By Chandrahas Choudhury
Narendra Modi, the longtime chief minister of the state of Gujarat and by far India's most controversial and polarizing politician, created a stir last week -- and evoked images of a medieval world of justice -- when he declared in an interview that, were he to be found guilty of complicity in the gruesome communal violence that raged in Gujarat in 2002, he should be "hanged in a public square."
The violence, which broke out shortly after Modi became chief minister and claimed the lives of more than 750 Muslims and 200 Hindus, was marked by terrible violations of human dignity and damage to property. It made refugeees of thousands of Gujarati citizens, mainly Muslims, reducing them to a state of dependence and drudgery in relief camps. The disorder was also India's first -- and hopefully last -- "television riots," the horror relayed into drawing-rooms by 24-hour television news channels.
For this reason, along with the diligence and persistence of hundreds of Indian journalists and activists in tracking the cause of justice in the matter, the Gujarat riots remain very much a part of public memory in India. Hearings of dozens of cases related to the violence continue to take place in Gujarat today. Often, these occur in the face of intimidation by right-wing groups and the apathy and negligence of state officials, as alleged in February this year by Human Rights Watch, and as documented by the activist Harsh Mander in his book "Fear and Forgiveness." This week, a special trial court convicted 22 people in a case involving the massacre of 11 Muslims by a mob in Visnagar, Gujarat, on Feb. 28, 2002.
On the rack from 2002 onwards for his government's failure to stem the violence, for his incendiary comments about Muslims in state elections later that year, and for his place in the constellation of violence as alleged by a prominent Indian weekly's expose in 2007, Modi has always considered himself to have been made a scapegoat by the political opposition, "pseudo-secularists," human-rights activists, and "media-wale" (media people). This has proved particularly nettlesome for his otherwise thriving career. Since 2002, Modi has gone from strength to strength in other spheres, making Gujarat one of India's most business-friendly destinations for investors and focusing on issues of governance, development and infrastructure -- an approach in short supply in Indian politics. A relatively unknown politician in 2002, he is now one of the leading lights of his party, the stridently nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, and may be its candidate for prime minister in the next national elections in 2014 -- but not before he runs for his fourth term as Gujarat's chief minister in December.
The blot of 2002, then, is the one that Modi desperately wants to erase from his resume. It was not a coincidence that his latest remarks on the violence of 2002 were given not to a major Indian newspaper but to Shahid Siddiqui, the editor of Nai Duniya, a prominent Urdu newspaper with a predominantly Muslim readership. Siddiqui summarized:
I asked him, "Why don't you apologise to the nation? Don't apologise to Muslims, apologise to the nation." He said, 'There is no question of apologising because if I have committed this crime, then I should not be forgiven, I should be hanged. And I should be hanged in such a way that people should learn a lesson for 100 years that nothing like this should happen'."
He also said "If I have not committed the crime, then the nation and the media especially should seek my forgiveness."
So what should we make of this latest episode in the long rhetorical war between Modi (backed by many vociferous supporters) and his detractors?
Prima facie, there seems to be considerable merit in Modi's claim -- backed by his "hanging" dare to his detractors in politics and the press -- that the persistent attempts to hold him responsible for the violence of 2002 actually constitute a libel of vast proportions. For one, as the Gujarat-loving chief minister has often said in official communiques, attempts to defame him are also attempts to tarnish the 60 million citizens of his state. During a three-day fast last year to promote goodwill in the state after he was cleared of complicity in one particular case, Modi wrote in a letter, "During my fast, I will continue to pray to the Almighty to give me strength so that I do not develop or retain any ill-feeling or bitterness towards those who defamed Gujarat or me by making false allegations."
As Modi suggests through the easy interchangeability of the phrase "Gujarat or me," the attacks on him are a kind of mass violence in their own right, of just the kind that his critics accuse him of condoning. Is it fair then to attack as many as 60 million people again and again through the person of their democratically elected representative? Probably not. But it wasn't until Modi spoke up that this injustice became evident, though some might say that the Gujarat riots came first and Modi's close bond with his electorate came afterwards, and can't therefore be used in a back-dated way as he tends to do.
Two, it must be said that Modi's absolute conviction of his innocence in the carnage of 2002 -- and his insistence in the interview to Siddiqui that instead of focusing on the Muslims that were killed in the riots, his critics should think instead about the thousands of Muslims who were saved from a similarly gory death -- represents a great advance in his thinking on the subject. In an embarrassing 2007 television interview, Modi, when pressed to answer questions about his role in the violence, reddened, asked for a pause so that he may have a glass of water, and then canceled the interview. But in 2012, he is the very picture of confidence and assurance in addressing the very same issue. Where there once was confusion and evasion, now there is confidence and clarity. Earlier this year, the columnist Nalin Mehta wrote, "Mr. Modi has always argued that 2002 was a societal upsurge and his economic progress benefits all Gujaratis. It is a seductive argument but his refusal to engage publicly with tough questions about 2002 continues to haunt him." But as the recent interview shows, that's no longer true.
Three, some observers thought it suspicious that Modi went to such great lengths in the interview to protest his innocence, but didn't bring up what might be thought a more relevant and necessary argument, one that includes (as one might expect for the leader of 60 million people) the suffering of others. Modi didn't emphasize his government's commitment to ensuring justice for the victims of the riots, and to reversing what Harsh Mander in his book calls “the determined absence of remorse in both the state and many segments of the people." He says often with regard to the accusations leveled against him that the law will take its course, but never that his government is an active agent in the same process.
Why is it that Modi makes the arguments about the riots a referendum on a single personality, when some would say that what is required from a chief minister is a commitment to processes set up by the rule of law to ensure justice? Modi might persuasively counter that he isn't to blame for the cult of personality that he has fostered in Gujarat through what the journalist Shoma Chaudhury in a recent piece called "a complex cocktail of high intelligence, high ambition, high capacities, high efficiencies, high demagoguery, high vengefulness and high megalomania." After all, this cult has its roots in his being made a scapegoat in the first place.
Four, the disturbing image of great violence done to the human body raised by Modi -- that of his being hanged in a public place if found guilty -- is an effective riposte to those critics who hold him culpable for the spasms of violence that took the lives of hundreds. It effects an ingenious moral reversal, suddenly turning Modi into the one who has been physically violated. Of course, as some people pointed out, there is no provision in Indian law for a convicted person, even one guilty of the most heinous crimes, being hanged in public. But by raising the specter of a justice rougher than anything currently available to, or desired by, his critics, Modi does a good job of suggesting how he himself has suffered outrages and calumnies greater than anybody else, including -- or for a moment forgetting -- the scores of victims of the 2002 violence.
Over the last decade, the process of defending himself and the reputation of his state and its citizens has, inevitably, required many small and large acts of vendetta from Modi and the use of state machinery to harass political opponents. Sometimes the charges brought against these adversaries have seemed remarkably similar to those levied against Modi himself. For instance, after Modi's victory in the state elections in 2007, the political scientist Ashis Nandy wrote a piece blaming Gujarat's middle-class for the destruction of the social fabric and the ascent of communal forces. Shortly afterwards, he found himself charged by the Gujarat police for inflaming communal hatred -- a classic instance, as the signatories of a petition supporting Nandy observed, of the "cynical use the language of civil liberties to achieve ends that are the opposite of what the aspirations to civil liberties and the struggles over them represent."
As Shoma Chaudhury writes, "fear and intimidation have become the permanent lining beneath the smart coat of Brand Gujarat." What kind of version of democracy might one call this? Certainly nothing as benign as the one diagnosed by William J. Antholis, the managing director of the Washington-based Brookings Institution, after a visit to Gujarat and a meeting with Modi earlier this year. Antholis writes, in a piece later reposted on Modi's website in an "e-book" called "The World Lauds Narendra Modi":
I came away thinking that this was a man America needed to know better. He may never be able to move past his role in the 2002 riots. But he is a talented and effective political leader, and will continue pushing New Delhi and not following. He has successfully tackled some of India’s toughest problems, but also has touched its most sensitive nerves. He is wrestling with major global challenges, with all the complexities that implies for a man with strong nationalist convictions.
It may be closer to the truth to see Modi, as Nandy does, as the skillful exponent of a kind of democratic authoritarianism. One feature of such an attitude is that it sees all criticism as conspiracy, not as the bedrock of democratic debate. But Antholis is certainly right when he says Modi is a man America needs to know better, particularly since he may run for prime minister in 2014. Should that happen, the critics of Gujarat's chief minister will suddenly find their work further cut out for them. Not because Modi will have greater power to go after them -- perish the thought, as Modi comes from the land of the non-violent Mahatma Gandhi, a copy of whose autobiography he gave Antholis. But because every criticism of Modi would then be a sinister plot to undermine the pride, self-respect and forward momentum of not 60 million Gujaratis but 1.1 billion Indians.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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