Anupama Katakam

Jaffrelot was one of those the BBC interviewed for the documentary “India: The Modi Question”.

Christophe Jaffrelot has written extensively on the 2002 Gujarat riots, considered among the most brutal communal incidents in recent history, in which over 2,000 people were killed. An expert on the RSS-led Sangh Parivar, Jaffrelot’s most recent publication Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy provides deep insights into the meteoric rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Currently the Avantha Chair and professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s College London, Jaffrelot is one of the intellectuals the BBC interviewed for its documentary India: The Modi Question. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline.

The explosive new BBC documentary comes at a time when Modi seems invincible. Why now? Will the ghosts of the Gujarat carnage not stop haunting Modi?

I cannot comment upon the timing. The BBC interviewed me more than a year ago when I was writing Gujarat Under Modi. BBC’s journalists have done an incredibly rigorous job. The BBC reporters have read dozens of reports, books, articles, and interviewed people to cross-check their sources.

Have the ghosts of the Gujarat carnage come back to haunt Narendra Modi? I don’t know. Did they ever leave him? The ghosts have never left me. I visited Ahmedabad for the first time in 2001 and went back to the city at least twice a year until 2020. I have lived with my Gujarat book for 20 years. I have interviewed people who survived attacks, people who left everything behind to find refuge in relief colonies, NGO workers, or volunteers who helped the victims. This episode of Indian history is an important part of my life and haunts me.

Were you aware of the UK government’s report all these years? In the aftermath of the riots, Modi faced the ire of the international community. Today, he is seen as a central figure in global politics. The report could have stalled his rise and perhaps helped secure justice for the victims.

Foreign governments have not all behaved the same way. In 2005, the US decided to cancel Modi’s visa under a very rarely used 1998 law that makes foreign officials responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for visas. In contrast, European countries—including the UK—opted for a de facto boycott because of pressure from civil society organisations. Other governments were more accommodating. Modi was invited by Shinzo Abe to Japan and he visited China many times. My book has details of his trip to Shanghai. Incidentally, when his US visa was cancelled, the Manmohan Singh government defended him, something I have analysed in my book.

Why should the West have gone further in a sovereign state whose Supreme Court had an impeccable reputation? Nobody, I suppose, anticipated that the court would not direct the Special Investigation Team in the most appropriate manner. The investigation agencies had already taken sides. That was very clear in the case of the Gujarat Police, something the fake encounters of 2003-2007 in the State reconfirmed.

In the documentary, BJP leader Swapan Dasgupta has been interviewed. The right wing would have surely known of the film. Why the outrage now?

To show outrage has always been a Hindu nationalist technique. The Hindutva forces very often claim that they are under attack, that the Hindus are vulnerable, are victims. All majoritarian leaders cultivate and instrumentalise this feeling of vulnerability in spite of the fact that they are the real aggressor most of the time. How can BJP leaders justify the killing of women and children who have never shown any violent intention?

You have written about Modi’s rapid rise. Given his ambition, he may have risen regardless of any attempts to pull him down. Your observation?

Any counterfactual history is difficult to write, but I tend to believe that, yes, he may have risen regardless of the forces that could have pulled him down—in fact because of these forces. Opinion polls and surveys show that the 2002 pogrom helped Modi win elections in Gujarat not once, but three times. It initiated a form of polarisation that Modi cultivated, which made Hindu majoritarianism a trump card. For many Gujarati Hindus, he had “taught a lesson” to Muslims and they were grateful. Indeed, in 2002, the BJP won most of its seats in the constituencies that had been the worst affected by communal violence. The more he was presented as responsible for the carnage by the English media , the more people rallied behind him, as a victim of the “liberal” establishment.

From Part II of the documentary we see that 2002 was the start of what was to follow the lynchings, abrogation of Article 370, and CAA. Can this documentary impact the discourse?

I do not know how far a documentary can change the discourse. It may, if those who had no clue feel they are better equipped now to make sense of the past and the baggage their Prime Minister carries. But many people will stick to their interpretation of what happened in 2002. The documentary will enhance the “victimisation syndrome” that helped Modi appear as a man of the people harassed by the liberal establishment, the tactic nationalist-populists like Trump and Orban use across the globe. As far as I am concerned, when I speak and write, it comes from a space where social scientists are supposed to decipher reality beyond official discourses, to go beyond propaganda and get the records right—for history and history writing.

Students are going to great lengths to screen the documentary. Should we see this as a glimmer of hope?

Yes, there are universities where the quest for truth is motivating students. This is indeed very comforting from the point of view of social sciences. I am always thrilled by my interactions with Indian students in Europe, the US, or online. They want to understand and are still sometimes idealistic.

You say in Part Two: “The irony is that the victims became the guilty.” Twenty years ago, would we have imagined activists and police officers who fought for justice being put behind bars?

This is very ironical indeed. And very cruel. No, nobody would have imagined this in the 2000s or even in the first half of the last decade. Otherwise, why would Tehelka (Ashish Khetan in particular) and so many others have taken such huge risks, for which they are still paying a heavy price? Everybody underestimated the vulnerability of [India’s] institutions, including the judiciary.

Father Cedric Prakash says in the film, “Tell a lie a thousand times and it will eventually become the truth.” Can you say something about public memory, archiving, how do we keep the truth alive?

The work done by social scientists, journalists, and human rights activists can help preserve history against the travesty that the dominant discourse propagates. Memorial (a human rights group) did it in Russia for a long time and is doing it again. It remains a role model. The method matters a lot. Everything has to be documented and cross-checked, archives have to be built and testimonies collected. It is hard work. Empirical data play a key role—quantitative and qualitative. Once this base is built, interpretation and analysis become possible.

Many Indians despair at the current political climate. Your thoughts?

The point of no return has not been reached yet but getting back to status quo ante might be very difficult, for at least four reasons. First, who is fighting for it? The opposition parties are divided, media houses are falling in line, there is self-censorship on campuses.

Secondly, foreign countries are not prepared to intervene. The West sees Modi’s India as a partner against China.

Thirdly, institutions are weak and/or captured by the Sangh Parivar. The judiciary is a case in point; but the Election Commission, the RBI, the CBI, are all in a similar situation.

Last but not least, elections are no longer a level playing field, not only because of the Election Commission and the media, but also because of money. In 2019, BJP could spend as much as all the opposition parties put together, partly because of the electoral bonds.

But there are still elections and the BJP can still lose them, at least at the State level. It will make some difference even if Indian federalism is being eroded by centralisation of power.
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