The ghosts of Gujarat

Published April 11, 2012

The man who would be king; The Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi is seen as as frontrunner to become the next prime minister of India. -AFP Photo

In April 1903, when present day Moldova was firmly in the grip of the Russian Empire, an incident occurred in the small town of Dubossary, which was located in the capital Kishnev. A young Christian boy named Mikhail Rybachenko was found murdered in the town, while at the same time a young girl had committed suicide by taking poison. Both bodies were taken to a Jewish hospital, where inevitably rumors started to spread that the Jews had a hand in their deaths. Anti-Semitism was an accepted prejudice at that time and had tacit sympathy from Russian officials.

After loud cries of retaliation and revenge from the local Russian Orthodox priest, the people of the town streamed out of their churches on Easter Sunday and launched a three day orgy of violence and destruction that left nearly 50 people dead, hundreds of houses looted or burned and a small minority thoroughly traumatized. No attempt was made to stop the violence until the third day. The Russian Interior Minister, Vyacheslav von Plehve, reportedly looked the other way, while the mayhem continued.

This infamous episode was known as the “Kishnev Pogrom”. The New York Times summarized the entire episode in one haunting paragraph;

The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Russian Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, "Kill the Jews," was taken- up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.

 Flash forward to 2012 and an investigative team appointed by the Indian Supreme Court has just cleared Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi of any involvement in the Gujarat riots of 2002.

Zakia Jafri filed the complaint against Modi and other government and police officials, accusing them of involvement in the mob burning of a house colony. That incident killed former Congress lawmaker Eshan Jafri, the husband of the plaintiff along with 68 other people.

The court ruled that “According to SIT, no offence has been established against any of the persons listed in Zakia’s complaint”.

In response to the report Zakia Jafri said: “In the court of the lord above, just can get delayed but not denied. I am sure that truth will come out and I will get justice”.

As for Modi himself, one more irritant has been brushed off as he moves ahead on the road to becoming the next prime minister of India.

Making comparisons is not usually a sound approach, and in no way does the above historical incident mean that India’s robust and vibrant democracy should now be compared with the oppression of Tsarist Russia. Nevertheless some comparisons can be made when a great or rising power fails to uphold the values by which it stands by. There is one stark difference between the two incidents. Most if not all the Russian papers of that time actually urged the rioters to commit acts of violence. Many Indian newspapers and members of civil society were highly critical of Narendra Modi’s conduct during the Gujarat riots. They still hold him responsible for being if not directly involved, then almost certainly giving support to the perpetrators.

Narendra Modi has achieved a great deal of success in transforming Gujarat into an economic miracle. But his critics find him to be an unlikely inheritor of the tolerant legacy left by Gujarat's most famous son, Mahatma Gandhi. -AFP Photo

Modi’s membership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) a militant Hindu organization, may appeal to a certain section of the Indian electorate, but it certainly doesn’t make him attractive to India’s Muslim minority, or to those who firmly believe in the secular values propagated by Jawaharlal Nehru. Having said that, it cannot be denied that Modhi, for all the negative perception surrounding him, has been trying to change his image from a Hindu nationalist to that of a highly effective administrator. His working style may be described as autocratic, but it has got the job done. Modi has been credited for turning Gujarat into an economic hub. Indian industrial leaders like Anil Ambani and Sunil Bharti Mittal have hailed him as India’s next PM due to his successful administrative skills.

But despite these achievements, the ghosts of Gujarat will continue to haunt him. If he becomes the BJP candidate for prime minister in the 2014 elections and does in fact win the coveted position, then those ghosts will rise once again under an even bigger spotlight.

India is one of the rising powers of the global community; its economy is growing by leaps and bounds and has secured itself a place among the top ten economies of the world. As it moves ahead in the 21st century and will remain the world’s largest democracy for many years to come, it must remain true to the secular values laid at the foundation of the republic. Democracy means not only that majority rules, but that minority rights are protected as well.

As we in Pakistan have learnt, mixing religion and politics is always a dangerous thing. It’s bad enough when a state patronises people who have bigoted views and are intolerant towards others. But when officials themselves are intolerant and bigoted, they tend to look the other way when fanaticism rears its ugly head. The 2009 Gojra riots, or Gojra Pogrom as it should be called, is a case in point.

A polarising figure like Narendra Modi becoming the inheritor of religious tolerance advocated by Mahatma Gandhi and fierce secularism of Nehru seems an oxymoron. But if Modi does manage to do that, it will be the first time that a leopard has successfully changed his spots.

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