But could last fortnight's riots in Vadodara simply have been caused by a traffic accident outside the city’s district court complex at Nyaya Mandir? For a brief while the city’s police seemed to think so, saying that an accident between two-wheelers there led to an argument between lawyers and later stone-pelting that inflamed passions.
Yet even this seemingly straightforward explanation was immediately contested. Lawyers at the court decided to protest a statement by the city’s police commissioner claiming the most recent incidents – which took five days and thousands of cops to control, led to the arrest of more than 200 and prompted a temporary ban 2G and 3G access as well group SMSs and MMSs – had been caused by them. The police commissioner would eventually withdraw his statement to ensure the lawyers ended their strike.
In a city like Vadodara, the third-largest in Gujarat and a place that is no stranger to communal violence, it is never easy to assign blame for incidents like this. It is, easy, though, to predict what happens once the violence has begun.
Much of the summer in the aftermath of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s massive victory in the general elections saw right-wing groups attempt to further a process of polarisation, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. A campaign against “love jihad,” an alleged practice where Muslim boys are said to seduce Hindu girls in order to convert them, become one of the chief planks for the Sangh Parivar in Uttar Pradesh and the campaign quickly spread to other parts of the country.
In Gujarat, the campaign become most pronounced in the run-up to the nine-day Hindu festival of Navratri, in which young men and women have traditionally taken part in the garba folk dance. Members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing outfit that is part of the Sangh Parivar, started insisting that no Muslims should be allowed at any garba event. This was followed up by a thank you letter from a Muslim Member of Legislative Assembly saying he prefers young men of his community stay away from such events because it saves them from committing sin.
By the first day of Navratri, on September 25, there was already plenty of communal tension and, in Vadodara, this led to cars being torched and several stabbings. Over the next five days, the state sent in thousands of troops to get a handle on the situation and imposed a questionable three-day ban on 2G and 3G internet services. Things have now settled down, although the rioting caused serious problems for traders, who usually expect brisk business during the festival. The police have arrested 200 people for their alleged involvement and are continuing to probe the case.
One thing seems certain: the propaganda that preceded the festival had a significant impact.
“On one level, It’s nothing but polarisation,” Achyut Yagnik, a historian and human rights, told Scroll.in. “The VHP is reasserting itself in the state. As long as Modi was the chief minister, the VHP was marginalised. After he has left for Delhi though, they are starting to take harder positions and carrying out the propaganda, not just in Baroda, but in Ahmedabad, in Rajkot and elsewhere. They want to instigate things.”
This is a sentiment that is echoed by observers across the state. The VHP always felt marginalised under Modi, to the extent that a senior leader compared the then-chief minister to Mahmud Ghazni because he was demolishing temples a few years ago. Under the new leadership in the state, this is less true and it has caused those on the Muslim right to react accordingly. Prior to Navratri, a cleric in Gujarat was arrested for calling it a “festival of demons”.
“At a certain respectable level of speech-making or at a congenial building atmospheric level, it is acceptable to talk of secularism or of Hindu-Muslim ekta (unity). But I have serious doubts,” said PM Patel, the head of the department of political science at the MS Baroda University. “If Muslims resort to violence, then I would say it could be a statement of resentment on some part of government treatment… On the other side, the anti-Muslim sentiments is a continuous flow, like the river Saraswati, not on the surface, but the undercurrent is there.”
But it’s not pure religious polarisation at work here, especially since there were barely any reports from the other cities in Gujarat where Hindu hardliners were said to be attempting to inflame sentiments.
Yagnik pointed out that there are other interests specific to Vadodara playing into the violence.
“For one, within Baroda, the builder lobby is very powerful," he said. "They want the slum areas to be evacuated, because it’s quality property for them, and you’ll find in the history of the city, which has had many riots, there were many riots that were caused by this. The underworld is also playing its part. There is a competition between the Muslims and the Kahar community in Baroda for the control of the underworld, and this too is a factor.”
Meanwhile, a senior journalist who has covered the state for years also pointed out that resentment against the new state leadership has also begun to grow, within the BJP itself. “CM Anandiben Patel has her position because of her proximity to Modi, but there are many who are not necessarily answering to her, even if it’s just because she’s a woman,” the journalist said. “This might not directly have a role in the incidents in Baroda, but it might mean less control of the government over the other factions in the party.”
Patel, who has studied Baroda’s long history of communal incidents, said he didn’t think the violent trend will be going away anytime soon.
“It doesn’t require a great intellect to understand that a rupture in civil forces will resort in civil war,” he said. “One doesn’t like to be pushed to the wall. Here it is only communal, but I’m afraid of a far more serious reaction. I’m worried it could result in terror.”
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