The Rise of Hindutva Destroyed Ahmedabad’s Indigenous Capitalist Traditions

Present-day Ahmedabad is a hyper-capitalist city, with more than six million residents, ever expanding in geography and wealth yet deliberately designed on religious divisions thanks to the Hindutva movement.

The first part of this series dealt with broad movements in Ahmedabad’s history until India’s independence in 1947 keeping in mind and reviewing Saroop Dhruv’s recent work in Gujarati, Shahernama (Darshan, 2018). This article outlines the post-colonial journey of Ahmedabad while continuing to examine Shahernama.

Post-colonial modernity in Ahmedabad

Gandhi’s death – occurring almost simultaneously with India’s independence – marked a break with his ideas in Ahmedabad, like elsewhere in India. The process had begun much earlier though. By the late 1930s, it was clear that Jawaharlal Nehru was the most popular leader of the Indian masses: the industrialists, including the ones from Ahmedabad, rallied behind him.

The zeitgeist of the time was economic planning. When the Congress party formed the National Planning Committee (NPC) chaired by Nehru in 1937, textile industrialists like Ambalal Sarabhai and Kasturbhai Lalbhai were brought on the NPC which favoured industrialisation and state interventions. Industrialists prepared their own plan, too, known as the Bombay Plan (1944-45) advocating a mixed economy for a post-independent India; a young and dynamic Kasturbhai Lalbhai played a key role in its formulation.

This understanding of shifting allegiances by the textile industrialists, who were trying to balance their support between Gandhi’s idea of self-reliance based on indigenous traditions and Nehru’s vision of economic modernism, central to the politics of Ahmedabad, has been overlooked in Shahernama.

Dhruv’s claim that the ‘city was coming out of the control of mahajans [industrialists]’ after independence, which she cites in reference to the Maha Gujarat movement, is only partly true. (This process takes place much later and not in the Nehruvian period.) In fact, mahajans were building educational and research institutions in Ahmedabad in alignment with the agenda of Nehruvian high-modernism. Shahernama take note of the establishment of these institutions, most of which were headed by Vikram Sarabhai, a charming scientist and entrepreneur: Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in 1947, Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA) in 1947, Ahmedabad Management Association (AMA) in 1956, National Institute of Design (NID) in 1961, Indian Institute of Management (IIM) set up in the same year as NID, which were added to the list of existing institutions such as the Ahmedabad Education Society (AES, formed in 1935). Yet, she fails to invoke this inter-connected logic of the shifting dynamics between industrialists/mahajans, political forces and the city.

Also read: Tracing the History of Ahmedabad, a City of Limited Emancipation

In a Nehruvian fashion, like many Indian cities of that time, brutalist architecture became a mode of signifying Ahmedabad’s transformation towards scientific rationalism. Modernist architects such as Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn were brought to the city: marvels like the Millowners’ Association’s building, IIM Ahmedabad campus and Sanskar Kendra bear witness to their imprint on the city. Indigenous traditions are reflected in the works of B.V. Doshi and Charles Correa at the Sabarmati Ashram’s museum, Hussain-Doshi Gufa (although built much later and now renamed as Amdavad ni Gufa) and the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) campus (in its undiluted, original avatar).

Non-state actors continued to play a critical role in Ahmedabad. Shahernama cites the case of Dalit Panthers, a radical group inspired by the Black Panther Party and the Maharashtra based Dalit movement, which spread its wings in Ahmedabad to awaken the Dalits; Gujarati literature by Dalit writers such as Nirav Patel, Jayant Parmar, Chandu Maheria and Sahil Parmar proliferated in the 1970s and 1980s. In that respect, a glaring exclusion in Shahernama is the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA, established in 1972) run by Ela Bhatt on Gandhian principles to support lower-class female workers.

Indulal Yagnik. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dhruv reserves, and rightfully so, endless praises for Indulal Yagnik, a socialist leader who became a force to reckon with by leading the Maha Gujarat movement in the 1950s. Popular among the workers, Dhruv refers to Indulal Yagnik as the ‘fakir leader of a wealthy city’ who mobilised the masses to split the Gujarat state from the Bombay province on a lingual basis. Maha Gujarat reached its peak point when more people attended Indulal Yagnik’s rally in Ahmedabad held side by side with Jawaharlal Nehru’s flop rally in 1956 – an incident which Shahernama reproduces. The Nehru-led Union government initially did not budge in the face of essentially an anti-Congress (and anti-Morarji Desai) Maha Gujarat movement relenting only a few years later to carve out the Gujarat state from the erstwhile Bombay province on 1st May 1960.

It is odd that the implications of the newly-created Gujarat state do not warrant an elaborate discussion on Gujarat’s politics and society in Dhruv’s Shahernama, constricting the analytical thrust of the book.

The new regional government led by the Congress party made Gujarat a capitalist’s heaven. It rolled out pro-business measures favouring the dominant social groups – the trading communities and the Patels, an upwardly mobile peasant caste with a substantial presence in the Indian diaspora in the US. Limited corporations such as the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (1962), Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation (1963), Gujarat State Fertilizers & Chemicals Limited (1967), Gujarat Industrial Investment Corporation (1968) built an industry-friendly image of Gujarat. Undoubtedly, Ahmedabad being the financial centre of the state benefitted: the 1971 census reveals that the city was soon going to have two million residents. On the economic front, though, the textile sector had begun to slowly deindustrialise in favour of the small-scale power looms units while the city’s industries were diversifying into pharmaceuticals and chemicals; consequently, Majoor Mahajan and ATIRA became dysfunctional (and still remain so).

After Maha Gujarat, the Navnirman movement restructured the political imagination of Gujarat – in hindsight, as Shahernama regrets, for the worst. A further closing of the economy under Indira Gandhi and the 1971 war with Pakistan had put tremendous pressure on the Indian economy. Navnirman, born out of a price increase in the canteen of the L.D. Engineering College of Ahmedabad in 1974, captured the public frustration on inflation and corruption. The movement ultimately toppled down, in a democratic manner, the Congress-led Gujarat government giving impetus to Jayprakash Narayan’s Total Revolution.

Dhruv opines that Navnirman also marked the arrival of public intellectuals like ‘Umashankar Joshi, Darshak, Elaben Pathak, Prakash N Shah, Manishi Jani, Vishnu Pandya’. This is somewhat misleading since Umashankar Joshi and Manubhai Pancholi (Darshak) were already distinguished public figures in Gujarat before Navnirman and were senior to Manishi Jani and if I may add, Achyut Yagnik, who rose to prominence during the Navnirman. Many of these intellectuals were jailed during the Emergency – a period of suspension of civil liberties in India for almost a couple of years ending in 1977 and not in 1976 as Shahernama states. Like Maha Gujarat, Navnirman too was an anti-Congress campaign represented by a motley of otherwise ideologically incongruent political actors such as the old guard/syndicate of the Congress party led by Morarji Desai, public intellectuals (generally the Gandhians and the Leftists), and the right-wing Jan Sangh.

The unstoppable rise of Hindutva  

Shahernama is unsparing of the Navnirman movement (and deservedly so) since it legitimised the existence of the Hindu right-wing on the regional and the national political stage alongside Jayprakash Narayan’s Total Revolution.

She traces the initial supporters of Hindutva in Ahmedabad to the savarna elites of Khadia-Raipur. The already existing base of conservative politics – thanks to leaders like Patel and Munshi – coupled with reformist sects with orthodox values like the Swaminarayan sect provided an easy launchpad for the Hindutva movement.

Between Maha Gujarat and Navnirman, a watershed moment in Gujarat’s history had taken place in Ahmedabad: the 1969 riots. Numbers differ, as they always do, but the official figures state close to 700 people, mostly Muslims, were killed; property worth more than Rs 40 million was vandalised. In the same year as Gandhi’s birth centenary, in the Sabarmati Ashram a Muslim family stayed was attacked. It became clear that the Gandhian institutions had lost their influence over the city and its people.

The roots of militant Hindutva in Ahmedabad hark back to the 1969 riots. The Justice Reddy Commission appointed to investigate into the violence had held various Hindu right-wing groups responsible. In that case, it is astounding that the 1969 riots, a turning point in the city’s history, is reduced to a footnote-like passing reference in Shahernama. Like many scholars and media persons, Dhruv privileges the discussion of the recent turmoils of the 1980s, early 1990s and 2002 in Ahmedabad, over the earlier wave of communal violence, ahistoricising the conversation around religious conflicts.

Also read: ‘Heritage City’ Ahmedabad Was Built Through Violence and Exclusion

Moreover, Shahernama does not adequately capture the economic motivations behind the anti-reservation movement of the early 1980s, while wrongly claiming that ‘lacs of Dalits left their locality and the city’ which is unlikely since Ahmedabad’s population witnessed a decadal growth of 22% from 1981-91. Although a few measures to open up the economy to the private sector were taken in the 1980s by the Rajiv Gandhi-led Union government, the deindustrialisation of the textile sector leading to the closure of nearly two dozen mills by 1985 intensified the battles for government jobs and education in a command and control economy. Hence, riots occurred on the pretext of the anti-reservation movement by the Patels against the Congress party’s KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) alliance and the policy of expanding the scope of reservations to the marginalised groups.

Where Dhruv is flawless is in her portrayal of the 1985 and the 1992-93 riots. The plank of Hindu unity was used by the Hindu right-wing – including the then recently formed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which drew several top leaders from Gujarat – during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement to turn the working-class of Dalits against the Muslims. This strategy improved the electoral prospects of the BJP – the Congress party lost its hold over the state and the BJP formed the state government in 1995 after having come to power in Ahmedabad’s municipality in 1987. Since then, the BJP has yet not lost a single state election, signifying the hold of Hindutva ideology on Gujarat’s public imagination.

Shahernama offers an insightful commentary on the early years of Narendra Modi’s rule in Gujarat. Dhruv has no doubt in her mind that Modi was selected as the state’s chief minister in 2001 to improve the electoral performance of the BJP at a time when the state was recovering from the large-scale damages of the 2001 earthquake. Modi achieved his aim by a single formula: more Hindutva.

Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave/Files

Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave/Files

On February 27, 2002, when a train carrying karsevaks returning from Ayodhya was allegedly burnt by a Muslim mob at the Godhra train station, anti-Muslim violence erupted in large parts of the state but most intensely in Ahmedabad. Roughly 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed and many more were injured amidst countless incidents of looting and rapes. Half of those killings took place in Ahmedabad with widespread allegations of the complicity of the state’s police and political forces. More than a lakh properties, including houses, mosques, dargahs and factories were destroyed – the economic loss of the riots was pegged at more than Rs 10,000 crore.

Ahmedabad’s elite Muslims were attacked on a massive scale for the first time. A notable example is Ehsan Jafri, former MP of Ahmedabad, who was brutally killed along with more than 60 people in the Gulberg Society massacre – an ‘injustice place’ in the words of Dhruv. Close to one lakh people shifted to relief camps in Ahmedabad.

Dhruv justly censures the Gujarati intellectuals who chose to remain silent. Some like Gunvant Shah and Chandrakant Bakshi went on to praise the state’s management of the 2002 riots. SEWA, a Gandhian institution, kept mum and helped the riot victims only in a hushed-up manner. To her credit, Dhruv, a noted poet and public intellectual, has a collection of moving poems in Gujarati called Hastakshashep (literally, ‘intervention’) about the pogrom.

Although devastating for Muslims, the 2002 riots were beneficial for the BJP. The party, with Modi as its chief ministerial candidate, won the 2002 elections held in December that year with its highest ever tally of 127 out of the state’s 182 seats, garnering most votes from the riot-affected central and northern region of the state. It is often heard that the BJP won that election not ‘despite the riots, but because of the riots’. Modi, now the prime minister of India, to date has not apologised for the 2002 carnage.

Shahernama hits its high-point when Dhruv gives an immaculate typology of the three dominant classes which the Hindutva movement coddles in Ahmedabad and Gujarat: the successive generations of a selected group of mahajans with old money, the neo-rich class, and the intellectual and professional upper-middle class. These classes to her mind make the Gujarati asmita (literally, pride in Gujarati identity) a celebratory ‘page-3’ material by acting as the state’s ‘image enhancers’; asmita, a term popularised by K.M. Munshi, has come to represent the savarna Gujarati cultural traits.

The consequences are crystal clear: The rise of Hindutva politics has destroyed the city’s indigenous capitalist traditions and merged hyper-capitalism with parochial and exclusivist notions of identity. She frustratingly and repeatedly, and to my mind slightly sensationally, equates Gujarat – because of the cultural experiments supported by these three classes – to a ‘laboratory of cultural fascism’.

Modi started to make some alterations to his image of Hindu Hridya Samrat after winning the 2007 state elections, portraying himself as a masculine developmental figure apart from being a protector of Gujarat (read Hindus). In effect, he merged otherwise contradictory ideological features also seen in his politics post-2014: Hindutva, (sub)nationalism, and developmentalism.

Also read: Finding Small Rays of Sunshine 16 Years After the Darkness of the 2002 Gujarat Riots

For these three classes, Modi-led BJP fuelled consumerism and portrayed Gujarat as an investor-friendly state. Although Gujarat was always on the front lines of industrial growth, the state began to actively attract private investments in the newly liberalised economic environment through its efficient bureaucracy, the much-hyped bi-yearly Vibrant Gujarat summits, and its Special Economic Zones (SEZs). The Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) growth for the period of 2000-10 soared to nearly 10% per annum, roughly 2% higher than the national average and the state’s growth recorded in the preceding decade.

Shahernama talks less about events in the city’s recent history and government programmes, focusing more on subjective dialogues. It is wise to represent the recent past with some caution since it obscures a focus on long-term patterns yet for an unconventional book like Shahernama, the 21st century period demands greater attention to events. For instance, the discussion on Modi’s centralised leadership style; the state’s economic policies contributing to an abysmal record on social indicators such as rural poverty, malnutrition, educational & health outcomes; the rise of the Patidar movement due to the agrarian distress; the Dalit agitation post-Una incident – all of which are important to the context of Ahmedabad are excluded from the scope of Shahernama.

A disturbed city

Dhruv directs Shahernama’s readers to view the changing spatial order of Ahmedabad on Hindu-Muslim lines in relation with the Hindutva movement.

The middle-class Hindu-dominated localities of Ahmedabad kept on expanding in the eastern and the western side in Ahmedabad with the emergence of areas like Motera, Bopal, Ambli, S. G. Highway, Thaltej, Sola, inter alia. A Dalit middle-class was accommodated in Chandkheda while the Chharas, a denotified tribe, regularly harassed by the police, have not been allowed to stay outside Chharanager on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.

Post the 1969 riots, Hindus and Muslims slowly began to have segregated residential spaces due to an environment of fear and insecurity. This segregation steadily gathered pace with each incident of communal violence. The state played an active role in this process through the Disturbed Areas Act which opposite to its intended goals has exacerbated the situation. Hence, Muslims of Ahmedabad have moved from the once-occupied centre to the margins, reflective of their status in the city, to industrial localities such as Vatva, Bapunagar, Rakhial and neglected zones like Bombay Hotel and Juhapura, which is probably India’s biggest Muslim ghetto in the western periphery of Ahmedabad with more than three lakh Muslim residents.

A lane in Juhapura. Credit: Facebook/Welfare Association of Youth

Juhapura gets the derogatory label of ‘mini Pakistan’, apart from nonsensically being tagged as an area of under-class criminals which the Hindus usually do not visit. In reality Juhapura accommodates Muslims regardless of their economic class and sect (including the BJP supporting Dawoodi Bohras) since they have little choice but to reside in Juhapura.

Shahernama presents a thought-provoking and not so well-known sociology of the Muslim community in Juhapura. The ghetto does not have an adequate public infrastructure of roads, education, healthcare, banking services, to name a few services. This gap has been bridged by wealthy Muslims and Muslim charitable institutions which are sometimes linked to religious orthodox groups.

One often forgets it is the emergence of Hindutva leading to insecurity among Muslims that has fuelled the rise of conservatism within the Muslim community (apart from other global political factors). Shahernama shows awareness of this logic of the vulnerability that has driven Muslims to seek refuge in religion evidenced by the proliferation of mosques in Juhapura. After gangster Abdul Latif’s decline in his hold over the Muslims of Ahmedabad and his eventual encounter in 1997, conservative religious movements like the Tabligh jamaat have become mainstream among the Muslims. She points to the relief colonies constructed after 2002 riots where the religious charities enforce some form of moral policing. At a women’s hostel in Juhapura, wearing a burkha is compulsory coupled with strict restrictions on entry and exit. Quite correctly, she calls the emergence of Juhapura a ‘tragedy’ for Ahmedabad’s society.

Also read: What Juhapura Tells Us About Being Muslim in Modi’s India

Present-day Ahmedabad is a hyper-capitalist city, with more than six million residents, ever expanding in geography and wealth yet deliberately designed on religious divisions thanks to the Hindutva movement. Its physical violence may have disappeared, but structural violence and injustices of the kind visible in Juhapura continue. That is Ahmedabad for you: where continuous growth in wealth has not liberated the city from the shackles of political illiberalism. In Dhruv’s words, Ahmedabad is a ‘bundle of contradictions’, a place of idiosyncrasies, which despite all its violence, feels homely.

Between amnesia and nostalgia

Shahernama is filled with numerous factual inconsistencies, thoroughly opinionated conversations with a stereotypical use of Hindi when most Muslim characters speak (an overwhelming majority of Gujarati Muslims can comfortably speak Gujarati and do so also at home). The deficiency in the argumentative rigour of Shahernama reflects its lack of engagement with recent works on Ahmedabad and Gujarat by researchers such as Megha Kumar, Thomas Babbio, Renu Desai, Navdeep Mathur, Ipsita Chatterjee, Kunjalata Shah, Charlotte Thomas, to name a few – unsurprisingly, the bibliography of Shahernama becomes thinner when it comes to English language scholarship. While the book fails to make a substantial analytical contribution to the already existing body of knowledge about Ahmedabad, there are reasons why the book deserves the attention of at least the popular audience.

Firstly, Dhruv’s sincere and well-meaning attempt has led to the first, multidisciplinary account of Ahmedabad in vernacular Gujarati in the recent past. This trait coupled with the book’s conversational language and its simplified writing style makes Shahernama intelligible for the lay readers.

Secondly, Shahernama fittingly criticises the often unrooted and absurdist ideas of conservation and gentrification of Ahmedabad’s heritage made up of its pols, religious monuments, and several local markets. In that respect, Shahernama is a timely contribution at a time when the old, walled city’s recognition as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO has fuelled an elitist representation of Ahmedabad detached from the residents of the old city and their culture.

Ahmedabad’s residents, especially its youngsters, are oblivious to its past of violence. At its heart, Shahernama carries a remorse for this historical amnesia. On the other hand, the liberal-secular class has a certain nostalgia for the city’s history – its Gandhian conventions, its philanthropic traditions with indigenous capitalism, and its past of peaceful co-existence with cultural synthesis. Constantly traversing these two sides, Dhruv does not lose sight of a rarely seen optimism in Shahernama, which is the third and to my mind, the most noteworthy marker of her book. It is this optimism which makes Shahernama an attractive read.

The author wishes to thank Urvish Kothari for reviewing an initial draft of the first two parts of the series. For this series, the author makes use of his submissions during his time as a student at King’s College London.  

The third and final instalment of this series will review selected themes covered in Seminar magazine’s July 2018 issue titled ‘Ahmedabad: the city & her soul’.

Sharik Laliwala, 22, an alumnus of King’s College London and Ahmedabad University, is an independent researcher on Gujarat’s politics and history based in Ahmedabad. He is on Twitter @sharik19.