gujarat, while baroda burns; TANK magazine 2004

while baroda burns

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

In 2004 TANK reprinted extracts from my extensive notebooks on Gujarat in western India.  They’re taken from the days of “mass massacres” when I was locked up under curfew in my room on the 4th floor of a hotel, forbidden to leave the building or even to go as low as the 1st floor.

The whole story of witnessing state-sponsored pogroms while trapped with Bhupen Khakhar in his car on the outskirts of Gujarat’s second city and its various contexts form part of my forthcoming book A Gram of Gujarat. A part, but only a part. A part along with many other equally vivid, penetrating and suggestive parts! Taken together they provide a unique insight into Gujarat and contemporary India which enables a proper grasp of these signal events.

These particular extracts reflect something of the raw experience of being trapped in a room [tall building, complicit city and bone-shaking witness] looking out of a window onto a building usually only ever animated by women. I watched discretely as the traditional rhythms of everyday life went on in an abstracted way. Above rose black impressions of the terror being inflicted on Baroda’s old city; common, abstract again [literally framed by my window] but presumably at least as intense as those I’d been caught in. Otherwise; silence.

After two or three days it occurred to me to take photographs [some of which are poorly repro’d here], as the oddity of life in the building and the realisation that the smoky evidence was likely to stop if or when the army eventually took control of the city dawned. Obviously I was as visible as the people opposite and didn’t want to impose on them, so each image was snatched and for me condenses hours of the life it captures. Similarly, I only took one image of the smoke at the end and with confused reluctance; a feeble effort all around.

The politicians and authorities responsible for the massacres believe that the subcontinent is both Fatherland and Holyland; that the very dust is bound up forever with the dharma/spirit of each and every Hindu. Hindutva is a terrifying ideology, drawn from European fascism and Nazism specifically and these “mass massacres” a direct and logical result of it. Followers believe that a Hindu never loses their dharma and so India’s 150 million Muslims must recover theirs and renounce Islam -or they can ‘leave’.

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This is the same India that has a secular constitution and which was once the proud centre of the Non-Alignment movement but which has never reconciled itself fully with several centuries of Islamic dominance and conquest. Not even though a consequently rich Islamic heritage forms just one part of the subcontinent’s definitively syncretic culture. This is part of the specificity of hindutva, and why it’s worth reading VD Savarkar on the subject and understanding what there is of substance beyond the shudderingly crude race hatred that so corrupted his mind and thought.

The same India where some of the nicest people I met, seasoned secularists of various stripes, were the most complacent/deluded about the pressing actuality. It’s distressing to listen to someone making fun of their own Muslim upbringing, poo-pooing any intimacy with Islam or its wider culture, laughing at the notion that they would have any insight into such a subject when their own work, memoirs and even academic cv contradicts them. Frustrating when the point is simple; ‘they’ perceive you to be Muslim whatever your self-image. This is the nature of racism, fascism and lest we forget Nazism specifically.

Any conversation of that kind contains the unmistakable presumption that as a Foreigner I can’t possibly understand. It’s all a very complex, internal affair and only one of us can really appreciate it. In such instances they were clearly mistaken. In one exemplary case, when politely listening to an excited account of brief passage through a ‘secret’ outpost on the edge of the Rann of Kutch, I kept to myself the knowledge that I’d ridden out to the same particular outpost four times, found a floor to stay on inside its walls, a cave to sleep in beyond them.

Such an intense, ‘deep’ encounter with place and people was the yardstick I developed , which is why I was able to contextualize just how much or little right-minded, out of touch secularists of this kind understood about their neighbours [and to contextualise their insulting and short-sighted presumptions]. It’s for this reason that what happened to that particular individual and to other Muslims [religious or otherwise] across the State was profoundly shocking to me, but not a surprise. This is why it all made a horrible kind of ‘sense’.

Whilst ‘Metro’ secularists disown, deny and delude themselves about what “mass massacres” meant for India, I’d been encountering it in mud and urban kitchens, chai stops in deserts and forests, main roads, side streets and camel tracks, mandirs, dharamsalas and masjids, chellahs, tirths and tuks, Bohra wads, mohallas/pols and Societies, forts, havelis, universities and cool alleyways across the state. I listened to barots and charans, dalits and Brahmins, shia and sunni, professors and ‘local’ historians, ram sewaks and their Big Men financiers, MPs and MLAs, victims and perpetrators, writers and architects. I’d witnessed what it meant for months before this discreet horror and for months afterwards.

Understanding requires a real engagement with a wide range of things, places, peoples and times. It requires the articulation of distinct and interrelated elements in an authoritative portrait of a people and their place. Such a portrait would enable understanding of these particular events but also a much wider context. If it succeeded it would reveal the interiors of  Gujarat as a whole and provide a unique insight into subcontinental India. This is what I’ve attempted to do with A Gram of Gujarat.

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