Is this what the Mahatma wanted to be remembered for, his prohibition policy? Gujarat has flaunted every other message of the Mahatma, has shredded the spirit of that great soul at every level, among the people as well as the administration. Why should the government show such deference to one comparatively minor element of the Gandhian philosophy when it has no respect for anything that the man did or represented?
A child born in the year that Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister of India would have the right to vote today. A child born in 1985 would vote in the next general election. He would be 17 today.
In 1985 the Supreme Court of India decided in favour of an elderly and unknown Muslim divorcee from Indore, the daughter of a head constable, Shah Bano, who had been asking, for seven years in lower courts, for just five hundred rupees from her husband as maintenance. She thought this amount reasonable compensation from a man who had been her husband for 43 years, before divorcing her in order to marry again. The Supreme Court agreed. The husband felt otherwise; he argued that according to his interpretation of Muslim law he had paid his wife the mehr and idda (maintenance for three months) that was due. The Supreme Court ruled that under the Constitution a former husband had to provide reasonable support to a divorcee if she had no means of supporting herself.
The news first appeared on the edges of the media. Then, gradually, it began to acquire ballast. A section of the country's self-appointed Muslim leaders thought they had found a route map back to relevance. This judgment, instead of being addressed with a sense of responsibility, was turned into a weapon to challenge the Constitution of India. There is sufficient space in Islamic jurisprudence for interpretation according to changing norms in social law: every Muslim country has made place for reinterpretation in its legal code. Certain Muslim leaders, notably Syed Shahabuddin and the ever-present Shahi Imam (father of the incumbent), decided that the proper response to the Supreme Court was hysteria designed to provoke a virtual revolt of Muslims against the Indian state. It was as unprecedented as it was artificial. Shahabuddin consciously used the language and idiom of separatism, while the clerics dusted off that old and paradoxical cry that Islam was in danger. (This is paradoxical because, for the believer, faith cannot be in danger from men.) Large rallies were held where the rhetoric was acid, the provocation severe and the intention vicious. But what left the country aghast was the slow retreat and sudden capitulation by the Congress government of the still inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi under this hysterical assault. In May 1986 the Congress forced through what was called, without irony, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill. Trying to balance appeasement of fanatic Muslims with appeasement of fanatic Hindus, Rajiv Gandhi, apparently advised by his friend and relative Arun Nehru, reopened the locked gates of the spot known as Babri mosque. If L.K. Advani, whose party, the BJP, had been reduced to two seats in the 1984-85 Lok Sabha (even Atal Behari Vajpayee had been defeated, in Gwalior) had beamed at that point, he would have been fully justified. He now decided to teach the government of India, which had bowed to Muslim fundamentalists, just how powerful Hindu hysteria could be. Long after Shah Bano has been forgotten the drums of Ayodhya still resonate through the life and blood of our country.
That child of 1985 has been weaned on the idiom of the Hindu-Muslim conflict, and nothing else, ever since he was born. A child born in 1947 would certainly have heard of the terrible riots of Partition in family stories, and perhaps seen the pain in his parents' eyes, but there was also the heady ideology of socialism in the air as he grew up anywhere in the country. Idealism had options in the 1960s, from the khaddar band of Ram Manohar Lohia to the crimson violence of the Naxalites. There were political and economic causes to stir the young in the 1970s, for democracy and an equitable society. But from the 1980s Indians have heard nothing but the sound of communal violence, whether in the brief but powerful secessionist movement in Punjab; in the horror of the anti-Sikh riots and the continuing waste and desolation of the Hindu-Muslim conflict, a confrontation over many battlefields; in sectarian caste wars, or in the dull thud of the daily toll from Kashmir. Those children of sixteen and seventeen, propelled by masterminds filled with hate, are spreading terror in Gujarat today. They have fed on this diet for so long that they know no other. This is a generation that has lived through two decades of darkness punctuated by the flash of sword, fire and gunshot. It is a time in our history when the living feed off death.
To an extent this dance of necromancers is a puppet, but the masters pulling the strings are not only invisible but also intelligent. The trick is not to pull the strings, or perhaps have no strings at all. All that the puppeteers have to do is clear the stage and allow free space for havoc to reign over a specified period of time. Two days is generally considered sufficient for hate to exhaust itself. Gujarat's chief minister Narendra Modi extended his patronage to the "sentiment" of those who sought vengeance against Muslims everywhere for what some Muslims had done in Godhra. And since those fanatic killers at Godhra had used fire, so the revenge had to take the same form even as the message was sent to every Muslim community in the whole state: we shall leave the charred ash of your bodies everywhere to teach you the meaning of your insolence. To be fair to Narendra Modi, he is not the first politician to use a blind eye. Congress prime ministers and chief ministers have repeatedly had other things to do when the wind they had sown turned into fire-laden whirlwinds. The most notable example still remains the imperturbable P.V. Narasimha Rao who could not be perturbed when the Babri mosque was being destroyed. He remained a picture of stoicism during the riots of 1992 and 1993, which must rank as the worst in a terrible history. The Congress played this game through duplicity; the BJP plays it straight. The Congress had to pretend to be secular and show concern for Muslims since it wanted their vote. The BJP knows that it cannot get the Muslim vote and so uses any opportunity to consolidate such elements of the Hindu vote as can be turned in its direction. One week ago the BJP chief minister was struggling to win a by-election in Gujarat. Today, thanks to the appalling crimes of Muslims at Godhra and rampant, killing Hindu mobs in Ahmedabad, Varoda, Rajkot, Mehsana, Surat and a dozen other places, the BJP would be happy to consider any form of election in the state. You reward "sentiment" and "sentiment" rewards you. Little wonder that the BJP has sent official congratulations to chief minister Narendra Modi for doing an excellent job in the political management of "sentiment". Since the ultimate vindication in a democracy is the approval of the ballot box, no one argues with a potential winner. The means are irrelevant to end.
Here is a suggestion for chief minister Narendra Modi and all his successors: please end prohibition in Gujarat. Gujarat is the only state in the country that still persists with the formality of what was once a national obligation. It does so, they all explain, out of respect for a great son of the soil, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Is this what the Mahatma wanted to be remembered for, his prohibition policy? Gujarat has flaunted every other message of the Mahatma, has shredded the spirit of that great soul at every level, among the people as well as the administration. Why should the government show such deference to one comparatively minor element of the Gandhian philosophy when it has no respect for anything that the man did or represented? Why should the people want any law because of Gandhi? They have forgotten him as well. Did the mobs who turned the last few days into a nightmare think that they were the heirs of Bapu?
Maybe a small test would illustrate the point. Do a test among those who were born in the year that Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister or even go back to the year that Shah Bano filed her petition against her husband in a local court of Indore under the Prevention of Destitution and Vagrancy Act, 1978. Ask them who was Bapu. If one out of a hundred knew the correct answer I would be surprised. Make it easier. Ask them who was Gandhi. The brighter ones might answer Indira Gandhi; and Rajiv Gandhi would be familiar. But ask them who was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, born in 1869 (the year the Suez Canal was opened) in the city of Porbandar in Kathiawar.
The answer will tell you why so many questions hang over India.
Published in DailyStar of Bangladesh. M.J.Akbar is the editor of Asian Age.