A memoir penned by a journalist turned activist has revealed that a notorious anti-Muslim pogram resulted from social engineering to turn India into a Hindu theocracy.
Teesta Setalvad's Foot Soldier of the Constitution is about her first-hand experience advocating for the rights of victims of violence in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, in spite of many challenges.
Setalvad, who has visited Vancouver in the past, worked on the frontlines when riots erupted in the wake of the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims on February 27, 2002.
The incident left more than 50 passengers dead and one commission of enquiry found that it was an accident.
However, the state's Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which was led by then chief minister Narendra Modi, blamed the mishap on Muslim fundamentalists, allegedly aided and abetted by Pakistan.
Hindu fanatics began targeting innocent Muslims across the state with the connivance of the police. Close to 2,000 people died in the tragedy.
Modi reportedly gave orders to police to let Hindus vent their anger. Up until he was elected Indian prime miniser in 2014, he was denied a visa by the U.S. and several other countries for his alleged complicity in these crimes.
Even though Modi was never criminally prosecuted, facts in Setalvad’s book suggest that he's responsible for instigating violence, patronizing perpetrators, and destroying evidence. Those convicted until now have mostly been the foot soldiers. Setalvad continues trying to get Modi and other top officials charged.
Long before the Gujarat massacres, she quit as a career journalist to become an activist against divisive politics. The turning point came in 1992 and 1993 following violence against Muslims in Bombay (now known as Mumbai).
The pogrom was organized by a Hindu fanatical group, the Shiv Sena, in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri Mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya in December 1992.
BJP supporters razed the mosque. They claimed that former Muslim emperor Babur built it after destroying a Hindu temple that stood on the site of the birthplace of Lord Rama, one of the most revered gods of Hinduism.
The Bombay violence started after Hindu activists decided to celebrate the demolition of the Babri mosque. Setalvad and her journalist husband, Javed Anand, noticed that the police at that time sided with Hindu extremists.
Majoritarian prejudice not only prevailed in the police force, but also in the media. These bitter experiences prompted them to quit and launch Communalism Combat, a magazine that closely monitors the landscape of sectarian politics.
Attacks boosted Modi's political power
Notably, the Gujarat violence in 2002 was deeply connected with the Ayodhya incident nearly a decade earlier. Hindu pilgrims aboard the train that was supposedly torched, were returning from Ayodhya. These trips were often sponsored by the BJP government.
BJP supporters who frequently participated in these pilgrimages harassed Muslim passengers, as well as Muslim vendors at rail stations along the route.
In her book, Setlavad quotes a BJP leader saying that when news broke of the train tragedy came, Modi's reaction was that "Hindus will awaken now." Setlavad believes that preparations for the violence that followed were made long beforehand.
The assembly election that followed the pogrom paid dividends to Modi. He had resigned under pressure, leading to the dissolution of the assembly. The mid-term election was held in December 2002. Modi came to power with a brute majority, with 125 seats out of a total of 182.
It was a big leap for Modi, who relied on sectarian language to win more seats.
Setalvad has also tried to get Modi prosecuted for hate speech for his anti-Muslim rhetoric during the campaign.
The bodies of the deceased passengers were paraded in the state with the permission of the Modi-led government. This was despite warnings from some senior police officers that this would arouse passions.
A meeting was held where Modi allegedly asked the police to remain mute spectators in case Hindus wanted to vent their anger.
Senior BJP leader Haren Pandya testified about this to a commission. He was later murdered under mysterious circumstances.
Those police officers who followed the rule book were transferred or denied promotions, whereas those who sided with the mobsters were rewarded.
Following the violence, Muslim survivors were discriminated against with lower compensation than what was given to victims of the train tragedy.
Those arrested for allegedly burning the train were treated as terrorists, whereas the police and the courts in Gujarat remained lenient toward perpetrators of anti-Muslim violence.
Setalvad paid a price for her activism
Witnesses in court cases were manipulated and coerced to turn hostile, eventually accusing Setalvad of trying to tutor them. She then became a victim of a witch hunt as police tried to detain her on one pretext or the other.
A case of embezzlement of funds was slapped against her and her husband in connection with a memorial for the victims. If this was not enough, she was branded as “anti-national” and a “danger to the nation”. This was apart from a few attacks she had to endure.
It is pertinent to mention that Setalvad’s great-grandfather, Chimanlal Setalvad, was part of the committee that investigated an infamous massacre in British India. About 1,000 people died when troops opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in the Jallianwala Bagh garden in Amritsar, Punjab, in 1919.
The gathering was held in response to arrests of the leaders of the freedom movement. Chimanlal Setalvad even cross-examined General R.E.H. Dyer, the officer court-martialled for the crime. The text of the cross-examination is printed in the memoir.
In sharp contrast to the patriotic credentials of Setalvad, the founders of the BJP had no role in the freedom struggle.
A Gujarati herself, Setalvad had noticed much before 2002 how the state was actually being used as Hindutva laboratory by the BJP government. The process had begun even before Modi became the chief minister.
In 1998 Gujarat witnessed well-orchestrated violence against Christians. Ever since the BJP came to power in the state in 1995, preparations had started to "Hinduize" the society.
"Cow vigilantism", which has grown across India under Modi, existed in Gujarat back then. Since Hindus consider the cow as a sacred animal, Muslims and Christians were frequently harassed after being accused of consuming beef. Muslims were also harassed at schools as a curriculum created through the lens of Hindu supremacy was introduced.
It is not surprising to see that these experiments are now being implemented all over India.
After all, the BJP is a political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), a right wing cultural organization that desires to transform India into a Hindu theocracy in the name of Hindutva.
Hindutva is political brand of Hindu philosophy that considers minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, as second-class citizens. Modi himself is an RSS man. With Modi coming to power in New Delhi, the RSS and other Hindutva forces feel emboldened. That is one reason behind spike in sectarian incidents under this government.
Setalvad has been following the politics of the RSS-BJP family for years. In her book, she reminds us that Hindu supremacists do not believe in the Indian constitution that is based on the principles of secularism and equality.
Under their regime, the space for a free society envisioned in the national text is constantly shrinking, and as the title of the memoir indicates, she has dedicated herself to fight to reclaim that space.
Constitution drives Setalvad's actions
As Setalvad rightly points out in her book that Modi’s ascendancy to power should not be seen in isolation. This is the culmination of years of legitimacy being given to violence against minorities in India.
She thinks that had justice been delivered to the victims of 1984 anti-Sikh violence, the Bombay massacre and the Gujarat violence wouldn’t have happened.
In 1984, Sikhs were targeted by goons from the so called secular Congress party in India following the assassination of the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
It came after Gandhi had ordered army attack on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, to flush out armed religious fundamentalists who had fortified the place of worship. The invasion left many devotees dead and the buildings inside the shrine damaged. Victims of the anti-Sikh violence continue to fight for justice.
Setalvad's book must be read by those who really want to understand what India is going through and how toxic the social and political environment of society becomes in a majoritarian democracy that stifles any voice of dissent and marginalizes the weak. Above all, for those who think that Modi is completely off hook, Foot Soldier of the Constitution is an eye opener.