That silence in Ahmedabad

The preconditions for civil society have gone missing from the city

In politics, it seems that half-truths work better than the complete truth or utter falsehoods. In the run-up to the Gujarat elections, defenders of Chief Minister Narendra Modi insist that he is uniquely suited to lead the country. After all, he has wrought an economic miracle in Gujarat, and also ensured peace. Certainly, Gujarat is one state that has done well out of globalisation. Yet, is development only about the growth of GDP? Compared to low-growth states, Gujarat's performance in poverty reduction is poor. Almost 70 per cent of children up to the age of five are anaemic, and 44.6 per cent are malnourished. Health indicators for STs are much lower than national averages. Literacy rates are only marginally above the national average, and extremely low in the tribal belt. The economy is doing well. But are the people doing well?

As for peace, this has been secured by the simple expedient of spatially marginalising the Muslim community. Once Ahmedabad's ruling classes, court officials, skilled craftspersons, weavers and textile workers were drawn from this community. Today, it has been rendered quiescent, and even politically irrelevant, by ghettoisation. Ghettoisation began after a major riot that hit the city in 1969 and accelerated in the 1980s. In 2002, the government reneged on looking after Muslims who had survived the carnage. They were resettled by predominantly Islamic organisations in arid and degraded areas on the outskirts of the city. Here, they live cut off from employment and educational opportunities, let alone warm social relations.

Surprisingly, we hear only a few voices of dissent from civil society. Democrats have always had reason to fear elected majorities, particularly when the party in power is embedded in a communal agenda. The only way such governments can be checked is through judicially mandated respect for the Constitution and democratically aware civil societies. Civil society is an imprecise concept, but at the least it indicates that people can come together, across all manners of divides, to monitor both governments and undemocratic organisations. Civil societies are messy, divided, and only occasionally creative, but we expect that they will act as conscience keepers and defend the democratic rights of citizens.

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