In what has long been considered the bastion of the BJP (indeed, a model for the rest of the country) wave after wave of seismic activity against the established order of things is beginning to threaten the ruling party’s hold on the state. First, the Patidar agitation which began last year and caught the Anandiben Patel government completely by surprise, then the massive Dalit uprising in response to the brutal attack on four Dalit men in Una for having skinned a dead cow, and most recently a noisy and embarrassing disruption of Amit Shah’s Patel rally in Surat, of all places. The times, they certainly are a changin’, at least in Gujarat.
Earthquakes happen when tectonic plates, which have been stretched beyond capacity, snap back. Something similar seems to be happening in Gujarat.
Most think of the events of 2002 as a turning point in the history of the state. The violence that erupted (some would say orchestrated) in the state of Gujarat following events at Godhra and the resultant, horrific killing of over 1000 Muslims signaled a new era of religious intolerance and persecution. But communal intolerance and caste tension were present in Gujarat long before 2002. I know this because I experienced it first-hand fifteen years ago, ironically, in the aftermath of an actual earthquake – the terrible temblor that devastated large parts of Kutch on the 26th of January, 2001. The BJP-led Keshubhai Patel government was in power in Gujarat at the time.
Our small relief team had driven down from Delhi with truckloads of relief supplies. We were a motley but sincere crew of students, social workers and professionals brought together by a common desire to help the survivors in their hour of need. When we reached the completely devastated and much talked-about towns of Bhuj, Bachau and Anjar we realized they were already receiving a lot of help from the Red Cross, the Indian Army and thousands of relief workers from all over the country. So we decided to head out to the more isolated Abdasa taluka, close to the Pakistan border, where, from all accounts, little or no relief had reached.
Someone directed us to a town called Naliya out in the desert, just 20 kilometres from the western end of Kutch, where a school run by Catholic brothers was serving as a makeshift base for relief work in the area. The brothers running the school and overseeing the relief operations welcomed our tired team, gave us a place to unload our relief supplies and made arrangements for us to stay in the school. They also made it very clear to everyone there who had gathered to do relief work there that religion had no role in the relief operations whatsoever. This was a humanitarian crisis and needed a humanitarian approach. I appreciated hearing that.
On our first trip to the surrounding villages the next day, I learnt that the highest caste in every village were the Bhanushalis. They were the landowners and they had the final say in running the village. Many of them sent their children to the Catholic school where we were camping and they held the Catholic brothers in high regard. It was only when we started giving Sintex water tanks to these villages that I had my first close encounter with the religious and casteist fault lines buried deep in the heart of rural India.
We were told that the Muslims and the Dalits would not be allowed to drink from the same water tank that the rest of the village drank from, so would we mind giving them two water tanks per village? I couldn’t believe my ears. I had grown up in New Delhi with the concept of equality among all Indians deeply ingrained in me from the time I was a child.
We tried to reason with the Bhanushali headman. He looked at us with mild amusement and patiently explained that there was no way they were ever going to share the same water tank with those of the lowest castes. We eventually set up two water tanks on two opposite ends of the village but by the time we were done, I couldn’t but feel like we had just contributed to India’s deepest problem. As we left the village, the headman pointed to the Muslim and Dalit huts and said, “These people exist at our pleasure.”
We did not go back to that village.
Again and again throughout the duration of that relief mission I heard comments about the Muslims in the villages, comments like, “their food is very rough,” “they are dirty people,” “they have no sense of hygiene.” On one occasion, a housewife from the Bhanushali community we sat down for lunch with, pointedly asked me what my caste was.
I asked her, “Does it matter?” She said, “It does if you want to eat here.” And then probably realizing she had crossed a line, quickly said, “Well, as long as you are a friend of the Brother here, it’s OK.” It was probably the most uncomfortable and demeaning meal I had ever had.
The interesting thing was that most Bhanushalis respected the Catholic brothers, but what troubled me immensely was the fact that their comments about Muslims and Dalits were made within earshot of the children in their homes. These kids were growing up in an atmosphere where prejudice was the norm. Not all Bhanushalis were bigots, of course. In some villages there were those who were genuinely concerned about the welfare of everyone, regardless of caste and religion. It was a breath of fresh air to meet them.
On my way back to Delhi after the completion of the relief mission I broke journey in Ahmedabad and stayed with Shrenikbhai, a family friend, who, hearing about the relief work I had taken part in, suddenly got inspired and decided to take me to meet a friend of his ‘who also does a lot of social work.’
It wasn’t until we reached a large, imposing temple and walked up marble steps and met this social worker friend of his face to face that I realized I was meeting a leading functionary of the Vishwa Hindu Parisad (VHP) in Ahmedabad. I was introduced to the unsmiling man as someone who had spent the last few weeks doing relief work in Naliya. Then, as an afterthought Shrenikbhai helpfully added, “He worked with Christians there.”
The room became very quiet. The VHP man pulled out a pen and paper and pushed it over the desk towards me. “Write down their names and address,” he said.
I took the pen and paper, my mind racing. I do not know what he had in mind or what his intent behind that question was. All I knew was that the VHP was not kindly disposed towards Christians. As I slowly took the cap off the ball-point pen, a thought suddenly truck me. I asked the man, “Can you tell me about some of your projects in Gujarat?”
“Why do you want to know?” he asked.
“Because I know some NRIs in the United States who are looking for worthy projects to sponsor.”
Suddenly, the atmosphere in the room changed. Brochures and booklets were brought out enumerating the various projects that the VHP undertakes. – gaushalas, schools, orphanages. I showed a keen interest in what was being shared and told the man I would send these across to my NRI friends as soon as possible. Chaach (buttermilk) was served and we took our leave shortly thereafter. The Christians in Naliya were forgotten.
The massacre that shook Gujarat, India and the world the following year was horrifying beyond measure, but to me, not surprising. Gujarat was a conflagration waiting to happen. It just needed someone to light the match.
The writer is an educator who conducts community-building workshops for high school students and teachers.