2002 Gujarat Riots
The documentary deals with the riots that broke out in Gujarat when Narendra Modi was the chief minister. File photo

With 2002 Gujarat riots back in discourse, Cong's dilemma is how to deal with it

The Gujarat government’s remission of sentences of 11 life term convicts in the 2002 Bilkis Bano gang-rape case and other recent developments directly linked with the post-Godhra communal pogrom has left the Congress party facing a critical political dilemma ahead of assembly polls due in Gujarat later this year.

The Gujarat government’s remission of sentences of 11 life term convicts in the 2002 Bilkis Bano gang-rape case and other recent developments directly linked with the post-Godhra communal pogrom has left the Congress party facing a critical political dilemma ahead of assembly polls due in Gujarat later this year.

For the past two Gujarat polls, held in 2017 and 2012, the Congress consciously steered clear of resurrecting the horrors of the carnage as an election issue. In the process, while its electoral fortunes didn’t change for the better (the party significantly improved its seat tally in 2017 but the polls that year were fought under a vastly altered political narrative of social unrest against the BJP driven by caste groups such as the Patidars and Dalits), the Congress’s credibility as a party that avowed and fought for secularism took a serious hit.

The assembly polls due in Gujarat at the end of this year will be conducted amid chilling reminders of that massacre and the alleged complicity of the then Narendra Modi-led BJP state government in allowing it.

Nation-wide outrage

The Gujarat government’s Independence Day decision to release those 11 men convicted of raping a pregnant Bilkis and murdering seven members of her family, including her three year-old daughter, has triggered nationwide outrage.

Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi has pointedly asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi if he “doesn’t feel ashamed”. The party’s national media wing chief, Pawan Khera, has held two press conferences condemning the remission of sentence and alleged that it had the approval of the Prime Minister who, incidentally, was imploring Indians in his I-Day speech to respect women while his party’s government in Gujarat was preparing to free the rapists.

Also read: Bilkis Bano case: All 11 life convicts released under Gujarat remission policy

On the other hand, the release of the convicts has also set in motion a vicious but unsurprising celebration by the Hindu-right of those who killed, raped and plundered. The convicts were feted with sweets and garlands upon their release. The BJP’s MLA from Godhra, CK Raulji, who was part of the government panel that recommended remission of the rapists’ sentences, has gone a step ahead and said the convicts “are good people – Brahmins… and Brahmins have good sanskaar (culture)”.

The release of the 11 rape and murder convicts from jail comes nearly two months after the Gujarat Police arrested rights’ activist Teesta Setalvad and former Gujarat DGP RB Sreekumar – both key figures in the campaign for justice for victims of the 2002 carnage – alleging that the two were “part of a larger conspiracy” to defame the then Narendra Modi-led state government.

The arrest was followed by a Gujarat Police special investigation team (SIT) informing a local court in Ahmedabad that Setalvad was working at the behest of late Congress leader Ahmed Patel to destabilise the Gujarat government of the time. Though the Congress’s response to Setalvad’s arrest had initially been one of perfunctory condemnation, the party was forced to come out all guns blazing when the name of Patel, who succumbed to Covid in November 2020, was dragged in, leading the BJP to claim the alleged conspiracy was hatched by none less than Congress chief Sonia Gandhi as Patel was her political adviser.

The grounds for Setalvad’s arrest, in turn, had been paved by an order by the Supreme Court, which had, while dismissing a petition filed by Zakia Jafri, widow of former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri who had been hacked to death by rioters in 2002, made several insinuations about Setalvad’s motivations in helping victims of the pogrom.

The chain of events, thus, brought the 2002 pogrom back to the political centre-stage of poll-bound Gujarat. And, the Congress, as the BJP’s principal rival in the state, has been forced to take a stand on each of these issues.

2002 turned Gujarat

As such, if the 2017 and 2012 assembly polls saw both the BJP and the Congress whitewashing the dreadful events of 2002, the elections due in November-December 2022 are set to revive the trading of political barbs over that dark chapter of Gujarat’s history, which turned the land of Mahatma Gandhi into a rabid laboratory of Hindutva with Modi as its undisputed mascot.

With an electoral victory in Gujarat evading the Congress since 1995, the party’s organisation in a perpetual state of disarray and its limited pockets of influence now challenged by an expansionist Aam Aadmi Party while the BJP continues to go strong, riding on communal polarisation and Modi’s reflected glory, the Congress has a tough balancing act to follow with the 2002 pogrom recapturing public imagination.

The dilemma for the Congress is to decide just how strongly and consistently it wants to raise the issue of the continuing denial of justice to victims of the pogrom and the alleged role that the BJP, under Modi, played in, first, igniting this fire two decades ago and then, derailing all processes that could have applied the necessary correctives.

Also read: Ahead of Gujarat polls, Kejriwal promises sops for tribals

Hamstrung by its organisational deficiencies, lack of a popular face who can drum up support across the state and the steady attrition of its leaders to the saffron fold, the Congress is still searching for a narrative that could make its Mission Gujarat click with the electorate. It has, no doubt, spoken with clarity and conviction on the administrative atrocity that has been unleashed on Bilkis, Zakia Jafri, Setalvad and others as well as on the evident attempt to defame Sonia Gandhi by accusing her of conspiring with Ahmed Patel to destabilise the Modi-led state government back in 2002.

However, party insiders told The Federal that the Congress leadership “should not let justice for victims of the pogrom become the main talking point of the campaign” as this would allow the BJP to polarise the electorate on communal lines while also giving Modi a chance to play up his pet card of accusing the Grand Old Party of insulting “Gujarati asmita (pride)”.

A senior Gujarat Congress leader told The Federal that though the central leadership – the troika of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka – wants the party to be “unequivocal in its condemnation of Modi and the BJP’s role in the riots and the continuing persecution of those who fought for justice”, the state leadership wants the party to “move on and focus on the failure of the current government on various fronts”.

This thinking is consistent with the electoral approach that the Congress had adopted for Gujarat ever since Sonia Gandhi’s “maut ka saudagar” (merchant of death) jibe at Modi in the 2007 assembly polls ended in a disastrous poll drubbing for the party. Modi had turned that attack by Sonia to his advantage, playing up his Hindu identity and Gujarati pride in conjunction, while imploring the Gujarat electorate to give a befitting reply to his rivals who had “repeatedly insulted Gujarat”. When the results came in, it was clear that Gujarat had no problem with a CM famous for his incendiary speeches and unapologetic avowal of hard-line Hindutva.

When the state went to polls again in 2012, the Congress had pretty much abandoned the 2002 pogrom as an electoral issue. Rashid Alvi, a senior leader and prominent party spokesperson at the time, had made it clear that it was “not necessary” to make the post-Godhra carnage an electoral issue and that though “what happened in 2002 was very shameful; we do not want to politicise such incidents.”

Modi, of course, was unwilling to let go of the communal polarisation plank that had pivoted him back to power in both 2002 and 2007. He told Gujaratis that if the Congress came to power, “Ahmed Miyan will become the CM”. The reference was to Ahmed Patel but the import was unambiguous – he wanted the electorate to decide whether they wanted him, the self-appointed Hindu Hriday Samrat to continue as CM or to replace him with a Muslim. The results – 116 seats to the BJP in the 182-member assembly – showed who Gujarat wanted.

Also read: Recalling Bilkis Bano: Horrifying rape and murder case that shook India

By the time the state went to polls again in 2017, Modi had left the hot seat in Gandhinagar to take over as India’s top executive and the political narrative in the state had shifted significantly away from the events of 2002 to the prevailing social unease among the electorally formidable Patidar community as well as the Dalits, tribals and sections of backward classes. The 2017 election was the first since 2002 when neither the BJP nor the Congress raked up anything related to the carnage.

“Our best performance in two decades was in 2017 (the Congress had won 77 seats against the BJP’s 99 – the first time since 1995 when the BJP didn’t cross double-digits) and it is no coincidence that the 2002 riots were not an issue in that election… we tapped into the unrest among classes that were part of the BJP’s wider Hindutva vote bank; that is the strategy that we should continue because if we let the discussion become about 2002, we will give Modi a walkover,” a senior office bearer of Gujarat Congress told The Federal.

What will Congress do?

However, given the sheer number of incidents linked to the 2002 pogrom that have come back to dominate public consciousness, how plausible – and morally correct – is it for the Congress to ignore these?

“We are not ignoring the issues but we certainly need to be smart about the way we want to raise them. If you look at how we have been responding to matters related to the riots, you’ll realise we are doing by identifying specific issues and not generalising our attacks or invoking those tragic memories,” said a leader involved in drawing up the Congress’s campaign strategy for Gujarat.

“We are a secular party, we can’t abandon the issue entirely so it is important that we raise it but in a manner that won’t allow the BJP to polarise… we talk about failure of the system of governance or the apathy towards women when we raise the issue of rapists being set free; we talk about assault on institutions when we talk about police, CBI or ED targeting our leaders… when we talk about institutional failure, injustice to any community, we remind Modi about the advice (Atal Behari) Vajpayee ji gave him after the riots – to follow raj dharma – so we are not abandoning 2002 but we have to be pragmatic,” he added.

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