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Genocide, Reconciliation and Justice in Gujarat

Genocide, Reconciliation and Justice in Gujarat Britta Ohm systematic torture and persecution (such as political opinion) as well as non-state actors (such as the wider network of the Sangh parivar)

BOOK REVIEWjuly 11, 2009 vol xliv no 28 EPW Economic & Political Weekly36Genocide, Reconciliation and Justice in GujaratBritta Ohm TK Oommen has a strong record of active involvement with matters of multiculturalism and politics. His latest bookReconciliation in Post-Godhra Gujarat is a powerful example of this engagement, and the most important one given the solemnity of the topic: the anti-Muslim pogrom or genocidal attack in Gujarat that lasted from February to May 2002, and the initiatives for post-violence reconciliation.Reconciliation in Post-Godhra Gujarat is only partly a sociological analysis of the aftermath of the violence. Predominantly, it is an account and an evaluation of a re-markable project that Oommen joined in 2002 as chair of the advisory committee. The initiative, the Gujarat Harmony Project (GHP), sponsored by Care India, served as an umbrella of altogether 12 partners and was started in May 2002 with emergency relief operations, functioning with the objective of its more fundamental con-cern, reconciliation, until November 2004. Two of the organisations were what Oom-men calls “strategic partners” that were versed in the areas of training, research and advocacy: Unnati, a rights-based NGO, active in the field of dalit, gender, disabili-ty and peace-building issues, and the National Institute for Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS). The remain-ing 10 “implementing” organisations were in a collaborative context “entrusted with the task of implementing the objectives and activities mandated by the GHP” (p 87). They were reaching from the organisa-tions active in feminism and women’s em-powerment like – Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG) and Olakh, Vado-dara, Muslim and Christian NGOs like Gujarat Sarvajanik Welfare Trust (GSWT) and St Xavier’s Social Service Society (XSSS), organisations related to particular significant employment and social groups like Kamdar Swasthya Suraksha Mandal (KSSM), which has originated amongst textile mill workers and the Tribhuvandas Foundation, which is related to the so-called white revolution, epitomised in the milk cooperative Amul Dairy and the organisations concerned with equitable development through integrated settle-ments like Saath. The efforts of coordinating such a big initiative so quickly deserve great appre-ciation, particularly as very little of these efforts triggered into the media and thus towards the larger public perception. Moreover, Oommen distinctively clari-fies that, because of the far-reaching im-plications they entail, endeavours to-wards reconciliation are usually omitted intheaftermath of violence, operations reaching generally not beyond the first two common “R”s: relief and rehabilita-tion, which keep victims at the level ofbe-ing recipients and partners, respectively, while in the case of reconciliation, they are required to become self-responsible carri-ers of the process in order to generate and ensure a sustainable cohabitation (p 17). Riots or Genocide?Oommen undertakes quite early in the book an explicit assessment of the ques-tion whether the Gujarat violence should be termed “riots” or “genocide” (pp 71-72). Probably consciously avoiding allusion to the uneven polarisation of the larger pub-lic debate, in which the use of the terms and their mutual exclusiveness became a marker of the respective politicalstance, Oommen leaves throughout the book no doubt about the exceptionality of the violence in terms of state orchestration and uncompromising anti-Muslim hatred. However, he argues for a definition of gen-ocide that transcends minimalist defini-tions – like that of the UN of 1948, which is limited to ethnicity, race and religion and fails to take into account other reasons for systematic torture and persecution (such as political opinion) as well as non-state actors (such as the wider network of the Sangh parivar) – as much as maximalist framings, which run the danger of includ-ing any war situation in the category. Oommen suggests a more inclusive defi-nition of the term that refers to the elimi-nating deliberation of one segment of society against another and that is able to adequately grasp that “in the case of Gujarat 2002, both the state and civil society conjured up the genocidal situation that made it particularly gruesome” (p 72). Indeed, this definitional move is able to recognise not only that there were – even if to a much lesser degree – Hindu victims of Muslim (counter-)aggression also in Gujarat, who tended to be attacked less because they were Hindus, but also be-cause they were identified with the poli-tics of the Sangh parivar, whereas the Muslims were systematically attacked be-cause they were Muslims and ideologically identified with the evils of Islam, Pakistan and the global jihad. This differentiation is also important because it allows ac-knowledgement of the substantial involve-ment of dalits and adivasis in the vio-lence and their particular ambivalent role as targets and tools of the Hindutva ideology and as perpetrators against Muslims. Itthus enables a socio-political approach towards the basic topic of the book–societal reconciliation – that atte-mpts to rise above mere Hindu-Muslim antagonismincommunal terms and thus to avoid the reproduction of Hindu na-tionalist framings. On the other hand, it yet hardly mitigates thedifficultyofthe task that the author, and with him a large number ofNGO-workers on the ground in Gujarat, put before him: how is reconcili-ation at the societal level at all possible after such unprecedented “will to kill” that did involve large sections of the Hindu majority?Societal ReconciliationIs “reconciliation” the appropriate term to use as it – not much different from “riots” in that sense – seems to imply two more or less equal partners that reach out to each other? The implied paradox is probably most aptly expressed in the quote of a Muslim woman, who availed a loan from Reconciliation in Post-Godhra Gujarat: The Role of Civil Society by T K Oommen (Delhi: Pearson Education), 2008; pp XVI + 288, Rs 625.
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 11, 2009 vol xliv no 2837the MuslimGSWT in order to rebuild her burnt-down house but refused to attend any of the offered programmes for peace and harmony: “When we are not responsi-ble for the violence, how can we bring peace?” (p 153). And finally, how sustain-able can reconciliation be when the perpe-trators, amongst them not least the re-cently re-elected Gujarati state govern-ment under Narendra Modi, are not brought to book?In this context, and reconciliation and its intricacies being the central theme of the book, it is a bit surprising to find the concept of reconciliation unequivocally culturalised on the outset. Oommen de-scribes it rather ontologically as “the gen-ius of India” (p 3), which historically ena-bled the accommodation, evolvement and preservation of diverse religious traditions but which was seriously disturbed “for the first time” with the “Muslim conquest” that led to a coexistence of Islam and the “Indic religions” with “considerable un-ease” (p 5/6). Given Oommen’s otherwise explicit objective to transcend ethnic and religious ascriptions and his emphasis on syncretic traditions between Hinduism and Islam elsewhere in the book, one is puzzled in the face of this rather mystify-ing introduction, which easily talks of the “refusal to proselytise” (p 5) of smaller mi-grant religions like Zoroastrianism and the Baha’i faith (while indicating only in pass-ing that their acceptance rather depended on a renunciation) and the fact that Sikhism “did not substantially disturb the religious harmony of India” (ibid: without mention-ing the serious persecution that followers of Sikhism were exposed to in early modern and modern India). Detailed EvaluationNevertheless, this does not diminish, for one, the detailed evaluation of the various GHP-involved NGOs and their specific ac-tivities as well as the relatively extensive accounts of beneficiaries and local partici-pants in the different initiatives. The lat-ter in particular represent a very valuable source, because they offer an insight into the reluctance and partly apparently in-surmountable refusal, but also the will-ingness and even enthusiasm of the steps that individual members of the involved groups (Hindus, Muslims,dalitsand adivasis) have taken towards (or further away) from each other. Most of all, though, the evaluation allows for a glimpse on the depth of shock andtrau-ma that such a situation of extreme vio-lence generates. There have been nearly 50 outright wars worldwide since the sec-ond world war, nearly all of them are tak-ing place in the non-western hemisphere (and largely in post-colonial countries), and we have hardly any accounts of the long-term psychological (and physical) consequences. When we assess in relation the degree of mental pain that this geno-cidal attack alone, which does not count amongst the registered wars, has brought about, we get an idea of the immensity of distress that a large proportion of the global population – which is, moreover, in addition exposed to heightened expecta-tions in terms of economic and political performance – has to cope with, and thus can also vaguely gauge the potentiality of future conflict. It is against this backdrop that Oommen underlines the indispensability not only of accounting the consequences of the vio-lence, but of an active reconciliation in Gujarat, despite all the hurdles described. With the work’s explicit focus on the majo-rity of the poor and disadvantaged, recon-ciliation becomes, first of all, a counter-strategy to the obvious tactics, specifically of the GujaratiBJP and Narendra Modi to play off dalits, adivasis and Muslims against each other on communal lines in the context of economic and political favouritism. Moreover, reconciliation wil-ly-nilly has to involve a substantial part of the majority community, i e, the commu-nity of the perpetrators, even at the risk of downplaying the individual sympathy for or involvement in the violence. It is at this point, though, that two significant aspects gain currency. One is the relation of the Gujarat government to the GHP-initiatives, and vice versa. Oommen points out re-peatedly the well-known inactivity, com-plicity and active impediment regarding even relief and rehabilitation measures as well as the well-aimed endeavours towards saffronisation of education on the part of the state (as well as the then central) government. At the same time, he cau-tions NGOs against integrating people in their projects, who continue to be members of the Sangh parivar (p 214). All of the GHP’s activities were, however, while deci-sively involving Muslim, Christian and secularNGOs, located in the areas of relief, rehabilitation and in the context of recon-ciliation, specifically, education (in terms of applying creative pedagogy for the trau-matised young, efforts at overcoming myths and prejudices against the other community through common learning and life skills-programmes and awareness raising with regard to legal rights). It would thus have been interesting to know more about how all these initiatives, which involved altogether a rather large amount of participants, were received by the gov-ernment and organised Sangh parivar ac-tivists, in how far they had to be negotiat-ed, and under what (legal) terms they were ultimately implemented. The other aspect concerns the question of justice. Oommen clearly does not minimise the importance of legal justice, which, in contrast to earlier Hindu-Mus-lim violence, gained particular prece-dence in Gujarat because of the obvious genocidal implications but still awaits operation. He calls it a vital requirement in terms of accountability, but he also accentuates that “justice alone does not bring about reconciliation” (p 257). Tak-ing a very pragmatic perspective, he sug-gests yet another definitional distinction between retributive justice – which car-ries the realistic danger of further antag-onising the perpetrators in communal terms – and restorative justice – which builds on an extra-legal acceptance of guilt under the premise of the unavoida-bility of future cohabitation and he does cite various encouraging examples, where this did work. ConclusionThe Gujarat violence, however, and this is what the book overlooks, represented not only a new dimension in terms of state complicity, organised brutality and hatred. It has taken place in the course of a pro-found redefinition of legitimacy and ac-countability itself. Oommen underlines that the government of Gujarat “cannot be a party in bringing about reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims unless the identified perpetrators of violence show remorse and openly admit their crimes
BOOK REVIEWjuly 11, 2009 vol xliv no 28 EPW Economic & Political Weekly38and confess” (p 61). The matter of fact is, though, that theyhave confessed in all public (in the November 2007 issue of Te-helka magazine), and the fact that it is pre-cisely these – proud! – confessions that have been deemed as an additional advertisement for the Modi-government on the eve of its re-election mark the overall shift in the public discourse (and electoral behaviour at least in Gujarat) that has been palpable ever since the vio-lence itself. What follows from this shift for the very reliability of reconciliation and restorative justice?Reconciliation in Post-Godhra Gujarat is a most valuable account that provides not only useful definitional suggestions, but also a sensitive and differentiated analysis of post-violence efforts towards Hindu-Muslim reconciliation and its specific framework and intricacies. It compellingly shows that there is no future without reconciliation, especially as far as it con-cerns alliances of the powerless against the powerful, and that starting with the people is the only way when there is no starting with the state. Yet, particularly in the context of its pragmatic perspective, the book and its vital topic would have greatly profited from taking into account that in Gujarat, anti-minority violence and its prevention are not a matter of individu-al remorse and legal accountability, but of public (i e, majoritarian) legitimacy and its orchestration. There is reason to hope that the insights and ties that the GHP has been able to initiate amongst its participants have a lasting quality. But hope alone is a very shaky ground to proceed on.Email: ohm@zedat.fu-berlin.deBooks ReceivedAlur, Mithu and Vianne Timmons, ed. 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