Anyone who wants to understand today’s India needs to approach the nation with open eyes and curiosity, looking to see the variety that is there, rather than to judge prematurely that a given custom or idea is the “real” India and another one less “authentic.” Such artificial ideas of purity and authenticity are not only misleading, they are also the very ideas that have been exploited politically by the Hindu right in trying to cast non-Hindus as alien polluters of the national fabric. They know that they find a receptive audience in America, since Americans (in addition to their widespread suspiciousness about Muslims) are currently very guilty about the legacy of colonialism, and thus all too inclined to accept the fiction of a pure unsullied “other” that was polluted by external forces. Usually such fictions mask a history that was always divided, contentious, and heterogeneous. Many of the painful struggles over the teaching of history in today’s India concern just such soothing but deeply misleading fictions of the past. One cannot understand the current political debate if one begins from the position of romantic nationalism that the Hindu right has expended so much energy in marketing.
So: the story of Gujarat, in addition to its intrinsic interest and its lessons for the future of democracy, offers a lesson in the complexity of cultures, the danger of simple categories, and the importance of a nuanced understanding of internal diversity and cross-cultural similarity if we are to make any progress in understanding this complex and threatening world. When a respected editor states that the main job of liberals in this era is to counteract the influence of Islamic totalitarianism (See Peter Beinert, “An Argument for a New Liberalism: A Fighting Faith,” The New Republic, December 13, 2004), I feel alarmed. For it seems to me very clear that our task must be first of all to understand the complexities of the world in which we live, and this complex understanding is menaced by the idea of an Islamic extremist monolith, just as it is by all seductively simple ideas. No, the job of concerned citizens in this era is to resist cruelty, inequality, and genocidal violence, whoever the perpetrators are, to recognize that the perpetrators are varied, and that some of them are Euro-Americans and their imitators. The story of Gujarat is helpful to good thinking, then, precisely because the perpetrators are not Muslims, because they exploit widespread fears of Muslims, and because they are indeed “us,” that is, European-influenced thinkers who have twisted the Hindu tradition into a near-unrecognizable form. (For what person who loves stories of the sensuous music-loving Krishna, the playful candy-loving Ganesha, and the loyal yet gentle Hanuman would not be deeply grieved to encounter their unfamiliar Hitlerian face in the propaganda of the Hindu right, as Hanuman becomes a ferocious killer of Muslims, as Ganesha becomes a warrior with rippling muscles and a sword held on high?)
Even before the crisis of 2002, religious tensions were increasingly defining lives in many regions of India. Poor women in Gujarat would talk about how they sought to work together for women's human rights, but were increasingly driven apart by community organizers who foment hatred, making it difficult for Hindu women to live and work alongside Muslim women. Female students in Lucknow, once a home of Hindu-Muslim cooperation and amity, would speak of the daily threat of physical violence from organized brigades of Hindu-right students, who menace them with bodily abuse if they wear blue jeans, or celebrate Valentine's Day or birthdays (customs deemed unacceptably Western). New textbooks commissioned by the BJP’s minister of education, Murli Manohar Joshi, were beginning to teach young children habits of intolerance and suspicion. (“Kabeer is a nice boy,” one first-grade reader goes, “even though he is a Muslim.”) In the universities, all public and therefore vulnerable to political pressure, academics reacted with alarm to assaults on their freedom to speak and publish the truth about both history and current events. Academic friends of long standing told me of threatening phone calls in the night, of efforts to deprive them of prestigious fellowships.
One should not exaggerate these threats: Indian universities remained strong bastions of academic freedom even during the ascendancy of the BJP, and the national press is, it seems to me, more free in some crucial respects than our national media in the U. S., in the sense that the leading newspapers are more diversely and independently owned, less vulnerable to economic pressures that lead to a degeneration of journalistic quality. The level of debate and reporting in the major newspapers and at least some of the television networks is impressively high. A particularly striking feature of Indian media is their openness to the ideas of intellectuals: any academic who wants to get involved in a national debate can do so, as is certainly not the case in the United States. Nonetheless, there was, and still is, much that saddens, and an atmosphere of anti-Muslim feeling that is deeply alarming.
Consider the movie Dev, a popular “Bollywood” film released in 2004, starring the great actor Amitabh Bachchan and directed by admired independent filmmaker Govind Nihalani. This film, loosely based on the events of Gujarat, features Bachchan as the "good cop" Dev, who resents being told to sit on his hands by his corrupt superior Tej (played by another great actor, Om Puri), while thousands of innocent Muslims are dying. The underlying message of the film is that ordinary people want peace and harmony; religious animosity is whipped up by politicians for the sake of power, and it is bad for everyone. Hindus and Muslims can live in amity, if only politicians stop trying to use them for their own gain. The movie ends with the suicide of the corrupt cop, who can no longer live with himself after his righteous friend’s defection and death, and with the adoption of a young Muslim lawyer into the good cop’s family, as a surrogate son. And yet, Dev had a funny way of showing its good intentions. But the script seemed to me to make far too many concessions to current Hindu-right propaganda: it showed Muslims as having active and large scale terrorist organizations (for which there is no evidence, although there are some small terrorist groups focused on the Kashmir question), and it indicated that Hindus have no such organizations (for the existence of which there is large-scale and indisputable evidence). Nonetheless, when I watched this film in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, right where the massacre occurred, and two years later, the mood of the audience was staunchly anti-Muslim. (Although the film, in Hindi, was shown with Gujarati rather than English subtitles, my research assistant, fluent in both Hindi and Gujarati, whispered translations in my ear. The outstanding acting, together with the broad style of Bollywood, made the story easy to follow.) People kept cheering on the bad cop, and jeering at the young Muslim hero. So, election or no election, the atmosphere is very brittle, and the Hindu right has not by any means disappeared from power, or from its seat in many people’s hearts.