In February 2002 the western Indian state of Gujarat, governed by the Hindu nationalist chief minister Narendra Modi, witnessed one of the country's biggest pogroms. Responding to reports that Muslims had set fire to a train carriage, killing 58 Hindu pilgrims inside, mobs rampaged across the state. The riots flared up again on March 15 — 10 years ago — and killing, raping and looting continued until mid-June. More than 1,000 Muslims were murdered, and tens of thousands rendered homeless in carefully planned and coordinated attacks of unprecedented savagery.
The killers may have been in touch with police and politicians. According to the 2011 Amicus report, two cabinet ministers even sat in police control rooms. A senior police officer and minister, murdered in 2003, claimed that Modi explicitly instructed civil servants and police not to stand in the killers' way. Of course, Modi has always denied involvement and condemned the riots.
The pogrom was extensively televised by India's innumerable — and then much less complacent — TV channels. Many middle-class Indians were shocked to hear how even the very young had not been spared — the slayers of Muslims were seen smashing the heads of children against rocks. There was some unease even within Modi's parent outfit, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose most revered chief, Guru Golwalkar, wrote in a 1939 book that Nazi Germany had manifested "race pride at its highest" by purging itself of the "Semitic races".
Since then Indian activists have doggedly pursued Modi through the courts and in the media. In a sting conducted in 2007 by the weekly magazine Tehelka, politicians, businessmen, officials and policemen were caught on tape, delightedly recalling how they murdered and raped Muslims with the full imprimatur of their superiors. No matter: Modi walks out of hostile interviews and ignores rulings from the courts: in February his government was issued a contempt notice for failing to compensate 56 people whose shops were destroyed in the riots. The impunity derives from the fact that Modi, though still denied a visa to the US, remains the unchallenged leader of a big-business-friendly state which his American PR firm, Apco has rebranded as "Vibrant Gujarat".
Buoyed by landslide victories in state elections, Modi now projects himself as the face of a democratic, economically vigorous and pro-west New India. He has been able to persuade many of his Gujarati compatriots of a liberal-leftist conspiracy against their plucky, entrepreneurial selves. And there are many in the Indian media ready to complement Apco's exertions by making the 2002 pogrom seem part of a happily superseded history.
One recent commentator even tried to dismiss it as an anachronism from India's apparently dark pre-1991 "socialist" past, claiming that it "represented an autarkic economy riot in the era of globalisation". Apparently, the beneficiaries of Brave New India, educated by an alert media and motivated by economic gain, have a "declining tolerance for violence" — and even someone as fanatical as Modi realises that news of wholesale murder of Muslims is bad for business.
But a recent profile in Caravan magazine describes how Modi demanded an abject apology from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), India's most prestigious business association, which had criticised the Gujarat chief minister over the killings in his state. Faced with a revolt from businessmen from wealthy Gujarat, the CII buckled; it was soon helping to arrange Modi's first meeting with foreign investors.
In any case, the non-recurrence of 2002-style killings in India provides little reason to credit its elites with heightened tolerance and compassion. Left behind by economic growth, Muslims are more demoralised and depressed than ever; and the country's extreme inequalities, often enforced with violence, express themselves in new forms, ranging from suicides by tens of thousands of farmers, to militant insurgencies. Old-style rioting has been replaced by state terrorism, often cheer-led by the elites. Under Modi's rule, Gujarat has seen a steep rise in extrajudicial killings.
Economic globalisation, far from spurring moral and spiritual growth among its beneficiaries, has helped to create new constituencies — among haves as well as have-nots — for xenophobia and Modi-style authoritarian populism. Riot Politics, an excellent new book by Dutch scholar Ward Berenschot, shows how it was the state's integration into the global economy, and resulting extreme inequalities, that made poor areas of the state so exposed to anti-Muslim violence.
Like Modi, the strongmen who supervise these bloody purges of economically depressed and unproductive people are often elected by landslide majorities, and tend to be audacious free-marketeers rather than hopeless socialists. The start of the crony-capitalist regimes of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand and Vladimir Putin in Chechnya coincided with vicious assaults on ethnic minorities. Ten years later, the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom too seems to have been a necessary blood rite — anointing not just Vibrant Gujarat but also the New India.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Pankaj Mishra's new book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, is published this year.