Limits of Tolerance

Prospects of Secularism in India after Gujarat

A modern democracy cannot tolerate matters of faith trumping over
matters of citizenship rights. There can be no question of tolerance
when citizens are denied their status as equal citizens. With an
intolerant secularism that insists on the inalienable rights of
citizens and on the due process of the law, it is easier to mount
public pressure against minority hunters and sectarian killers. Here
we cannot make exemptions, or look for mitigating circumstances, on
grounds of being a minority or impoverished and unemployed.

Once again Gujarat burnt ferociously. Once again it was Ahmedabad that hurt the most. Along with Ahmedabad, the districts of Baroda and Mehsana went up in flames as well. Was this just another riot? Undoubtedly, more, much more intense in scale than most others, but was it remarkable only in terms of its quantitative excess? Or are there lessons to be learnt from this riot?

First, what did this riot confirm? Like most other riots, this sectarian carnage too was primarily an urban phenomenon. From Godhra, within hours, the violence leap frogged straight into the heart of Ahmedabad city before fanning out elsewhere. If one takes a look at the sites which were worst hit by the current spate of violence in Gujarat, the riot's urban character becomes immediately apparent

Godhra, Ahmedabad and Vadodara form a triangle of dense conurbation, and it is here that the riots were at their bloodiest. Though a larger proportion of Muslims live in urban areas in Gujarat than in most other places in India, yet Mehsana district which has only 6.6 per cent Muslims, of which only 34.5 per cent can be classified as urban was badly hit this time. Muslims constitute a low 2.9 per cent of Gandhinagar district's population [Census of India 1991] and yet villages in this area were not spared. Por village, in Gandhinagar taluka, even had a Muslim sarpanch but was attacked by mobs from at least nine neighbouring villages [PUDR 2002:20]. Nor can we ignore the fact that a district like Kachch, which has a high Muslim population of almost 20 per cent, faced no violence in these riots. All of this should make us re-examine: (1) the urban thesis behind the riots, and (2) that a high Muslim presence is necessary to provoke riots. Both these positions need to be finessed a great deal more.

Ideologically Gujarat is a fairly volatile mix of urban anxieties and primordial loyalties. Ahmedabad is probably the only industrial centre of its size and eminence without a history of left wing mobilisations [Shah 1970:13, Breman 1999:25]. Kanpur, or Mumbai, or Kolkata, have all known left wing radicalism, but not Ahmedabad. The Textile Labour Association, which is a federation of a variety of unions, was formed in 1920, largely with the help of Mahatma Gandhi, with the intention of providing arbitration as an alternative to class war. Radical trade unions of the left never really took root in Ahmedabad for a variety of reasons which are too complex to go into at this point. Suffice, however, to say that alternative working class identities which could combat primordial networks did not emerge with any degree of vigour in Ahmedabad.

State Support and Soft Targets

The recent Gujarat riots again confirmed that like other riots there was clear evidence of administrative connivance, if not outright support to the rampaging mobs. It was also clear that rioters are more than willing to kill for a cause but far from willing to die for one [Gupta and Thapar 2002]. The many tales of horror when fleeing Muslims sought police protection but were spurned, or when important political functionaries were in the forefront of the killing mobs, or the manner in which certain political personalities made their reputation as ardent Hindu chauvinists during these riots, are too well known to bear repetition. The fact that Gujarat rioters received from the authorities support [see for graphic details Communalism Combat 2002: 114-122, see also PUDR 2002: 9,14 and passim] is sadly not a new phenomenon either. The killings of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere in 1984 clearly demonstrated a similar case of high level support to the violence [PUDR and PUCL 1984; see also Horowitz 2001: 348-49; Ray and Chakravarti 1968].

As rioters are generally recipients of official sanction, it is to be expected that they are not specialists but generalists who are more than ready to kill but not die for a cause. This is why they are on the lookout for safe targets. The targets are usually poor people who are doubly vulnerable. Vulnerable first because they are numerically outnumbered, and vulnerable again because of their poverty. Strangely enough, the killers and the victims seem to share in large measure similar economic profiles. This is a point that has analytical consequences to which we shall return later.

Thirdly, what happened to Gujarat after the Godhra incident on February 27 also confirms that riots are not spontaneous. It is not just anger boiling over, but there is a great deal of planning that goes behind riots. Targets are carefully selected - and rarely, if ever, are mistakes made even in densely mixed population areas [see also Breman 1999:267-68]. Naroda Petia and Gomtipur in Ahmedabad saw the same pattern repeat itself. Occasionally, there are lapses, but given the scale of rioting it is not possible that such accuracy in attacking the minority communities could have been possible without deliberate planning. Both 1984 Delhi and 2002 Ahmedabad may give the feeling that the killings were spontaneous, but it would be a mistake to yield to this superficial and popular impression.

The urban underclasses have been the foot soldiers of Hindu organisations in urban India for the longest time. However, even when guaranteed support from the political bosses of the day, they still fear to go to areas where Muslims are strong. Bharuch city for instance was not attacked, but on the highway linking Vadodara to Bharuch many Muslim establishments were burnt to cinders in these riots. Even in Ahmedabad's infamous Naroda Petia killings, Muslim targets were chosen carefully. It is important to note that this area is home to both Praveen Togadia, the VHP leader, and Gordhan Zadaphia, the BJP home minister in Gujarat. There was therefore no dearth of official encouragement to the attackers of Muslims in Naroda Petia, and even so more Muslims died in the slums on the east side of Highway Number 8, than on the west side. East Naroda Petia is largely populated by Karnataka Muslim migrants who are not that well organised.

Quantity to Quality

The Gujarat riots brought out a few things in clearer focus, even though the issues involved, as we saw with authoritative support, may not be entirely novel in themselves. All riots entail economic hardship - jobs are lost, property destroyed, and capital either flees or stays idle. Sectarian riots are largely unmindful of economic calculations and this is true of Ahmedabad where repeated riotings gave a clear indication that those involved in the killings were not inhibited by economic considerations. This was apparent in the first week of the riot itself and yet it continued for months. Between February 28 and March 7, 2002, Gujarat lost to the tune of Rs 179 crore [SEWA Relief Team 2002: 65, see also Guzder 2002].

That ethnic activists do not take economic considerations into account should not mean that in the actual process of rioting economic scores and rivalries are not settled. Of course they are! Economic jealousies, including real estate speculations, can help fund the coffers of ethnic parties, but the rhetoric that sponsors ethnic riots, and the justification that most rioters use to satisfy themselves that they are killing for a cause, are not significantly informed by economic calculations. Khalistani activists were surely not being energised by economic motives when they went about capturing gurudwaras and threatening everyday life in Punjab. That there are economic problems everywhere does not always mean that they are significant factors in all forms of social mobilisations.

What also comes through loud and clear is that religion has little to do with ethnic strife. This may sound contradictory, but a little attention to the details of rioting will demonstrate that most of the activists are not religious people themselves, and neither are their leaders. It is not as if religious faith is the primary mover, regardless of what the activists may say of their own convictions. Very few of them have anything more than a working knowledge of their respective sacerdotal texts. They are not the type that would go to religious classes, to religious services, or attend rituals with any degree of regularity. While a few swayamsewaks may have some familiarity with Sanskrit slokas, ethnic activists are in the main religiously unmusical.

Gujarat also forces us to accept that the poor are not necessarily pure. The urban rootless, the jobless, the ill fed and the underpaid have been the foot soldiers and the torch bearers of many a riot. But in Gujarat, this time around it was not just scheduled castes or some backward communities (many of whom have often been labelled as members of criminal communities) who were involved in the killing and looting, but so too were the scheduled tribes in a large number of cases. The last shred of romantic make-believe according to which the people of the forests who are far away from the depraved ways of life of class and caste stratified societies are somehow better endowed with humane properties has also been laid to rest. Romantic or realist, everyone was saddened by the fact that now the tribals too can become like the worst among us.

Social Forensics or Social Science?

The other aspect riots in Gujarat demonstrate is that there are times when we have to pay more attention to social forensics and not be overwhelmed by social science considerations. In a way one might say that this is an extension of our earlier point of not looking for economic calculations behind ethnic riots. All too often, perhaps because we cannot accept the horrendous characteristics of riots - the mindless brutalities, the cries of fear, and the reckless abandonment of all traces of any civilised virtue - scholars look for clues in migration, urbanisation and relative deprivation to explain what could have prompted such rapid free falls into bestiality.

Social forensics brings out in detail who the killers are, who their supporters are, how they go about the business of targeting and killing their victims, why they choose a particular occasion and not any other, and, most importantly, what real advantage interested political parties hope to gain from such mayhem. Social science has very little to contribute to any of these questions, but social forensics can. One of the most important modalities of winning back the confidence of the victims of riots is to actually punish those who are guilty of fomenting and participating in the violence. Whether it be on the actual modalities of a riot, or how to restore confidence in the political system, in both cases social forensics can be of greater help than the social sciences.

If urban areas are particularly riot prone then, according to received sociological literature, it is because people in towns and cities are rootless and do not have a firm sense of belonging. It is as if they are always in each other's faces [Horowitz 2002: 220, 381-83]. It needs however to be clarified that villages can also be heterogeneous. But hitherto in villages, the power structure was relatively stable and nobody dared rock the boat. This is what gave villages their much vaunted (and sometimes romanticised) tranquillity. But in the urban world people can no longer depend on the certitude of village identities, and the life they see around them in towns and cities is replete with anonymity and unconcern. In search of some kind of social tie that might be reminiscent of the unarguable fixity of rural relations, the new urban entrant falls straight into the scheme of ethnicists who guarantee a community bond and a glorious sense of belonging which even the vicissitudes of city life cannot alter.

What puts this very attractive thesis under some pressure is the fact that even long-term urban residents, who should have adjusted over generations to the pace and tone of city life, participate quite energetically in ethnic riots everywhere. Thus urban generational depth does not always mean a lessening of ethnic sympathy or activism. In my own studies on the Shiv Sena in Mumbai I found a large number of committed Sainiks who were several generation urban. Bal Thackeray, the Sena Pramukh, is one such person. His father, Prabodhankar Thackeray, was in fact an activist in the non-brahmin movement in Maharashtra in the 1930s. Incidentally, Thackeray belongs to the Chandraseni Kayastha Prabhu, which is primarily an urban caste with a scanty rural presence.

But Gujarat 2002 has forced us to pay attention to the fact that villages are also getting increasingly ethnicised. This must radically alter the frame of many sociological analyses of riots. What we find in Gujarat is that villagers have turned upon villagers with a ferocity that was till recently reserved for the urban people. It is also true that this is not the first time that such incidents have occurred in rural Gujarat. In 1987 during the Ram-Janki Shobha Yatra villages in Kheda, Sabarkantha and Himmatnagar districts were affected. This time however the scale was so much greater that there is no doubt that villages can no longer claim to be riot proof. In village after village in Gujarat, in Ahmedabad district or in Panchmahals, the countryside saw rioting of a kind that cannot be overlooked [see for example PUDR 2002].

Yes, there was the Nellie massacre in Assam in 1983, but in that case the mobs came from other villages and towns which were at some distance. But Gujarat 2002 gives us ample evidence of ethnic hatred born, bred and expressed in villages. We may have overlooked this fact earlier, but the sheer scale of the recent riots in rural Gujarat forces us to take this phenomenon into account. Once again the sheer quantity of excess demands a qualitative distinction. On many occasions I was told that the attackers were from families whom the victims knew very well and for a long time. In some cases, the victims say, they were even invited to attend marriage feasts in the homes of those who later came in mobs to brutalise them.

There are some informed hypotheses as to why villages get involved in the way they do. One point of view is that there is a spillover effect from the urban centres to the rural countryside. That is possibly true, but the focus of attention is still the cities and towns. We have to be now quite explicit in our examination of the fact that villages may also be intended sites of sectarian violence. According to Achyut Yagnik, a long time scholar-activist of Gujarat, this is not the first time that rural Muslims are being attacked. "In fact in 1987 we have the first reports of Bhil tribals killing Muslims for a Hindu cause in Virpur. Later in the 1990 Advani 'rath yatra' Muslims were attacked in 32 villages of Surat and Bharuch [personal interview; see also Yagnik 1995: 122].

Patidars, Dalits and Tribals

What are the structural features that are emerging today that make villages good hunting grounds for rioters? Structural changes have taken place in rural India as a whole over the last several decades, and Gujarat is no exception to this process [see also Yagnik 1995: 101]. It is becoming fairly obvious that a large number of villagers all across the country are finding jobs in urban areas even while they continue to live in the villages. This applies with particular force to the rural poor as more than half the scheduled caste population of our country are urban dwellers compared to the national figure where only 30 per cent of India live in town and cities.

The BJP and VHP saw possibilities for their growth in this development. From around 1985 onwards the BJP began to support reservations for OBCs (as late as 1981 the BJP and VHP even opposed reservations for scheduled castes), under the leadership of Shankersinh Vaghela. The BJP was sending a clear signal that it was no longer content to be a brahmin-baniya party and that it was keen to take within its fold other castes as well. In 1981 it was not uncommon to hear the slogan 'Dalit-Muslim bhai, bhai' [Yagnik 1995: 105], but all that was now rapidly fading into the past. In fact from 1983 onwards the BJP systematically began to include dalits in their campaigns, beginning with the 'Ekatmata yatras' [Yagnik 1995:106].

In order to appreciate the extent of BJP support in rural Gujarat it is necessary to have a measure of understanding regarding the patidar caste. Though the orthodoxy may consider the patidars to be shudras, it is without doubt that they are now the ascendant community in rural Gujarat. They constitute approximately 65 per cent of all landowning castes in Gujarat [Census of India 1931], and are numerically very strong in precisely those areas which were hit by the current riots in Gujarat. Though the patidars were with the Congress during the national movement, a large number of them gradually withdrew their allegiance to it after India became independent. When the Congress government introduced land reforms in the 1950s it hurt the well-to-do landed patidars of central Gujarat who withdrew their support from this party.

The patidars of Saurashtra, to the north, however continued to support the Congress as their main enemy at that point were the rich rajputs. In pre-independence India, rajput feudals were the dominant community by far, and they considered the patidars, who were then primarily their tenants, to be no better than mere 'kunbis', or cultivators. Gradually, the Saurashtra patidars too gained in prominence as the erstwhile powerful rajputs declined in prominence on account of the abolition of landlordism brought about by the government of independent India. Soon, however, even these Saurashtra patidars deserted the Congress when it implemented the land ceilings act in the 1970s. This hurt the new land rich patidars of Saurashtra who quickly forgot that it was because of the Congress that they were able to come to the top by dismantling the feudal rajputs. Initially, a large number of patidars in central and north Gujarat joined the Swatantra Party to register their unhappiness with the Congress, but from the early 1980s many of them moved closer to the BJP.

It was also around this time that Indira Gandhi introduced her KHAM strategy to weld together the kshatriyas, harijans, adivasis and Muslims into a horizontal political bloc. This further alienated the patidars from the Congress but this is not always discernible if one looks at the number of patidar ministers over time in the many Gujarat cabinets. Except for the brief period 1980-85 when Madhavsinh Solanki was in power when the number of patidar ministers registgered a decline, patidars have been fairly dominant at all other times. This just goes to show the power that the patidars exercise in Gujarat, and that no political formation can really afford to ignore them altogether. Therefore, though one cannot draw the straightforward conclusion that patidars as a community are outside the Congress and with the BJP, it is however true that a large number of them have championed the BJP cause from 1980 onwards.

There is another aspect of the patidars that needs to be brought out here as it is relevant to our appreciation of the ethnic situation in Gujarat today. In contrast to other landowning castes such as the jats, gujars, bhoomiyars, and yadavas (to name a few) of north India, the patidars were not entirely rural bound. They went to cities for technical education and as entrepreneurs while keeping one foot firmly grounded in the village. In fact, the impetus for education among the patidars also came from the Gaekwad rulers of Baroda. The patidars used their exposure to the outside world adroitly and with a great degree of success. But they did not forsake the village entirely. Finally, patidars are exceptional in yet another sense. Nowhere else in India does a dominant landed caste aspire to call itself a baniya the way the patidar community does in Gujarat [Shah and Shroff 1975: 63].1

So the contact between the rural and the urban is strong both among the scheduled castes and the patidars. But what about the bhils? The bhils, over the last decade, have become particularly susceptible to BJP persuasions for reasons that are still not fully clear to me. These 'Ramayana bhils'. as they are sometimes sarcastically called, have been with the Hindutva forces from the 1987 onwards when they attacked Muslims in Virpur. If one takes a look at the map of bhil settlements in Gujarat it becomes almost immediately apparent that Hindutva's tribal allies are almost entirely concentrated in the bhil areas. The tribals in the Vadodara belt are not with the BJP the way the bhils appear to be. Most of the tribals of south Gujarat belong to the chaudhuri, gamit, and dhodiya communities. Bhil partisanship with the BJP/VHP combine may have an economic dimension after all. In bhil areas such as Panchmahals and Sabarkantha, for example, bohras and memons are not only traders but double up as 'sahukars' (moneylenders) as well. As most of the baniyas have apparently left the villages for the cities, the only moneylenders around are the Muslim traders and it is, therefore, not surprising that this community should attract the hostility of tribals who are often in debt to these informal rural bankers and creditors. While this is true in part, the overwhelming majority of Muslims killed in villages come from poor homes. They were farm labourers, small cultivators, petty shopkeepers, and the like. That some well to do Muslims were killed in rural Gujarat should not give this riot a class character. There is just no excuse!

Village as 'Hindu Rashtra'

The picture, in other words, is far from being neat. Villages are no longer tranquil as urban-rural interactions have become much more intense in recent years. With the subdivision of landholdings there are few jobs left in the villages for agricultural labourers. They too are looking outside the village and getting involved with issues and ideas that have a reach beyond rural confines. When the 'shilanayas' bound for Ayodhya were passing through rural Uttar Pradesh, I noticed several instances of heated arguments between young jats and their parents on the viability of the Ramajanmabhoomi movement. While the older jats thought the whole issue to be quite frivolous, if not actually objectionable, their children who had been to colleges in the neighbourhood, and who looked at cities as escape hatches from village scrutiny and traditions, were of the opposite view.

All of this, with differing degrees of valency, has drawn the village to the larger project of Hindutva nationalism. As one drives from Vadodara to Bharuch one comes across signs as, for example, in Bamangaon, which declares that this is a village 'of the Hindu Rashtra'. In some predominantly Hindu villages, as in Nidral (Taluka Sanand, near Ahmedabad), you may also be asked to give proof of your religious identity before you are allowed to enter.

So what we can no longer ignore, post Gujarat 2002, is that villages can also become sites for ethnic riots. We need to integrate this with all the known and tested earlier observations on riots. If the bhils and dalits are involved in riots today it is because such participation links them with a wider supra-local community which they find extremely appealing. This is especially so now when the crumbling natural economy of the village can no longer determine their horizons as it could in the past. Into this breach the BJP and VHP have stepped in, and, in the absence of a better alternative, the dalits and tribals have joined them in order to get a sense of collective purpose and a project for the future.

For an Intolerant Secularism

In my view this should lead us to come to two significant conclusions: The first is that the rhetoric of tolerant secularism just does not work. The second is that unless one has alternative political formulations which provide some kind of hope for the future, a vision with an aura, Hindu parties will always have an edge. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Jawaharlal Nehru presided over this country's tense early years rather successfully in spite of the many pressures that were mounted on him by Hindu sectarians who had the added legitimacy of having the partition memories on their side. Nehru took them on, time and again, even on such testy matters as the Hindu Code Bill, and won. It was not as if all those who voted for Nehru voted for secularism. They voted for a regenerated and economically strong India. This is what enabled the Congress Party to trounce the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in Delhi in election after election from 1952 to 1967. This, mind you, after Delhi's population increased dramatically with the arrival of partition refugees who were brimming with hatred and anger.

A secular ideology by itself is not enough. It works best on the ground when accompanied by realisable economic and social policies that make primordial identities irrelevant. Just discoursing on the ideology of secularism and hoping for a change of heart to come along is as good as whistling for the moon. But, post Nehru, this is about the best that most secularist parties have come up with. They have failed to shift the terrain of political contestations away from dogma and 'traditional' identities to economic and social development within a distinctive super narrative, or meta paradigm. But unless our secular parties can come up with another vision, which is grand and compelling, to light a fire in the popular imagination, they will be forced to bicker with sectarians on petty details, and will constantly miss out on the bigger picture.

What can citizens do? No doubt we are not nearly as privileged as political parties are. It is also true that we are a disorganised majority pulling in a hundred different voices, in a thousand directions. But we can still be effective if we were to learn lessons from the quantitative magnitude of what happened recently in Gujarat.

We are now absolutely certain that riots are created. In the case of the recent Gujarat riots, is it a pure coincidence that they occurred with maniacal ferocity in Kheda and Panchmahals districts of Gujarat which were precisely the areas where the Congress had won huge support in the 1998 assembly elections and in the subsequent panchayati elections as well? We are also forced to accept the truth that villagers, dalits, tribals, everyone can be swayed by religious sectarianism. We have no illusions left. Our past naivete seems so unbelievable today. So what are we going to do with all this clarified knowledge?

First, we must rethink the notion of tolerance as the hallmark of secularism. It is time the understanding of secularism is recast in the language of intolerance instead. As citizens, regardless of which community we may belong to, there are certain things we will just not tolerate. No longer is it our prime task to hold meetings of the virtuosos of different communities, or preach about universal brotherhood. Secularism must be hard nosed. It has been identified for too long with soft shoulders and warm hearts. To some extent this persuasion gained legitimacy from the belief that deep down people are inherently good just like those dalits and tribals. So if urban people and upper castes are all wrong, we can look to humbler quarters for inspiration and goodwill. For all those who still hold on to this outdated notion, let them come to Gujarat.

The need of the hour is to insist that the law apply to everybody equally and that even the political high and mighty should be answerable for crimes against citizens. We have a whole clutch of laws such as in Sections 153, 153(A), 153(B), 155, 295, and so on regarding inciting communal hatred. There are also the known laws against murder, mayhem and arson. These constitute our secular foundations, not sentimental goodwill, nor the pious formulations of religious liberals. Faith can never be allowed to undermine the Constitution, nor should the bigness of heart substitute for the letter of the law.

The separation of church and state does not mean that the church is free to do what it wills. A correct reading of the state and church separation, from the time of King Henry VIII onwards, has been that the church is always subservient to the state. While the state can intervene in matters of the church, the church cannot do likewise. A modern democracy cannot tolerate matters of faith trumping over matters of citizenship rights. There can be no question of tolerance when citizens are denied their status as equal citizens.

Very often, we as intellectuals get drawn into debates whose referents have already been set by sectarians. When M F Husain's paintings were slashed, many of us discussed the existence and aesthetics of nude paintings and sculptures in Indian tradition. This was done in the fond hope that after we win the debate the other side will see the truth and there will be a change of heart. That did not happen, instead we made the sectarians look like intellectuals. Likewise, with the making of the film 'Water'. There again we discussed the veracity of the treatment meted out to widows in Hindu India.

Secular ethic can be strengthened only if we insist on certain inflexible principles and these relate to matters of law. Instead of arguing about whether or not nude paintings were indeed common in the past, our insistence should be that an act of vandalism has been committed and the guilty should pay for it. Some Muslim organisations which have set up camps in Ahmedabad are very incensed by the fact that the punishment of the guilty is not upper most in the real agenda of political parties in the opposition. According to a member of one such Muslim association: "If we can make these criminals run back and forth from the court on a number of grievous charges then that would teach them a lesson. Some of them might even be sentenced. This would also give us Muslims greater faith in the law" (personal interview, July 2002).

With an intolerant secularism that insists on the inalienable rights of citizens and on the due process of the law, it is easier to mount public pressure against minority hunters and sectarian killers. Here we cannot make exemptions, or look for mitigating circumstances, on grounds of being a minority, or impoverished and unemployed, or even on account of a very personal bereavement. Unfortunately, several members of major secular parties have already compromised themselves on one, or all, of these counts, which is why they are half-hearted about pushing for an intolerant secularism.

Triadic Framework

What good is a democracy if a large number of minorities feel that it does not belong to them? While these communities can be kept terrified by majoritarianism for a period of time we must realise that this damages the polity irrevocably over the medium term. Terrorism breeds when minority aspirations are thwarted by undemocratic means. In Punjab, if truth be told, secessionism did not happen because of economic reasons, but because ethnic power calculations were steadily displacing democratic politics. This is also true of Kashmir - in fact Kashmir is perhaps the most obvious case one can make in this connection today.

Some years ago when I was working on Sikh extremism in the Punjab I realised that to a large extent the voice of terrorism was being deciphered only by those who felt that the state was no longer the fount of the law and an impartial arbiter. To the rest of us what certain secessionists said was largely incomprehensible. I had then used Jacques Lacan's notion of the triad to explain this phenomenon, and I will recall it here again in a bare bones fashion. When conflict between two parties cannot be restrained by a third, which is the fount of the law (Lacan initially called it the "name of the Father"), then such disputes cannot arrive at a reasonable conclusion. They go on and on in limitless jouissance, or play, with 'no-holds-barred'. In the Punjab case, many Sikhs felt that the Indian state had ceased to be the fount of law, the impartial triadic node, and hence the dyadic relationship between Hindus and Sikhs was without a shared language. Pure dyads are always dangerous, which is why when the state collapses in the minds of some as an impartial triad and joins in, or merges with, the other community, in this case the Hindus, then the language of democracy is no longer possible. >From then on you only have the inarticulate 'cry' of the terrorist [Gupta 1997: 92ff]. According to Lacan, a self image comes into being in a healthy fashion only when there is a triadic setting for it. In a pure dyadic situation one has instead an imago that is restlessly in jouissance with its constructed primordial 'other'. Today we see this quite vividly in Kashmir. And if Gujarat tends to get repeated it will happen elsewhere too.

The importance of an intolerant secularism cannot be overemphasised especially when we are faced with the issue of minority attacks and ethnic cleansing. I make a distinction in this regard between communal movements and ethnic movements. In my view, and I have said this before [Gupta 1997], if we cannot distinguish between what is communal and what is ethnic then these terms lose analytical relevance.2 I believe the two can be separated for greater conceptual advantage. A communal movement is one where the activists grant that their opponents are legitimate citizens of the country. In other words, nobody is accused of not being an Indian, or of being anti-India. No upper caste would say, in a situation of caste conflict, that the dalits are not Indians and they should go to Pakistan, or Nepal, or wherever. Likewise, the Maharashtrians would not say that south Indians are not Indians even if many of them believe with the Shiv Sena that the migrants from the south are taking away jobs in Mumbai from 'sons of the soil' [Gupta 1982]. Consequently, in all communal movements it is the government that is thematised, and not the state [Gupta 1997: 20-47].

In an ethnic movement, however, the 'other' is cast as an enemy of the nation-state. Unlike communal mobilisations, in an ethnic situation there is clearly a majority and a minority, and the latter is always portrayed in anti-national colours.

While it is true that behind many ethnic disturbances there are clear economic motivations of political elites and real estate mafias, the masses that lend support to these movements are not motivated by economic concerns. They do not want the jobs of the minorities, nor are they motivated by the belief that by displacing these minorities they will be economically better off. Such calculations are paramount in communal movements such as in the various sons of the soil agitations in different parts of the country, from Assam to Mumbai; in various caste mobilisations; as well as in language disputes. Ethnicity functions on a different principle. If ethnic mobs band together to kill, maim and loot it is because they believe that by hurting minorities they can reassert their national identity. It is status not wealth that they are striving for.

Ernest Gellner once said that people often think nationally rather than rationally, and this is truest of all in ethnic movements. This is another reason why it is all the more important not to give ethnic sectarians any room for manoeuvre by rationalising their appeal in economic, class, or historical terms. This is why it is so essential to separate communal movements from ethnic ones. In a communal movement, no matter how hateful the enemy might be, the state retains its authenticity, though the government of the day can be criticised roundly by both sides. In this situation one can talk of social imbalances and emphasise how important it is to right them in order to bring about greater equity on the civil plane. In ethnic movements, the attempt all the while is to deny the other the status of belonging to the same country as a legitimate citizen, as an equal status holder. When successful, an ethnic movement robs the minorities of any confidence in the state and in the Constitution. This is always the aim of the majority community in an ethnic face off. The triad loses its sanctity and authority as the source of the law, allowing jouissance to slowly take over. If this is allowed to continue, then before long we will hear the 'cry' of the terrorist.

Given all this how can secularism still hope to achieve anything by being tolerant? It is about time that intolerant secularism takes over and defines our activism as citizens.

Address for correspondence:


[This is a slightly revised version of the author's Prem Bhatia Memorial Lecture delivered on August 11, 2002, in New Delhi. Discussions with Ghanshyam Shah were very useful. I am deeply grateful to Pramod Kumar Singh and Surinder Koul for their help in writing this paper. Discussions with Achyut Yagnik gave me an interesting perspective. All of them contributed to rid this paper of several inaccuracies of fact and judgment.]

1 Not just patidars, but compared to areas like Kacch, Junagadh, Porbandar and Rajkot, the bania presence is almost three to four times higher in the Baroda region [see Census of India 1931, Vols 19 and 10].

2 Horowitz, for example, does not believe in making any distinction between communalism, ethnicity, primordialism, and so on [Horowitz 2002: 53].


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SEWA Relief Team (2002): 'Re-building our Lives', Seminar, No 513, pp 64-67.Shah, Ghanshyam (1970): 'Communal Riots in Gujarat: Report of a Preliminary Investigation' in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 5, pp 1-21.

Shah, A M and G Shroff (1975): 'The Vahivanca Barots of Gujarat: A Caste of Genealogists and Mythographers', Milton Singer (ed), Traditional India: Structure and Change, Rawat, Jaipur.

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Courtesy: EPW
November 16, 2002