This book by Ms. Revati Laul is small, 235 odd pages, so could finish reading it in about 6 odd hours. It has been written lucidly facilitating the ease of reading. Ms. Paul says that the book took about a decade to complete and deals with the activities and experiences of 3 people, Pranav, Dungar (name changed) and Suresh who were witness to or participant in the Gujarat riots of 2002. While Suresh was an active participant in the Narodai Patia riots, Pranav in 2002 was a university student who witnessed (you can say participated from distance) the looting of Muslim shops during riots by his hostel mates. Upon competing his education he joined an NGO which was involved with the rehabilitation of the riot affected Muslims. His interactions with the Muslims and especially his boos helps him to challenge many of his earlier held beliefs and assumptions. This self doubt finally converts him into an atheist (and a pretty rabid one). Dungar, a Bhil tribal participated in the burning of Muslim houses during 2002 and later with the help of an NGO rebuilds their houses. In return they agree to become hostile witness in the case of their house burning that he is facing. He finally breaks up with the NGO, after he finds them to be evangelical in their orientation and when they ask him to maintain his tribal identity, and stay away from the Hindu fold. He delves into politics, winning the ward elections but then keeps hopping parties in his elusive quest for political growth. Initially with the BJP, he moves to Keshubhai’s party and when the book ends he was supporting the Congress in the last election of 2017 in Gujarat.
What is new and interesting about the book is it looks at the perpetrators of violence, their mental make up, world view and motivations. So far all the books that I have read on Gujarat riots (even the documentaries I have seen) mostly deal with the lives of the victims. However where the book fails in my view is to understand why communalism takes roots in the first place. Ideas are like seeds, they need a fertile soil to grow, they can’t grow if they are planted in an environment not conducive to their growth. The book also falls in the trap of lazy scholarship, that has become the hallmark of left liberal intelligentsia today, blaming the Sangh Parivaar for the rise of all communalism. The sanghis would actually chuckle at that. Having served in Gujarat and interacting with Gujaratis has made me realize the stupidity of this thesis. It is much more complex than that!
While this may be a digression from the main theme of the book, IMHO the rise of communal sentiments in India has its genesis in the so called ‘idea of India’ and the administrative politico and economic structure that the founding fathers imposed on this country. All of these were bound to get grossly distorted and dysfunctional as soon as they were subjected to the challenges of governance and the complexities on Indian society and their expectations. That these edifices survived for 70 years, in the form that they did, is in itself an achievement. They need modification/overhaul if we want them to function efficaciously. Ms. Laul touches upon the theme in this book when she argues as to why people like Dungar are drawn to politics, for it is only by having some influence in the state structure, can people hope to survive in this country, (more so if they belong to marginalized communities like tribals’). She of course shies away from dealing with the elephant in India’s room; the kind of secular state that we have created in this country. The book does highlight how Pranav and his ideas of rationality and atheism continue to remain at the fringes and why he is distrusted both by the Hindus as well as the Muslims (despite having done salutatory work for their rehabilitation). This shows the limits of such rationality and irreligiosity in the Indian context.
Again a digression from the main theme of the book, post WW 1& 2 two ancient and deeply religious state imposed an alien concept of secularism (based not on national ethos nut constitutionalism) on their body politic. These were Turkey (a country with a great Islamic heritage and the seat of the Caliphate) and India. Within 100 years this ‘constitutional’ secularism is under great challenge and strain in both these countries. My prognosis is it will morph and adapt to the needs and genius of both these civilizations or will completely collapse. The problem with human beings is despite all rationality and scientific temper that they may cultivate, the primordial question “who are we’ as a nation/civilization refuses to go away. Any answer to this question not rooted in the national culturo-civilizational ethos does not finally work!
PS: I have a bet with one of my left liberal friends that in the next 10 years Hagia Sophia will be a mosque. He disagrees. Let us see! I would love to lose the bet but I don’t think I will.