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Sects and Riots Have Led to Hindutva’s Rise in Gujarat: Writer-Activist Achyut Yagnik

Ajaz Ashraf |
On the 21st anniversary of the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 in Gujarat, NewsClick is republishing this interview with a noted activist, journalist and teacher Achyut Yagnik. Yagnik explains the rise of Hindutva and the price Gujarat's Muslims and non-Muslims still pay for supporting this divisive politics.
Writer-Activist Achyut Yagnik

Writer-Activist Achyut Yagnik

In less than a fortnight, Gujarat will vote to elect its new Assembly. Opinion polls suggest the Bharatiya Janata Party will likely return to power all over again. This testifies to the possibility that the party’s Hindutva ideology has increasingly become Gujarat’s common sense. Against this common sense even the two other contenders in the elections—the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party—do not argue or campaign. In 2017, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi visited several temples during his campaign, offering to the people what is, rather erroneously, described as a softer version of Hindutva. This time round, it is AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal who has gone out of his way to flaunt his Hindu identity.

Is it right to say Hindutva is now Gujarat’s common sense? Through what processes did Hindutva acquire hegemony? NewsClick turned to Achyut Yagnik to answer these questions. Yagnik was a journalist until 1980 and also taught in Gujarat University. Thereafter, he established the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, which works for marginalised groups. He has written several books, none as important, relevant and readable as The Shaping of Modern Gujarat: Plurality, Hindutva and Beyond, which he co-authored with Suchitra Sheth. Excerpts from an interview:

Your book, The Shaping of Modern Gujarat, speaks of Kshatriya ruler Siddharaj Solanki who ordered the rebuilding of a mosque that was destroyed in Cambay (Khambhat) in the 12th century. Do you envisage such a scenario in today’s Gujarat?

No, no, no way. The distancing between the communities is enormous today. I live on the other side of the Sabarmati River, in the city’s modern quarters. You find the Muslim locality of Juhapura at one end. Then there are Hindu areas. At the other end, you will find Dalit housing societies.

By the way, Siddharaj also punished the culprit responsible for destroying the mosque. This seems unthinkable today. For instance, those convicted in the gang-rape of Bilkis Bano and killing of four members of her family were given life imprisonment. Yet their sentence was remitted and they walked out of jail. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate from Naroda in the forthcoming Assembly elections is Payal Kukrani, whose father Manoj was among the 32 people convicted for their role in the Naroda Patiya massacre. The conduct of the state government is reverse of that of Siddharaj. The people of Gujarat, today, do not talk of Bilkis Bano and the torture she underwent. There is no sense of remorse in Gujarat about the grisly violence of 2002.

In your book, you discuss the geography of violence in 2002. You write that the areas where the most intense violence took place in 2002 also happened to be the places where the Assembly seats were dominated by the Congress. There seems to be an obvious connection between violence and Hindutva or BJP mobilisation.

There is just no doubt about that. Violence spawned a Hindu vote-bank. But obviously, it is difficult to prove whether the BJP sponsored the violence, or only some elements in the party.

In your book, you trace the creation of boundaries between Hindus and Muslims from the late 19th century….

These boundaries were created and became rigid in post-Independence India. Thereafter, more and more distancing has progressively happened between the two communities. There was a big riot in 1969. The widespread sentiment then, as I point out in my book, was that “it was time the Muslim were taught a lesson.” For the first time, the unwritten norm that lives of women would be spared was broken and instance of attacks on women were reported. By 1986, the existence of such a norm in the past was forgotten. The first instances of mass burning took place in Surat city and Mansa town in north Gujarat in 1992. The first instances of violence on women taking the form of sexual abuse with sticks and poles were reported during this time from Surat. Every riot hardened the boundaries, reaching an apogee in 2002.

Would it be correct to say that the 2002 riots have changed the very quality of relationship between Hindus and Muslims?

The process started earlier, but, yes, after 2002, it can be said that the distancing of Juhapura is complete in every sense of the word. It is a separate place now.

Have the 2002 riots left no possibility of re-building the bridges between the two communities?

Earlier, Ahmedabad was a textile centre. Textile workers lived in proximity to the textile mills where they were employed. The working class drew people from both the religious communities. They lived together. You had mixed neighbourhoods. But textile mills closed down. Mixed neighbourhoods have gradually become a thing of the past.

Has Hindutva become Gujarat’s common sense and acquired hegemony?

This is particularly true of the Gujarati middle class, which has become Hindutva-ised. By Hindutva-ised, I mean the middle class has become Hindu fundamentalist. For them, it is also a matter of importance to them that two of their own—Narendra Modi and Amit Shah—are calling the shots at the Centre.

Various modern sects, such as the Bochasan sub-sect of the Swaminarayan sect, Swadhyay Parivar and Asharam Ashram, have also played a significance role in making Hindutva hegemonic or Gujarat’s common sense. Earlier, caste was central in the lives of people. For instance, the Brahmins are divided into 84 sub-castes. In rural Gujarat, in the earlier decades, when all Brahmins were called for a feast, they would say. “Aaj chaurasi hai—Today is chaurasi (84).” Sub-castes are no longer important. The people, particularly the middle class, now operate under the larger Hindutva identity. So, yes, Hindutva has become hegemonic.

Do you think Hindutva’s hegemony will be again reflected in the forthcoming elections?

Certainly. The Gujaratis are very happy that two Gujjus are occupying the two highest positions in the country. They would not want Modi and Shah to be weakened.

In your book, you write that equating Gujarat with Hindutva is an “oversimplification of a complex web of Gujarat polity and society.” Your book was published in 2005. Do you think the situation has changed from what it was in 2005?

It has changed in the sense that more and more middle class has been Hindutva-ised. The newly urbanised people join sects. It is a case of doctors getting patients and patients getting doctors.

What is the role of sects in the spread of Hindutva in Gujarat?

Gujarat is a highly urbanised and industrialised state. [According to the 2011 Census, Gujarat’s urban population was around 42.6% of the state’s.] The two processes create anxieties in them. Life in cities is inherently insecure. But the people do not have a caste network to rely upon. They joined the sects. They provide their members with a social and psychological support, and give them a sense of belonging to a community, heightened by the congregational prayers these sects hold. The sect network helps them to get employment or financial help. These sects, too, are Hindutva-ised.

How have these sects been Hindutva-ised?

To begin with, for very obvious reasons, you will not find Muslims in these sects. Their outlook is very similar to that of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). For instance, one of these sects say on their website that they aim to preserve Indian culture and the Hindu ideals of faith, unity and selfless service in diverse communities. They speak about the glorious Hindu past, the need to rediscover that past, and Hindu pride. They speak of Hindu assertion. They do not discuss the different systems of Hindu philosophy. But these sects also volunteer humanitarian and charity service, run programmes in rural Gujarat, and have also established educational institutes.

You can very well see a close overlap between their outlook and that of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. At times, it is difficult to speak to members of these modern sects.

The upwardly mobile members of the middle class join influential, modern Hindu sects to validate their newly acquired status and to gain entry into new networks of social security and patronage. The Gujarati diaspora, too, has been drawn to these new sects as many immigrants became increasingly conscious that children born in America are losing touch with their culture and the sects become the route for a cultural journey in search of their roots. The sects also fulfil their need for a fraternity and other needs such as finding grooms and brides for their children or support for children who come to India to study. That the Swaminarayan sect of Bochasan, known as BAPS, built more than 30 magnificent temples in in the United States speaks for itself.

And these sects gained from their western connection?

The Western connection of these sects has enriched them in more than one way. They have become powerful and prestigious at home and attract a large number of OBC, Dalit and tribal middle-class families to their fold. Although the Sangh Parivar has been preaching ‘Hindu unity’ from the beginning, in day-to-day practice they support sect and sub-sect identities, and make no attempt to transcend these inherent hierarchies and divisions in any manner. Thus the Sangh Parivar achieved the status of a Mahakumbh where every Hindu, with new or old socio-cultural ties, finds self-validation and space in the holy congregation.

Is there in Gujarat a Hindu vote-bank? How is it mobilised during the elections?

The riots of 2002 did expand and consolidate the Hindu vote-bank, which was spawned and built upon through successive riots post-Independence. In urban Gujarat, the Hindu vote-bank is held together by the sects. But it is also true that the BJP is organisationally far stronger than the Congress. That is because of the wide network the RSS has in the state. The Seva Dal, the youth wing of the Congress, could have been a counter to the RSS. But you hardly find a significant presence of the Seva Dal in the state. They are barely visible. Therefore, the relationship between the Congress and the younger generation has broken down.

Why is it that the Congress could not build upon the tradition of Gandhi to mobilise people against Hindutva?

It is because of the Congress leadership in the state. Earlier, for instance, the Congress had Madhavsinh Solanki and Jinabhai Darji. They knew every constituency very well. You do not find such leaders now. The current Congress leadership is without any imagination.

You mean the leadership in the state or in Delhi?

Both. But particularly the leadership in Gujarat.

The commitment of Congress members to the party is weak. So many of its members who won in 2017 left the Congress to join the BJP.

The BJP won 127 seats in 2002, 117 in 2007, 115 in 2013 and 99 in 2017. On the other hand, the Congress won 51 in 2002, 59 in 2007, 61 in 2013 and 77 in 2017. While the seats of the Congress have been increasing, its influence has been decreasing. This is largely because of the growing strength of sects, which indirectly support the BJP’s ideology. The Hindu middle class is enamoured of the BJP, largely because of the influence of these sects on this class.

Could Hindutva have become hegemonic or strong without Modi?

The rise of Modi and Shah in Gujarat could not have happened without the rise of Hindutva. And the rise of Hindutva could not have happened without the rise of sects in urban Gujarat. The 2002 riots yielded enormous political benefits for Modi. You can say the ascendancy of Hindutva is the most important factor why the 2002 riots did not lead to revulsion among the people.

More disturbing than the callousness witnessed during the 2002 riots was the utter silence of spiritual leaders of most modern sects in Gujarat, including the Jains for whom ahimsa is the cardinal principle. The larger ethical and moral questions raised by the epics were conveniently ignored by them. For instance, the famous dictum ahimsa paramodharma—non-violence is supreme religion—was preached by Bhishma after the great battle of Mahabharata.

This central principle of Hindu tradition was effectively sidestepped and the pertinent question of non-violence was scarcely mentioned. In fact, just as the lines between the state and the Sangh Parivar were blurred, so was the demarcation between the Sangh Parivar and the Hindu sects.

This development was reflected in a newspaper announcement on the day of Assembly elections in December 2002 when Fulchhab, a widely circulated Gujarati daily from Saurashtra, carried a prominent advertisement by the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) which exhorted all Hindus to vote for the “protectors of Hindu culture.” In the list of signatories to the advertisement, the local swamis of the Swaminarayan sect topped the list, followed by the local head of the Asharam.

I am 77 years old. The Hinduism as we understood is very different from how Hinduism is understood today.

Can you mark out the distinction between these two types of Hinduism?

I, for instance, was more engaged with the Hindu philosophy. We imbibed the Hindu spirit reflected by the term Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, or the whole world is one family. This spirit I conveyed to the students in Gujarat University, where I taught. Today, people are more engaged with the philosophy of sects, which emphasise the greatness of Hindus and how they are destined to rule the world.

It is clear from your book that the upper castes—Brahmins, Banias and Patidars—were instrumental in the rise of Hindutva, largely because they saw the idea of uniting Hindus as a way to thwart the challenge to their control over power by the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims) social alliance. How come the subaltern groups, like Dalits and Adivasis, were unable to comprehend the BJP’s game?

One reason is that the three social groups—Brahmins, Banias and Patidars—played a major role in the urbanisation of Gujarat. The caste contradictions were papered over by the presence and activities of sects. Solanki was a lower Kshatriya, essentially belonging to the Bariya caste, which is an OBC. He and Darji gave importance to marginalised groups, underscored by the Congress party’s decision to extend reservation to the OBCs in the 1980s.

But we must not ignore the factor of education. Sayajirao Gaekwad [1863-1939], the ruler of Baroda, spread education in the area he ruled. His state had better educational attainment than the areas ruled by the British. He focussed on the tribal belt as well. When Brahmins refused to teach in the tribal belt, he appointed Muslim teachers. He concentrated on the education of women also. Education helped spawn a middle class among tribals as well. They migrated to urban Gujarat in search of jobs. And they too joined various sects. They, too, have increasingly taken to talking of Hindutva, as have their leaders.

So, essentially, the battle in Gujarat is over defining or re-defining Hinduism. We have, let us say, Gandhi’s idea of Hinduism on one side, and on the other side, we have the Sangh’s conception of Hinduism.

The ideas represented by the Sangh Parivar was given a boost because of the series of riots Gujarat witnessed since 1947. Their network in the state expanded. In contrast, the Gandhian ideas have declined. The Gandhian institutions, such as Gujarat Vidyapeeth, which was established by Gandhi in 1920, are no longer playing the role they did—or as they should have now. The current Congress leadership has no imagination to fight this battle. The RSS-type institutes have prospered. This has enabled the RSS to preach and propagate its idea of Hinduism without any robust challenge.

(Ajaz Ashraf is an independent journalist.)

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