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Genocide garba: Beyond Gujarat

By Dilip Chitre

Gujarat, Godhra, genocide, garba and Gandhiji: these alliterative words pop up in the poet's mind in the two months since communal violence in Gujarat began. In this article Dilip Chitre reflects on the sub-texts and painful dissonances these words evoke

Gujarat, Godhra, genocide, garba and Gandhiji are the five words I woke up with. As a poet, words that pop out of my subconscious mind hold me in thrall. They are, I have come to realise, only tips of icebergs hard enough to sink a Titanic. They have contexts that have awesome complexity. They represent, quite often, not pleasant aesthetic structures but their very opposite: the ugly realities of indigestible experience. They make me lose my sleep and, at the same time, they deprive me of my wakefulness. They produce anguish and confusion, painful cognitive dissonance. They make me frantically look for order and explanation and fill me with fatigue and despair.

The word Godhra is a proper noun known to me since my childhood. I was born in Vadodara, not very far from Godhra, and the railway station was one of the stops on a Northward journey. As a growing schoolboy in Gujarat who had to learn the region's geography, I already knew that Godhra was in the Panchmahal district. I also knew that the town had a sizeable Muslim population and that, even before I was ten years old, its name figured in pre- and post-Partition communal events along with Junagadh and Palanpur. I have vivid memories of those years.

I learnt the word 'genocide' much later. As a teenager reading accounts of the holocaust, I came across this word used in a clinical, forensic register. I had known 'butchery' and 'slaughter' as words at a more tender age. I associated them with such disparate figures as Ashoka, Chengiz Khan and Hitler ---in that order.

I even knew 'fratricide' as, like every upper-caste Hindu child, I was told, and myself read, stories from the Mahabharata.

Brother-killing-brother for the sake of disputed ancestral property seemed a motif favoured by all major religions including the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic variety. But I must confess, genocide was a word learnt much later. It was not the kind of word you were then expected to be taught in kindergarten, though now of course things are changing. I am sure the school curriculum in Gujarat will be revised and even in Delhi the NCERT or similar expert institutions will do something about introducing the concept of genocide in 'value education'.

As for garba, I know its beat from infancy. A montage of childhood impressions of Navaratra through Diwali cascades through my mind to the intoxicating beat of the garba. It brings to mind the vivid clothes worn by lissome girls as well as sumptuous women, vying with one another in terms of sensuousness and lilting motion -- swaying, swinging, rolling, spinning, swirling, rotating and gyrating in intricately intimate rhythm. There are, of course, the men too. The dance would not be complete without them. But in garba, the male only complements the exuberant female. Or that is how I have always perceived it. ( But then I am a 64-year-old heterosexual male full of menopausal fantasies and memories recalling childhood and adolescence.)

My life in Gujarat ended just as I reached puberty and when my father decided to move from my birthplace, Baroda or Vadodara, to his own -- Bombay or Mumbai.

But of late, the garba too has undergone a profound change. Over the last decade, it has become more aggressive, more permissive, and more noisy. It has become, like our present regional cuisine, a consumerist fusion art designed by our remote NRI cousins and re-exported to us -- like Hindutva itself. In its extreme forms, it has shades of racism and rock, at best a sublimation of riot and anarchy, a cultural civil war.

It now represents the upbeat, self-centred assertion of egoistic identity by a suddenly risen middle class. And this, I fear, connects it with the recent and ongoing genocide in Gujarat. Hindutva has ushered in a new bloodthirsty macho Hindu and even a new female who supplies petrol-soaked pieces of cloth to her male arsonist family-member so that he can burn the home of his Muslim neighbour in the name of 'Maryadapurushottam Ram' ( the most excellent of men who defines the limits of civility).

As Gandhiji said while falling to his assassin's bullet, "He Ram!"

O Ram! Thou art perverted by thy fanatical followers and even Hanuman, the role-model for all bhaktas, is hooliganised. He now inspires any arsonist taking to the streets with humanoid mobs putting the devoted monkeys of mythology to shame. Hindutva has vilified Hinduism beyond recognition and all that is left of the Mahabharata is the image of Ashwatthama cursed with immortality. He is the role model for killing not only babies but foetuses as well in the unsuspecting camp of his sworn enemies. What remains of the two great epics now is a trail of undecipherable blood. Hindutva has damaged, if not yet altogether destroyed, Hinduism.

And finally, Gandhiji.

My father who died recently was a follower of Gandhiji when I was a child. I remember the eminent Gandhians who visited our home in Baroda: the Gujarati poet Umashankar Joshi who was my father's personal friend, Kaka Kalelkar, and Acharya S J Bhagwat the Gandhian Marathi literary scholar. I remember my father taking me to the Baroda railway station whenever trains taking Gandhiji from Ahmedabad to Bombay halted and the public had the great man's darshan from the platform. I recall the 30th of January 1948 when as barely a nine-year-old I experienced the stunned silence of masses of people, the sense of shock and disbelief, and then Nehru's broadcast to the nation summing it all up in simple, moving sentences.

But even on that epochal day, I distinctly remember my immediate neighbourhood in Baroda, predominantly Maharashtrian. Many of my Maharashtrian friends in the neighbourhood were from Brahmin families that worshipped Savarkar and were supporters of either the Hindu Mahasabha or active members of the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh. They hated Gandhiji and held him responsible for the partition of the sub-continent and accused him of pampering the Muslims. They were not able to hide their glee at Gandhiji's assassination. For them Nathuram Godse and his accomplices were heroes who had felled a villain. Of course, their cowardice made them circumspect and hush-hush.

Even as these diasporic Maharashtrians in the state of Baroda succeeded in concealing their delight at the assassination of the person whom the rest of us regarded as the Father of the Nation, in Maharashtra itself, Brahmin-bashing began with a bang and unleashed a genocidal frenzy. This was Hindu communalism against Hindu communalism, using Gandhiji's assassination as an excuse for settling scores with local Brahmins. We used to get news from Maharashtra where non-Brahmin sentiment was directed against all Brahmins regardless of their RSS affiliation.

Soon, the RSS itself was banned and that made it even more clandestine and subversive than before. In that isolation perhaps it began to evolve a long-term strategy to capture the 'remaining Hindu nation' in the face of the fact that what remained after Partition was still larger than a purely 'Hindu' nation. Their notion of nationality and nationalism received a further setback when India became a secular, democratic republic in 1950. This was a threat to their dream of a Brahmin-centred Hindu 'nation' run by a fundamentalist elite from a secret cell in Nagpur.

That agenda, however, seems to have survived. The doctrine remained. Only the techniques of indoctrination and the strategy of penetrating centres of power in order to seize them at an opportune time kept changing according to the realpolitik.

Equal status granted to the Dalits and the tribals remained a sore reality. Sikhs, Christians and other religious minorities had somehow to be placated. The main target were the Muslims who continued to live in India and were the constitutional equals of the Hindu majority.

Even the Hindu 'majority' had its problems. Where would the Dalits and the other backward castes and scheduled tribes be, in a pure Hindu model state with Brahminical sanction and authority over the polity? They were another future obstacle in the way of a 'pure Hindu nation-state'.

In 1956, just before his death, Ambedkar launched his mass-conversion of caste-oppressed Hindus to his new version of Buddhism.

Two decades later, in 1975, Indira Gandhi's national Emergency regime gave the strategists of Hindutva their historic opportunity to submerge themselves within Jaya Prakash Narayan's popular upsurge against the suppression of civil liberties. This was like a Brahmin's plunge into the Ganga along with other castes. Their long-term agenda remained unaffected by their participation in a snowballing mass-movement that eventually compelled Mrs Gandhi to seek fresh popular mandate and lose to her motley opposition.

In 1977, after the defeat of the Congress party led by Mrs Gandhi, the era of coalition governments at the centre and new regional parties in the states began. As yet, there is no single national party with a plural, liberal, and secular face.

Electoral politics has only distorted 'constitutional morality' which, as Dr Ambedkar once observed, 'is difficult to cultivate in our soil.'

Fundamentalist Hindus have a Brahmin-centred agenda reinforced by their clever propaganda which turns history into mythology and mythology into history. The basis of this propaganda is the fear of pollution and an obsession with purity which politically expresses itself as chauvinism and xenophobia.Icons ranging from Prabhu Ramachandra to Chhatrapati Shivaji are abused and decontexualised for the political purpose of winning block votes as well as launching agitations and fomenting tension.

Of course, VP Singh's ' Mandalisation' has introduced a further complexity in the scenario.

Though a party such as the Shiv Sena based in metropolitan Mumbai uses the Hindutva rhetoric, its own agenda and political practice is basically different from the Brahminical doctrine of the RSS brand of Hindutva.

Thackeray mobilised the other backward castes and even attracted the support of a faction of the Dalits. Though his postures and stance are 'more Hindu than the BJP or the RSS', his party has a different kind of mass-base than the BJP's.

The RSS still has a grip on the BJP and its politics cannot but be upper-caste and middle-class. The Shiv Sena draws its sustenance from the urban lumpen and from what might be best described as the 'nationalist urban underworld' as against the 'foreign-based (read Pakistani and ISI in parenthesis) underworld'. The Sena was founded ostensibly to re-establish the authority of the 'Marathi Manoos' in the city of Mumbai in the mid-1960s. But during the next two decades, the 'Marathi Manoos' himself chose to recede from the big city into the neighbouring districts of Thane and Raigad which are now the Sena's bastions. In Mumbai itself, the Sena has had to seek support from non-Marathi voters. Its 'nationalism' now targets the Muslims and often the weakest among them such as Bangladeshi immigrants who have been arriving in the city since 1971.

The Sena's participation in the Ayodhya movement spearheaded by LK Advani and ultra-Hindutva groups must be distinguished from the Hindutva supporters in Gujarat and the Gangetic plains. Thackeray's Shiv Sainiks are modern urban guerillas who claim to be the descendents of Chhatrapati Shivaji's 'mavla' guerilla fighters. This is an 'army' quite different from the anarchic, desocialised 'army' of 'sadhus and sants' that threatens to go on a rampage with or without provocation in the North. It is also different in its social origins from the battalions of rising Hindu middle-class urban Gujaratis that Narendra Modi has successfully raised. The one thing they share is their faith in the effectiveness of extra-constitutional forces including periodically hyped-up populism in the name of Hinduism as true nationalism.

I am no political analyst. I am a poet, a writer, a translator of Bhakti poetry, and a film-maker. I was born a year before the Second World War started. I was four years old when the Quit India movement was launched, and eight when the pre-Partition riots broke out all over the subcontinent. One of my great-grandmothers who was born in 1849, and remembered 1857, died in 1949 at the age of 100-plus.

Through my living predecessors, I gathered impressions of the evolving history of the Indian subcontinent and its different regional mythologies. I was nine in 1947 and 12 in 1950. All my adult life has been spent in the Republic of India, though the grand and solemn promises its Constitution makes have remained largely unfulfilled.

Of late, I have begun to suspect that our problems stem from a growing crisis in South Asian civilisation itself, which we therefore share with Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

We have an ongoing civil war in this distinct geo-cultural region ever since new 'nation-state' identities were created here as colonialism changed its international spots in the post-war world.

Our traditional identities were threatened and at the same time we started learning the game of modern political democracy and electoral strategies. We clothed our laws in European terminology and read our history from the point of view of western historiographers.

We created a fictional image of ourselves in keeping with the concept of citizenship in our Republican Constitution. We continue to tell lies to ourselves and shed blood and tears for doing so.

The networks of interdependence in South Asia built over the last 5,000 years have been extensively damaged in the last century but they are still not beyond repair. A movement to build a South Asian Community on the basis of a shared pluralistic civilisation is our only chance against fragmentation by forces of religious bigotry and monocultural fanaticism, including that of the globalising West.

Gujarat's genocide teaches us one profound lesson. We are all in this crisis of civilisation together--- from Sri Lanka to the borders of Afghanistan and from Nepal to India's western coastline. The only chance of survival we have, as a distinct civilisation, is not by killing our immediate neighbours but rather in recognising that we share a neighbourhood with them.

(Dilip Chitre is a poet, writer, translator of Bhakti poetry and filmmaker. He lives in Pune.)