Debating India
Home page > Public directory > Indian Politics > Sangh Parivar / Hindu Nationalism > If the BJP does not contain the VHP, it will be punished by the Indian (...)


If the BJP does not contain the VHP, it will be punished by the Indian electorate

Ashutosh Varshney

Tuesday 23 April 2002, by VARSHNEY*Ashutosh

Article Rediff News, ?dition du 23 avril 2002.

The funeral pyres left in the wake of ethnic violence in Gujarat has done little to bury the smouldering hate that caused the bloody communalism in the first place.

Now, the ripple effects from the rioting have spread into political circles, as blame and castigation fall upon the shoulders of different leaders.

What other effects will result of the violence? How can it be prevented? To answer these questions, Suleman Din spoke to Ashutosh Varshney, author of Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India.

His book is the recent result of 10 years spent researching communal violence in India. Varshney sought to explore the sorts of civic ties between ethnic communities that can contain, or even prevent, ethnic violence.

Varshney, formerly a professor at Columbia University, is now in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he is an associate professor of political science, and director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan.

Looking back, who should be blamed for the violence? Can blame be assigned?

Both kinds of communal forces — Muslim and Hindu — are to blame, but there is no doubt that the Gujarat government deserves considerably greater condemnation.

It is not the job of the government to stoke public anger, regardless of the provocation. No elected government that has taken an oath to protect lives of its citizens can behave the way criminal gangs do, thirsting for a tit-for-tat. Due to government neglect, the retaliatory violence in Ahmedabad came close to being a pogrom.

The term ’pogrom’ is not often discussed in India. All of Ahmedabad violence after February 28 does not squarely fall in the category of riots. By definition, government-aided killings constitute a pogrom, while violent mass fury — that the government tries to contain — is called a riot.

The various statements made by Gujarat’s chief minister in the first 2, 3 days could have signaled to the VHP cadres as well as the police that according to the head of the state government, it was alright to kill Muslims in revenge. For the first 2, 3 days — until the army came — what happened in Ahmedabad, if not elsewhere, was very much like an anti-Jewish pogrom in Tsarist Russia.

Was there realistically anything that could have been done to limit, or stop the violence all together?

The crucial distinction here is between ’stop’ and ’limit.’ If, after Godhra, the chief minister had not made provocative statements and acted in a stern manner with the VHP cadres who are known to be viscerally anti-Muslim, rioting would surely have been less severe. Some revenge killings after Godhra were to be expected, but the scale of violence was controllable.

How did the government’s reaction to the violence in Gujarat compare to government action in past violence? How did the army’s actions compare in previous acts of communalism?

In September 1969, Ahmedabad had one of the biggest riots India has ever seen. The state machinery broke down, but the chief minister did not make the kinds of statements Modi did. That is a critical difference. For all practical purposes, Modi did not act as Gujarat’s chief minister, but as an RSS pracharak. He may be proud of the latter, but he failed to live up to the oath he took as Gujarat’s chief minister.

The army is the body sent out to quell communalism, and some suggest that in turn harms its secular fabric. Do you think continued reliance on the army for such matters is a dangerous trend?

An overuse, not the use per se, of the army — to quell domestic disturbances — can have negative consequences in the long run. Luckily, India’s domestic disturbances, though sad and periodic, have not reached the Yugoslav, Rwandan, or even Sri Lankan levels, nor will they due to the self-correcting mechanisms of Indian democracy. India’s democracy repeatedly ensures the nation’s return from the brink, as it did in 1992-1993. Those political parties that instigate mass violence are electorally defeated — sooner or later — and also censured by the press and citizen action groups.

Whether or not the BJP wins Gujarat, it is almost certain on the basis of the existing electoral data that if the BJP does not contain the VHP or RSS, it will be severely punished by the larger Indian electorate. The doomsday scenario of the army getting politicised is not realistic in India, for other mechanisms of corrections kick in before the army gets embroiled in domestic conflict for too long.

Comment on Narendra Modi’s resignation, and its rejection by his Bharatiya Janata Party. Would his ultimate removal only further incite violence, or a hardening of views?

All bets are off. Some violence cannot be ruled out, but its scale would depend on how the VHP and RSS cadres are handled in Gujarat.

What did you think of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Gujarat on April 4? Did you find his words sincere? What about the timing of his visit was it too late?

Vajpayee’s words on April 4 seemed sincere, but the language used in Goa (after the BJP national executive meeting) later was different. It may be that his moderate stance and speeches are making him highly unpopular among the rank and file of his party, as also with the other organisations in the Sangh Parivar. I see increasing loneliness at the top.

Vajpayee seems to have his hands tied in attempts to bring anyone to accountability and has come to loggerheads with Modi. Is that evidence of his eroded stature in Gujarat?

Yes. Vajpayee’s inability so far to get rid of Modi suggests that he is beginning to lose control of the political dynamics, both within his party and in the country. He may still bounce back, but he looks lost, weak and quite isolated for now.

What does this political wrangling mean for the BJP’s future in Gujarat? Do you see its defeat in the next election? What would replace them?

It is hard to predict what exactly would happen in Gujarat. Shocking events can change political dynamics substantially. But the electoral data make it plain that if the BJP embraces the RSS and VHP in an ideologically resolute fashion, it will be severely punished by India’s electorate, if not Gujarat’s.

Expand upon the RSS and the VHP. You have said they have become increasingly bitter with the BJP’s moderation. Do you see them breaking from the BJP, or at least fracturing it?

Though it is too early to make long-run predictions, the BJP continues to perform a balancing act between what its mother organisation, the RSS (which has intimate links with the VHP), wants, and what its coalition partners, not committed to Hindutva, desire. However, one thing is clear: the more ideologically passionate the BJP’s union with the RSS and VHP becomes, the greater will be the disaffection in Delhi’s ruling coalition. This contradiction can be managed, if and only if big Hindu-Muslim riots don’t break out and the political focus instead is on some other matter.

For example, a focus on Pakistan can unite all elements of the Sangh Parivar as well as the coalition partners. In contrast, large-scale Hindu-Muslim riots tend to push the contradiction to a breaking point.

The government would collapse right away, if the major constituents of the NDA coalition did not have the Congress as a key political adversary in their respective states. That is the reason the government survives despite Gujarat. But another anti-Muslim burst of violence or something equally bad almost certainly will undermine the NDA coalition. At that point, the coalition partners will have to ask what is more important: continuing in the coalition and incurring the loss of Muslim votes, or opposing the Congress in their states.

And once you reach that stage, the BJP too will have to ask whether cementing ties with the RSS and VHP is more important than staying in power and being seen as a partner, not a liability, by other political parties. If the BJP fully embraces the RSS and VHP, it will once again become a pariah in Indian politics. For survival in power, it will have to maintain a reasonable ideological distance from the RSS and VHP, and contain the extremes of their activities. It loses interest in power; it will have the freedom to move towards the extreme right.

Is there any room left in Gujarat for the moderate point of view?

It will take a lot of painstaking work by the Gandhians of Gujarat. They are still there, but they are looking for the right moment to begin to galvanise moderate support. That moment may not come soon.

Some commentators have spoken about an upsurge of Hindu emotions. Does this exist? If so, is it a temporary phenomenon, or the start of a longer trend?

Temporary, as was true in 1992-1993, and mostly in Gujarat. There is no evidence in electoral data that a majority of Indians support violence and bigotry against the Muslims. There may be a lot of complaints against Muslim politics, but that dissatisfaction does not translate into support for killings.

Recall that in UP, after the destruction of the mosque in 1992, the voters threw the BJP out of power. That is how the quiet millions defeat the vocal and thuggish thousands. Elections allow the former to express their preferences.

And what about the Muslims in Gujarat, and other parts of India? Has such violence radicalised them?

What happened after 1992-1993 is, again, a guide. At that time, riots were more gruesome and bigger in scale than last month, but the Muslims after the demolition of the mosque embraced electoral methods of defeating the BJP. They allied with the lower caste parties, wherever they existed. Lower caste parties believe in an alliance with the Muslims, which in turn leads to extensive Hindu-Muslim links on the ground.

Elsewhere, the Muslims renewed support for the Congress. As was true during the retaliatory bombings of Mumbai buildings in 1993, a small fraction of Muslims in Gujarat may well turn towards extremist politics, but I see the majority of India’s Muslims not supporting retaliatory radicalism.

It will hurt them badly, and they know that. Muslim leadership in India has been remarkably unimaginative, but not the Muslim masses.

What do you think is the proper reaction Muslims should take in response to the violence?

As I said above, opt for electoral means to defeat the BJP. Unfortunately, lower caste parties do not exist as a viable force in Gujarat. Therefore, Gujarat, and to some extent, Maharashtra remain very vulnerable to communal disorders.

In UP and Bihar today, however, lower caste parties are a very strong force. Muslims would further solidify their alliance with them, making it hard for the BJP to revive itself in the north in the short run. The Congress, which would also like to get the Muslim vote in UP and Bihar, is not as politically attractive as the lower caste parties. It is more attractive outside these two states.

Each side blames each other for acting out ’terrorism.’ Do you think it is an applicable term in describing the Gujarat riots?

Two reactions. First, it is not unambiguously clear that Gujarat violence was an example of terrorism. But, secondly, if the VHP does not behave and it gets involved in more rioting, then I don’t see how in a post 9/11 atmosphere it can prevent a debate from emerging in India, among Indians abroad as well as in the larger international community — on whether it is a terrorist organisation.

Among other things, the VHP’s acts have seriously diminished the moral high ground India had occupied after 9/11, especially vis-?-vis Pakistan, where the new Western alliances are primarily driven by convenience. A country that allows its minorities to be butchered can only lose respect of the world community. A repetition of Gujarat will be disastrous for India’s international relations.

Would you categorise the subsequent rioting after the Sabarmati fire (house burnings, etc) as ethnic cleansing?

Yes, almost there. It was close to a pogrom, significantly abetted if not demonstrably sponsored by the State.

How would you propose a rehabilitation of neighbourhoods touched by violence? What must people do to rebuild trust? Or is it at all possible?

It will be a long haul. The first big step, however, has to be the ouster of Modi. As long as someone who approved two lakh rupees for Hindu victims and only one lakh for Muslim victims is at the helm of political affairs, the trust-building process can only be through the so-called second-track activity that non-governmental organisations will sponsor, but government actions will discourage. Civic activity, though important, typically takes long to come to fruition, if the government does not support it.

Your research has shown that certain cities and areas in India are prone to ethnic violence. As they can be identified, can precautions be made in these cities/areas to prevent loss of life, and find solutions?

My book has two kinds of implications: a short-run implication and a long-run implication. The short-run implication is simply that when big ’sparks’ emerge — like the one in Godhra — one needs to put the police and administrative machinery on full alert in the riot-prone cities and quickly seek reinforcements. This, however, is not a ’solution,’ only a palliative. And depending on the nature of government, especially if it is run by the BJP (not by lower caste parties, or in some states, the Congress) there is no guarantee that such measures will be taken.

If Gujarat had been a Bihar (of the last ten years), the government on February 27 would have issued such orders right away and also unambiguously communicated its resolve by not talking about ’natural reaction’ or ’action and reaction.’ The intensity of violence would have been considerably lower.

In the end, however, it is the long run implications of research that are a ’solution.’ Since governments will continue to mix legality, ideology and strategic political calculations in an unpredictable manner, it does not make sense to bet on the State for law and order during riots. We can’t give up on the State, but we can’t completely rely on it either. Organisational Hindu-Muslim linkages at the level of civil society — political parties, unions, business associations, professional associations, large-scale NGOs, etc — are the best long-run bet. When Hindus and Muslims are organisationally connected, the State tends to behave much better.

UP has been ruled quite a bit by the BJP in the last ten years, but lower caste parties have becomes so successful in integrating Hindus and Muslims in so many towns that UP’s VHP cadres, even when the BJP rules the state, no longer have the room to create the kind of mayhem we saw in Gujarat.

What sort of role did the media have in these riots? What was the coverage like, in your opinion?

I don’t share the view that the media should restrain itself from reporting truthfully, just because the ground realities are horrific. Indeed, we would not have known the extent of Hindu nationalist brutality; if India’s remarkably free media had not done its job well. Driven by ground realities, India’s press has for all practical purposes rebelled against the Gujarat government and against Delhi’s vacillations. It is a clear sign that India’s non-governmental sector remains quite vigorous, and the nation has the capacity to stand up to state power, if not discipline it fully.

In Yugoslavia, Rwanda and even Sri Lanka, the press was, or has been, very pliant. The way India’s press has reported and argued is a matter of pride.

Did propaganda, or rumours, have a part in spreading the violence? Did you see evidence of such?

Rumours generally flourish in big riots. But more on-the-ground research will be needed to sort out the role they played in this particular instance. What happened at the Godhra train station, for example, remains entrapped in all sorts of clashing stories.

Interestingly, some South Asian commentators have linked NRI support of Hindu right-wing groups with the violence in Gujarat. Is there such a connection? If so, what is its significance?

The enormous wealth of Gujarat’s Diaspora is a double-edged sword. It can be an agent of reconstruction and progress, as the earthquake relief work showed. But there is no doubt that vast numbers of Gujarati NRIs provide all kinds of support to Hindu nationalism and its organisations.

Over the last twelve years of my teaching career in the US, a third of my classes on India — at Harvard and Michigan — have routinely consisted of Indian Americans and South Asians. On the whole, Gujarati Americans have been among the most, and South Indians among the least, anti-Muslim in their predispositions.

It is Gujarati parents who give their children such virulent anti-Muslim stances, something my lectures and readings confront directly. Many students do change in the end, but the problem is serious. Stories about the monumental Gandhian glory of their ancestral land is not what the young Gujarati American learns at home, but the viciously anti-Muslim accounts of Indian history.

During my long periods of research in Gujarat, I found similar virulence there as well. The expressions of anti-Muslim bigotry that I heard in Ahmedabad (and also Mumbai) were the worst ever! North India no longer beats a much richer western India in communal bigotry and in insensitivity to Muslim lives.


Pour une revue de presse sur la question, voir

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0