Elections in India are almost at their end, with May 12 being the last day for polling. The overwhelming favorite to win the race is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition whose campaign is being single-handedly spearheaded by Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat. If opinion polls and mainstream media coverage are to be believed, the BJP leader’s anointment as the Prime Minister of India after May 16, the day results are announced, is a mere formality.
However, there are many in India and abroad who nurture deep-seated doubts about Modi, a hardcore Hindu nationalist leader, whose claim to infamy is the 2002 Gujarat riots that claimed the lives of hundreds of minority Muslims. A Supreme Court-appointed commission exonerated Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time, from any complicity in abetting the riots. Widespread perceptions, however, hold Modi directly accountable for one of the worst-ever tragedies to take place in independent India.
Despite the best efforts of the ruling Congress party, the 2002 episode did not become a major election issue. The strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the governing coalition overwhelmed Modi’s past. The media and large swathes of society have been quite oblivious to the Gujarat CM’s track record in his state, and there have been few questions about the BJP leader’s attitude towards the Muslim minority in his own state.
The BJP has been very vocal about the party’s track record of communal harmony in the state since 2002. It brags that Gujarat has never witnessed such a long period of uninterrupted peace among its religious communities after independence.
Is the absence of communal riots in the last decade a barometer of communal harmony in the state? Is it a sign of growing pluralism in the state?
Recent statements by a radical Hindu right-wing leader, Praveen Togadia, in a meeting in the Bhavnagar district of Gujarat have brought the focus back to the status of minorities in the western Indian state. The leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or World Hindu Organization, a radical Hindu organization, said in a public meeting that Muslims should not be allowed to buy properties in Hindu areas. The VHP is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or National Voluntary Organization, the parent organization of the BJP.
Togadia is a senior leader of Modi’s peers in the RSS, the Hindu right-wing organization which provides ideological and physical training to its cadres. He and the Gujarat CM were close pals and instrumental in growing the Hindu right-wing network in the state. Though they are not reportedly on good terms today, they nonetheless remain loyal to their ideological parent.
The VHP leader’s comment sparked outrage in certain sections of the media. Sensing the public mood, the BJP Prime Ministerial candidate tweeted: “petty statements by those claiming to be BJP’s well wishers are deviating the campaign from the issues of development and good governance.” He further said that “I disapprove [of] any such irresponsible statement and appeal to those making them to kindly refrain from doing so.”
Is this general statement enough to assuage the fear of those who are concerned about the impending danger to the plural coexistence of Indian society? There was no condemnation of the statement and there was no categorical denial of Muslim marginalization in the land where Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation, was born.
The very fact that a leader in Gujarat can make this kind of open anti-minority statement and get away with it speaks volumes about Indian society. Togadia finds the atmosphere conducive to promote crass majoritarianism in a state where both Hindus and Muslims have a shared history of coexistence despite their differences.
In a recent article in The New York Times, “Being Muslim Under Narendra Modi,” Basharat Peer, after visiting Ahmedabad, writes that “judging by the evidence in Gujarat, where Mr. Modi has been chief minister since 2001, a B.J.P. victory in the general election would increase marginalization and vulnerability among India’s 165 million Muslims.” Writing about his experiences of visiting Muslim-dominated areas in one of the prominent cities of Gujarat, Peer says that “Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, has become a wealthy metropolis of about six million people and three million private vehicles. But Ahmedabad ceases to swagger in Juhapura, a southwestern neighborhood and the city’s largest Muslim ghetto, with about 400,000 people.”
He talks about “The Border,” a boundary wall with barbed wire that has come up between the Muslim localities and Hindu neighborhoods.
“Mr. Modi’s engines of growth seem to have stalled on The Border. His acclaimed bus network ends a few miles before Juhapura. The route of a planned metro rail line also stops short of the neighborhood. The same goes for the city’s gas pipelines,” says the Kashmiri writer.
Gujarati journalist Aakar Patel, writing on the Togadia episode, says. “What sort of state in India has two decades of Hindutva rule produced where it is easy for Togadia to say what he did in a public gathering? What does it say about Gujaratis in the rule of Modi that they do not want as their neighbor a Bohra, one of the most peaceful and most enterprising of all Gujarati communities, because he is also Muslim?”
Patel continues, “Sadly this is the reality of Gujarat, where unbroken rule by the Hindutva party has produced great bitterness on the ground. The religious poison they have spread has made the state toxic.”
This open discrimination between the majority and minority community in a state which is promoted as a model state in India raises a valid question about the intention of the right-wing leader and the repercussion for Indian society should Modi assume power in New Delhi.
There is a valid anger among the 13 percent of India that is Muslim.
“He (Modi) should have been disqualified a long time ago. It’s deplorable that he should have grown to such proportions with such a past. I feel angry from the sense of justice being not merely denied but injustice being actively perpetrated with the state machinery’s complicity,” says Aateka Khan, an assistant professor in Delhi University.
Does India need this kind of “Gujarat model?”