On April 10, 2012, the Ahmedabad Metropolitan Court revealed the findings of the report of the Special Investigation Team (SIT), appointed by the Supreme Court of India. The report stated that the SIT had found no evidence to prosecute Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, for the post-Godhra Gulberg Society massacre in 2002.

Predictably, the announcement has been met by gnashing of teeth and hair pulling, by sighs of relief and celebrations. No doubt, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) political strategists are already busy calculating Modi’s acceptability and chances for success as a potential prime ministerial candidate. Simultaneously, the activists have declared that their fight against the Gujarat CM is not over, and dispersed to strategise on whether to sabotage Modi’s chances at the voting booth or drag him back to a court of law all over. Clearly, this is a very emotive issue for many in India (and their supporters abroad).

For a case in which emotions run so deep and for a person who induces such strong antipathy, what does Modi represent to India? Not the politician, or the man, but the idea…what chord resonates with the idea of Modi? The Chief Minister’s advocates point to a glowing report card in terms of economic development and governance in Gujarat, while his detractors froth at the mouth as they describe the communal violence that rocked Gujarat ten years ago. But both miss the deeper point – the defenders must realise that while Gujarat has done well, other states such as Tamil Nadu, Punjab, and Maharashtra have not lagged too far behind, while those against Modi must concede that the Chief Minister is not, despite the activists lavishing their attention on him, the only or most (allegedly) communal man in India. Ayodhya (1992) comes to mind, as does Bombay (1993). What is key about these incidents is not that they are examples of anti-Muslim violence – there are plenty of examples of anti-Hindu and anti-Christian violence too – but that unlike Nazi Germany’s targetted Endlösung or the Kosovo of Slobodan Milošević, these were instances of unorganised mob violence. Whether the violence arises from organised or unorganised action may seem trivial to ideologues (and is irrelevant to victims). However, if the violence is unorganised in nature, it exposes a critical trend in Indian society – of a seething resentment against leaders making a Potemkin attempt at running the country.

Lost in our own passions and social circles, it may seem to us that everyone must have a position on the issues we care about. Yet most people are more concerned with gathering their daily bread; work, transportation, inflation, providing an education for their children, planning for their retirement, and if finances allow it, rest and recreation, necessarily take precedence over politics, philosophy, and sometimes, even principles. What possibly could be the source of so strong a bitterness, rancour, or acrimony that would make common people abandon their necessary duties for the sort of wanton destruction after Godhra?

Modern crowd psychology has moved past theories of deindividuation put forward by late 19th and early 20th century thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Gustave Le Bon, and the present consensus argues that a crowd itself does not generate violence; rather, it amplifies a latent dissatisfaction among the people. In a 2005 publication, “The Madding Crowd Goes to School,” sociologists David Schweingruber and Ronald Wohlstein countered the seven most prominent myths about crowds. arguing that they are not spontaneous, suggestible, irrational, emotional, destructive, unanimous, or anonymous. In other words, not only is crowd behaviour not irrational but it is the surfacing of widely suppressed feelings. Connecting the dots, it does not take superhuman intelligence to realise that the root of antipathy is a seething yet restrained anti-Muslim sentiment.

Much of the anti-Muslim feelings are due to, as common wisdom has it, the decades-long soft and preferential treatment of the Muslim community. As true heirs to the British policy of ‘divide and rule,’ successive Indian governments have, in an effort to cultivate vote banks, created a monstrous edifice of inequality in law, from quotas, subsidies and other payouts to separate jurisdictions. All this is ostensibly to ameliorate Muslim “backwardness.” But no matter how many inquiry reports (such as the Sachar Committee report) conclude that Muslims are a backward community, even were the veracity of the findings to be conceded, the common man is neither interested nor inclined to pore over academic debates conducted in ivory towers and moved by what he sees on the street. The complaints are many and well known, and the issue is not even about whether they are legitimate or not but the perception of repeated slights against the Hindu majority. This view needed a political outlet, which the non-Right parties were unwilling to espouse. Hence, the aggrieved segment of society veered towards the Right, as is evident from the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its non-political satellites. Labelled as hindutva, the BJP has espoused, at least ideologically, the idea of Hindu rights. To the outsider, it would be puzzling to see a political party campaigning on a platform of rights for the majority!

In the modern era, humans have become very sensitive to inequality. It is easier to take away their money and even their civil rights than their sense of equality. The famous capuchin monkey experiment conducted in 2003 by Franz de Waals and Sarah Brosnan illustrates this point very well. In the experiment, capuchin monkeys were trained to collect pebbles in exchange for cucumbers. Very quickly, an economic system arose – as they became hungry, the monkeys collected pebbles and turned them in in exchange for cucumbers. Some collected more pebbles and were given more cucumbers. Trouble started when some monkeys were given grapes instead of cucumbers for their effort (a previous experiment had shown that grapes were a higher prized commodity among the capuchins). In response, the monkeys rewarded with cucumbers went on strike; some even started throwing their cucumbers at the scientists, and the vast majority refused to collect any more pebbles. The scientists concluded, “People judge fairness based both on the distribution of gains and on the possible alternatives to a given outcome…They respond negatively to previously acceptable rewards if a partner gets a better deal.” Similarly, in a democratic society, people may “hold emotionally charged expectations about reward distribution and social exchange.” As many have noticed, the problem was not unequal pay for unequal work but differentiated rewards for the same work – it was the arbitrariness and injustice that roused the monkeys. The monkeys’ strike and disruption of work is explained by Ernst Fehr and Klaus Schmidt, who argued in their 1999 paper on inequity aversion that the “willingness to sacrifice potential gain to block another individual from receiving a superior reward” is surprisingly strong.

Critics jump to point out that humans are not the same as monkeys, and while this point may be hesitantly surrendered, we should remember that as children, a common complaint to teachers and parents was, “It’s not fair!” A convincing case is yet to be made that the Godhra carnage required more media attention than the anti-Sikh riots or the eviction of Hindus from Kashmir between 1985 and 1995; a genuine argument is still lacking on why the state can seize control of temple earnings but not of mosques or churches; and no answer has been given on why the Rajiv Gandhi government changed the constitution of the land, despite its adverse effects on women’s rights, to influence the verdict in the Shah Bano case. The Indian government’s pusillanimity over the Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin cases was not evident when it came to defending the freedom of expression of MF Hussain, who, by any stretch of imagination, had “hurt the sentiments” of Hindus just as much as the previous two artists had the Muslims. It is such double standards that have served to enhance the resentment against the government and its unwitting Muslim beneficiaries.

So where should the damage control begin? Every community is responsible for its own actions, and it falls to the secular-minded moderates and liberals within the Muslim community to come forward and make their voices heard. Sensible voices should make a sustained and strong argument to the government for better modern educational facilities and opportunities in place of paternalistic government handouts and lip sympathies which have so far only kept the community behind. There is some good news on this front: in the recent Uttar Pradesh state Assembly elections, the Muslim community did not buy the tall promises offered it by some of the contesting parties.

Violence is unfortunate, and must be avoided as much as possible. But when the laws fail to protect, when the system seems to discriminate, people have historically taken to arms. The Modi phenomenon cannot be swept under the carpet as politicians, the media, and the ‘intelligentsia’ have tried. It cannot be pinned onto some imaginary bigotry of the Indian Right or the Indian uneducated, for Buddhists, Jains, Jews, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians have never generated the same anger among Hindus. The Modi case is neither important nor relevant except in the sense that justice must be done; even if Modi is taken to court and convicted, there will be many others waiting to step into the breach as long as Hindus perceive themselves as receiving a step-motherly treatment from the government. If anyone is genuinely interested in tackling communalism in India, perhaps they should stop working themselves into a murderous frenzy at the mention of Modi or the BJP and stop to listen

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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