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Authors: Arundhati Roy

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The nuclear tests altered the tone of public discourse in India. They coarsened and, you could say, weaponized it. In the months that followed, we were force-fed Hindu nationalism. Then, like now, articles circulated, predicting that a mighty, all-conquering Hindu Rashtra was about to emerge—that a resurgent India would “burst forth upon its former oppressors and destroy them completely.” Absurd as it all was, having nuclear weapons made thoughts like these seem feasible. It
created
thoughts like these.

You didn’t have to be a visionary to see what was coming.

The Year of the Ascension, 1998, witnessed gruesome attacks on Christians (essentially Dalits and Adivasis), Hindutva’s most vulnerable foes. Swami Aseemanand, the head of the RSS-affiliated Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram’s religious wing (who would make national news as the main accused in the 2007 Samjhauta Express train bombing), was sent to the remote, forested Dangs district in western Gujarat to set up a headquarters. The violence began on Christmas Eve. Within a week, more than twenty churches in the region were burned down or otherwise destroyed by mobs of thousands led by the Hindu Dharma Jagran Manch, an organization affiliated to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. Soon, Dangs district became a major center of
ghar wapsi
. Tens of thousands of Adivasis were “returned” to Hinduism. The violence spread to other states. In Keonjhar district in Odisha, an Australian Christian missionary, Graham Staines, who had been working in India for thirty-five years, was burned alive along with his two sons, ages six and ten. The man who led the attack was Dara Singh, a Bajrang Dal activist.

In April 2000, the US president Bill Clinton was on an official visit to Pakistan, after which he was due in Delhi. It was less than a year since the war in the Kargil district of Ladakh, in which India had pushed back the Pakistani army after it, in an aggressive, provocative move, sent soldiers across the Line of Control to occupy a strategic post. The Indian government was keen for the international community to recognize that Pakistan was a “terrorist state.” On April 20, the night before Clinton was expected to arrive, thirty-five Sikhs were shot down in cold blood in Chittisinghpora, a village in south Kashmir. The killers were said to be Pakistan-based militants disguised in Indian Army uniforms. It was the first time Sikhs had been targeted by militants in Kashmir. Five days later, the Special Operations Group and the Rashtriya Rifles claimed to have tracked down and killed five of the militants. The burned, disfigured bodies of the dead men were dressed in fresh, unburned army uniforms. It turned out they were all local Kashmiri villagers who had been abducted by the army and killed in a staged encounter.

In October 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the BJP installed Narendra Modi as the chief minister of Gujarat. At the time, Modi was more or less unknown. His main political credential was that he had been a long-time and loyal member of the RSS.

On the morning of December 13, 2001, in Delhi, when the In
dian Parliament was in its winter session, five armed men in a white Ambassador car fitted with an improvised explosive device drove through its gates. Apparently, they got through security because they had a fake Home Ministry sticker on their windscreen, the back of which read:

INDIA IS A VERY BAD COUNTRY AND WE HATE INDIA WE WANT TO DESTROY INDIA AND WITH THE GRACE OF GOD WE WILL DO IT GOD IS WITH US AND WE WILL TRY OUR BEST. THIS EDIET WAJPEI AND ADVANI WE WILL KILL THEM. THEY HAVE KILLED MANY INNOCENT PEOPLE AND THEY ARE VERY BAD PERSONS. THERE BROTHER BUSH IS ALSO A VERY BAD PERSON HE WILL BE NEXT TARGET HE IS ALSO THE KILLER OF INNOCENT PEOPLE HE HAVE TO DIE AND WE WILL DO IT

When the men were eventually challenged, they jumped out and opened fire. In the gun battle that ensued all the attackers, eight security personnel, and a gardener were killed.
The then–prime minister, A. B. Vajpayee (also a member of the RSS), had, only the previous day, expressed a worry that the Parliament might be attacked. L. K. Advani, who was the home minister by then, compared the assault to the 9/11 attacks. He said the men “looked like Pakistanis.” Fourteen years later, we still don’t know who they really were. They are yet to be properly identified.

Within days, on December 16, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police announced that it had cracked the case. It said that the attack was a joint operation by two Pakistan-based terrorist outfits, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Three Kashmiri men, S. A. R. Geelani, Shaukat Hussain Guru, and Mohammed Afzal Guru, were arrested. Shaukat’s wife, Afsan Guru, was arrested too. The mastermind at the Indian end, the Special Cell told the media, was Geelani, a young professor of Arabic at Delhi University. (He was subsequently acquitted by the courts.) On December 21, based on these intelligence inputs, the Government of India suspended air, rail, and bus communications with Pakistan, banned overflights, and recalled its ambassador. More than half a million troops were moved to the border, where they remained on high alert for several months. Foreign embassies issued travel advisories to their citizens and evacuated their staff, apprehending a war that could turn nuclear.

On February 27, 2002, while Indian and Pakistani troops eyeballed each other on the border and communal polarization was at a fever pitch, fifty-eight
kar sevaks
—Hindu pilgrims—traveling home from Ayodhya were burned alive in their train coach just outside the train station in the town of Godhra, Gujarat. The Gujarat police said the coach had been firebombed from the outside by an angry mob of local Muslims. (Later, a report by the State Forensic Lab showed that this was not the case.) L. K. Advani said that “outside elements” may have also been involved. The
kar sevaks
’ bodies, burned beyond recognition, were transported to Ahmedabad for the public to pay their respects.

What happened next is well known. (And well forgotten too, because the bigots of yesterday are being sold to us as the moderates of today.) So, briefly: In February and March 2002, while police stood by, Gujarat burned. In cities and in villages, organized Hindutva mobs murdered Muslims in broad daylight. Women were raped and burned alive. Infants were put to the sword. Men were dismembered. Whole localities were burned down. Tens of thousands of Muslims were driven from their homes and into refugee camps. The killing went on for several weeks.

There have been pogroms in India before, equally heinous, equally unpardonable, in which the numbers of people killed have been far higher: the massacre of Muslims in Nellie, Assam, in 1983, under a Congress state government (estimates of the number killed vary between two thousand, officially, and more than double that figure, unofficially); the massacre of almost three thousand Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, by Congress-led mobs in Delhi (which Rajiv Gandhi, who then went on to become prime minister, justified by saying, “When a big tree falls, the ground shakes”); the massacre, in 1993, of hundreds of Muslims by the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In these pogroms too, the killers were protected and given complete impunity.

But Gujarat 2002 was a massacre in the time of mass media. Its ideological underpinning was belligerently showcased, and the massacre justified in ways that marked a departure from the past. It was perpetuation, as well as a commencement. We, the public, were being given notice in no uncertain terms. The era of dissimulation had ended.

The Gujarat pogrom dovetailed nicely with the international climate of Islamophobia. The War on Terror had been declared. Afghanistan had been bombed. Iraq was already on the radar. Within months of the massacre, a fresh election was announced in Gujarat. Modi won it hands down. A few years into his first tenure, some of those involved in the 2002 pogrom were caught on camera boasting about how they had hacked, burned, and speared people to death. The footage was broadcast on the national news. It only seemed to enhance Modi’s popularity in the state, where he won the next two elections as well, securing the backing of several heads of major corporations along the way, and remained chief minister for twelve years.

While Modi moved from strength to strength, his party faltered at the center. Its “India Shining” campaign in the 2004 general election was received by people as a cruel joke, and the Congress made a stunning comeback. The BJP remained out of power at the center for the next ten years.

The RSS showed itself to be an organization that thrives in the face of adversity. The climate was what is known as “vitiated.” Between 2003 and 2009, a series of bombings and terror strikes on trains, buses, marketplaces, mosques, and temples by what were thought to be Islamist terror groups killed scores of innocent people. The worst of them all were the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which Lashkar-e-Taiba militants from Pakistan shot 164 people and wounded more than 300.

Not all the attacks were what they were made out to be. What follows is just a sampling, an incomplete list of some of those events: On June 15, 2004, a young woman called Ishrat Jahan and three Muslim men were shot dead by the Gujarat police, who said they were Lashkar-e-
Taiba operatives on a mission to assassinate Modi. The Central Bureau of Investigation has since said that the “encounter” was staged, and that all four victims were captured and then killed in cold blood. On November 23, 2005, a Muslim couple, Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi, were taken off a public bus by the Gujarat police. Three days later, Sheikh was reported killed in an “encounter” in Ahmedabad. The police said that he worked for Lashkar-e-Taiba, and that they suspected he was on a mission to assassinate Modi. Kauser Bi was killed two days later. A witness to the Sheikh killing, Tulsiram Prajapati, was also shot dead a year later, also in a police encounter. Several senior police officers of the Gujarat police are standing trial for these killing. (One of them, P. P. Pandey, was appointed as the director general of police for Gujarat in April 2016.) On February 18, 2007, the Samjhauta Express, a “friendship train” that ran twice a week between Delhi and Attari in Pakistan, was bombed, killing sixty-eight people, most of them Pakistanis. In September 2008, three bombs went off in the towns of Malegaon and Modassa. Several of those arrested in these cases, including Swami Aseemanand of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, were members of the RSS. (Hemant Karkare, the police officer who headed the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, which led the investigations, was shot dead in 2008 during the course of the Mumbai attacks. For the story within the story, read
Who Killed Karkare?
by S. M. Mushrif, a retired inspector general of the Maharashtra police.)

The assaults on Christians continued too. The most ferocious of them was in Kandhamal, Odisha, in 2008. Ninety Christians (all Dalits) were murdered, and more than fifty thousand people were displaced. Tragically, the mobs that attacked them were made up of newly “Hinduized” Adivasis freshly dragooned into the Sangh Parivar’s vigilante militias. Kandhamal’s Christians continue to live under threat, and most of them cannot return to their homes. In other states too, like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, Christians live in constant danger.

In 2013, the BJP announced that Modi would be its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general election. During his campaign, he was asked if he regretted what had happened on his watch in Gujarat in 2002. “Any person if we are driving a car, we are a driver, and someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind,” he told a Reuters journalist, “even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”

The media dutifully filed the Gujarat pogrom away as old news. The campaign went well. Modi was allowed to reinvent himself as the architect of the “Gujarat model”—supposedly an example of dynamic economic development. He became corporate India’s most favored candidate—the embodiment of the aspirations of the new India, architect of an economic miracle waiting to happen. His election broke the bank, costing more than Rs 700 crore—$115 million—according to the election commission.

But behind the advertising blitz and the 3D dioramas, things hadn’t really changed all that much. In a district called Muzaffarnagar, in Uttar Pradesh, the tried and tested version of the
real
Gujarat model was revived as a poll strategy. Technology played a part. (This would become a recurring theme.) It began with an altercation over what was, at the time, being called “love-jihad”—a notion that played straight into that old anxiety about demography. The Muslim “love-jihad” campaign, Hindus were told, involved entrapping Hindu girls romantically and persuading them to convert to Islam. In August 2013, a Muslim boy accused of teasing a Hindu girl was killed by two Jats. Two Jats were killed in retaliation. A video of an obviously Muslim mob beating a man to death began to circulate on Facebook and over cell-phone networks. In reality, the incident had taken place in Sialkot, Pakistan. But it was put about that the video documented a local incident in which Muslims had beaten a Hindu boy to death. Provoked by the video, Hindu Jat farmers armed with swords and guns turned on local Muslims, with whom they had lived and worked for centuries. Between August and September 2013, according to official estimates, sixty-two people were killed—forty-two Muslims and twenty Hindus. Unofficial estimates put the number of Muslims killed at two hundred.
3
Tens of thousands of Muslims were forced off their lands and into refugee camps. And, of course, many women were raped.

In April 2014, just before the general election, Amit Shah, a general secretary of the BJP at the time and now the party president (he had been arrested in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case, but was discharged by a special court), spoke at a meeting of Jats in a district bordering Muzaffarnagar. “In Uttar Pradesh, especially western UP, it is an election for honor,” he said. “It is an election to take revenge for the insult. It is an election to teach a lesson to those who have committed injustice.”
Once again, the strategy paid off. The BJP swept Uttar Pradesh—the state with the largest share of seats in Parliament.

In the midst of all this, the slew of genuinely progressive legislation which the Congress-led government had pushed through—like the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which brought a modicum of real relief to the poorest of the poor—seemed to count for nothing. After ten years out of power at the center, the BJP won a massive single-party majority. Narendra Modi became the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. In an election campaign in which optics was everything, he flew from Ahmedabad to Delhi for his swearing-in on a private jet belonging to the Adani Group. The victory was so decisive, the celebrations so aggressive, that it seemed the establishment of the Hindu Rashtra was only weeks away.

Modi’s ascent to power came at a time when much of the rest of the world was descending into chaos. There was civil war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria. The Arab Spring had happened and un-happened. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (more commonly known as ISIS or ISIL), the macabre progeny of the War on Terror which makes even the Taliban and Al-Qaida seem like moderates, was on the rise. The European refugee crisis had begun, even if it had not yet peaked. Pakistan was in serious trouble. In contrast, India looked like the warm, cuddly, unruly, Bollywoody, free-market-friendly democracy that
works
. But that was the view from the outside.

BOOK: The End of Imagination
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