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Gujarat's 'low-key' communalism: right-wing groups compete for anti-Muslim space

By Rajiv Shah 

Noticing the emergence of a novel trend, a just-released report based on a fact-finding team's observations following its interaction in particular with Hindu and Muslim political activists, administrators and police officials, has claimed that a major reason why chasm between the two communities in Gujarat has lately reached new heights is, a veritable competition between Hindu right-wing groups and leaders to capture the existing communal space.
Titled "Hindu Right, Communal Riots and Demolitions: Emerging Pattern of Communal Riots in India", the report has been prepared against the backdrop of what it calls "low intensity" communalism which has characterised rioting in Gujarat in the recent past, especially after the 2002 communal carnage, one of the worst in Independent India.
Especially focusing on riots in two Gujarat towns, Himmatnagar and Khambhat, which took place on April 10, the day clashes broke also out in different parts of India on the occasion of Ram Navmi, the report points to how Ram Sena, Antar Rashtriya Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) competed with each other to take out Shobha Yatra.
Suggesting that the pattern was not very different from West Bengal, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, where similar processions were taken out, the report says, in Himmatnagar, a North Gujarat town, the "rivalry” between the Antar Rashtriya Hindu Parishad, founded by Pravin Togadia after he broke away from the VHP, and the VHP was instrumental in having more tensions after a second procession was taken out following the first one causing violence.
Prepared after on-the-spot interactions of a team led by Neha Dabhade of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism and Hozefa Ujjaini of Buniyaad, Gujarat-based non-profits, the report observes, the second procession in Himmatnagar was “forcefully implemented”. In fact, one found that “there was a very visible sense of competition between Hindu right-wing groups for domination, visibility and reach out".
In their effort to gain support, the report finds the right-wing groups’ outlook towards Muslims "more radical and hardliner than the RSS." It insists, "It is important to understand the nuances in their ideology and objectives", wondering whether the RSS has complete control over these outfits, as they seemed to have been "allowed to some extent to act independently."
The report notes, "These outfits have been able to reach out and politically mobilize a cross section of society. Their strategies include popularizing the symbols of Ram and Hanuman, invoking pride through these symbols and promoting aggressive nationalism."
Especially referring to the Ram Sena, which played a major role during the riots in Khambhat, it says, the group used the "symbols and icons from the Adivasi or Dalit communities to reach out to them", even as ignoring caste hierarchy or Adivasi rights. The group just wants to reach out to the Adivasis to bring them under "one umbrella" in order to forge "one grand ‘Hindu’ identity."
Admitting that these groups were successful in their "competitive" strategy, the report says, "It is worth noting that the Hindu right is able to mobilize cross sections of society, especially Dalits and Vanjaras, who are a de-notified tribe. With different outreach strategies, the Hindu right is successful to mobilizing them and ensuring their participation in communal violence."
It notes, "Though the leadership of these organizations remains largely with upper castes, OBCs and Dalits are used as foot soldiers to perpetrate violence. This is significantly taking the focus away from caste-based discrimination and the rights of the Adivasis, given to them as protection in the Constitution."
Stating how political infighting and network of patronage further contributed to the communal clashes in Khambhat, the report reveals, political equations and rivalry between current MLA Mayur Raval and ex-MLA Sanjay Patel fuelled the tension in the Central Gujarat town and the nearby rural areas.
Suggesting that there was "a concerted effort to make Mayur Raval seem ineffective in controlling riots", the report says, communal tensions appeared to have been "used” as a medium at all levels -- grassroots like panchayat to state -- to “settle political scores".
Thus, "Mayur Raval, who is currently MLA from Khambhat, is perceived as cordial towards Muslims and as more neutral than Sanjay Patel, his predecessor. Raval doesn’t openly take sides or instigate hatred or violence against Muslims. Sanjay Patel is known for his more hardliner stand against the Muslims."
Though the leadership remains largely with upper castes, OBCs and Dalits are used as foot soldiers to perpetrate violence
In fact, "There is an apparent political rivalry between Sanjay Patel and Mayur Raval. Mayur Raval was offered the BJP candidature for MLA in 2017 instead of Sanjay Patel. It appears that Sanjay Patel is influential, and through his network of political patronage, emboldens Hindu right-wing organizations to act against Muslims and foment violence."
Sanjay Patel believes that the region requires a “strong” leader like him to "control" communal violence, the report says, adding, there was a clear effort to construct a narrative in Khambhat that a “weak” MLA being “soft” on Muslims is "ineffective in controlling riots and Muslim fundamentalism in Khambhat." Thus, there is a deliberate attempt through these riots to send this message to the Hindu electorate."
All this happened amidst what the report calls "low scale sub radar communal riots" in Gujarat after the large-scale outrage which shook India in 2002. Noting that since "the low intensity of violence" did not have "an eye-catching number of casualties", it regrets, these riots have gone almost gone "unnoticed" in the "national media".
However, it underlines, what is forgotten in the process is, "These sub radar riots have kept communal tensions simmering and silently but certainly created an anti-Muslim atmosphere marked by distrust and resentment towards the Muslims."
In Khambhat, the team mainly met additional commissioner of police Abhishek Gupta, sarpanch of Shakarpur (Khambhat taluka) Dinesh Balun, Muslim residents whose stalls were demolished, and Ram Sena leader Jayveer Joshi.
In Himmatnagar, it met, among others, residents of Ashrafnagar, Hasannagar, members of denotified tribe Vanjara and OBC Devipujak community, and Kanak Jhala, leader of the Antar Rashtriya Hindu Parishad. It also interacted with journalists and other prominent citizens.
During the “low intensity riots” in Himmatnagar, the report says, the Ram Navmi procession provocatively used slogans 'Hindustan mein rehana hoga toh Jai Shri Ram kehana hoga' when it reached the mosque, resulting in scuffle and pelting of stones, burning of 18 stalls, a dargah and two houses belonging to Muslims, and severe injury to a Muslim boy.
The violence, the report indicates, helped widen the divide between Muslims and Vanjaras, both of whom have been living in allotted houses to low-income groups under a 2011 housing scheme. Earlier living in a segregated locality, Vanjaras would have scuffles with Muslims, which were of non-communal nature. But during Ram Navmi the scuffles were sought to be given a communal colour.
"Some Muslims were arrested by the police and taken away. They were dropped back in the evening. Later, petrol bombs were thrown on the Vanjara households at around 10pm. The police was called again. It lobbed teargas on Muslim residents, “brutally beat up” Muslim women, arrested Muslim residents, including a doctor, detaining them for four days.
In Khambhat, similarly, the at Ram Sena-led Ram Navmi procession provocative slogans like “Topi valo ko bulvayenge, Dadi walo ko bulvayenge Jai shri ram jai shri ram” were prominent, followed by exchange of words and stone pelting, attack of destruction of Muslim properties by participants carrying ‘dangs’ -- thick wooden rods with saffron flags tied to them.
While the riots in both the towns saw tens of individuals, including cops, injured, only one person -- 57-year-old Kanhaiya Lal Rana -- lost his life in Khambhat, which escalated rioting.

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