Congress-O leader] Morarji Desai said, 'We were caught unawares." They never imagined this could happen in Gujarat. After such an experience any chief minister would have kept the state on alert on February 27 itself. But the opposite happened. Bharatiya Janata Party workers were on the streets to see that shops remained shut on February 28. Some ministers were on the streets, guiding the crowds.

What are the contrasts and similarities in the 1969 and current riots?

The Congress-O government was ill-equipped to handle the riots and was in search of an alibi. [Chief Minister] Hitendra Desai told editor B G Verghese that the 'foreign hand' was behind these riots. He showed Chinese currency. When Verghese asked him about the use of such currency in Gujarat, Desai had no answer.

Inefficiency and indifference were seen in the 1969 riots. Some kind of bias against Muslims was certainly there, but the government of that time was not party to the riots. Congressmen were not present in the mobs on a large scale. They didn't stop the riots, but they didn't ignite it. Just before the 1969 riots in Gujarat, [Jan Sangh leaders] Balraj Madhok and Vajpayee spoke. Madhok was provocative while Vajpayee spoke about the 1965 Indo-Pak war. He spoke about Indian nationalism against Pakistan. He raised the people's sentiments against Pakistan by talking about rashtra bhakti (national faith) just before the 1969 riots. I have noted the impact of both speeches on the popular psyche in my studies.

Today, the BJP is very successful in selling communalism by merging it with nationalism. The BJP has communalised Gujarat in the name of nationalism. The recent riots were State-sponsored. That changes the whole scenario. Rioting was legitimised in society. The rioters knew nothing would happen to them. Once the mobs got legitimacy from the State, everything collapsed. In 1969, one newspaper printed a story about the rape of Hindu women who were killed and whose breasts were cut off. The newspaper later denied the story. It happened the same way this time! The same newspaper printed the story and later denied it.

In 1969 I met the reporter who wrote the story about dead women's breasts being cut off by the Muslims. He said he had heard rumours and printed it. Two days later he printed a denial, but it was too late. This time too it created havoc. A Doordarshan reporter was following another story last month about the women allegedly abducted by Muslims in Godhra. She got a call -- almost threatening -- from a VHP supporter not to follow up that story.

How do you look at the Gujarat riots of 2002?

Look at how the BJP built up their support in recent years. In the 1969 riots Jan Sanghis were involved. In the 1973-74 Navnirman Andolan [started by Jayaprakash Narayan] Jan Sanghis took part and penetrated society further. I have written a book on the Navnirman agitation. I know for sure that Jan Sanghis tried to communalise the movement and penetrate society. But intelligent students didn't allow them to have their way. When the Babubhai Patel Cabinet in the state inducted three Jan Sanghis, they started influencing the government.

In 1985, the anti-reservation agitation turned communal. That is a well-known fact. In 1990 the Advani rath yatra intensified the communal influence on Gujarati minds. The Congress never seriously applied its mind to combat the spread of communalism. They were appeasing Muslims and sometimes Hindus too, but not sincerely trying to become the bridge between the communities. As a result, for the last 5, 7 years, the RSS has been institutionalized in Gujarat. It is a de facto part of the government.

Saffron rule has been institutionalized in Gujarat. VHP and Bajrang Dal activists have a right to enter police stations and dictate. They are considered the boss. The Bajrang Dal wants to dictate the morality of society. There was a communal riot in Bardoli because a Hindu girl married a Muslim boy. It is not acceptable to the Bajrang Dal.

The government in Gujarat has issued an order asking all inter-community marriages to get registered. A few years ago in Ahmedabad, a lady from the Barot community married a Muslim. The couple was harassed by Bajrang Dal and VHP activists. She was taken into police custody and later found dead in the VHP office. How did this happen? This is not hearsay, it has been reported. It shows the police is working under their [the VHP's] influence.

Don't you think Muslims have stereotypical images of Hindus in Gujarat?

That is a problem, but things have not happened overnight. It started in the 18th century. When the British established their rule, there were riots in Surat in 1788. The only difference in the riots before 1850 were that the riots occurred between two neighbourhoods who happened to be Hindu and Muslim. It was never between the two societies, meaning all Hindus or all Muslims were not united to fight each other. The concept of Indian nationalism that emerged later polarized Gujarati society.

Along with that came community biases. The community bias of Muslims against Hindus; Banias against Brahmins. When I grew up I had a certain bias against Brahmins. My father had a partnership with a Brahmin and we had a very bad experience. So I thought oh, Brahmins are like this. I had the same feelings for Patidars [Patels]. We are all bonded with prejudices and biases. We have innumerable proverbs denouncing the communities. This is bound to be there. You will find the same kind of biases amongst the British against the French and vice-versa.

We are habituated to talk in categories, that is a problem. And how these categories intensify depends on the openness and closeness of society. If society is relatively closed, interaction is relatively less; that society avoids self-analysis; does not have enough non-communal organisations; does not know more about the third alternatives and will have many more biases.

Amongst the Muslims they have biases against the Hindus. Relatively speaking, Muslim society is a closed society. Illiteracy, its minority status and such factors contribute to it. We cannot dismiss the fact that it is not as open as Hindu society. This is because Hindus have had more exposure than Muslims in India.

The dominance of religious leaders and religious education is much more intensive amongst Muslims than in Hindus. Brahmins and Banias have had more exposure than the so-called lower class. Though I don't believe it, many find Brahmins and Banias more modern and secular compared to the poor because their third or fourth generations have enjoyed good education. A person who lives in a village will have interaction with his community or class, and that makes the difference.

To be continued...

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