How would you describe the violence in Gujarat?
I have been witness to the violence that has killed thousands of people in the past in Bombay, Delhi and Ahmedabad. The government then had the will to contain those clashes. But this violence is not only sponsored by the state but also committed by it. It is very meticulously planned and horrendously carried out. Even after committing the crime, the government is trying to justify it with one lie after another. Many term this as "state genocide." Parallels to this holocaust can be drawn from Kosovo, Hitler's Germany or Rwanda. If the government loses control over the situation then it could become a civil war. But I don't think it is true here. The government is just not competent or doesn't want the violence to die down. Just as historical facts were tampered with to build up propaganda against the Jews, the people here
also were systematically programmed to accept Muslims as their enemy. The Hindu hard-liners do this in an effort to grab power and create what they call a Hindu nation. But they hardly realize that they are losing the country as a whole.
What could a Hindu do with a war-destroyed nation, even if one calls it a Hindu nation? What has the Church been doing in these circumstances?
Right from day one, the national bodies of bishops in India and the local Church have condemned the violence and called for peace and justice. The Church has responded to this genocide as never before. But because of the nature of the violence, the work may not have been visible. The role of the Church bodies will be put to its real test once the violence ends. Several initiatives to help the victims came from non-Church leadership, although many Church bodies were involved in them. Church bodies do not put their label on the work, lest they run the risk of being branded as sectarian. For us, the primary goal is to have the work done, so we join with others.
Could Christians be the next targets of attack?
Most likely, the Christians may be the target eventually. The missioners are fully prepared for such an attack. That preparedness, however, is not to counter violence with violence. We are gearing ourselves to change the prejudiced mindsets. The trend of violence would show that those villages where the missioners are active have stayed away from violence. This has irritated the Hindu fanatics, though they are not prepared to engineer an attack on the Christians now. But the missioners now have other issues to attend to. We are busy working with thousands who live without adequate food and shelter in the region, where cyclones, earthquakes and severe drought have played havoc in the past.
Why are the NGOs who were active during such natural calamities silent against the violence?
I am disappointed with the NGOs. When we formed a citizen's initiative against the violence, many of them were willing to join and contribute monetarily, but were unwilling to take leadership or reveal names publicly. One reason may be the fears that the militants would target them or that the government may make them objects of a witch-hunt. The Hindu fundamentalists have targeted all those trying to help Muslims. People are naturally afraid to lose their lives and families. Also, the fact is that the violence is so huge and complex that they really do not know how to proceed. Then, a majority of the NGOs that depend on state funds or state-controlled international resources do not want to stick their necks out. This violence is a different ball game altogether.
Are these NGOs losing moral courage?
The collective enthusiasm they showed during the earthquake (in 2001) was missing this time. The commitment was hardly evident. The Hindu militants used 'low' castes and tribals as human weapons against Muslims. Their own oppressors, the high castes, provided them money and weapons to kill the Muslims. But those organizations that boast of championing the cause of 'low' castes and tribals failed even to condemn these acts. The oppression of the Dalits was carried to international forums despite government protests. Now where is the moral stand to champion their cause when they have become perpetrators of violence?
But why are other people in the state also silent?
A major problem in the state is the immaturity of civil society. People in Gujarat have been reduced to mere spectators by the present regime. Their reach has been limited and their capacity has been cut off. There is no public outcry and no reaction. The protestors have been targeted and gradually the public voice has gone down the drain. They have become silent victims of oppression in all forms. They are the victims of a system that fails to appreciate humanity. You tell a lie a thousand times and it becomes a truth. The crimes get an air of legitimacy by the silence of the majority community.
What would you say is the solution to this violence?
I don't see any solution unless the mindset changes. If you want to coexist you have to have a liberal mind. It is unfair to label a whole community because of the deeds of a tiny section of it. If we do that, Christians should be blamed for the arms and ammunition in the world, because some of the biggest arms producers are Christians. Should we brand Christians, Hindus or Muslims as terrorists? But Muslims are branded as enemies and terrorists here. This branding has stigmatized them to unimaginable levels. They are unfortunate victims of a mindset that cannot be changed easily. The hatred spread by false propaganda is too deep to heal.
How has Hindutva impacted on ordinary Gujarati Hindus' notions of religion and identity? How would you explain the massive spread of Hindutva in Gujarat?
To presume that there is a massive spread of Hindutva in Gujarat is incorrect. From 1998 onwards, however, the "Hindutva gang" that has taken control of the State and its machinery has been using Gujarat as a laboratory in order to propagate the Hindutva ideology. They have succeeded in polarizing a good section of Hindus in the urban and semi-urban areas, and today a good percentage of Hindus in these areas would actually follow them. This, however, cannot be said of the rest of the State, which is vastly untouched despite the very aggressive forays made by the Hindutva brigade in the rural areas, very specially among the tribals. One must confess, however, that there has been an impact on the urban and semi-urban Hindus, particularly among the middle-class.
How do you account for the active involvement of Dalits and Tribals in attacks on Muslims in Gujarat?
Yes, some Dalits and some tribals were involved in attacks on Muslims in the recent Gujarat carnage. This, however, was definitely not widespread but only in certain pockets. What the Sangh Parivar was cashing in on was on the unemployment factor, along with recent droughts in the rural areas, to get some Dalit and tribal youth to loot Muslim shops -- just a licence to steal and for arson. The real tragedy will begin now that these tribals and Dalits have tasted "success"-- when they start attacking the real exploiters in the rural areas - who are not Muslims.
Why has the Dalit movement been so weak in Gujarat, in that the Dalits seem to have been so easily co-opted by the Hindutva camp?
Yes, the Dalit movement is weak in Gujarat, particularly because of the lack of proper leadership. There are some NGOs that are actively working with the Dalits, but they are limited both in their reach and in their capacity. What is needed to unite and strengthen the Dalits is a person with the charisma of an Ambedkar who will not merely help them reassert their identity but would help them take their rightful place in society without being manipulated by those who seek to divide and rule.
What has been the reaction of Muslim organisations in Gujarat to the massacres?
In general, many Muslim organisations have responded generously to the victims of carnage. There are reports, however, that the Government and other Sangh Parivar groups have been working overtime with their policy of "divide and rule". It is reported that some Muslim leaders and organisations have been co-opted and there are some who have been even promised (or given) lucrative offers. We hardly hear any talk of revenge, however. The sheer intensity of what has taken place will need the rare courage of a living saint not to seek revenge. Whilst I definitely think that revenge or retaliation is no answer, I think only the very naive say that it will not take place.The massacres of Muslims in Gujarat comes close on the heels of attacks on Christians by Hindutva elements in the state.
How have Christians in Gujarat reacted to the massacres of Muslims ? Is there a feeling that they too could be attacked in the near future?
The Christians in Gujarat have been at the receiving end from these very same Hindutva outfits in 1998 and 1999. In the wake of the attack on the Muslims, the Christian leadership and Church-based organizations have responded with unparalleled heroism. There are individual Christians, however, who are afraid that this may lead to a fresh round of attacks on the Christians. Some have literally abused and criticized the Christian clergy for taking a stand which they feel might threaten them. But that the Christians will be an easy target in Gujarat for the Sangh Parivar goes without saying.
What role do you think inter-faith dialogue can play in combating the challenge of religious fascism in Gujarat today? What forms do you think this dialogue should take?
I think that inter-faith dialogue can play a very important role in combating the challenge of religious fascism in Gujarat today. It is essential however, that we primarily understand what inter-faith dialogue is all about. If one begins from a point of superiority, arrogance or even one-upmanship, there will definitely not be a real dialogue. Whilst every initiative, however pedestrian it may seem, must be welcome, religious leaders must focus on issues after transcending the narrowness and pettiness of "what is their own".The starting point is always respect for another's beliefs and way of life, provided it is not detrimental to the common good. Ample provision must be made for scholars to research on commonalties among faiths rather than what divides people. That does not mean to say that "differences" among faiths need to be watered down or swept under the carpet. These need to be addressed too but always in a proper forum and at a proper time.
How do you see the future of inter-communal relations unfolding in Gujarat in the near future?
After what has happened in Gujarat, it will take at least a decade for inter-communal relations to unfold. Many of the major cities (and specially Ahmedabad) have become highly polarized. Muslims can no longer live or do business in most areas of the city. Unless the twin fundamentals of security and justice are addressed, there can be little hope for positive inter-communal relations.