One man's diktat is the last word: even Narendra Modi acquiesces ……
A Parsi family lost their only son in the mob frenzy at the Gulbarg Society in 2002. They had taken refuge in the home of a prominent leader, Ehsan Jaffri, confident they would be safe near this ex-parliamentarian. But the mob was after Jaffri's blood. Even the police commissioner refused to intervene. Appeals for his protection made to the highest levels in New Delhi drew a blank. Jaffri died a tortuous death. Scores perished. In the commotion that followed, the Parsi child got separated from his family and has not been traced since. For the past five years, the family has waited for their son to return.
Rahul Dholakia, an NRI film director and scion of an eminent Gujarati family, was so moved by this tragedy that he made a film, Parzania, based on it. He hoped its screening would help locate the child. But Dholakia had not reckoned on Babu Bajrangi—the principal accused in the Naroda Patiya case where more than a hundred people were butchered.
In the moral vacuum of post-Godhra Gujarat, Bajrangi largely decides how Gujaratis should live their lives. In the last few years, he has concentrated on two projects—to kidnap Hindu girls who marry non-Hindus and compel them to divorce their husbands. His other passion is to bash up intimate couples on college campuses or gardens. Police sympathies are very much with Bajrangi. He is praised for upholding caste, religious and female purity. Even the all-powerful Narendra Modi bows to Bajrangi's social dictates.
Unfortunately for Dholakia and the Parsi family, Bajrangi decided Parzania would hurt the image of Gujarat, and therefore, must not be screened. In typical godfather style, he made an offer to theatre owners which they dared not disobey. Not a single theatre was ready to screen the movie. The Baroda PUCL decided to screen it on its own. But here too, friends pointed out the likely damage to projector and hall would be too much for a cash-strapped body of activists.
What has happened to Gujarat that a character like Bajrangi can be elevated to the status of a demi-god? Oddly, 50 years ago, the American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, while flying from Delhi to Ahmedabad, told reporters, "I came to India as a tourist. But I go to Ahmedabad as a pilgrim." Such a comment would be laughable today. No one associates Gujarat with Gandhi. In fact, Gujarat and communal madness are two sides of the same coin. It's the only state where the government machinery took an active part in the butchery of its minority community. Then, was Gandhi an accident in Gujarat? In truth, the answer is yes. It's the greatness of the Mahatma that he could rise above the prejudices of his own people, to such iconic heights.
Gujarat is an economic powerhouse. Its people are dynamic and forward-looking when it comes to economic matters. But on social indices, it is most backward. The male-female imbalance is among the highest in the country. Bride-burning is rampant, to the extent that many communities insist on marrying a brother-sister pair to another sister-brother pair, to prevent such horrors. Similarly shocking is the treatment of Dalits and tribals—the small improvements in their lives are only because of the fear they will cross over to Christianity. The economically impoverished and socially weak are discouraged to assert their rights. It may even be dangerous. Hence, unlike Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu, no social revolution has ever occurred here.
Gandhi's impact was much greater outside Gujarat. There is almost no remorse for the killing of the innocents in the riots. The justification is that Muslims had to be taught a lesson. The example of Godhra and of Kashmiri Pandits is frequently highlighted. Just last month, Jayaben Shah, a prominent Gandhian of Rajkot, came out with a blistering attack on the Muslims.She was upset with the Sachar report. Her response would make the RSS proud. Surprisingly, communalism is the most apparent in the upper strata of society. And the VHP and Bajrang Dal have their strongest support among Gujaratis settled in the US. In contrast, the lower you go down the social strata, lesser the communal hatred. This indicates that factors like wealth and education may actually be contributing to the hatred of the minorities.
What role can liberal human rights activists play? I'm convinced there is little we can do within the state beyond helping to educate Muslims, Dalits and tribals. Meanwhile, we must learn to ignore Bajrangi and the forces he represents, or better still, learn to laugh at them. My suggestion is simple: Ahmedabad and Gujarat are too small for the vast talents of Bajrangi. The BJP would find his special tactics and abilities invaluable at the national level.
(A physics professor at the Baroda University, Dr Bandukwala's house was destroyed in the '02 riots.)
J.S. Bandukwala, OutLook Magazine, Feb 2007