‘Modi-tva’ and Indian nationalism after Gujarat

Meryam Dabhoiwala, Researcher, Asian Legal Resource Centre


15 August 2007 will mark India’s 60th Independence Day celebrations. Hopefully those celebrations will truly be celebratory in nature, fulfilling the promises of the Constitution of India and living up to the ideals of its founders: true secularism, plurality and equality.

That was clearly not the case this year. On 15 August 2003 the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, celebrated Independence Day with Hindu rituals at the ancient capital of Patan, rather than at the 15th century fort built by Ahmed Shah, the founder of Ahmedabad, where earlier celebrations had been held.

After five decades of independence, why is Hinduism now entering into India’s national celebrations? The answer lies in Narendra Modi’s understanding of ‘national’: he and his Bharatiya-Janata Party have been among India’s most prominent exponents of Hindutva ideology (Hindu reawakening), which calls for the return of India to the Hindus. In this, Modi seems to have overlooked his oath to India’s secular Constitution.

National and international human rights activists, citizens’ tribunals and other organizations alike have underlined Modi’s role in the Gujarat massacre of 2002, described in the preceding article, ‘Genocide in Gujarat: Government and police complicity’. Riding a wave of Hindutva extremism after the massacre, Modi campaigned for the December 2002 election on an anti-Islamic platform that painted the state’s half-million Muslims as terrorists with connections to Pakistan. The BJP won by a landslide. Its officials are now keen to repeat the “Gujarat experiment” throughout the country. Modi is being touted as a future Prime Minister. According to recent media reports, Modi has also now written to the man currently in that position, requesting a ‘compilation of details of all major incidents of group clashes and communal riots in the country since Independence’. [1] The point he is seeking to make is that nothing out of the ordinary happened in Gujarat, and that in the past such cases have not been pursued through the courts, hence, nor should they be in this instance. His letter was in response to the decision of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to approach the Supreme Court for a retrial of the Best Bakery case. [2] That a man can demonize a minority group and instigate a crime against humanity in order to promote his political fortunes points to something seriously wrong with India’s ‘democracy’. While communal riots have been used time and again as a political strategy, never before has either the state or any political party so blatantly exploited communal relations to further its own agenda. Never before have party officials publicly spoken of Hindutva ‘experiments’. As prominent Indian intellectual Ramachandra Guha has said, “What has happened in Gujarat is original in the sophistication and completeness of its articulation.” [3]

While the Indian government has failed miserably in its obligations to protect and afford redress to the Gujarat victims, civil society groups and individuals across the country have worked to document the atrocity and support those who have suffered. These efforts must be continued, and directed towards making the state accountable for its failure. In particular, the NHRC and Indian courts must play a more active role in bringing the planners and perpetrators of the massacre to trial. Independent tribunals and human rights organizations have already amassed a great deal of evidence against state officials; it must be used. The NHRC in particular has to date worked almost exclusively on only one case (Best Bakery). One way it could broaden its activities would be to call on the resources of regional and international human rights organizations. Other agencies, such as the National Commission for Women, also should play a role in the rehabilitation and assistance of female victims. Such agencies should build links with doctors, lawyers and other professionals, and work together to help the victims of this tragedy as well as to prevent more disasters from occurring.

In contrast to the massacres in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda of recent years, the muted international response to the Gujarat massacre has also been deeply troubling. International agencies working in India must do much more to raise their concerns about the lack of accountability after this event, both with the Indian government and in international forums. Far from being a day of celebration, this year’s Independence Day in Gujarat was a day of national shame. Only the prevention of systematic human rights violations and the enforcement of the effective rule of law will make India’s Independence Day celebrations worthy of their name.

[1] ‘Carnage, what carnage?’ Hindustan Times, 7 August 2003. [Back to contents]
[2] Amnesty International press release, ‘India: Best Bakery case ?concerns for justice,’ ASA 20/018/2003. 9 July 2003. [Back to contents]
[3] Luke Harding, ‘Dark days for India’, Guardian, 16 December 2002. [Back to contents]