Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Beyond Hindi - An exploratory trip to Gujarat

The chief purpose of this trip to India was to study Hindi at the Landour Language School in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand. However, having finished an eight-week intensive course, I decided to occupy the remaining time in India with preliminary research for my future dissertation. As a soon-to-be third year student of the PhD program in Political Science – currently transitioning between the curricular and the investigative phase of the degree – this visit to India seemed an ideal opportunity to gather first-hand information about my topic and areas of interest as well as to build contact with academics working in the same subfields. For this reason, before departure, I met and discussed ideas with some of my professors at the Department of Political Science, namely Prof. Emmanuel Teitelbaum, Prof. Henry Hale and Prof. Ingrid Creppell. Finally, being outside of school for the first time since the beginning of the language course, provided me with a set of new and varied ‘real-world’ situations in which to practice my newly acquired Hindi skills. 

My destiny was obviously the northwestern state of Gujarat. The word ‘obviously’ is employed here not for a dose of excessive assertiveness but for the simple reason that, since the beginning of the doctoral program, I have focused on the political evolution of Gujarat. There are three reasons for this interest: (1) ever since the early twentieth century, Gujarat has played a prominent role in subcontinental politics, being the home state of both Gandhi and Jinnah, as well as other significant figures such as Sardar Patel and Lal Advani; (2) in the last twenty years, Gujarat has underwent massive transformations from a rural and traditional society into the poster child for the industrial might of modern India, becoming one of the fastest growing states in the country. This success has been closely associated with the political rise of Narendra Modi (BJP), the longest serving Chief Minister in the state and, as mentioned in an previous post, a putative candidate to the Prime Ministerial position in 2014. Finally, (3) in February-June 2002, Gujarat witnessed the largest and most violent Hindu-Muslim riots in India since partition in 1947. This tragic event, which took place during the first months of Modi’s tenure, left deep scars in both India and Gujarat, inspiring a voluminous literature. Although I had briefly stayed in the state in 2005, I now had an opportunity to delve deeper into the occurrences of 2002, the evolution of Gujarati politics since then and the current condition of Hindu-Muslim relations in the state. Most importantly, I now had a chance to meet and contact with some of the authors whose work I have been reading and citing in my own writings.

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.

All in all, this was a most fruitful journey that enabled me to test as well as to clarify ideas about my future dissertation project. I now begin my third year with a more informed opinion about the environment in which I will conduct field research, what can and cannot be accomplished in my dissertation. Once again, I would like to finish this post by thanking the Sigur Center for providing me with this excellent opportunity to advance and improve my knowledge and skills.

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