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.

That this does not always happen is painfully obvious. Take Ahmedabad. Since the turn of the 20th century it has possessed a civil society of sorts, peopled by charity and philanthropic groups looking after the welfare of the working class. Most analysts are surprised when they note that, with few exceptions, civil society organisations in Ahmedabad kept silent when people were killed in 2002. Today, neither have these organisations campaigned against the growth-without-development phenomenon, nor have they protested against the spatial marginalisation of the Muslim community.

The irony is that Ahmedabad was the site of Gandhi's experiment with truth and non-violence. These lessons were half learnt. In 1919, reports of Gandhi's detention by the colonial government swept the streets and led to mob violence, but Gandhians walked the streets to counsel patience and reassure the workers. Regrettably, no one walked the streets in 2002, when murderous mobs played out their authored script of fire, hell, and damnation.

From Lahore to Tripoli to Cairo, civil societies have protested against governments that fail to ensure substantive democracy and the welfare of their people. Civil society in Ahmedabad has lapsed on its allotted role: that of bringing people together in a shared democratic project of ensuring the wellbeing of and respect for the citizens. Why? Perhaps because the preconditions for democratic civil society have been weakly articulated and inadequately institutionalised. Civil society does not spring out of the earth fully fashioned; it can only take shape when at least three preconditions have been met. It is these very preconditions that are missing in the case of Ahmedabad.

One, spatial segregation, as in Ahmedabad, narrows cultural and political horizons, closes off options, pre-empts creative mingling of perspectives and prevents the formation of shared identities. We simply do not learn to empathise with people who are not like us. How does civil society defend the rights of groups when they might be the unknown and the unknowable?

Two, history shows us that intergroup solidarity emerges through shared political practices. Ahmedabad was active in the freedom struggle but in the main, the Muslim community seems to have participated in it only partially and fitfully. The Congress leadership failed to reach out to the Muslims, and Muhammed Ali Jinnah resigned from the Congress in 1920. This had a decided impact. According to census reports, Muslims participated in the census operations of 1921 and 1931 despite the boycott. After Jinnah reinvented the Muslim League in Gujarat in the 1930s, the divide between the two communities was complete. The district magistrate's report in 1941 stated baldly that, since 1937, relations between the two communities had deteriorated.

Three, since textile workers in Ahmedabad adopted Gandhi's distinct brand of trade unionism, the textile labour association failed to develop a radical workingclass culture. Workers were unable to create solidarities on the basis of class because they retained their distinctive identities.

A vigilant civil society is a necessary precondition of democracy, but what are the preconditions of civil society? Unless people come together across divides to keep watch on transgressions by the state and by their own groups, civil society can prove fairly indifferent to the plight of citizens. And it is precisely this that has happened in Gujarat.

The writer is a professor of political science at Delhi University

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