Do the recent developments in Gujarat and the statements made by several leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reveal unanticipated anxiety over its performance in the elections, especially amid Rahul Gandhi's election rally as part of his Bharat Jodo Yatra march in the poll-bound state?
This question becomes all the more necessary to pose in the backdrop of several instances in the recent months aimed at resurrecting the ghost of 2002, repackaging it, and converting it into a new history of the gory episode.
BJP's party manifesto was released on 26 November by Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel and BJP president JP Nadda.
These pledges included the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code, creation of Anti-Radicalisation Cells to identify and eliminate possible threats.
Shah’s statement on 2002 rioters made perpetrators out of victims and vice versa. He said that rioters were incited and protected by the Congress.
BJP's objective is to rewrite Gujarat’s history in which the 2002 riots are being portrayed differently from what happened and memorialised by innumerable people across Gujarat and India.
The Gujarat Agenda
The party manifesto released on 26 November by Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel and BJP president JP Nadda, contained a slew of promises whose underlying intention was crystal clear to those accustomed to the party’s communal dog-whistles.
These pledges included the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code, creation of Anti-Radicalisation Cells to identify and eliminate possible threats besides targeting sleeper cells of alleged terrorist organisations and anti-India forces, and the promise of a new law to recover cost of damages to public and private properties during riots and protests.
The day, since 2015, is celebrated as Constitution Day across India with considerable posturing and pretension by the Modi government and the BJP.
Was this co-incidence an oversight for those scheduling the manifesto launch forgetting that the day was also Constitution Day, or sheer superciliousness that it will not harm BJP’s electoral prospects because people are gullible and shall be unable to connect the two issues?
BJP’s Manifesto on Communal Violence
A day before the BJP released its manifesto, Union Home minister Amit Shah who held the same job in the state for several years after the Gujarat riots, said, the perpetrators of violence were “taught a lesson in 2002.”
He continued, “These elements left that path (of violence). They refrained from indulging in violence from 2002 till 2022. The BJP has established permanent peace in Gujarat by taking strict action against those who used to indulge in communal violence."
Shah’s statement made perpetrators out of victims and vice versa. He said that rioters were incited and protected by the Congress. His assertion implied that the party and certain sections of people (unspecified but the indication was unambiguous) were effectively taught how to behave (sic) under the BJP rule.
Effectively, Shah virtually asserted that anyone who disagreed with the BJP’s political narrative was steamrollered in the course of the watershed Gujarat election exactly two decades ago.
However, there is a contradiction between Shah’s claim and the manifesto. Because, if the state government “taught a lesson” in 2002 to those responsible for riots, is an Anti-Radicalisation Cell necessary at all?
Clearly, either Shah’s was an exaggerated boast, or the promise(s) in the manifesto were merely to keep the pot simmering.
How 2002 Riots Became an Election Issue for BJP 2.0
Shah’s statement was preceded by at least three decisions in the recent months that ensured Gujarat riots became part of the political narrative during elections.
First, the party’s decision to field Payal Kulkarni, daughter of Manoj Kulkarni who was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the Naroda Patiya massacre.
It seems that the party nominated the political newcomer solely because her candidature evokes memories of her father’s act. The BJP while condoning his actions, and of others accused of riots, making his daughter the candidate from the same constituency, is hypocrisy at its heights. Payal's candidature will only symbolise how killers were ‘rewarded’ by the party.
In contrast, for the ones who consider it as a tragic blot and evidence of the making of an ethno-nationalist regime, Kulkarni’s nomination sends shivers down their spines.
Bilkis Bano and Miscarriage of Justice in BJP’s Rule
The BJP’s second decision in recent months is more grotesque and contained in just one name: Bilkis Bano. The remission of the eleven convicts in the case involving her gang rape and murder of several in her family initially appeared to be a case of legal cunningness and government oversight. But later, it turned out to be the Union Home Ministry’s calculated decision.
Their release on India's Independence Day was an absolute anti-thesis to Shah's statement on troublemakers in the civil society. More so, it was an insult to the injury of the victim of unthinkable sexual violence during the program who have lived with the nightmare since, hoping for justice someday.
The third and final action of the government was a macabre episode in two acts. In June, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court dismissed Zakia Jafri’s petition seeking a review of the ‘clean chit’ given to then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi by the SIT.
In its judgement, the apex court made uncalled-for allegations against many who pursued Gujarat riot cases.The Bench headed by Justice AM Khanwilkar made contentious comments like: “All those involved in such abuse of process need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law."
SC’s Judgements and BJP’s Big Wins
The verdict alleged that the appeal by the widow of Ehsan Jafri was filed under the "dictation of someone."
The court named “disgruntled officials of the State of Gujarat” along with Teesta Setalvad whose “antecedents” need to be “reckoned with and also because she has been vindictively persecuting this lis pendens (dispute) for her ulterior design by exploiting the emotions and sentiments of Zakia Jafri, the real victim of the circumstances.”
Before June end, she was arrested. This was preceded by the detentions of former Gujarat DGP, RB Sreekumar, and former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt, already in jail.
The action was unabashedly a vindictive response on the back of a favourable judgement. Justice Khanwilkar quit office soo, leaving a legacy of questionable judgements.
The SC judgement and the action against Setalvad, Sreekumar, and Bhatt were intended to send a message to other crusading rights workers, retired officials, media persons and members of civil society. Similar fate possibly ‘awaited’ them if they continued being crusaders.
The three decisions of the Centre/BJP coupled with Shah’s assertion and promises in the manifesto are a pointer to two moves of the party.
One, the BJP has reintroduced communal polarisation and the 2002 riots in the narrative. This indicates that the party is either a tad unsure of the electorate’s mood, or does not wish to leave anything to chance.
There could be several reasons behind this: the electoral potential of the anti-incumbent sentiment, the economy continuing to be in a tailspin and livelihood concerns of people being uppermost in their thoughts.
Most importantly, the Morbi Bridge tragedy may have been pushed away from the media headlines by the scheming media management but there is no knowing if this tragedy has generated a groundswell of resentment against the BJP.
BJP’s Anti-Incumbency Strategy
Additionally, there is no certainty that the Aam Aadmi Party has played a bluff and there is no serious threat from the party. The BJP may also be unsure about anti-BJP votes being divided between its two adversaries in the first triangular contest since 1990.
As a result, the BJP probably considered it prudent to first revive and thereafter, fall back on its ‘guaranteed’ narrative – that ‘miscreants’ had it coming in 2002.
The second objective is to rewrite Gujarat’s history in which the 2002 riots are being portrayed differently from what happened and memorialised by innumerable people across Gujarat and India.
Since it is difficult to cover up the riots given its widespread nature, duration, media coverage, parliamentary debates, communal fallout and their (non)handling, the effort now is certainly, to alter the narrative and invert the perpetrators and the victims.
That this has happened just as the Indian Council of Historical Research has embarked on a project to write a New History of the nation is just a coincidence!
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He has also written The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)