India is a country where life for most of the population is precarious at best. Exploited and oppressed, the people seethe with hatred as a result of the injustices that are their daily lot. The Indian ruling classes, however, have always been masters at deflecting the hatred of the oppressed masses away from themselves, who deserve it, towards sections of the relatively poor – using either caste or religious differences among the population to rouse one section against another, while the exploiters tut-tut on the sidelines.
In recent times the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims has been cynically exploited for electoral gain – for in India, as indeed elsewhere, to be elected to positions of political power is to be given the key to a goldmine. To have influence in government brings you a fortune in ‘donations’ from people anxious to have you exercise that influence on their behalf, and, furthermore, you can use your connection to promote your business interests and those of favoured members of your family. The vast wealth and pelf that it brings means that political power is to kill for.
However, the various vultures and bloodsuckers from India’s bourgeois parties who seek election have nothing whatever to offer to the overwhelming majority of the electorate. As a result they have to find other ways of mobilising their votes. There is of course straightforward purchase, but this is expensive and unreliable. If on the other hand you can set yourself up as a defender of religion, you need only satisfy the demands of a handful of priests to have the votes of their flocks delivered to your door.
It is this phenomenon that lies behind the present troubles in Gujarat. They have been continuing for years, and both the Congress Party which used to hold power in the state and the BJP which holds it now have been guilty of appealing to communalism. Matters came to a head in 1992 in relation to the destruction by Hindu vandals of the 500-year old Babri Masjid, the Ayodhya Mosque. The crowds who perpetrated this outrage were egged on by members of the BJP anxious to use the mobilisation of religious sentiment to oust their Congress rivals from power. The Congress, which had always claimed to be secular, was, however, much more concerned with re-election than with its supposed principles. Rather than protect the Mosque, it allowed it to be destroyed in the vain hope it might hang on to its Hindu chauvinist votes. It lost the votes anyway because the Indian masses were thoroughly tired of its endless years of misrule and did not know that all alternative bourgeois parties were just as bad. But in allowing the historic Mosque to be destroyed, the Congress laid the basis for intensification of inter-communal hatred to a level that will make it exceptionally hard to eradicate.
Ever since the Mosque was destroyed, the Hindu obscurantists have been agitating for a Hindu temple to be built on the site which, they claim, is the birth place of the god, Lord Rama! They are led by such unsavoury elements as Ramchandra Paramhans. Over 90-years old, this militant sadhu (‘holy’ man!) “looks every bit the irascible ascetic of Hindu legend, with his dense white beard and matted locks. In the mid-1980s he was enlisted by Hindu nationalist politicians as they tried to capitalise on an old and once-minor dispute as a way of boosting their popularity” (Pankaj Mishra, ‘Violence flares on a nation’s holy ground’, The Guardian, 1 March 2002).
When Pankaj Mishra “mentioned the two key contrains stopping the Indian government from rebuilding [the Hindu temple at Ayodhya] – a supreme court ban on construction and the strong Muslim opposition – Mr Paramhans exploded: ‘There are only two places Muslims can go: Pakistan or Kabristan'”. Kabristan is the graveyard.
Building this Hindu temple would be an act of gross provocation, to the extent that not even the BJP leadership, now that it has ridden to power on the back of the obscurantist tiger, is keen to implement. The reason for this is, of course, not any change of heart, but because “Since achieving national power in 1998, the BJP has been forced to jettison its communalist overtones in order to hold together an unwieldy coalition with its secular allies” (Edward Luce, ‘Spectre of communal conflict arises again’, Financial Times, 1 March 2002). In order to retain the key to the goldmine, it turns out that the BJP is no more committed to its fundamentalist ‘principles’ than the Congress Party was to its ‘secular’ ones when it allowed the Mosque to be destroyed.
In addition, of course, ill treatment of Muslims in India strengthens the hand of Pakistan when it comes to the dispute over Kashmir.
As a result, the BJP government has not allowed a temple to be built, but has let the whole issue get bogged down in an interminable legal battle in order to avoid being seen making a decision either way which would be bound to be unpopular in various quarters.
But the demonic genie of communalism is well and truly out of the bottle, and there is no shortage of politicians in India keen to exploit it in order to get themselves into positions of power-to-loot. Even less is there a shortage of those who for fear of losing their positions are unwilling to take a firm stand against communalism, especially the communalism of the majority community, the Hindus, even though they know full well that in failing to do so they are acting contrary to the best interests of the people of India. As a result, Hindu chauvinist elements seeking to build a Hindu temple on the site of the Babri Masjid have been having a field day. Since at least the start of this year they have been camping out on the site and “they have heaped up building materials and specially carved pillars for the reconstruction of the temple which the mosque replaced centuries ago. ‘Volunteers’ from all over India have been going back and forth to Ayodhya in an attempt to bring pressure to bear on the prevaricating coalition government in Delhi…” (Martin Woollacott, ‘Communal violence in India makes a Kashmir deal less likely, The Guardian, 1 March 2002).
On 22 February this year, a 2,500-strong contingent of Gujarati Hindu fundamentalists travelled to Ayodhya from Ahmedabad to participate in a religious ceremony that was to take place there in preparation for the projected start of illegal building of the new temple on the Babri Masjid site. Having participated in the ceremony, and no doubt thoroughly hyped up by it, very many of these self-styled Hindu militants were returning to Ahmedabad by train when, at 6.30 a.m. on 27 February, shortly after leaving Godhra station (some 100 miles from Ahmedabad), a mob of around 2,000 people from the local Muslim community attacked the train and allegedly set it on fire, although as we go to print a report has appeared according to which the fire started on the train. As to who started it, there is as yet no information. According to the Times of India of 28 February 2002:
“Officials said it was possible that some passengers from Godhra travelling by the train had been harassed along the way by the VHP activists returning from Ayodhya and they had incited the mob to attack the passengers after getting off the train.
“However, other accounts say that the mob was waiting to pounce on the train because they knew that the VHP and Bajrang Dal [VHP youth wing] activists were returning from Ayodhya.”
The attack was fatal. 58 people were killed, some of whom were militant fundamentalists, but the majority were innocents, including at least 15 children and 25 women.
Although the perpetrators of the attack were arrested and can, as Muslims, be expected to be subjected to the full rigour of the law, the World Hindu Council (VHP – Vishwa Hindu Parishad) “called for a state-wide strike [‘bandh’] today to protest against the attack – one of the most gruesome incidents of communal violence in a decade”. Normally bandhs are called only when those in authority fail to respond appropriately in a given situation. In the case of the perpetrators of the Godhra incident, however, they had acted immediately and decisively. The purpose of calling the bandh in this case was to organise ‘revenge’ against the whole of the Muslim community, although of course with the hypocrisy typical of all those whose political career is built on duping the masses, the Vice President of the World Hindu Council announced that the strike would be “done in a peaceful manner. We will not allow any violence”.
The reality, however, was that the strike unleashed an orgy of mob violence against defenceless Muslims that continued for weeks. The worst of the pogroms took place in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat. There it seems that “the police joined and sometimes led … the mobs of unemployed Hindus in anti-Muslim pogroms” (Pankaj Mishra, op. cit.)
In the name of a religion that purportedly eschews all violence, to the point that its followers do not eat meat, hideous carnage was committed. In the first day alone, 28 February, “A Hindu mob burned 38 Muslims, including a former MP, in their homes in Ahmedabad, the state’s commercial capital, as their relatives frantically called the police and fire departments which took hours to arrive … Twenty people were killed in rioting earlier in the day as mobs went on the rampage, destroying Muslim properties and businesses and attacking mosques”.
In the following weeks, 100,000 Muslims were forced to leave their homes and seek shelter in refugee camps. To date over 2,000 Muslims have been killed – and killed in the most barbaric ways:
“What can you say about a women, eight months pregnant, who begged to be spared: her assailants instead stripped open her stomach, pulled out her foetus and killed it before her eyes. What can you say about a family of nineteen being killed by flooding their home with water and then electrocuting them with high-tension electricity? … A family escaping from Naroda-palia, one of the worst hit settlements in Ahmedabad, spoke of losing a young woman and her three-month old son, because a police constable directed her to ‘safety’ and she found herself instead surrounded by a mob, who doused her with kerosene and set her and her baby on fire…” (Citizen’s Initiative Group of well-known women journalists and social workers, quoted in People’s Democracy, journal of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), of 5 May 2002).
Even in the refugee camps, where they are supposed to be protected, refugees have been shelled (on the pretext that they were harbouring ‘miscreants’), and some camps have prematurely closed down, leaving the refugees with nowhere to stay.
To unleash mob violence is very advantageous to the BJP in Gujarat. The backbone of the party there is the Hindu middle class, which support it in order to secure for themselves favours, top jobs and influence. The party has, however, like any other bourgeois party, nothing to offer the electoral masses. A pogrom conveniently allows the most downtrodden elements to enrich themselves by looting the relatively prosperous Muslim trading community and killing those who might otherwise return to reclaim their property. Gujarat has since India’s Independence had the worst record of pogroms of any state in India – in 1969, 1981, 1985, 1990 and 1992-3, all at a time when the Congress Party ruled the state. When Congress Party member, Madhav Singh Solanki, was chief minister, “276 people died in 117 incidents of mob violence. Under Amar Singh Chaudhuri, 582 persons died in 413 incidents of violence. And under Chimanbhai Patel, who was chief minister twice, 563 persons died in 370 incidents of violence. In 1990 … 220 people died; in 1992 riots after Babri demolition 325 people were dead and in 1993 another 116 lost their lives” (Ashgar Ali Engineer, ‘BJP’s riot-free India’, Frontier, May 5-11 2002). The ruling classes and their representatives sanctify this activity as defence of religion and wash their hands of the consequences.
Thus did Minister George Fernandes scandalously try to defend the genocide perpetrated by Hindu chauvinists in Gujarat as “nothing new”, with a view to absolving the BJP from its culpability. Of course, he is right in saying that the Congress Party too has been culpable in the matter of rousing mobs to violence by playing on religious and caste divides, and also insofar as he was implying that many of its accusers were condemning his party for crimes their own parties are just as happy to perpetrate if they perceive an advantage in so doing. This, however, in no way absolves the BJP from its culpability.
The only hope for India’s communities to live in peace with each other is to be rid of a system under which the poor can only hope to get poorer, and the rich, in order to keep them under control, organise pogroms. Unless checked, this communalism threatens to pull India apart – a result that would greatly please the various imperialist powers in the world who would find it a great deal easier to subject India to their will were it to be Balkanised. The opposition to communalism can only be led by a political party committed to sweeping away all feudal remains and ending the capitalist system so that a better life can be built for themselves by the whole of the Indian masses, whatever their caste or religion. Criticism must be levied at India’s various communist parties that had the strength to mobilise against the destruction of the Babri Masjid and failed to act sufficiently decisively. Such a mistake must never be repeated. The people of India need principled and talented proletarian leadership – as the tragic events of Gujarat so vividly show. The communists of India alone can provide this leadership. Let them rise to the occasion.