April 08, 2017

India: Inter-ethnic antagonism in Gujarat hits new low (Sumaiya Shaikh)

The Daily Times - 8 April 2017

For days following the curfew, I disguised myself as a Hindu girl in public spaces to buy bread, milk and eggs, wearing a bindi and carefully chosen outfits to impart a non-Muslim character

by Sumaiya Shaikh

As the politics of cow, ethnicity and business takes centre stage, India has undoubtedly found the leadership that unapologetically uses it for electoral gain

Last month in India, Gujarat took a precipitous low in stirring a further polarizing rhetoric, which is otherwise celebrated as a developed and wealthy state in India. On 25th March 2017, a mob attack was triggered following a brawl between two boys, an upper caste Hindu and a Muslim, in a village about 100kms away from Ahmedabad. Thereafter, three other Hindu groups marched towards a colony of about 1,500 Muslims in the Vadavali village. The police fired several rounds of bullets in the air and some teargas shells to curb violence, but remained mute as attackers looted the village. In the ensuing unrest over the next two days, two Muslim men died and about 25 were injured. About a 100 houses were burnt and several shops and vehicles set on fire in these incidents. Residents claim that mobs of about 5,000 had come from neighbouring villages that were at least 10kms away. Moreover, the boys from the initial scuffle were not even residents of the Vadavali village. It appears to be a perplexing episode, unless it was premeditated to ahead of local bodies' elections (Gram Panchayat through consensus) scheduled to be held on April 8th (today).
Later, on 31st March 2017, the Gujarat assembly amended the law for cow slaughter, which now carries a punishment of life imprisonment, while the penalty for illegally transporting cows remains at a seven-year prison term. Subsequently, on 1st April, a fresh attack was carried out by a mob killing a Muslim man transporting cattle in Rajasthan. He was the tenth Muslim killed by non-state cow protectors. The state home minister justified this attack and no arrests were made.
Since 2015, across India, cow vigilantes have been volunteering to chase vehicles allegedly carrying calves and killing Muslims on allegations of beef consumption that, in many instances, proved to be unfounded. Vigilantes were also involved in flogging Dalits, accusing them of skinning carcasses and killing a cow that was later found to have been killed by a lion.
In sharp contrast, no such ban on consumption or slaughtering of cows ensued the recent victory of the BJP in a northeast Indian state comprising largely tribal and Christian heartlands. In Kerala, where there is a communist majority, and in Goa, a former Portuguese colony with a large Christian population, BJP supports food habits of the local communities. Although supplies from neighbouring states of Maharashtra and Karnataka, both largely Hindu, have declined.
Paradoxically, India is the second largest exporter of beef in the world with the largest cattle inventory. The country produces 43 percent of the global beef and buffalo consumption, in comparison to Pakistan's contribution of 22 percent. Reports have also suggested the Indian government is encouraging private sector investment and use of genetic techniques to increase cattle production. While major dairies are still located in western regions like Gujarat, the Indian leather industry also accounts for around 12.9 percent of the world's leather production from cow hides and ranks second in leather goods production in the world.
As politics of cow, ethnicity and business takes a centre stage, India has undoubtedly found the leadership that unapologetically uses it for electoral gain.
Perhaps, Gujarat in 2002 was also the foremost state in asserting the new style of masculine right-wing majoritarianism. With Muslim population lower than the national average, widespread ethnic rioting in Gujarat was linked to increased electoral support for the incumbent party complicit in the violence.
Fifteen years ago, on the 27th of February 2002, a train carriage had been burned that killed 58 devotees of Ram in Godhra railway station in Gujarat. This precipitated two months of widespread rioting that killed over a 1,000 people and displaced 150,000 others, mostly Muslims. Armed Hindu mobs selectively killed and maimed Muslims and destroyed their homes and businesses.
On the 28th of February 2002, in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat with about 3.3 percent Muslim population and 94.5 percent Hindu majority, an unknown Hindu family had given refuge to me and two other Muslim teenage girls on their patio for several days. The three of us, oblivious to the names or the political leanings of the home owners, were allowed a single toilet break every 24 hours at around 2am. This was out of fear of getting caught by rioters, who were reportedly attacking Hindus found sheltering Muslims. For days following the curfew, I camouflaged as a Hindu girl in public spaces to buy bread, milk and eggs, wearing a bindi and carefully chosen outfits to impart a non-Muslim character. Years later, my adulthood still hasn't empowered me enough to impart elements of the majority of incidents during the curfew. I am afraid that people - old school friends and acquaintances - who had supported this event in the sentiment of good riddance will trivialize my experience. Since then, I have resisted the urge to cerebrate about the day to day rattles during those two months, in order to avoid a further calcifying of my grisly memories.
Since then, several reports have surfaced with accounts of pogroms overseen by local MLAs from BJP and close advisors to Modi. A Stanford report published in 2014 suggested the inter-ethnic relations in each area of Gujarat governed the nature and benefits of the political campaigning by the BJP. From this study, it appears that marginal electoral constituencies overlapping with Hindu-Muslim competing trade interests were the driving force for ethnic mobilization and violence that significantly benefitted BJP politicians. In contrast, in areas of West Gujarat such as several medieval port towns, that fostered tolerance and benefitted from inter-ethnic economic activity, attempts to foment such riots have failed to a large extent.
Could there be a more coherent political agenda in amassing vote swing for BJP that was largely driven by financial anxieties and competing trade interests among multi-ethnic Gujaratis? For those who (still) argue for it in the name of the greater good, Iurge you to start critically analyzing the concealed political agendas behind these incidents that were carried out at the behest of current Indian leadership and their cronies.

The author is an Australian national of Indian origin from Gujarat and works as a neuroscientist in Sweden. She can be reached at sumaiyamshaikh@yahoo.com.au