ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Semiotics of Terror

Muslim Women and Children in Hindu Rashtra

What is new about Gujarat, it is argued here, is best exemplified by what happened to Muslim women and children on the days of the long knives. Not just their killing, not just the sadism, but the larger symbolic purpose behind the killing and the sadism that sums up the nature of ethnic cleansing, the shape of Hindu Rashtra.

A serious inadequacy plagues our known vocabularies of horror. Words like communal violence or carnage or massacre have been overused to describe far too many situations whose horror is minimal, even relatively ‘innocent’, compared to the last four months in Gujarat. The problem is that we naturalise, domesticate, make somewhat bearable and comfortable, Gujarat events when we stretch old words to cover radically new meanings. What is at issue in Gujarat is not simply a recurrence of the perennial communal tension, but a fundamental political transformation: the installation of Hindu Rashtra – the dream of V D Savarkar, the vision of a nearly 80 year-old Sangh. It has been inaugurated with the rituals and rites and sacrifices appropriate to itself. Bystanders and survivors during the days of maximal violence were struck by the festive, carnivalesque aspect of rampaging mobs. Indeed, one such mob looked like a ‘barat’, a wedding band, to unsuspecting Muslims on the fateful morning of February 28. Gujarat was also a testing-ground, a measuring of the tolerance-level of the Indian polity, by the fathers of the new nation. There has, indeed, been horrified anguish, protest, sincere relief and rehabilitation efforts from the whole world. Nonetheless, the Modi government continues to enjoy the full support of the centre, the NDA holds firm, the Sangh is going to get its chosen president. In a revealing declaration of self-confidence, Vinay Katiyar has been made the BJP chief in UP, even though the rest of the Sangh combine had so far been careful to publicly distance itself from the Bajrang Dal. Obviously, the Sangh has decided that reticence is no longer necessary. The VHP’s Ayodhya campaigns, slated for March 15, had drawn strong protest from sections of the NDA. The forthcoming Ayodhya plan, in contrast, has been received in coy and modest silence by the allies. It seems, then, the Sangh can rely on the emergence of a new moral order, or, rather, on an abrogation of all morality among significant sections of Indians, to risk such telling self-disclosures. What does the new dispensation look like? State relief and rehabilitation in Gujarat is less than the proverbial fig leaf, and the tawdry relief camps are closing even as Hindu goons are encouraged to kill, intimidate and terrorise Muslims who attempt to return to their homes. Few arrests have been made of Hindu killers, and none of the political characters has been apprehended. The VHP plans another ‘rathyatra’ – a ceremony that punctually unleashes violence, counter-violence and pogroms. The signals seem to be green all along the way, for the Bajrang Dal now holds training camps in combat in far-off states. According to a report in the The Times of India, Calcutta edition, of June 13, a 10-day training camp successfully concluded its session in Medinipur in West Bengal, under the guidance of Praveen Togadia. The irony is that the Indian people, in election after election, gives its mandate against the Sangh. The BJP is the only party that has never been returned twice consecutively to the same state. That only renders the quicker advent of the Hindu Rashtra to replace the democratic polity an urgent necessity for the Sangh. It is a precarious balance of opportunistic allies and inept opposition that keeps it in power. Before a new political constellation emerges, it needs to topple the fundamentals of the democratic constitution.

Golwalkar, the ideologue of the Sangh, was able to fulminate against democracy openly, in the happier days when the Sangh did not have to woo an electorate based on universal adult franchise. In a revealing statement, Vajpayee, in a mild criticism of Gujarat excesses said that ‘rajadharma’ has been offended: he did not refer to democracy. If Gujarat is new, a landmark in the annals of horror, it is dangerous to overstress its radical emergence. The intrepid journal, Communalism Combat, had predicted the situation at least four years back. Each individual feature of Gujarat has been anticipated and experimented with since the Ramjanmabhoomi movement began: in Meerut, Maliana, Bhagalpur, at Ayodhya, Mumbai, Surat, Bhopal, at Manoharpur in Orissa and at countless other places. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” What, then, is radically new in Gujarat? More important than the statistics of loss, is the nature of terror, for violence now consists of public acts of sadism that have been missing from earlier histories of carnage in our country. Looked at dispassionately, we have exceeded the achievements of Nazi terror, Bosnian atrocities, our own partition violence – if not in scale or numbers, then in the intensity of torture, the sheer opulence and exuberance in forms of cruelty. It is as if the most gruesome elements from all the annals of mass destruction have been pulled together to form a whole that is Gujarat today. However, I would like to argue that what is new about Gujarat can best be exemplified in what happened to Muslim women and children on the days of the long knives. Not just their killings, not just the sadism that effected their killings, but the large symbolic purpose behind the deaths sums up the nature of ethnic cleansing, the shape of Hindu Rashta. I will return to this point a little later.

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