Gujarat’s polarisation panel has died as it lived, quietly. Set up in 2009 by the state government headed by Narendra Modi, it was a one-man judicial commission meant to investigate the “polarisation of the population on the basis of different religions”. Six years later, it wound up after no hearings and one affidavit, declaring nothing to report.

In retrospect, it seems less like a real panel, more like a Dickensian conceit: a judge wielding a gavel and declaring a population polarised or not polarised. The one-man judicial commission, in the person of Justice BJ Sethna, had reportedly gathered data from 24 districts. But such facts could not be turned into incontrovertible truths without hearings, testimonies, verdicts. No one, Sethna Said, was willing to testify.

Commission as conceit is a popular feature of political life, especially when it comes to communal friction. The Liberhan Commission, set up after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, took 17 years to indict the Uttar Pradesh government for caving in to the diktats of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders for failing to prevent the violence and other BJP politicians for directly encouraging the mob. The Mehta-Nanavati Commission, appointed by the Gujarat government to look into the 2002 violence, took six years to establish that the Godhra train burning was no accident. Commissions of inquiry, dragging on for years, keep the truths of an incident suspended in a half life. But they do create the illusion of governmental action.

Even in the caricaturish world of commissions, the polarisation panel was an audacious experiment. First, because of the political circumstances surrounding its creation. Second, in the terms of reference that it adopted. Finally, because of the painfully evident realities that it could not establish.

Modi’s makeover

The panel was set up during Modi’s second term as chief minister of Gujarat, the years when he was making the transition from a state leader to a politically acceptable national leader. It was a careful and exhaustive makeover. The politician who achieved landslide victories through communal mobilisation was to become the face of development and Vibrant Gujarat.

The memories of 2002 were fading, and Modi helped the process along. In 2008, the Mehta-Nanavati Commission had given him and his government a clean chit in the Godhra violence. In 2009, the same year the polarisation panel was set up, the state assembly passed amendments to the Gujarat Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provision for Protection of Tenants from Eviction from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act, 1991, apparently to prevent “ghettoisation”. It would culminate in the Sadbhavana fast of 2011, when the public was treated to images of Modi fasting for communal harmony and accepting gifts from Muslim clerics, though he famously refused to wear a skull cap.

The polarisation panel was seen by many as a means to absolve his government, once and for all, of the accusations that had hounded it since the communal violence of 2002. The man for the job, the Gujarat government decided, was Sethna. He had shot to fame, previously, for acquitting all 21 accused in the Best Bakery case, later reopened by the Supreme Court, and for assaulting a colleague. The government’s choice of Sethna as inquisitor opened the panel up to attacks from activists and detractors.

Poles of a magnet

But the “scientific study” of polarisation was a dubious project in more ways than one. The panel was to find out “the area in square metres covered by the people following different religions in Gujarat as on August 15, 1947”, “the polarisation and migration” of such people every 10 years since then, the “names and sizes of such areas” and the “area-wise proportion of people following different religions” in localities that came into being after Independence.

The terms of reference seem to imagine polarisation as a physical process, as though people were naturally drawn to different poles of a magnet over time. Moreover, while notifying the commission, the government had spoken of the need to look at the problem in the context of “social and economic development”. By shifting emphasis to developmental factors, it drew attention away from the trauma of forced migration, which took place after every incident of communal violence. It also ignores the politics that enabled and deepened the communalisation which forced minorities into ghettos of deprivation.

Social scientist DL Sheth describes how, for many decades, influential Gujaratis projected an image of the state that suppressed the “complex realities of Gujarati society”. “Gandhi’s Gujarat”, populated by non-violent, vegetarian teetotallers, merged seamlessly into the Jain-Vaishnav ethos that dominated the political culture of the state post Independence, Sheth says. But Gandhi’s Gujarat was also the home state of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League was a significant presence in Ahmedabad before 1947. A large section of its population, consisting of Muslims, tribal communities and other backward classes, ate meat. Many tribal and OBC communities also drank liquor, a practice suddenly criminalised by the state’s prohibition laws.

Girish Patel, a human rights lawyer based in Gujarat, remembers a society that was always divided by religion and daily habits. He also recalls a riot as far back as 1941. At the time of Partition, Gujarat did not see the mass violence that convulsed other parts of the country. But there were isolated incidents, in Godhra, among other places. There was always a bitterness, Patel says, but it did not lead to large-scale communal violence.

And in spite of the social separation, there were mixed localities. Some of these grew around economic factors. The thriving textile mills of Gujarat, for instance, drew migrants from all communities and were skirted by mixed settlements. The process of ghettoisation sped up, Patel says, after the communal riots of 1969, Gujarat’s first brush with mass violence.

The riots started in Ahmedabad and spread to other places, killing an estimated 660 people and injuring more than 1,000. The fragmentation of the Congress and the rise of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh formed the political backdrop to the riots. Rival speeches by Hindu nationalist and Muslim leaders are said to have catalysed tensions. In the months before the riots, Golwalkar had visited the state and mounted an appeal for a “Hindu rashtra”. Bharatiya Jana Sangh leaders had also toured Ahmedabad, making inflammatory speeches.

But most people moved temporarily, Patel says, taking refuge in a relative’s home and waiting for tempers to cool. Besides, the 1970s saw a period of relative calm and migration to urban centres led to a political reconfiguration. For a while, the upper caste political elite was challenged by the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) alliance forged by the Congress.

This coalition was broken after the anti-reservation agitation of the 1985, Sheth argues. Upper-caste, middle class Gujaratis took to the streets protesting against reservation for Dalits and tribal communities, but the protests soon turned into communal riots that targeted Muslims. This was because the Bharatiya Janata Party was able to co-opt Dalits and tribal groups into the Hindutva fold, eroding the old KHAM solidarity. The politics of the 1990s was dominated by the idea of “Hindu ekta”, or Hindu unity against non-Hindus.

Gujarat saw frequent communal riots after 1985, and that was when the polarisation of communities began to harden into a permanent separation. This period saw the growth of Juhapura, once a Hindu hamlet on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Muslims fleeing the riots started pouring into the area post-1985 and continued to do so over the next couple of decades.

The state evidently recognised this rapid rise in ghettoisation and passed the Disturbed Areas Act in 1991. It was a well-intentioned law, which identified communally sensitive areas and aimed to prevent distress sale of property by threatened minorities. A district collector was meant to oversee property transactions between members of two different communities. It suffered in implementation, Patel says. Muslims in disturbed areas continued to sell property, often by giving Hindus power of attorney, and there was massive corruption in the collector’s office.

The urban geographies of Gujarat changed dramatically between 1969 and 2002. And all accounts suggest these changes could be mapped against political shifts, wrought largely by Hindu nationalist mobilisations. These political factors lay outside the ambit of the polarisation panel’s study. But then communal violence, like polarisation, is often seen as a force of nature in Gujarat. The violence of 2002 is remembered as the “toofan”, a storm that rose out of nowhere and spent its furies on the state’s population.

After the toofan

When the storm cleared, it left behind a population rearranged on religious lines. These realities have been recorded in several reports and studies since 2002, but they escaped the processes of a judicial commission of inquiry.

Many of the Muslims displaced by the violence and forced to take shelter in relief camps were never able to return to their original homes. Muslims previously scattered across the city of Ahmedabad were forced to huddle together in ghettos, and new settlements cropped up on the outskirts of the city. Juhapura, which had a population of 2.5 lakh before 2002, burgeoned into a ghetto of nearly 7 lakh people. Even affluent, influential Muslims, including judges and civil servants, were forced to take shelter there, while the few remaining Hindus moved out. In many cases, the roads dividing Hindu and Muslim settlements came to be known as the “border”.

Middle-class residential areas were drained of minorities. Till 2002, Patel says, there were a few Muslims in the locality of Naranpura, where he lives. They have all left. Stories abound of Hindu landlords refusing to rent houses to Muslim tenants. Over time, the differences in Hindu and Muslim colonies became evident in living conditions. Squalid, overcrowded Muslim ghettos contrasted sharply with neater Hindu localities.

A panel studying polarisation post 2002 would also have to confront the state's role in deepening these differences. Sanjeevani Badigar Lokhande notes that while the government provided relief to riot victims, it failed to guarantee security, forcing minorities to migrate to ghettos. Moreover, the state never entered the ghettos, which still lack basic infrastructure like roads, sanitation, hospitals, schools. In relatively affluent Juhapura, residents have pooled resources together to lay roads and gutters inside the colony. Patel said he petitioned the local municipal body for water and sanitation facilities, only to be told there was a long-term plan in place so it would take a while.

Today these “borders” have congealed, and Modi has moved out of Gujarat. The apotheosis that began with the Sadbhavana fast of 2011 ended with the victory of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The conversation on polarisation in Gujarat is over, so who needs a polarisation panel anymore?