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Gujarat: Yesterday and tomorrow

Modi is unlikely to offer anything more than a symbolic doffing of his cap to heal the wounds of that calamitous year

Shreekant Sambrani 

The victory of and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Gujarat elections — albeit not as dramatic as they would have liked -— was a foregone conclusion. The why’s and how’s of it will, doubtless, be subjected to many analyses. One major consequence of this — that it applies effective closure to 2002 —goes beyond the immediate political issues in Gujarat and the country. Modi is unlikely to offer anything more than a symbolic doffing of his cap to heal the wounds of that calamitous year in his quest for greater glory. More important, most non-Muslim Gujaratis want to put the past behind them and as Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, discovered recently, they may find many Muslim takers for this proposition as well. This does not imply condoning what happened a decade ago, let alone justifying it. The judiciary has shown admirable zeal in pursuing the wrongdoers so far. Nothing suggests the process will slacken.

What does closure, then, mean? To me, it is coming to terms with the tragic events, even as Gujarat continues to seek its place in the sun. That process can only accelerate in the wake of the elections, empowering all Gujaratis in the bargain.

The question of erasing the marks of 2002 troubled me while reviewing Bibek Debroy’s impressive new book on Gujarat (Gujarat: Governance for Growth and Development) in this paper (December 15). I wondered whether there would ever be an answer to it. By a remarkable coincidence, an event that took place between the two dates of the election (December 13 and 17) did just that.

Darshak Itihas Nidhi, an NGO, had organised a symposium on port towns in Gujarat during those days at Daman. Most such events are dry and dull, where academics read out boring papers that would soon be mothballed. Not this one, though.

A galaxy of Indian and international historians and archaeologists vividly brought to life the long-dead Harappan towns of Lothal and Dholavira. They conjured up the images of Cambay and Bharuch at their peak in the medieval period, causing envy among European visitors and chroniclers. And Surat, the former and future metropolis, attracted plunderers from Maharashtra as well as the East India Company but continued to flourish, as it does today, plague and floods notwithstanding.

More important than the places are the people and the culture. Gujarat is among the earliest civilisations in the sub-continent, dating back four millennia. The word civilisation goes beyond mere settlements. It encompasses infrastructure and systems of governance. The ancient and medieval Gujarat habitats not only possessed high orders of civic amenities but also reasonably egalitarian and just administrative mechanisms.

Gujarat was, and continues to be, the true Gateway of India. It has attracted foreign traders from ancient times. They were dazzled by its wealth and industriousness. Some, like the Zoroastrians, became adopted children of the land and added immensely to its variety and industry. Even today, workers from areas less well off come in search of livelihood and often remain in Gujarat for generations.

The wealth also drew invaders. Their campaigns left bitter tribal memories, which persist to date. This bitterness could explain, not justify, the communal conflagrations that engulf Gujarat from time to time. It also affected the 2007 elections (Separate and unequal: the Muslims in Gujarat, Business Standard, December 25, 2007). But the state recovers and marches on, even after the worst bouts of blood-letting.

Yet, on the whole, Gujarat has successfully managed its affairs involving all communities. In the pre-colonial era, Muslim princes ruled, Hindu and Jain traders engaged in commerce, and Hindu and Muslim artisans produced goods for exchange. Prosperity was shared, though not equally. The adventurous Gujaratis of all stripes travelled far and wide in pursuit of fame and fortune but most returned to their native land. This circulation (and not necessarily a diasporic movement) meant Gujarat was globalising long before the term “globalisation” gained currency. That process continues apace even into the 21st century.

Governments are supposed to facilitate greater economic activity through the enabling provisions of infrastructure and communication. That Gujarat does so better than most other states is evident from the results. But this takes for granted an even more important precondition for the free flow of capital and material, an atmosphere of peace and harmony. That, too, exists in all parts of Gujarat in good measure, which does not need much proof. Gujarat not only has industrial peace but also safe streets, where women are not afraid to walk unescorted even in the dead of the night . That is something one cannot say for sure about the rest of India.

What makes this possible? The answer in one word is “enterprise”. This spirit has characterised the Gujaratis — Hindus, Muslims and tribals alike — generation after generation. No amount of demonising has diminished it. That is what is bringing a closure to 2002 after this election and will prevail long after Modi becomes history.

The writer taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand

First Published: Fri, December 21 2012. 01:02 IST