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How do we remember Gujarat 2002?

Oishik Sircar analyses the sophisticated spectacle of economic development that has insidiously annihilated memories of the Gujarat riots

A history-vanishing event

The spectre of Gujarat 2002 inhabits public consciousness in India in a way where memory and forgetting are not racing against each other, but are constantly on a collision path. Like magnets, when they reach the point of collision they repel each other. Their paths are located on a Mobius strip: so if you start with memory you encounter forgetting racing at you with a vengeance, and if you start with forgetting, the phantom of memory will always be lurking. The consequence is an uneasy co-existence where the primary concern is not whether Gujarat should be remembered or forgotten, but how do we remember what happened in 2002. While forgetting here is not about denying what happened, memory is about selecting which story to tell. And every story claims to be ‘the truth’: in which forensic truth is competing against experiential truth is competing against neoliberal truth is competing against electoral truth is competing against artistic truth.

With the competing narratives of ‘truth’ that have been in circulation since the burning of the Sabarmati Express compartment S6 in Godhra on February 27, 2002 to the recent death of Maulana Hussain Umarji on January 13, 2013, there are stories after stories: official, legal, colloquial, fabricated, imagined, hopeful, utopic, devastating, disgusting. Umarji, who was instrumental in organising relief work after the 2002 violence, was falsely accused of being the “mastermind” in the train-burning incident, spent eight years in jail, fell seriously ill while in prison, and was released in 2011. With his death things haven’t come full circle. Events that have transpired between then and now have only proliferated spirals of impunity, the celebratory hand-in-hand march of Hindutva and neoliberalism, the spectacular rise and rise of the idea of Narendra Modi, the co-option of the Muslim vote-bank by the BJP, the sophisticated marketing and distribution of fear, the sanitisation of the public sphere in Gujarat, and the unending trials: legal and personal.

I was a young law student in Pune when news of the Godhra train-burning and the later events of a violent Hindu ‘revenge’ against Muslims started coming in. Most of the English language media was critical of the Modi government, but their characterisation of what was happening in Gujarat followed the standard cause and effect explanation: the Muslims burnt the Hindus in the train, so now the Hindus are taking their revenge on Muslims. The Newtonian physics of Narendra Modi’s immediate response was to say: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” And Godhra was marked (almost for eternity) as the flashpoint. The art of mobilising public opinion through the marking of a singular event as history-vanishing was mastered by the US government when September 11 happened, and it has been used to justify all the military aggressions and invasions that the US has carried out in the name of self-defence and democracy since then. Godhra has been made to occupy our memories in an identical manner: it is the flash that blinds us to the history of how the pogrom was meticulously planned much before the train caught fire. It also blinds us to the historical roots of Hindutva in Gujarat that did not erupt only as a response to Godhra.

The ability to apply nuance, to see through the spectacle of this blinding flashpoint at my first experience of surrogate consumption of real-time communal violence, was pretty low. A mix of bewilderment, anger and numbness was what I felt. The only previous occasion in my lifetime when I had heard about ‘communal’ violence was a decade ago in 1992 when the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished by militant Hindu mobs followed by an anti-Muslim killing spree. At that time, as a school student, all I looked forward to in the distant city of Calcutta, was the curfews, because that would mean not having to go to school. During the long periods of curfew, I would enjoy cricket matches on TV without my mother constantly asking me to go study (because exams were indefinitely postponed), and playing cricket on the street with friends during the two-hour curfew breaks that were allowed once a week. The brutality of the violence was conveniently censored by my parents as well as by state television. While some of it did reach me, the lack of discussion about it at home didn’t make it so obvious. Some unrest was happening somewhere else in India, and the curfew was just a way to keep us safe, was the standard refrain. I didn’t complain.

Ten years later in 2002 when I was looking at the grotesque images of heaps of dead bodies, maimed and charred, and deserted streets and burnt houses, and desecrated mosques, on TV (privatised 24/7 news media was enjoying its fledgling liberated status covering the violence without regulation after several years of state control), the language that was put into circulation to characterise what was happening followed the cause/effect logic. Everyone was referring to the violence as the ‘post-Godhra riots’. Everything that was happening was being traced back to Godhra. We were surreptitiously being told that our memory-scales must have a limit: don’t look beyond Godhra; that should be the only source for your explanations; treat Godhra as exceptional, so that what has followed it, despite the unprecedented levels of brutality, becomes routine. It took some time to understand that the violence was far from a riot. It was a genocidal massacre, or more aptly a pogrom – as Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi notes in his book Pogrom in Gujarat: Hindu Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Violence in India – which is “an event driven by words and images [of anti-Muslim hatred and disgust], as much as by those [acts of pre-planned violence] that accompany it.”

When you type ‘Gujarat 2002’ into Google even today, the first link that comes up is the Wikipedia entry, and it starts with the following words: “The 2002 Gujarat violence was a series of incidents starting with the Godhra train burning and the subsequent communal violence between Hindus and Muslims…” A Google image search throws up photos, the first of which are images of the burning train compartment. The significantly detailed April 2002 Human Rights Watch report on the carnage titled “We Have No Orders To Save You”: State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat opens with the sentence: “The ongoing violence in Gujarat was triggered by a Muslim mob’s torching of two train cars carrying Hindu activists on February 27, 2002.” In several critical and closely documented publications on the violence – academic, activist, journalistic – Godhra has been marked as what feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum has called “the precipitating event”.The ‘post-Godhra riots’ adage continues to be a part of the conscious and unconscious vocabulary for most Indians, and despite the activism, civil society outcry, several detailed fact-finding reports, enquiry commissions, sustained and selective media coverage, some convictions, Godhra remains that flashpoint moment that blinds us to the long-term, organised and meticulously planned continuum of anti-Muslim hatred that resulted in the Gujarat pogrom. In fact, the construction of Godhra as the enraging flashpoint closed the space to grieve for those who lost their lives in the train fire.

The spectacle of neoliberalism

On one of the days in March 2002 while the violence continued unabated in Gujarat, The Times of India carried a quotation by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman on its front-page: “The government’s solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.” I did not know who Friedman was (and didn’t have a way to find out since Wikipedia was just a year old and not yet very popular) nor the devastation that he and the ‘Chicago-boys’ had unleashed in South America, but at that time, looking at the reports of state complicity in the violence and the government’s inability to stop the killings, the quote seemed apt. For some reason this quote stuck with me, and years later I found out about Friedman and his laissez-faire exploits in Chile and how his ideas inspired the US-supported military coup bringing the genocidal dictator Augusto Pinochet to power. As Naomi Klein has pointed out so powerfully in her brilliant book The Shock Doctrine: all the sham celebration by fundamentalist free-marketeers about Chile’s economic development was the history-vanishing tactic to make us forget about the pre-coup Chile where Salvador Allende – the democratically elected socialist president who was assassinated during the coup – had ushered in pro-people economic policies.

It is a cruel coincidence that an identical script has unfolded in Gujarat where the spectacle of free market economic development (or what can also be called ‘neoliberalism’ where the free market and the state become indistinguishable) has been manufactured to discipline our memories of 2002. This one regulates our memory-scales further: there is no history beyond Godhra, and all history is about Gujarat’s unparalleled economic progress. The ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summit where India’s richest industrialists line up every year to offer heaps of praise for Narendra Modi’s neoliberal economic vision is a perversely planned attempt by the government to thwart efforts that try to keep alive the memories of genocide. Sample this quote by Anil Ambani: “Narendra Bhai has been described in different ways. My personal favourite comes from what his name literally means in Sanskrit – a conjunction of Nara and Indra. Nara means man and Indra means king or leader. Narendra bhai is the lord of men and a king among kings.” The deification of a man who had personally overseen the design of the pogrom, who has never expressed any remorse about the murder of thousands of Muslims as the accountable political authority in that state, and who has carried on spewing hate speech with impunity, says a lot about the intimacy between neoliberalism and genocide. And this new kind of sophisticated history-vanishing strategy is not about making us forget what happened in 2002. To put into effect the act of forgetting, there has to be some recognition of memory. But this is an insidious method that annihilates memory with such force that the need for forgetting doesn’t even arise. It creates a complete blank slate: a tabula rasa.

This is evident in the way I hear a majority of the people in India, especially the identity-disregarding Hindu upper class/caste youth and young professionals, celebrating Modi’s economic mantra. During his recent visit to Delhi University’s Sri Ram College of Commerce to deliver the Sri Ram Keynote Oration, while there were protests outside (by both the Modi detractors and followers, and the police violence targeting only the detractors) a group of 1,800 young people (and some old I’m sure) sat inside the SRCC basketball court-turned-auditorium listening with rapt attention to Modi holding forth on ‘Emerging business models in the global scenario’.

As a FaceBook status of a lawyer friend who attended the speech said: “Listening to Modi’s keynote address at the SRCC, New Delhi... inspiring!! A blend of sound ideas, strong oratory skills and good humour. This audience is captive and captivated ☺”. The last sentence that is followed by the smiley is disturbingly telling. The neoliberal spectacle of economic growth that Modi and his government have cerebrally injected into our consciousness operates as an anaesthetic, despite several comprehensive reports pointing to the contrary. And it has a drugging effect, where none of these counter findings work as effective antidote. In fact, whenever an attempt is made to call Modi’s bluff by citing contrarian statistics, we end up being sucked into a conversation (hardly one actually) on Modi’s terms. We are made captive: a state of un-freedom where our thoughts are controlled by someone else’s diktat; but we feel that we are captivated: that we are using our rational mind cheerfully and wholeheartedly to agree with what he has to say. Such are the emerging business models in the global scenario: where genocides lay the strongest foundations for economic miracles.

In a blog-post on the NDTV website published a day after the Modi speech, a 19-year-old student from SRCC wrote: “Today we stayed back in college for over four hours to listen to him, and he did not disappoint. We got to know through our parents that there were protests outside the college. I believe the protests were not needed as there is more to Mr Modi than the Gujarat riots of 2002. We can’t judge him for that alone. He needs to be heard and judged for the contribution he’s made to the state’s development.” Yes, Modi did not disappoint. He has not disappointed those who have democratically voted him to power term after term since 2002 (and this includes a certain section of Muslim voters in Gujarat as well). The reason clearly is what this student and so many others are smoothly disciplined to believe: his contribution to the state’s economic development is so laudable that we should not “judge him” for the 2002 pogrom.

This student goes as far as to uphold Modi’s freedom of speech: “he needs to be heard”, as if his speech has been censored by those who have persistently called his bluff. Yes he needs to be heard so that more and more people are captivated to become captive by the blinding effects that genocide and neoliberalism create when they come together. And they come together in the most innocuous fashion: through Modi’s calm, smiling face, and as was pointed out in my friend’s comment on FaceBook above, his good humour. He carries his development brief (of which the genocide was an intrinsic part) with wicked sincerity to the politics of cleansing and accumulation, drawing legitimacy not only from the Hindutva brigade, but also from the sham of a democratic process that has re-elected him four times in a row, and the collective support from the likes of the 1,800 students in SRCC, most of whom will end up holding high designations in some of the world’s and India’s largest corporations.

It is not surprising that I didn’t come across a single comment on FaceBook, blogs or other publications where at least one of those who attended the speech critically reflected on it. It seems like not only the physical space, but even the mind space of whose who attended his speech at SRCC was thoroughly cleansed and sanitised. And for anyone else who tried to reason otherwise, they were either accused of being Congress supporters or of not having the privilege of authenticity: you were not present, so you have no idea. The second accusation also plays out constantly against those who attempt to keep the memory of Gujarat 2002 alive from a distance: you have no right to speak, you’ve never been to Gujarat.

Banal, not exceptional

Commenting on the very relaxed demeanour of Adolf Otto Eichmann – the German Nazi who was one of the frontline organisers of the holocaust – right before his execution in Jerusalem in 1962, the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to this very extreme normalisation of violence embodied in a person as the “banality of evil”. The phrase points to the fact that acts of tremendous brutality are not committed by demons, but by very regular people in what they consider are very regular actions in the course of their very regular duty. It is what the media analyst Edward S Herman has called “normalising the unthinkable”. The deep tragedy of the situation in India is that it’s not just Modi’s smile, but also our state of feeling captivated by his humour, and remaining captive in the narrative chronology where there’s Godhra and then there’s neoliberal economic development (and nothing exists in between) which has become the new banality of evil: a banality that we feed and keep alive every day: from Gujarat to Kandhamal to Khairlanji to Chhattisgarh to Manipur to Kashmir, going back to 1984 and Nellie. And that’s a truncated version of a very dirty laundry list that we cannot wash clean even with the most sophisticatedly manufactured neoliberal detergent.

For those of us who’ve remained committed to keeping the memories of Gujarat 2002 alive – through our teaching, writing, activism, films or just because we will not be fooled by the smokescreen of economic development – there is an urgent need to question our own representations of Modi as the monster mastermind. We must concede the fact that our construction of Modi as the demon has been powerfully countered by the image of Modi the deity worshipped by industrialists and a majority of Indians alike. We first turned Modi into an exceptional character, and that only aided his PR strategy to represent himself as an exceptional leader: who will beat anybody else hands down, be it in his seductive speeches attracting private investments, or his hate speeches that continue to spew anti-Muslim hatred. It is this exceptionalised construction of Modi that has taken attention away from the contingent, yet significant victories in the struggle for justice in Gujarat: the Naroda Patiya and Ode convictions. We need to treat Modi and his ilk as banal: a very troubling reflection of the way we have through our everyday and ordinary, and even secular practices, constructed and maintained India’s core as Hindu where a misogynist Ram and a predatory neoliberal market have become very comfortable bedfellows.

Predicaments of memorialisation

In our fight against forgetting Gujarat 2002, we must remain very cautious of the way we use exceptional icons – like the haunting photo of Qutubuddin Ansari begging for mercy from a Hindu mob or similar such phantasmagoric images of death and devastation – that make Gujarat 2002 stand out as an aberration in the collective imagination of this ostensibly secular republic, making that a reason for it to be forgotten. We need to be attentive to how in our overzealous attempts at remembering Gujarat, we arrogantly start to claim ownership of the private trauma of someone like Ansari who has time and again asked for his photo not to be used in reference to the pogrom.  

Using “photographs of agony” – a phrase coined by John Berger – to make people remember a violent past might not always have the desired effect of shocking people out of their forgetting stupor, or lazy indifference. Sometimes it is the repeated use of these images that reduce their horror-generating quotient, and numb people to respond to them with concern. Images have the power of fixing meanings that make the subject of a photograph remain captive within its frames forever. Yet another response to the use of horrific images is for the perpetrators in power and their allies to claim higher moral ground and state that we are being irresponsible in using them – just the way in which L K Advani’s drivel in April 2002 claimed: “sometimes, speaking the truth may not be an act of responsibility” – which was nothing but an attempt at circumscribing truth. We need to guard against the appropriation of our efforts to aesthetically memorialise Gujarat, through images, films or something like the Museum of Resistance being planned in Gulberg Society, Ahmedabad, to serve the ends of political parties or corporate capital. CNN-IBN has already created and broadcast a film advertising the Museum of Resistance, and one wonders what their stakes are, apart from towing the obsessive “whatever it takes” line of journalism to get their TRPs up.

The impossibility of truth

Despite the copious amounts of incontrovertible evidence gathered by several independent fact-finding teams against Modi and the Gujarat government for its complicity, the several testimonies of victim-survivors clearly identifying the organisers, the Tehelka expose, the damning revelations by DIG Sanjiv Bhat, tireless efforts by Teesta Setalvad and several other human rights defenders to take the legal process for conviction and compensation ahead, the ‘truth’ about Gujarat 2002 will always be up against the behemoth of the state-corporation-Hindutva complex.

Be it Gujarat 2002 or Delhi 1984, we have had to fall back on a legal system controlled by the very state whose agents are being tried. This is a classic case of the ‘victor’s justice syndrome’ repeating itself in a domestic scenario (rather than international one) day in and day out as legal battles continue. And we pride ourselves for having an independent judiciary? It is no surprise that it took the NDA government no time to pass a draconian special security legislation like the Prevention of Terrorist Act after the December 13 Parliament Attack, or the UPA to strengthen the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act after the November 26 attacks in Bombay; but the Communal Violence Bill drafted in the wake of Gujarat 2002 lies in cold storage. Why would the state legislate on curbing its own impunity?

What hope do we have of justice when truth is an impossibility? When I went to Gujarat in 2002 as a student volunteer to work at the Shah Alam refugee camp in Ahmedabad and conduct interviews as part of yet another fact-finding team – as one of the many voyeuristic tourists deliciously consuming the trauma of others so that I could live to tell the tale of my sham heroism – I experienced something that changed my perspectives of justice and healing forever. At the end of a very taxing day of recording survivor testimonies, I was waiting for my colleague at the entrance of Shah Alam camp when I heard the laughter of children coming from within the dargah. In the midst of the injured and maimed, this sounded other-worldly. I followed the sound to the central courtyard of the dargah and saw a huge group of children (many of them orphaned) along with some very energetic members from a group called Play-for-Peace standing in a circle, holding hands and singing a very funny song called Bajra: about the everyday practice of grinding the Bajra to make chapatis at home.

The chorus of so many children laughing and singing together was for that particular moment a magical feeling. Their laughter was infectious – everyone around joined the cacophony. The circle marked the formation of a very different kind of community: one joined in sorrow through laughter. In the non-competitive games, the children who made mistakes were never ‘out’, rather they occupied pride of position ‘in’ the circle to lead the game. The very serious-looking, serious-sounding, serious work that many bourgeoisie volunteers like me were doing looked poorly pretentious in the face of songs and games that could evoke spontaneous laughter in children who’ve either been orphaned, seen their family members brutally raped and killed or ‘disappeared’. I never knew that the power of collective laughter could not only heal but also arrest cycles of violence. This was an equally powerful way to mourn. Despite my privileged position of an outsider, who will eventually go back to safer quarters, playing with the children, and spending those few days in Ahmedabad laughing with them gave me a contingent sense of our shared commitment to mourning in precarious times: be it through crying, or laughter.

Beyond what the legal process will achieve, while our struggles against state impunity and the spectacular onslaught of neoliberalism continue, we need to think of ways in which we can use the powers of mourning to mobilise political communities of human beings, as Judith Butler says, joined through a shared feeling of loss and vulnerability, to forge ethical relationships that connect us with those whose lives were destroyed: not through sentimentality, but solidarity. Gujarat 2002 is paradigmatic of the brutality that a majoritarian secular democracy is capable of. We cannot undo this truth even if Modi is convicted. We can only hope to mourn together, laugh together and ensure that we never forget. That will be our lived truth.  

The author is an academic currently based in Melbourne researching the legal, testimonial and aesthetic archives through which Gujarat 2002 is remembered and forgotten.

Infochange News & Features, February 2013