The hate-filled heart of the country
In the build-up to the election this year, two books offer new analysis of a pivotal moment in Narendra Modi’s career
Did the republic of India elect the greatest threat in its history to power in 2014? In a 2017 essay in Seminar, psephologist and social scientist Yogendra Yadav, who is also a politician, argued yes. Other crises, such as the Emergency, had posed grave threats to one or other element of the democratic experiment, Yadav wrote. But the emphatic rise and sustained support for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) indicated the formation of a consensus in favour of an authoritarian and majoritarian state, uniquely willing and able to overturn the constitutional promise Indians made to themselves in 1950.
Whatever anyone’s doubts about that, most BJP voters certainly looked to Modi as a transformative politician. He offered to operationalize their hopes more efficiently than other leaders could. Whether these hopes were of better service from the state (in the form of, say, jobs, or less bureaucratic corruption) or of empowerment for a Hindu majority to dominate India’s social politics, they were substantially based on these voters’ perceptions of Gujarat, the state Modi governed for 13 years before coming to power in Delhi.
At the approach of another general election, two new books return to Gujarat, wholly or substantially, to offer reportage and analysis of a pivotal moment in Modi’s career. In The Anatomy Of Hate (Westland-Context, ₹599), Revati Laul considers the anti-Muslim violence of 2002 through impressively reported profiles of three perpetrators: the well-educated son of a prosperous rural family; a Bhil farmer struggling to make ends meet; and an alcoholic, partially disabled man from a marginal caste.
Laul’s style is brisk to the point of being fragmentary, but her reportage has a kind of propulsive force, both narrative and moral. The book’s title is grandiose, but the stories illuminate the complex interplay of economic inequality (a real, if paradoxical, concern as incomes rise), social consolidation (how “Hindu pride” can become an objective even for those previously disadvantaged by Hindu norms) and urban alienation (through the stratification of Ahmedabad’s caste- and religion-based social economy).
But Laul isn’t primarily interested in theory and reproducible conditions. The impetus, we learn, is to right a journalistic wrong. Muslim victims of 2002 have been pursued tirelessly as subjects of national interest. What about asking the rioters about how they feel? It’s been done before, and one of Laul’s subjects, the partially disabled Suresh “Langdo” or Suresh Jadeja, was taped bragging about his crimes by Ashish Khetan for Tehelka in 2007. He was subsequently convicted for murder and rape.
Laul’s investigations don’t privilege new or actionable information. She follows her subjects for years, observing as they grapple with the consequences of what they’ve done. Dungar, the Bhil man, builds a political career out of his deeds, struggling to use the Hindutva establishment much like they used him. Pranav, the student who watched as his friends looted shops in Ahmedabad, is eaten alive by his conscience. He dedicates his life to humanitarian work, although peace remains elusive. But it is in Jadeja’s case that Laul unearths the most unnerving cost of the tragedy—not through him, but through his Muslim wife Farzana, to whom he is a terrible, if intermittently loving, husband.
Suresh and Farzana’s marriage seems like a representation of the full spectrum of consequences from the 2002 riots. It is marked not only by unnatural violence but deep misogyny, deprivation, and dislocation. Laul doesn’t write to exorcize or excuse the feelings of any of her subjects. Her account of this grief-stricken marriage comes closest, perhaps, to describing what Hindu-Muslim relations in India are at their worst: a massively unequal power relation with gruesome potential for abuse on one side, and only a threadbare capacity, not for redress but mere retaliation, on the other.
Many of us simply don’t want to believe this is true. Part of that disbelief, or at least part of the determination to make it less true, is the bedrock of the social justice activist Harsh Mander’s work. Mander’s book, Partitions Of The Heart: Unmaking The Idea Of India (Penguin Random House, ₹599), is a collection of his writings over the last few years from various parts of India. It attempts to convey the urgency of the state of constant low-level conflict engendered by the BJP’s rise to power since 2014. Often, it simply mourns for lives lost in lynchings over cows and beef, for neighbourly ties snapped in communal violence, and for the leadership vacuum that, Mander claims, makes this the most dangerous moment in the life of modern India.
Mander conveys in journalistic fashion what Yadav argued theoretically: that there is something uniquely terrible occurring in the life of the nation. However, he is less interested in the theoretical challenge posed to republican ideals than in a powerful instrument of the ongoing transformation: the suppression of minorities for social and economic gain. Postcolonial historian Ranajit Guha described liberal colonial rule as “dominance without hegemony”, a coercive foreign reign supplanted by local elites after independence. Unspoken but suggested in books such as Mander’s is the idea that this—the BJP’s rule—is what it looks like when you have dominance with hegemony.
He is not alone. Historian and novelist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, among others, has written of the “venomous intensity” of the moment, with no successors to the Congress stalwarts who were determined to protect secular ideals in the wake of the massacres of Partition. The “idea of India” that Mander says is in danger is deeply indebted to the imagination of those men and women. That imagination is passing out of living memory, and few are willing to stand up for it.
Mander sees himself and his cohort trying to compensate for an absence, not just of leadership but ordinary human sympathy. He visits Faridabad, where a young boy called Junaid was stabbed to death on the pretext that he was a “beef-eater”; Alwar, where Pehlu Khan was murdered on the pretext that he was smuggling cows; and Bhopal, where he revisits the circumstances of a murky police encounter in which eight prisoners, alleged members of the Students’ Islamic Movement of India, were killed for allegedly attempting to escape Bhopal Central Jail.
There is no accompanying groundswell of mass sympathy when Mander visits. His concerns, influenced deeply by M.K. Gandhi’s principles of non-violence, will be familiar to readers of his previous work. But Mander doesn’t seek to lead a movement, and nor does he write to mobilize. Gandhi relentlessly did both. The quiet, mournful essays in Partitions Of The Heart almost efface their own importance. Still, it would be a pity if only his fans engaged with his ideas. They are urgently relevant to Indian voters, irrespective of whether they seek to preserve our republican ideals, or to transform them.
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