In the run-up to Assembly elections in December, Gujarat is in the throes of powerful forces.

On the one hand, some of its principal economic pillars, such as small manufacturing and agriculture, are in trouble. At the same time, the state is seeing a curious fissuring. What was once a separation between Hindus and Muslims has spread further. It is visible not just in the case of Una – where Dalits rose in protest after four tanners from the community were accused of cow slaughter and attacked in July 2016 – or the Patidar agitation for reservations in jobs and education, but also within the Patel community. It is getting increasingly difficult for Kadva Patels to get a house in a Leuva Patel colony and vice-versa, this reporter was told in Rajkot. Look closer at the state and you will see other shifts. Public displays of devotion during festivals are on the rise, for instance.

Trying to make sense of such changes, spoke with Ghanshyam Shah, a leading political scientist on Gujarat and the author of Social Movements in India. As we learnt, some of these patterns are visible elsewhere in India – like Punjab turning to gurus and deras or religious organisations as economic insecurity deepens. Other changes, however, are fruit from a very different tree. Gujarat has been under majoritarian governments for the last 20 years. Come here and you see what happens to a society once majoritarian politics wins. How its rulers use the power they accumulate. How society – the minority and majority communities alike – changes.

What are the major changes you see in Gujarat over the last five to seven years?
Certain changes have consolidated, like the attitude of the majority towards the minority. This is something that started in the 1960s and picked up pace from the mid-1980s. Take civil society: writers, columnists and activists. Gujarat has a mainstream civil society and a peripheral civil society. The latter worked on justice and egalitarian principles. It was Left-of-centre. Activists in mainstream civil society were soft to the state. They were well-meaning people. They did not have malafide intent but they did not do much critical analysis. They would only say they want development, for instance. They called themselves pragmatic. They avoided confrontation with the state. Till the 1970s, this group also wanted plurality and was in favour of tolerance. From the late 1980s, the scenario changed.

What triggered the change?
The 1969 riots was a major reason. It did not happen overnight. Gujarat had seen riots under the British and after Independence. These riots were the result of local issues. But between 1962 and 1969, Gujarat saw a chain of events leading up to the violence. A different narrative was created: “Muslims are Pakistanis. They do not have a loyalty to India.” This atmosphere was created by the Hindu Mahasabha, the precursor to the Bharatiya Janata Party. They raised issues like the Paigambar’s (Prophet) hair, cricket between India and Pakistan. There was the 1965 Pakistan war. There were agitations over gau raksha or cow protection. There were big sadhu processions.

All of this happened one by one. In 1963-1964, for instance, there were demands for a ban on cow slaughter. In the late 1980s, mainstream civil society was swept away by pro-Narmada dam hysteria and Gujarat parochialism (asmita/pride) invoked by political leaders. The Ram Janmabhoomi struggle in Ayodhya added fuel to fire.

A template that continues till today...
Yes. And so, Gujarat brought in the anti-cow slaughter act. Those in power were not anti-Muslim. But they did not understand the consequences of what they were doing. At that time, the riots of 1969 were called a creation of China. At that time, the intellectuals never questioned. They saw these as aberrations. We (the liberals) thought this is how the culture is and it will remain this way, that these threats will be taken care of automatically by education and urbanisation.

It was very similar to what you see now. Not very articulate, not questioning, self-styled pro-poor but not creating an organisation or mobilising to spread this argument. Maybe they did not have the patience. Or they thought ideas themselves would change society. We saw caste enter politics but thought this is the beginning of secularism in Indian politics. That caste groups joining together is the antithesis of caste identity. That eventually caste will wither away.

On the other hand, those who wanted a different society that gave primacy to their notion of traditional culture, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian, started to build an alternative narrative culture, brick by brick. It slowly culminated in an anti-Muslim and now completely polarised society. It is now very difficult to talk about secularism. Those aberrations have been institutionalised and legitimised. I recently saw an advertisement for a Samsung product. It was about national integration. It had six people but no Christian, no Muslim. It is not the state doing this. This has been done by the advertising company. This has been normalised. Even the symbolism is gone.

In a sense, the majoritarian project is complete. What is this society like now? How is the majority community doing?
Gujarat saw riots in 1969, 1980, 1992 and 2002. One every 10 years. A new generation fought in each. And each generation said after the riots that we taught them (Muslims) a lesson. There is a complex, an insecurity, behind that. When people say we taught them a lesson even though we had the upper hand, that comes from their imagined insecurity.

What I find different from when I was young is the religiosity. It – and the rituals – were always there. But they were not so overt. Now they are. This is partly because more money has come in. There is also competition within society. Hinduism is not monolithic. All groups – the Rajputs, the Brahmins – have different temples. If your gods are superior to those of the Muslims, then the same logic applies within Hinduism. And so, new temples are being built.

What is that insecurity? Also, this competition is also a kind of fissuring, is it not? It is difficult for Leuva Patels to find accommodation in a Kadva Patel neighbourhood, for instance.
Increasing insecurity in life. Not just vis-a-vis the minority. The sense of caste is deepening. We have neoliberalism, competition and social insecurity with very little outside the caste to support people. In conditions of insecurity, you bank on each other. And primordial loyalties get strengthened. Each caste had a traditional support system. And that is now strengthened as a caste-only support system.

Like student hostels only for Leuva Patels?
They first came up in the 19th century. The first Patidar Chhatralaya came up around 1916 or 1917 in Surat. Then, similar structures came up for Anavil Brahmins in South Gujarat. These were meant to support people who wanted to study but could not. But now, some Patidar Chhatralayas allow only Mehsana Patidars. Such arrangements are inbuilt in caste. And they are getting enforced. The neoliberal economy has raised aspirations but it has not been able to meet them. A massive 94% of labour is in the unorganised sector. They start working at the age of 22 and continue till they turn 60 and know that if they have to save for their old age, they have to hold multiple jobs. They do not have provident fund or pension. That is insecurity.

In such a context, they revive primordial bonds, pulling together resources to support the education, health and employment of caste members. This is social capital. Rich castes have more social capital, which enables them to strengthen their caste bonds. Some caste organisations create larger caste clusters, for instance, covering all Patidars, which you find in Surat. But the rest confine themselves to a village or a region. Those with an agenda of building a nation on the basis of religion invoke religious identity cutting across castes and also imagine others as their enemy. Religion itself leads to more orthodoxy. The proponents of a religion-based nation create a real or imaginary situation of insecurity in which members of the same religion develop bonds against the others – adversary religion. Symbols of identity are created. Some Sikhs started wearing turbans after riots as they were told that they are Sikh. Similarly, liberal Muslims are forced to live in a Muslim locality and confine their interactions to Muslims for the sake of security.

A Swaminarayan temple in Rajkot. As in Punjab, so in Gujarat. Rising economic insecurity is pushing people deeper into religion and caste identities.

What you say about insecurity is very similar to what we saw in Punjab. Also, Gujarat is seeing a continuous deepening of fissures, within both the majority and minority communities?

And so, people get told to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party because “dharam ki raksha karni hai”?
Yes. As a Hindu, you have a duty to protect those who have carried out this dharma. To protect the religion, you have to attack others.

There is a big question here about majoritarianism. What does the government do with the power majoritarianism grants it?
It is almost like a religious state. The majoritarian project at one level is majoritarian culture dominating and increasing. But for what? It serves the interests of the economically dominant strata. For the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the majoritarian project is an end in itself. But actually, whose interest have they served? There is no one Hindu society – it has many customs, folklore, gods. This majoritarian project strengthens the culture and belief system of the upper strata of society. The brahmanical view of the world is strengthened.

The Right’s ideologues have a simplistic understanding of Hindu society. That everything will be taken care of with Hindu unity. But what we are seeing is a new challenge. They cannot wish away conflicting economic and social interests at the ground level in everyday life. Take the Patidars. Because of neoliberal politics, they face a scarcity of decent white collar jobs. Because of their caste and religious upbringing, they want jobs of a particular kind to protect their caste status. They do not want to be a peon or a constable. According to them, those jobs should go to Thakors or Dalits. The Hindutva ideologue cannot wish away this kind of a contradiction.

If the majority community is becoming more religious and fissuring more deeply within itself, partly because of rising economic insecurity, partly because of a sense of religious competition among Hindu communities, how are the minorities doing? What about the Muslims?
The Muslims have mellowed. In the 1960s and 1970s, they were more assertive. By the 1990s, their assertiveness had gone down. And now, it is almost absent. If they have to live peacefully, they have to adjust. Say, in my ward, I do not get water or drainage if I am non-BJP. So I join them and I get the advantage. There are umpteen examples. Businessman Zafar Sareshwala suffered financial losses in the 2002 Godhra riots. And yet he is now with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. What else can they do? What else would I do if I were in this position?

A hoarding of Narendra Modi in the town he hails from, Vadnagar. In the last six months, the town has seen a beautification campaign. But talk to locals and they complain of a lack of jobs.

What about the tribals?
They are not doing well. Despite accounting for 14%-15% of the state’s population, they are still alien to the larger society. Even in civil society. In political terms, parties see them as backward Hindus. Back in time, even Mahatma Gandhi saw them as backward Hindus. Both missionaries and Gandhians saw tribals as backward people to be civilised, modelled on upper castes. Gandhi blessed and praised people who built a Ram temple in tribal areas in the early 1920s. For them, tribals were not people with a culture of their own. And yet, Gandhi’s project was not to strengthen Hindus against Muslims. But when the BJP came in, it inculcated some elements like “Muslims are your enemy”. All that culminated in 2002.

In the Dangs, a Sabari temple was built. She was created as a goddess. Every caste has its own gods and goddesses. Sabari was a tribal. And so, they made her a god. Such temples served a purpose. To place Sabari below Ram. But the tribals had never worshipped her.

How have the inroads made by Hindutva affected tribals?
The tribe-caste dichotomy is almost a continuum now. Especially for tribes closer to the plains who have adopted the customs and rituals of the caste groups they interact with. With this proximity, the tribals formed a caste. This process was strengthened by Hindutva forces. Now, they do not call them Adivasis. They call them Vanvasis. In the course of the last two decades, many of them have begun to idenitify as Hindu rather than tribal. They recognise their tribe as one caste.

The change I see is that the Hinduism project is complete. Between my fieldwork in the 1970s and 1980s and what I see now, there is a lot of change. Tribals no longer identify themselves as Bhil but as Hindu Bhil. The traditional marriage system in tribal customs was more open with women holding more or less “equal status”. In some tribes, the son-in-law moved into the woman’s family as an additional helping hand. That has changed. The status of women has come down. Even the women activists I met had forgotten that their mothers and grandmothers had more freedom.

But in all this, there has been little actual development.
Yes, there is economic development. The middle class has expanded, cutting across all social groups. But if you take social development indictors such as health, education, crimes against women, Dalit and Adivasi welfare, Gujarat lags behind many other states.

A textile worker in Surat. In the last five years, small and medium enterprises in Gujarat have struggled against rising Chinese imports, the entry of larger players from other parts of the state, demonetisation and now the Goods and Services Tax.

How are the Dalits doing?
If 80% of the tribal project is complete, only 50% of the Dalit project is – in terms of their assimilation into the brahminical Hindu society. This process started in the 1980s. Till the late 1970s, the BJP’s rank and file were upper caste Kshatriyas, Rajputs and Brahmins. In the late 1970s, the Patidars came in. In the 1980s, the BJP made a conscious attempt to woo Dalits. The reason was simple. Anti-reservation agitations in the late 1980s. At that time, they realised that if this anti-caste project continues, they cannot attain the Hindutva project.

And so, from anti-caste to anti-Muslim. We have enough evidence of this. In the 1980s, Samras (a Gujarat government scheme under which village representatives are elected unopposed) was about assimilation. Everyone should dissolve their identities in the larger Hindu identity. A kind of reimagination of the past. The BJP conducted a long march covering 100 villages. It began on BR Ambedkar’s birthday and ended on Sangh leader KB Hedgewar’s birthday. Their position was that Dalits were not discriminated against before the Muslims came. Do not believe in jaati (sub-castes), only in varna (class).

But both are discriminatory.
That contradiction is only for you and me. In Samras, Muslims and Christians are excluded. Modi has addressed meetings appealing to caste pride where he has spoken about legends of Dalits sacrificing themselves for their village. When they talk about Ambedkar, they never touch untouchability. They want to wish that away.

This reminds me of the Shiv Charchas in Bihar.
If opportunities are equal, there is no problem. But if you are competing with them (the so-called lower castes), then you want to show them their place. This is where modernity comes in. What is people’s experience of discrimination? In several villages, they have separate wells for water, and Dalit children do not eat their mid-day meals sitting alongside their non-Dalit schoolmates. But in many village, Dalits do not complain. The discrimination has been accepted. In one study, 90% of Dalits reported that they did not encounter discrimination at lower levels. That was their experience of perceived discrimination. At the college level, only 20% did not perceive discrimination. The majority of Dalit students feel discriminated against and humiliated. This is because when Dalits compete for a higher status and jobs, it is not tolerated by non-Dalit aspirants. This is what the Patidar agitation is about. If the Dalits compete, the ugly face of caste is revealed.

So why 50%?
Stratification has begun among castes. Even among Dalits: 10% of them are graduates, 10% have finished school. The educated middle class among Dalits is upset when the community is attacked but is not willing to come out on the same dais. That kind of brotherhood is facile. With stratification, the upwardly mobile can easily get co-opted by the BJP. I know someone who became Buddhist with Ambedkar and edited a journal on Ambedkarism for 20 years and then went over to the side of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. This is our political class. Who cares about ideology? And so, why expect anything else from Dalits?

What is the Dalit response?
They are united only on certain issues. Which is why the Una protests could not be sustained for long. Chamars versus others, educated versus others. It took 50 years for an alternative mobilisation to emerge. And what has happened to the Una movement? They took out a march earlier this year from Mehsana district but that fizzled out after their leader Jignesh Mevani was arrested.

And who are these leaders? They are from the educated middle class. Can they sustain such campaigns? They need to mobilise people. This requires long-term patience. Take Kanshi Ram. He had his cycle yatra for many years. It was low-profile. He invested his time in it. These are long-term projects that need resources and a great deal of time. They also need ideological clarity. It is necessary for anyone who believes in social transformation to think of ways to operationalise those ideas, evolve strategies.

Surat’s abandoned bylanes. Till five years ago, these resonated to the clacketing of looms. Now, their owners drive autos or rent out their premises.

All photographs by M Rajshekhar.