XQs VIII: A Conversation with Sanjeevini Badigar Lokhande

 

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Yogesh Chandrani for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVI, VII.]

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Sanjeevini Badigar Lokhande teaches comparative politics at Temple University’s Department of Political Science and was previously assistant professor of politics at the University of Mumbai. Her book, Communal Violence, Forced Migration and the State: Gujarat since 2002, examines the forced displacement of Muslim communities of Gujarat due to the pogrom of 2002. In the aftermath of the violence, the Hindu nationalist government of Gujarat represented the state as a model of good governance. In the book, Lokhande draws on extensive field research and government documents to examine the politics of forced migration and relief and rehabilitation in order to interrogate the neoliberal state in India.

(Interview conducted by Yogesh Chandrani, September 2016 – January 2017).

1. Can you describe how you came to this project and the central questions that inform your inquiry?

The research for this book grew out of my doctoral studies at the Center for Political Studies, JNU where I was initially interested in the category of internally displaced persons in India and I was advised to focus on Gujarat. The central question that I began with and that is at the heart of the book is: how does displacement affect the experience of citizenship rights in a democratic setup where there is no evident large scale or regime changing conflict but where the democratic processes continue and such events are seen as aberrations. In Gujarat for instance the debate went from violence to good governance and that is what the book engages with.

2. In your book, you analyze the condition of Muslims of Gujarat in the wake of the pogrom of 2002 by drawing on the extensive literature on refugees and internally displaced persons. Can you discuss some of the key texts on refugees and forced migration that you draw on and how your reading of these texts shaped your own argument?

Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Gorgio Agamben’s “We Refugees” and Lisa Malkii’s “National Geographic: The Rooting of People’s and the Territorialisation of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees” are some of the texts that influenced my understanding of forced migration and shaped my argument in a major way in that I also used displacement as an analytical lens to understand the larger polity and its limits. For instance, Arendt argues that displacement exposes the inherent danger in the nation state, where the nation can become the state, i.e. where the state can be envisioned and manifested not as a provider and protector of an equality of membership or citizenship but an instrument solely of the majority. As Agamben points out, history shows us that the ideal of ‘we the people’ was emancipatory in a very exclusionary way. Thus, although I started from a grounded analysis of the accounts of the displaced themselves and their human rights violations, these readings impressed on me the need to keep a lookout on the impact of the events of 2002 on the larger polity, the changing nature of the state with the emergent discourse on governance in Gujarat and beyond. The popularity and growth of majoritarian politics around the world in our globalized times of chronic mobility leads me to think that this argument has implications beyond Gujarat.

3. In your book, you focus on the effects of the 2002 pogrom on the Muslim communities of north and central Gujarat and particularly, Ahmedabad. What are some these effects? And relatedly, what has your focus on the effects of the violence enabled you to say/argue about the nature of the Indian state/state in Gujarat?

The most apparent effect of the pogrom is the stark polarization of living spaces in north and central Gujarat as well as elsewhere. A large number of areas where make shift relief colonies were set up have become enclaves of Muslim concentration that house the affluent and the poorest reflecting the lack of available options for the minority community. Even apparently cosmopolitan places in urban areas are divided along caste and religious lines. At a micro level this has affected the social rights of the displaced in an obvious way but at a macro level the larger polity has become one of the savarna (upper castes) and a majoritarian state where the rights of dominant sections are prioritized and economic growth is the standard that trumps all others. This was evident not just during the 2002 violence and after but also recently during the attack on Dalits in Gujarat. These traits of the state in Gujarat that are increasingly witnessed outside of it as well do not easily fit into characterizations of the state as Hobbesian, Weberian or even developmental. The changing nature of the state in our chronically mobile and globalized world is the question that the last chapter ‘Violence and Good Governance’ picks up on and one that is my next topic of research.

4. In Chapter 3, which on my reading is the most compelling of the book, you argue that what distinguishes the violence of 2002 from the earlier instances of anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, was the role of the state, and especially the manner in which it treated the victims. For example, north and central Gujarat, which were the epicenter of the pogrom of 2002, are no strangers to organized violence against Muslims. In 1969, there was a major pogrom in north and central Gujarat that left a thousand dead and many thousands displaced. What are some of the main differences between the state response to anti-Muslim violence in 1969 (and in the 1980s and 1990s) and 2002?

In 1969 official pronouncements, policies and administrative actions of the state government lend themselves to the impression of a state eager to project itself as a secular guarantor of security for all its citizens. Elsewhere in India as well, despite majoritarian biases, the endeavor was by and large to maintain its legitimacy through the projection of neutrality. In 2002 while procedures of relief were followed as per precedent the absence of such endeavors are indicative of the exclusivist and majoritarian dispensation of the state. No attempt was made by the state government—widely held to be complicit in the violence—to assuage the fears of a fearful minority among whom, according to official estimates, one and a half lakh had fled their homes.

In 1969, among other measures, the state government opened 4 relief camps, provided housing for rehabilitation of displaced and the issue of accountability was mooted. In the 1980s and 1990s there were fewer measures taken but many assurances in which the stated position of the government was to provide security for all citizens and to remove the atmosphere of fear. While those displaced were referred to as refugees in 1969, in 2002 displacement was completely denied and instead referred to as migration. In the legislative assembly debates of 1985, the development of Gujarat was articulated in terms of the restoration of peace from the communal violence that was referred to as a blot on the prestige of Gujarat. The violence of 2002, however, was followed by a Gaurav Yatra, a procession of pride, and a development agenda framed exclusively in economic terms with no reference to post-violence reconstruction.

5. Your book combines extensive interviews with the victims with a critical reading of the official record, especially reports and orders issued by the government of Gujarat after its actions came under scrutiny by the National Human Rights Commission and by Indian and international human rights groups. On my reading of these passages from your book, it becomes clear that Muslims were doubly victimized—first, by the Hindu nationalist movement which orchestrated the violence and again by the bureaucratic procedures that were designed to provide relief to the victims. Can you describe how bureaucratic rationality itself became a modality for denying Muslims their rights as citizens?

There are several instances of this such as a Collector’s assertion that the movement of people from one place to the other after violence does not imply displacement or the policies following precedent that led to initial disparity in the relief amount for successors of those who died in the burning of the coach of Sabarmati Express and those who died in the violence that followed. There was also the refusal to accept aid from international organizations and private agencies for those affected by the violence and there are many such instances in processes involved in the distribution of relief.

6. By the time of the 2002 pogrom, and you give several examples of this in your book, it was not unusual for leading politicians of the state to characterize anti-Muslim violence as not only endemic, but natural to the state. Such views, it seems to me were shared by political leaders of both the BJP and of the Congress in Gujarat. According to your argument, these tropes are also accompanied by a concomitant shift in what you call the language of relief and the very manner in which relief was to be delivered to the victims. Can you describe some of your findings, especially in the official accounts produced by the state and how this affected Muslims who were displaced from their homes?

Riots are referred to as toofan or storm in Gujarat. The view that communal violence is natural and endemic can be found in policies, in archives of legislative assembly debates among political leaders across party lines, among academics and in common parlance. The language of relief is that of ‘gratuitous relief’ which means given as a favor. This is far removed from notions of accountability or reparation for displaced persons. In the 1996 landmark judgment by Justice Anil Dev Singh, the Delhi High Court held that the state cannot escape its liability and that compensation instead of ‘ex gratia payment’ be given to the victims of the anti-Sikh riots. In Gujarat after 2002, the state government followed precedent in terms of the language of gratuitous relief. Although there was a nominal increase in amount of relief given to different categories of victims, it returned Rupees 19.1 crore to the central government as unutilized amount claiming that full relief has been paid. The shift was in the assertion of normalcy and complete denial of displacement that was described as migration of those who had moved to what the state described as 81 resettlement colonies of their own volition. This resulted in the sharp polarization of living spaces and the development of Muslim enclaves in and around these relief colonies.

7. In your book, you refer to the work of Joya Chatterjee (The Spoils of Partition) and Vazira Zamindar (Long Partition). Both works show that partition violence and the bureaucratic procedures put in place to rehabilitate the displaced had the effect of putting into question Muslim citizenship and belonging to India. Can you discuss how these works shaped your own account of Gujarat after 2002 and the question of Muslim citizenship and belonging?

I agree with you that both Chatterjee and Zamindar’s work show that bureaucratic procedures for displaced people had the effect of putting into question Muslim belonging to India but what I found striking in my reading of the archival excerpts cited in Zamindar’s work on the effects of the Partition in Northern India and particularly Delhi was how managing the problem of displacement was an important aspect of establishing the legitimacy of new born states. There were instances of Muslims in Delhi looking to the state to ensure their safety. In the violence in 2002 on the other hand, there are several instances of the breakdown of trust on the state for minorities such as Professor Bandukwala’s fleeing his home on the arrival of the mob without intimating the policeman on guard, the building of relief colonies by Muslim organizations and Muslims categorizing the state police and government as ‘theirs’ unki police unki Sarkar. Zamindar examines the issue of trust among the displaced and that was important theme that emerged from my data as well. I also drew from Joya Chatterjee’s argument on the West Bengal government’s policy of ‘dispersal’ and relief as charity in my analysis of policies. In her work on the displacement in Bengal after the Partition which was dispersed over several years, Chatterjee points out that the central government’s reluctance to engage in the problem, the state government’s policy of dispersal and relief given as charity have surprising currency in later years. I found this to be the case even in Gujarat with relief given as gratuitous assistance and the denial of the displacement of Muslims.

8. One of the major problems confronting victims of the pogrom of 2002 is that the judiciary offered no recourse. This is not to say that in prior instances of anti-Muslim violence and anti-minority violence, the Indian judicial system has been effective in punishing the perpetrators. However, the 2002 pogrom was unique because of the extent of media coverage and the very meticulous recording of atrocities by a plethora of human rights groups. The other feature that is unique about the 2002 pogrom is that unlike in the past, the commission of inquiry set up by the government was itself partial, if not hostile to victims and to independent witnesses. Could you discuss the nature of the judicial response to the violence and how it has affected the victims?

Due to the meticulous coverage of atrocities by independent and media reportage and activists such as Teesta Setalvad and Harsh Mander who petitioned the courts, the judiciary emerged as the primary site of recourse for victims of the violence in 2002. The Supreme Court’s reopening of cases gave hope to many Muslims including those displaced, as the case of a family that was physically threatened on return to Odhe village that went on to file a case in court. There were some significant achievements due to the painstaking efforts of activists and lawyers, namely the first conviction in a rape case during communal violence through Bilkis Bano’s case, the victims of a criminal case receiving an amount as redress and a larger number of convictions. Unfortunately however, with regard to fixing of accountability, the long and protracted struggle in court has proved to be unfruitful. Even though Amicus Curea’s report pointed to unanswered questions on Narendra Modi’s role as chief minister during the violence, several media reports treated the matter as done and dusted.

9. Since the time that you conducted research for this book, a lot has changed in Gujarat and in India. The BJP, despite its record of violence against Muslims, its tacit, if not explicit role in violence against Dalits and adivasis and its neoliberal economic policies, which have been hostile to the poor, won a majority in legislative assembly elections in the state in 2012. And, in 2014, it went on to win an overwhelming majority of constituencies in the parliamentary elections. However, the victory in 2014 parliamentary elections has been followed by protests in Gujarat, first by a significant section of the patidars (patels) and now by Dalits. Are these protests indicative of broader political shift in Gujarat, a shift away from a politics dominated by Hindu nationalism and away from a coalition of elites and upper castes and towards the potential emergence of a party or formation that challenges the monopoly of the Congress and the BJP in the state?

These movements are certainly connected to broader shifts in the political economy, but whether they are indicative of a political shift away from Hindu nationalism or a new formation remains to be seen. The patidar agitation is comparable to other such movements by middle caste groups such as Jats in Haryana and Marathas in Maharashtra where growth has not created as many jobs for an aspirational youth that constitutes half the population. There has also been a unity among Dalit castes, which is unlike in the past over a number of issues including the flogging of Dalits in Una. However, the movement has repeatedly described itself as an apolitical movement. It is also worth noting that in the past Patidars and Dalits have been pitted against each other such as in 1985 when Patidars held Dalits who benefitted from reservations as being responsible for their lack of opportunity and even today the discontent connected to these groups has not been consolidated into a united, credible opposition. Perfunctorily, one can say that the Patidar movement seems to have influenced the decline in the vote share of the BJP in local body elections in 2015. However, this question will best be revealed through booth level data analysis of forthcoming state assembly elections in 2017.

10. Finally, there has been much talk about a Dalit-Muslim unity in Gujarat? What are the prospects for such unity?

Bovine politics have definitely improved prospects for unity among Dalits and Muslims. The political implications of this unity are yet to be seen.

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Yogesh Chandrani is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Colorado College.  He has a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from Columbia University and has taught at Columbia University and NYU.  He is currently working on a book project tentatively entitled Legacies of Colonial History: Region, Religion and Violence in Postcolonial Gujarat that explores the Muslim question in Gujarat.  He is co-editor with Carol Bengesldorf and Margaret Cerullo of Eqbal Ahmad: Selected Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006 & Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2006).

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