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'There is no civil society in Gujarat'

Achyut Yagnik.
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March 07, 2007
Ahmedabad-based Achyut Yagnik, 62, author, thinker and social activist, and co-author Suchitra Sheth are engaged in writing the history of Ahmedabad, which will turn 600 years old in 2011.

Their acclaimed last book, The Shaping of Modern Gujarat: Plurality, Hindutva and Beyond, was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Awards 2006.

Yagnik has also co-authored Creating a Nationality: Ramjanmabhoomi Movement and Fear of the Self with noted sociologist Ashis Nandy.

From 1970 to 1980, Yagnik was a journalist and trade unionist. Then, he became general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, Gujarat.

In Ahmedabad, he leads SETU: Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, a social organisation working among the vulnerable communities in western India.

Yagnik, who studied religion and nationalism at university, has strong views on the middle class of Gujarat. And he speaks fearlessly against what he says is the dominance of the upper class in Gujarati politics.

Through his writings Yagnik has been trying to explain why Gujarat, which has absorbed diverse people like the Turks, the Portuguese and the Marathas for centuries, today appears insular and parochial, making even the release of commercial Hindi films a difficult issue.

Yagnik debates with Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt his views on the last five years of Gujarat after Godhra.

Five years have passed after the Godhra carnage and the communal riots. How do you evaluate those events?

By and large, Gujarat has remained peaceful, except the incident of violence in Baroda over the issue of the demolition of a dargah.

When I say peaceful, you must remember that it is peace without justice. It is peace without remorse.

The Muslim minority -- who were attacked, harassed and marginalised -- is waiting for justice. You hardly find remorse in the urban middle class of Gujarat. That is very disturbing.

However, we must note that in 2002, except in Rajkot and Bhavnagar, virtually nothing happened in Saurashtra, Kutch and south of the Narmada. The main theatres of violence were north and central Gujarat and urban centres like Baroda and Ahmedabad.

In these areas there is further ghettoisation. In Mehsana and in some villages of tribal Gujarat, Muslim families are unable to go back to their homes. In Himmatnagar, Visnagar and Vijapur, you find that Muslims are being further marginalised in society.

In Ahmedbad, Juhapura has evolved as the biggest ghetto of Muslims. It was continuously neglected by civil corporations and the state government for many years.

The Juhapura area has a Juhapura village but it also includes some other villages like Sarkhej.

It is believed that out of the 300,000 population, 90 percent are Muslims. Nationalised banks are not opening their branches here.

It is not just the state government that is neglecting Muslim areas, even the central government is doing so. It is so because the bureaucracy involved here at the local level has also internalised anti-Muslim images and emotions.

Many buses are not passing through this area. Only in July 2006, Juhapura has become a part of the Ahmedabad Corporation.

Now we will have to wait and see how development activity picks up here. We shall compare it with other areas.

On one hand Muslims themselves are moving towards Juhapura out of fear, anxiety and insecurity, and on the other hand you realise that the majority is neglecting them more and more.

You said it is peace without remorse. Why?

For the riots of 2002, the state government was responsible. The state machinery didn't work at all. Over and above the state government, you also find that the Gujarati middle class is equally responsible. They refuse to analyse the situation. They refuse to look at their own face in the mirror.


it is an interesting question. You can say it is unfortunate. But I am not in a position to give you the reason why the Gujarati middle class has no remorse.

I can look back 25 years. I know how in the 1980s we saw the emergence of the politics of the upper castes. In 1981, and later in 1985, for the first time we saw violence against Dalits. In 1990, we saw that the politics of the upper castes was fully converted into Hindutva.

The Sangh Parivar played a significant role in Hinduisation. They played an important role in shaping the worldview of the Gujarati urban middle class.

Along with the Sangh, we should also take note of various modern Hindu religious sects. They have not come out against the violence and they are not talking about Gandhiji's Arva Dharma Sambhav.

They are talking about classical Hinduism without the ethical or Bhakti traditions of Gujarat.

The religious sects of Gujarat are playing a very crucial role in inducting Hindutva amongst their followers. They are spreading Hindu cultural nationalism. In that process, non-resident Gujaratis also played a significant role.

Abroad, they are in a minority. Many of them, while living in different countries, think they are second class citizens. Their identity problem shifts here because a large number of non-resident Gujaratis in the Western world have their relatives in urban Gujarat in upper caste society.

The emergence of upper caste politics, which got transformed into Hindutva politics, and the role of religious sects are helping this transformation.

If you analyse their lectures they are talking about the Gita without talking of non-violence. Gujarat's Bhakti tradition spoke about plurality but that message is not highlighted today.

I think the popular religious leaders of Gujarat don't want to disturb their equation with the middle class and also with the political and social establishment.

If central government employees are not opening bank branches in Juhapura, it is not because of the Hindus. The close-knit Muslim community is seen as posing a security problem.

The Muslims in Gujarat are not a homogenous community. All the Muslims living in Juhapura are not criminals.

In the same way, you can't say all Gujarati Hindus are communal.

I have already told you that in Kutch, Saurashtra and south of the Narmada people are living in peace and harmony.

My question was regarding Juhapura. If banks are not opening their branches easily then don't you think the community also has to answer?

The community in Juhapura wants more banks and other government offices. But within the banking world, the authority lies in hands of upper class people. And they are not responding to the demands of Muslims.

You can't say all the 300,000 people living in Juhapura are communal.

Nobody is saying all Muslims in Juhapura are criminals, but questions are raised about the lack of response from the Muslim community too.

What kind of responsibility you are talking about? This is the problem with the perception of upper class banking officers. A city that is divided and segmented like Ahmedabad is not even good for the development of Ahmedabad.

How can you make Ahmedabad a mega city where there are walls within walls? When there are boundaries, some areas known as 'Chhote Pakistan'?

Even Dalits are not allowed within upper caste areas. Now Dalits are forming their own housing societies. Nobody is talking about the marginalisation of Dalits by the same people who marginalised Muslims.

Why is civil society not taking up the issue?

There is no civil society in Gujarat.

At the beginning of the 21st century Ahmedabad is at the crossroads. Godhra changed Gujarat's image for the first time but the changes within Ahmedabad started in the 1980s. Riots occurred frequently through the 1980s and 1990s. You cannot understand 2002 in isolation.

But for non-Gujaratis the earlier riots of 1985 or 1989 or 1990 were not that important. Because the 2002 riots were the first televised riots of India, it became different. The media's reach played a role also.

As a result, large numbers of writers in the Western world are not looking at Gujarat as Gandhi's Gujarat or mercantile Gujarat. From the viewpoint of the image of Gujarat, 2002 was the watershed event. Within Gujarat, the media, academicians and upper caste think outsiders are anti-Gujarat.

Personally, I am worried about intellectual poverty in Gujarat. Take the example of the Sahitya Parishad, which celebrated its centenary in 2006.

A centenary ago the same Parishad was talking about an inclusive Gujarat but now writers are talking in the language of Hindutva.

Professor Ganesh Devi is a professor of English working in the tribal areas of Gujarat and working on the tribal dialect. He criticised the riots, so a number of writers attacked Devi in literary journals. They threaten to boycott the annual event organised at Devi's institute. The Parishad was forced to change the venue. This is very suggestive.

The events of 2002 have not created any new waves in literature. Ranjitram, founder of the Parishad, was talking of an inclusive Gujarat. Poet Khabardar was talking about Hindus, Muslims and Parsis in his poems. The great poet Nanalal gave powerful expression to the plurality of Gujarat. In 1960, the Gujarat state was created. Then, Sundaram and Umashanker Joshi were talking about pluralist Gujarat.

Now, that voice is hardly heard. The cultural leadership of Gujarat has failed in projecting the greatness of Gujarat. Once, the great poet Narmad asked: Koni, koni che (Gujarat? Gujarat belongs to whom?)

He said Gujarat belongs to not only Aryans and Hindus -- but those who came from outside and are settled here and who speak Gujarati are Gujaratis. Gujarat belongs to people who speak Gujarati.

Now, in the universities of Gujarat, top appointments are made only if the educationalists and writers voice Hindutva views. There is a vacuum and intellectual poverty in cultural organisations.

The present generation of Gujarat has only witnessed anti-Muslim or anti-Dalit propaganda and violence. How would they get the correct messages and from where? The youth is not trained to look within.

Don't miss the second part of the interview: 'The Congress is no match for Modi'

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