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India: Urban Segregation and the Special Political Zone in Ahmedabad - An Emerging Paradigm for Religio-Political Violence

by Arvind Rajagopal, 11 September 2012

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SAMAJ, 5 : 2011

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In what ways does the violence of Gujarat in 2002 mark a departure from previous episodes of violence in India? Upendra Baxi has argued that it signalled the formal onset of what he called ‘holocaustian politics’, politics that rendered the state into a mechanism for subordinating the minority to the majority, and ensuring that submission became the only mode of existence for the former. Communalized governance had become the object of the state, rendering minorities into permanently endangered subjects, Baxi argued, distinguishing such governance in terms of three key components. First, the state was to champion the principle of collective guilt and responsibility, negating the idea of individual rights. Second, the right of the majority to commit violence against the minority was to be upheld and encouraged, for reasons of revenge, and self-defence as well as future deterrence, rendering the majority community into a de facto force of law, and thereby educating minorities into the form of citizenship available to them. This indicated a third crucial fact, namely that the rule of law in India had come to constitute a reign of terror, signalling a broad consensus legitimating organized political violence. Analysts of Indian politics needed to confront the difficult and unpalatable task of theorizing these new realities, Baxi urged (2002).

47What Baxi did not discuss was the broader political-economic conjuncture that enabled the anti-Muslim pogroms, which succeeded in simultaneously regionalizing the violence of 2002, and accommodating it to a global neoliberal context.

48Although the BJP government was replaced at the Centre after Baxi wrote his essay, the Chief Minister of Gujarat accused of masterminding the violence came to be lauded by corporate India and touted as the answer to India’s apparent ungovernability. Court proceedings and inquiry commissions have been initiated, but like other juridical processes that followed previous acts of mass violence in India, served to delay and perhaps deny justice, while simulating due process. Federalism, from being a guarantee of limiting centralization of state authority, becomes a means to make human rights violations into an internal matter for state governments. Popular elections, instead of expressing democratic rights against established elite power, can become a way of overwriting existing laws and absolving crimes against humanity; this is clearly what the BJP sought to accomplish in Gujarat, at any rate. State institutions designed to serve the people regardless of their community or creed were turned into means for ensuring that the rights of a minority were negated, while activist groups and news media that challenged such discrimination themselves become targets of vilification, as anti-people or anti-national (Baxi 2002).

49The mimicking of anti-colonial politics for very different purposes by the postcolonial state suggests the inadequacy of the conventional repertoire of liberal and activist forms of politics, with their reliance on putative state impartiality combined with public protest to appeal to wider sympathies. In this case neither the one nor the other was available in very great measure, at least domestically—as a result of which appeals to international audiences and organizations were made, which then could be used to reinforce claims of anti-nationalism by the state.

50I argued above that Gujarat’s exceptional ‘success’ as the poster child of neoliberal development was complemented by the manner in which it had normalized an exceptional social order predicated on accelerated practices of social segregation, which in turn enabled anti-Muslim violence (and its rhetorical justification). Urban growth, economic development and ghettoization operated in tandem in Ahmedabad, with patterns of spatial expansion and capital accumulation together working to force Muslims more closely together into spatial proximity and social intimacy, while rendering the rest of the city as a canvas for Hindu aspirations. These aspirations can be clarified by considering spatial arrangements as they impact on urban perception. Various forms of structural and phenomenal violence in Ahmedabad became naturalized to the point where their results were seen as attributes of Muslims themselves or as the results of their behaviour, rather than as a consequence of conditions imposed on them. The form of public communication in which these conditions were reproduced relied not on transparency but on a structure of secrecy and surveillance, dividing the population into surveilled and surveilling sections, with the former understood to be different and the latter believing itself to be normal. Violence is not external to the reproduction of this system of communication, but one of its constitutive components.

51My argument about the relay between the special economic and political zones as both a symptom and a form for understanding the specificity of Indian globalization, can be understood at two levels. First, it asks us to view ‘Gujarat’ as signalling the possible consolidation of a set of relationships between political violence and economic globalization, between an accelerated emphasis on regional identity, or Gujarati asmita, on the one hand, and the globalization of Gujarati business classes on the other as a circuit secured by the performance of anti-Muslim violence. The forms of spatial segregation, economic marginalization, and ultimately, of Muslim ghettoization have taken over the Gujarati public sphere even as they have rendered the English sphere suspect and non-authentic, thus aiding in remaking political common sense. Second, my argument regarding the special political zone points to a broader politics of vision and of visibility; it is an integral, if inadequate element in the production of a perceptual field where Muslim vulnerability and spatial segregation are mutually entailed in the remaking of political common sense. It is this longer-term production of vulnerability that I have addressed here, in order to clarify the place of anti-Muslim violence in a neoliberal order where the logic of economic and of political exception interlace with each other.