On the social fabric in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat: Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

This is an excerpt from the chapter, ‘The Enemy Within’ in NIIANJAN MUKHOPADHYAY’s book, Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.

Stage set for a Vishwa Hindu Parishad function next to the Pirana shrine in Ahmedabad, 2011. Photo via twocircles.net

From the label of “Master Divider” in India Today in January 2003 to the tag of “The Great Polariser” in the Outlook in July 2012 — Narendra Modi’s image remained static: self-declared champion of one community of people. But the strain Gujarat faced in the course of his tenure has increased manifold. Wherever I travelled in Gujarat, there was a clear distinction between “us” and “them”. This difference was articulated by several Hindus every time the conversation veered in this direction. In contrast, counterparts among Muslims denied this. The disagreement with the hypothesis stemmed not from a belief and perception that they faced no discrimination but because of a “fear” that accepting such a viewpoint could be interpreted as levelling an allegation that they were being targeted — a risk no Muslim is willing to take after the post-Godhra violence.

Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay; Tranquebar Press; Pages 420; Rs 495

The ever-widening gulf that exists amongst Hindus and Muslims at a social level was unmistakable in two places: first, in Bhuj, the headquarters of Kutch district and the epicentre of the 2001 earthquake that actually began the Modi-era in Gujarat’s narrative. The second place where the tattered social fabric of Gujarat becomes evident is in an outgrown village nearly twenty-five kms away from the heart of Ahmedabad — the spiritual headquarters of a community of people who belong to the Pirana sect.

In Bhuj we are in the office of Kutchmitra — the largest selling Gujarati paper in the district. A reporter who requests anonymity, mentions that Muslims in cities and towns of Kutch no longer cook non-vegetarian food at home. Instead, they go to a few Muslim-run restaurants in colonies where only people from their community live. This was done because of social pressure from Hindus. Kutch incidentally has the highest percentage of Muslims — twenty-one per cent — in the state. The reporter continued his narrative on changed social customs in Kutch in the past decade: whenever there is a marriage in a Muslim family and they wish to invite Hindu business associates (there are no friends across communities — rishta sirf zaroorat ka hee hai — the relationship is purely need-based) — they make a special announcement in the wedding card. There will be a separate — and sanitised — dining hall for “Hindu guests” at the wedding reception.


The second place which testifies to the dramatic transformation of inter-community relationships in Gujarat in the aftermath of the post-Godhra violence is at the shrine in Pirana, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, whose followers have ancestral roots in Kutch. This religious order was established almost five hundred years ago by Imam Shah, a deviant from Islam who has often been given the tag of a Sufi for want of another label. He set up the sect and initially drew followers from the community of Patels of Anjar Taluka in Kutch. The temporal head of Satyapanthis — as the followers were named — fused practices of Islam with Hindu traditions and evolved a code of his own. The Patels integrated with Muslim followers (Syeds) of Imam Shah who ran his religious order on democratic lines with a governing council taking all key decisions. The council consisted of ten people — seven Patels and three Syeds and the successors of Imam Shah (called Kaka) were selected by mutual consultation over the past five centuries.

Soon, the Satyapanthis — like several other communities emerged as a small little third religious group, distinct from Hindus and Muslims. The outsider status of Satyapanthis started coming under strain from the late 1980s due to several reasons: growing sentiment among Patel followers and the then Kaka to give a greater “Hindu-thrust” to the sect and convert each member into a “political Hindu” being the most significant one. Called a dargah till then, the shrine came to be frequently referred to as a temple — deifying Shri Nishkalanki Narayan Bhagwan. The tombs which lay scattered around the shrine were one-by-one adorned with Hindu motifs. Rituals inside the sanctum sanctorum — the tomb of Imam Shah — acquired Hindu characteristics. In 1997, when I visited the shrine as part of a study on inter-community relations in Kutch, I still found Syeds among the regular devotees.

This was not the case in 2012 and a lot other than this had also changed. To begin with, the main gate of the dargah had been shut — which was a typical medieval structure and had a distinct influence of Islamic architecture. The entry to the shrine was now through a huge ornate gate, typical of temples with ample resources. The gate led into the main building of what was initially an adjunct but has now become the principal shrine. Inside the old dargah, barring the graves everything has a “Hindu look”. In the past decade, the Satyapanthis witnessed their gods being taken away. The head of the governing council, the current Kaka got agitated with my probing questions — pertaining to the virtual disappearance of Syeds from the shrine and the reasons why the original main gate was closed. Syeds may have been virtually turned away from what used to be their shrine also till a decade ago, but their “presence” still causes problems — especially for Modi.

In September 2011, Modi launched a much-publicised officially-run campaign to promote social harmony. Called Sadbhavna Mission, the name was similar to programmes initiated by several Indian political leaders in the past with the intent of invoking secular-tokenism and have been accompanied by appropriate symbolism. But Modi did not make any gesture signalling public overtures to Muslims. The Sadbhavna Mission grabbed headlines after Modi’s refusal to accept a skull cap associated with Muslims though he accepted the shawl. Media reports called the cleric a Sufi leader — Syed Imam Shahi Sayed. But, he is one of the deposed members of the governing council of Satyapanthis. Due to this deposition, Sayed now speaks more like a Muslim and less like a believer of a rebel-sect. He told journalists that ‘Modi’s refusal to accept the cap is not my insult but an insult to Islam.’ The contention of Vijay Rupani, BJP spokesman was similar to what Modi told me in an interview: ‘Narendra Modi has clearly said that his policy is not of appeasement of a section of society unlike other parties, but our approach is development for all and treating everyone as equal.’

In less than a decade and a half, Kutch has witnessed social stratification that will be difficult to undo. Similarly, the Pirana Dargah has lost its name, its spiritual pluralism and a large section of its followers who have tragically reverted back to the faith from where the founder branched out. Though the onset of these developments pre-dates the Modi era in Gujarat, it reached acute and probably irreversible levels of disconnect in his tenure coinciding with the period when the “us” and “they” have become more antagonistic.

When I had begun working on this biography I was painfully aware that the nascent schisms which I had witnessed in Gujarat in 1997 would have been brutally prised wider. The crudeness with which the divisions in the state were amplified, I was sure, would yield multiple narratives. To ensure that I did not stray from the narrative I was in search of — my own “Modinama”– I consciously decided to restrict my visit to only Pirana Dargah (as I still insisted on calling the place) and Kutch instead of travelling to other places in Gujarat known for spiritual diversity which includes Hindu folk deities.


One of the most emotive reasons behind the pillorying of the “other” by Hindus in Gujarat has been the sustained campaign advocating that “they” are swamping “us” — it was also the underlying sentiment of Modi’s Ame paanch, Amara pachhees (we are five and we have twenty-five) speech — that echoed the old argument of rabid Hindu communalists that “Muslims breed more”. But this claim is not consistent with census data based on religion from the pre-independence period. Religious demography of Gujarat is also available in post-independent India through the various decadal census reports. According to this, the first census in 1951 pegged Gujarat’s Muslim population at 8.9 per cent. But in 1951, the state as we know was yet to be formed and a better representative figure would be 1961 which lowered the figure by half a point to 8.4 per cent. According to census data of 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001 the percentage of Muslims in Gujarat remained more or less similar and touched 9.1 per cent in the latest headcount for which religion-wise data has been tabulated — an increase for sure but not dramatic or alarming by any yardsticks to merit propagation of myths regarding higher breeding rates among Muslims.

The “breed more” theory also gets knocked off by data presented by the committee appointed by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, to study the “social, economic and educational” status of Muslims in India. Called the Sachar Committee in popular parlance, it found that contraceptive prevalence rate among Muslim couples is almost equal to the overall state rate. Among Christians there has been an increase of only 0.2 percentage points between 1991 and 2001, but it could be argued that in absolute terms the number is fairly high because of small numbers of Christians in the state. From a total number of almost eighty thousand Christians in 1951 the numbers had increased to more than two lakh eighty-four thousand in 2001. In absolute numbers, the data has been used as a handy tool to spread the campaign of hate and distrust with an aim to heighten paranoia.

The propagandist approach with use of distorted demographic data has often been used as a justification for anti-conversion laws in different states. Gujarat too joined the list of such states in 2003 with the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act. The most contentious part of the law was that permission has to be sought from the local administration by any person wishing to either convert personally to another faith or act as the “convertor” by virtue of being a priest, maulvi or pandit. After being notified in 2008, the law was challenged in the High Court in March 2009 but though a notice was sent to the state government, there has been little progress towards hearing the plea filed by Gujarat United Christian Forum for Human Rights and some other petitioners.

The main basis on which the law has been challenged is that it violates Article 25 of the Indian Constitution which states that every citizen is ‘equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.’ The law virtually makes inter-religious marriages effectively impossible unless it has the consent of both families. But if a couple risks bravery, then there are always some people who are forever ready with “corrective steps.”

Gujaratis account for almost five per cent of the Indian population which Modi now keeps reminding everyone, adds up to six crores. With a Muslim population close to nine per cent it almost seems that Modi has to contend with more than five million people, the majority of whom by and large feel alienated from his government. I asked Modi about this, arguing that whether we like it not, Muslims and the issue of their existence cannot be brushed aside. I contended that since there were a large numbers of Muslims in Gujarat it was necessary to include them in the state’s political evolution and growth. Or did he think they could be kept outside?

Modi of course said that he pursued an inclusive approach to politics but did not believe that there was need for any extra thrust for any group which according to him was “appeasement”. I asked him further if he felt that there was any need for him to invite people for dialogue if there was a sentiment of disgruntlement? His reply can be interpreted in several ways and he said: ‘I am always ready (for a dialogue). My doors were open… anyone can come, everyone is welcome, I am ready anytime, every time.’

But there are critics from within his fraternity who felt that Modi had not done enough to assuage the hurt of 2002. Govindacharya is one of them. I asked him about his assessment of the progression of social tension between 2002 and 2012. In reply, he said: ‘The situation has not eased — instead is similar to a wound which is bandaged — no healing. On the contrary, I have noticed that whenever society cannot find any solution there is a danger of a section slipping into a phase of melancholy. This is the opposite of the violent phase. I very often find Gujarat to be going through this phase of melancholy.’ I wanted him to be more specific, which section of the society did he mean? He was unambiguous: Muslims. ‘This is the reason why they are not able to uplift themselves and are not able to contribute for the growth and development of Gujarat. Now I am not sure how this stagnancy will take a turn in the future — will it become a fodder or will it take a turn of assimilating tendency — there is a huge question mark on this. Unfortunately, I see no efforts being made to turn this into an assimilating tendency. All these Sadbhavna Yatras and other similar programmes are all varnishing efforts — they are not repair work.’

13 thoughts on “On the social fabric in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat: Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay”

  1. What I feel the issue is that people are too sold out with the idea of development. It is natural, since all of us are tired of corruption, Modi making things work is like a ray of hope. But what we are not able to realise that he is actually harming our social structure, infusing hardcore extremist nationalism. The results will be evidnet afte a time and certianly people will not realize it,


  2. Most of your arguments are based on anonymity and on what people fell or think.
    The whole separation of Hindu and Muslim, is not just a state’s problem but it prevails throughout the country. It’s there at Delhi, at Mumbai and not to forget in our minds. Our belief filters are affected by this communal bias,so lets stop blaming political leadership but, its the product of the history and culture. (which we have been reading since class 5).
    If you want to blame political leadership, lets not just blame Modi, but all the politicians. Tell me one Leader who is secular and satisfies all that Jazz ?


  3. There has to be a common law for all, so that the overweening importance given to religions and religious practices can be reduced. Enforcing the common law is, of course, another matter. But it is the need of the hour.


  4. I don’t quite understand this obsession with Modi. Perhaps talking about him in ambiguous to negative tones gives him more media attention than his PR machinery had bargained for. However, when you describe the changing social fabric of Gujarat, you do realise that society is always in a state of flux – don’t you? It’s always changing – because of economic compulsions, political churnings, personal charisma of leaders, or as a result of the appeasement politics that has become the hallmark of Indian political discourse.

    (Since I’m not contesting elections, I have nothing to lose in expressing my definition of appeasement: I think 50% reservation for socially backward classes in institutes of higher education is appeasement, and I see absolutely no good coming of it. However, to absolve myself of the allegation of caste-based prejudice, I’ll explain that the same extent of reservation, if done in primary and secondary schools, would have been far better for the nation – although the beneficiaries would not have yielded votes in the immediate present.)

    Although, as you put it, it’s quite another thing to say that a massive social restructuring is happening because of a single individual rather than socio-political and economic reasons. And even if it were so, seen from the historical context, Modi’s tremendous popularity is only another manifestation of the general tenour of Indian voters – Gandhi, Bose, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Jinnah (to name but a few) had all captured the public imagination during their times. To this day, Amethi votes for the Gandhi family for example – I have never heard of any villager in Amethi talking about political ideologies influencing their voting behaviour. Different leaders employ different methods – but their reason for success is that they are able to correctly gauge the public sentiment and play into the socially/politically repressed or under-represented emotions of the people. Every politician does it and so does Modi. If that doesn’t strike one as particularly secular, then much as we decry it, our allegiance to democracy binds us to accepting the will of the public as it is.

    From another perspective, isn’t it better for Indian democracy that in the BJP-RSS alliance we have a counterpoint to the rabid appeasement-gurus led by the Congress and lapped up by the others?

    To summarise, I’m not being a Modi apologist – I mean “they breed more” is hardly the kind of political rhetoric I would side with, but I’m definitely not one that takes the secular aspect of Indian politics at face value. A country born of communal riots, and propped up with not so suave doses of money and political clout to engage and incinerate communities with and against each other, can hardly be called secular.

    (Forgive me for the long comment. You may reply via email if you wish.)


  5. The term appeasement is highly suspect, laden and coloured as it is by cultural sanction; it has precious little legitimacy in theory or as secular concept. The desire to legitimise saffron (whether underwear/outer clothing) is possibly understandable (after all, a survival reflex?)
    But Culture, it seems, must be upheld/guarded at all ‘suave’ cost by complicity of the constituent hierarchy and its institutions (it must exclude particular groups and conspire against a generic other, while falling in line for the spoils). ‘Development’ is the new proxy ideology that can effect both coercive control and dispossession, subsuming even the dispossessed under its apparently secular spell/charm. An alms bowl is clever enough to shovel stuff, but other lethal modes to enforce esteem/deference?

    Even good can follow from any random circulation of elites (whether catalysed by affirmative action or otherwise).
    The Sports Authority goes after (Ekalavya) tribals for medals_ maybe (in an a-mimetic democracy) we need to do something similar (to cultivate innovation/genius) for Nobel and other cranial (individualist) ‘prizes’, too


  6. Hindu gujratis by default are very conservative and orthodox when it comes to vegetarian habits. On reading comments of some readers and the blog itself, it comes out as if Modi is personally responsible for ruining the social structure.

    I have lived all my childhood in Mumbai in a society where we have mostly gujjus since 1966. It is known fact among all society members that flats should not be sold to any non-vegetarians. Did Modi cause this? These rules are in place ever since society was formed


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