The 20th anniversary of the anti-Muslim pogrom that ripped through Gujarat in 2002 should be a time for sober reflection on the dangers of sectarian politics. But even if people do have the bandwidth to ponder the past – in a world currently preoccupied by the war in Ukraine and a global pandemic – it is unlikely that many will view it with the moral clarity it merits.
The aftermath of the Gujarat massacre, facilitated by the administration of the newly-elected chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, is a demonstration of how populist leaders can not only evade justice for hate crimes but also extract political capital from them. Modi’s image builders milked the occasion to anoint him as the strongman saviour that India’s majority religion needed to put Muslims in their place – a place, that is, as non-equal citizens in a republic that once prided itself for protecting religious freedom for all.
Some details may be elusive – including the precise body count – but this is not some obscure event buried in ancient history. Rakesh Sharma’s documentary, Final Solution, is freely accessible on Vimeo; books by Rana Ayyub and Manoj Mitta expose what authorities have tried to cover up. But India’s cowed mainstream media are unable to call a spade a spade. Even liberal Western media tend to get discombobulated by the BJP’s misleading mantra that Modi got a “clean chit” from the courts.
Gujarat ’02 is an archetypal 21st century ‘post-truth’ event, in which plain facts are no match for sustained disinformation and selective cognitions. In at least three key ways, Modi and other ruling party politicians continue to get impunity for propagating hatred:
- Distributed liability
While no charges were ever filed against Modi, journalists like Mitta have exposed fatal failures in government fact-finding missions. But even if we give the official investigators the benefit of the doubt, it would be inaccurate to conclude that Modi’s “clean chit” clears him of propagating hate. Legal thresholds for criminal charges are not the same as tests of moral legitimacy. Citizens of democracies should expect more from their leaders than that they are not convicted criminals.
In the area of hate speech regulation, India and most other countries prohibit the incitement of violence against identity groups. Such legislation tends to target speakers who deliver explicit, direct calls to action that have immediate effects. These laws are relatively powerless against more sophisticated campaigns involving multiple actors who say things that may not be dangerous in isolation, but that pack a deadly collective punch.
Such campaigns engage in a division of labour designed to give top leaders deniability. Delegating the dirty work to dispensable minions, leaders engage in dog whistles, or simply maintain a callously indifferent silence in the face of hate crimes, which their followers hear as a loud and clear signal to carry on. Whether it’s Donald Trump egging on the January, 2021 attack on Capitol Hill, or BJP leaders inciting anti-Muslim hatred with their conspiracy theories, prosecutors have a tough time connecting cause and effect.
Furthermore – as political scientist Larry Diamond pointed out with regard to the American state’s misadventure in Iraq – democracies’ laws allow political leaders to get away with levels of “gross negligence” for which corporate bosses would be found criminally liable. It’s a gap that should be filled by an enlightened public prepared to exact a political cost, but that’s a reckoning that Modi’s negligence – to put it mildly – has yet to face.
- Predatory populism
The tribunal investigating the Rwandan Genocide eight years earlier used the term “accusation in a mirror”. That’s when genocidal leaders invert reality; they point accusatory fingers at their intended victims and paint their own community as facing an existential threat. Thus, premeditated mass murder is sold as ‘self-defence’. Consumed by this fabricated sense of victimhood, hitherto decent citizens bay for blood.
Strategic victimhood was on full display in and after the Gujarat pogrom. The Hindu right explained away the mob violence as a natural reaction to the death of dozens of Hindu pilgrims at Godhra. Such major inflammatory events are rare, but the outrage industry can always find local disputes over sacred cows or forbidden love to refresh the victim myth. In the background, the master narrative of the Hindu community’s “twelve hundred years of servitude” whets people’s appetite for strongman leadership.
Democracies have a hard time dealing with such appeals. This is partly because – like a cancer that’s just one invisible mutation away from normality – majoritarian intolerance is a deviant form of the populist tendency embedded in democracy’s DNA. It is people power, unchecked by equal rights for the weak. Predatory populists like Modi claim legitimacy astride their electoral mandates, even as they trample on human rights.
- Think global, kill local
The Indian republic was born into a radically new global order – one that recognises all humans as has having fundamental rights, independent of their status as citizens of nation states. But Gujarat and its aftermath is one of countless cases that expose the limits of the international human rights regime, not just because it is difficult for the international community to intervene in a country’s domestic affairs, but also because big powers prioritise their geopolitical and economic interests over their professed belief in human rights.
As a result, the balance sheet of Narendra Modi’s international prestige shows a credit, despite India’s massive depreciation of democracy and human rights under his watch. His neoliberal pro-business reputation has inclined the West to overlook sins that would not have been forgiven in a more socialist regime. In current cold war calculations, Modi’s India is given a free pass simply because it is not China.
Besides, the international community has little choice but to recognise national leaders as legitimate representatives of their nations. The stance of my own little country, Singapore, illustrates the conundrum.
A couple of weeks ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong caused a kerfuffle when he mentioned in Parliament the criminally suspect quality of the Lok Sabha members as an example of how democracies decline from their inspiring founding visions. Most Singaporeans I know saw through this as gaslighting by our premier, trying to distract citizens from his administration’s illiberal approach to governance.
But Singaporeans like me also wish that our leaders were forthright enough to call out India’s ruling party for its hatemongering majoritarianism. Hindutva is antithetical to Singapore’s own approach to multicultural, multi-religious diversity – an approach, in part, inspired by the Indian nationalists whose legacy Modi is intent on crushing. Respect for India’s greatness as a country should not require silence about its alarming turn away from pluralism. On the contrary, its symbolic heft makes other postcolonial nations stakeholders in Indian democracy. Nevertheless, realpolitik results in officials in Singapore keeping their misgivings private.
For all these reasons, the whitewashing continues. So, of course, does the struggle for justice and reconciliation. Most of the hopeful developments visible in India and other polarised societies seem to be happening on a smaller scale and at the local level, within alternative media and in grassroots efforts by community workers and human rights defenders. They show it is possible to build trust across politically-accentuated identity divides.
It’s a sign of the sorry state of today’s democracies that such community building largely occurs despite, not due to, the efforts of professional politicians.
Courtesy The Wire
Cherian George is a professor and associate dean at Hong Kong Baptist University. He is the author of Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and its Threat to Democracy, which includes a chapter on India.