Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Beyond Hindi - An exploratory trip to Gujarat
The seat of the State Government in Gandhinagar, with a statue of Gandhi in the front.
In Vadodara (also known as Baroda) I met with Professor Lancy Lobo, whose 2006 volume ‘Communal Violence and Minorities: Gujarat Society in Ferment’ (co-authored with Professor Biswaroop Das) presents one of the most complete and vivid accounts of the events of 2002. During our conversation, we exchanged views about the origins and incidence of communal tensions in Gujarat as well as the complex relationship between religion, caste and class. Professor Lobo framed Hindu-Muslim relations in terms of social transformations in the state since independence: the retreat of untouchability led to the social rise of a Hindu lower strata, who has sought social acceptance by the higher castes by stressing their similarities (namely, religion); while the Muslim communities were increasingly pushed towards the bottom of society. The appeal of Hindu nationalism was thus indirectly related with the downfall of the caste system. Later, I met with Dr. J.S. Bandukwala, a retired professor from the Baroda University and a prominent member of the Muslim community in the city, who provided me with a historical perspective of Hindu-Muslim relations.
Lord Shiva's statue in Baroda.
In Ahmedabad, the largest and most important urban centre in the state, with a long and profound attachment to the Muslim presence in the subcontinent (as testified by its very name), I visited the areas most affected by the 2002 riots, such as Naroda and Gomtipur. One of the most astonishing aspects about this city was the size and visibility of the Muslim population (especially in the town centre). On the one hand, I expected most Muslims to have moved out after the tragedy of 2002 (although the riots were not limited to Ahmedabad, the city registered the highest number of incidents and fatalities); on the other hand, this discovery goes against the popular argument that there is no relation between the size of the Muslim community and the occurrence of communal violence. The solution to this puzzle might be that while the correlation has no expression in total figures (i.e., total size of Muslims vs. total population of a city), it might reveal itself if one takes into consideration two qualitative criteria: population distribution by neighborhoods rather than by urban agglomerate as a whole; and to concentrate on relevant areas of the city, such as the center, where the visibility of a community is higher than in a distant suburb. I had an opportunity to discuss this and other issues with Professor Mona Mehta, co-author of ‘Gujarat Beyond Gandhi: Identity, Society and Conflict’ (2011, co-authored with M. Mehta). As a recent graduate from the University of Chicago and now a part-time Professor at the University of Gandhinagar, Prof. Mehta helped me think about these topics in the terms of the dominant theories of ethnicity and research design.
The candidature of Narendra Modi to Prime Ministerial post in 2014 is a hot topic in the Indian press.