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Capitalism, Multiculturalism and Tolerance: A Perspective on 'Vibrant Gujarat'

"Vibrant Gujarat" is not just about the kind of economic development that makes for an "India Shining" campaign. It is also about the caste, class and religious divides, regional imbalances and the imperatives of defining borders and boundaries. The very currents that have contributed to a remarkably mixed and synthetic social fabric have also over a period of time led to certain unique social, religious and cultural trends that give Gujarat its distinct character.

Capitalism, Multiculturalismand Tolerance: A Perspectiveon ‘Vibrant Gujarat’

“Vibrant Gujarat” is not just about the kind of economic development that makes for an “India Shining” campaign. It is also about the caste, class and religious divides, regional imbalances and the imperatives of defining borders and boundaries. The very currents that have contributed to a remarkably mixed and synthetic social fabric have also over a period of time led to certain unique social, religious and cultural trends that

give Gujarat its distinct character.


ujarat is a good example of the “positive correlation between neoliberal economic policies and the politics of Hindutva”. The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state is a story of religious polarisation, caste politics and an aggressive adoption of neoliberal economic policies. The state government’s slogan of “Vibrant Gujarat” has been successful in wooing domestic and foreign investments on a large scale and Gujarat is one of the more industri alised states of the country. However, development within the state is vastly uneven with cultural, linguistic, and historical discontinuities across the territories contained within the singular political and administrative entity that we know as Gujarat.

Modern Gujarat comprises three distinct cultural zones – the north-south strip of “mainland” Gujarat and the two wings of Saurashtra and Kachchh, each separated by the two arms of the Rann of Kachchh. Kachchh and Saurashtra were relatively inaccessible until rail and road links were established across the smaller Rann. The greater Rann divides Kachchh from Pakistan in the north. Each of these terrains has had unique forms of social organisation, cultural patterns and historical trajectories, making any singular projection of “Gujarati-ness” a problematic proposition. It was only in 1960 that they were brought together as a single state of Gujarat.

A Historical Perspective

An analysis of the present within a historical framework reveals that industrial development is not new in Gujarat. Many Gujarati communities have been involved in trade and mercantile activity from early times. Gujarati society may also be ironicially one of the more plural societies in India. Its location on the western seaboard and the involvement of many Gujarati communities in trade and mercantile activity from early times has meant that Gujarat has been oriented towards the outside for centuries. Waves of migration took place through Gujarat for this was one of the more accessible routes into India across the Arabian Sea. Kachchh, which was an island for much of its recorded history, has never been able to support a large agrarian population due to its geological and ecological constraints. Emigration has been an established way of life here from the earliest recorded times, and a significant population lives overseas. In some respects, Gujarati society was deeply multicultural, with settlers coming in at various stages in history, making its complex layers. This multiculturalism was premised upon, among other things, trade and mercantile activity. A shared ethos of entrepreneurship enabled the development of regional pride and belonging that cut across communities.

In recent times the state has become notorious for its poor record of interreligious harmony and caste-based violence. However, Gujarati society may also, almost ironically, be one of the more plural societies in India. Today, even as industrial development continues to expand within the state, Gujarati society has also emerged as a deeply polarised one. Modern industrialisation within Gujarat has in some senses ceased to build on the history of a shared mercantile past that existed across some Gujarati communities – Hindu, Muslim and Jain. This kind of plural social fabric extended much beyond trade-related cooperation into the very composition of social life among many Gujarati communities.

Within Gujarat, syncretic practices and traditions are often not the result of a superficial mixing of two distinct communities, but of shared histories. For example, most social groups in Kachchh have tended to settle as a result of inward migration from further north or west. Through the ancient and medieval periods, migration regularly took place through Kachchh, one of the first landing points, into the subcontinent from the west. With the advent of Islam into Sindh in the eighth century AD, many conversions took place in that province. Migration between Kachchh and Sindh has been a regular feature throughout history. After the eighth century, it was not uncommon to find members of the same community on both sides of the Kachchh-Sindh border, one side being Hindu, the other Muslim. The Samas, who eventually rose to become the ruling Jadeja dynasty of Kachchh, were one such community. Those who migrated into Kachchh were Hindu Samas, while those who remained in Sindh were Muslim. Similarly, there are Sodha Rajputs who are occasionally Muslim and at times Hindu. When the members of a single community adopt different religions, while their modes of worship would develop along different axes, there remain deep similarities in terms of clothing, culinary traditions, as well as other cultural traditions such as marriage customs, etc. These traditions continued even after centuries of conversion.

My intention in drawing attention to Gujarat’s multicultural past is not to claim that the past was free of conflict or polarisation, but to locate the present situation within a certain historical trajectory and argue that precisely those very currents that have contributed to a remarkably mixed and synthetic social fabric (such as trade, migration and religious conversions) have also over a period of time led to certain unique social, religious and cultural trends giving Gujarat its distinct character today. That might well help explain the particular affinity Hindutva ideals have found in Gujarat.

Hindu Muslim Divide

To understand the deep divide between Gujarat’s Hindus and Muslims today, a divide that has been further exacerbated and arguably to a large extent been fostered by the politics of Hindutva, one needs to capture the historical trajectory of Hinduism and Jainism in the state. The Swaminarayan movement and Jainism influenced Hinduism here. Jainism has had an abiding influence on popular Hinduism in Gujarat so that vegetarianism and the ideology of ahimsa are taken as axiomatic of not just Jainism but also Hinduism in the region. As a result, culinary habits in Gujarat tend to cluster around a simple dichotomy – Muslims eat meat while Hindus/Jains do not. While all Gujarati Hindus are doubtless not vegetarian, this dichotomy is largely how public discourse on meat eating in Gujarat has crystallised over the last few decades.

The Swaminarayan movement which began as a 19th century reform movement within Hinduism also places strong emphasis on strict non-violence, vegetarianism and asceticism. While the movement initially faced resistance from the Rajput ruling elite in the then principalities of Kachchh, Saurashtra and mainland Gujarat, its main support base came from the working classes. The sect played a major role in the sanskritisation of religious practices and upward mobility especially for mid-level castes like the Patidars of Gujarat. Both Jainism and the Swaminarayan movement identify strongly with a protestant ethic. Hard work, accumulation of wealth and worldly success is closely allied with spirituality. The philosophy of ahimsa simultaneously involves a strong condemnation of meat-eating and animal sacrifice, popular under the Rajputs.

Following independence and the decline of Rajput political authority in Gujarat, political and economic power shifted to other classes.

In western India as a whole, this period saw an enormous rise in the social, economic and political capital of the trading classes, many of whom were already a part of the large international trading diaspora in East Africa, the Persian Gulf and the United Kingdom. These classes constituted an important social base of these religious ideologies and with their entrepreneurial success they became the new social elite in Gujarati society. As a result of this kind of social and economic mobility, notions of vegetarianism and ahimsa gradually inflected Hinduism in Gujarat.

With emigration and the rise of mercantile power in Gujarat, vegetarianism became one significant mode of social capital and upward mobility for agrarian castes such as the Patidars. The Patidars continue to wield significant economic and social capital in contemporary Gujarat. The adoption of vegetarianism by Hindus in Gujarat must be situated within this historical context, for Hinduism in Gujarat continues to be unproblematically equated – at least publicly – with vegetarianism, contrary to available evidence from Hindus elsewhere in the country. It is not uncommon to be offered only vegetarian food on flights in and out of Gujarat. With public discourse within and outside of Gujarat buying into this fantasy of a vegetarian paradise, Hindus in Gujarat feel that their position is vindicated. But even as vegetarianism and a Jain-inspired ethos have become synonymous with Hinduism in Gujarat, this has also worked as a protestant ethic, increasing industrial growth and development manifold.

Border Zone Imperatives

Centuries before the BJP’s “Vibrant Gujarat” slogan, Gujarati traders of all religions and sects had already ventured across the seas to establish trade connections in East Africa, the Persian Gulf and Europe. Foreign exchange remittances to their home villages were a crucial facet of development within Gujarat. However, the so-called vibrancy of development in Gujarat also conceals within itself its antithesis. Examples from Kachchh illustrate this.

Industrial development and neo-liberal economic, social and cultural policies cannot be isolated from the state’s mandate of border management and control of minority populations in Kachchh, which forms Gujarat’s western border with Pakistan. A political border that has been fraught with intrigue from its very inception in 1947, an analysis of border management policies here reveals that the project of securing borders is as much about political control as it is about social and cultural definition.

The border villages of northern Kachchh, unlike its southern and south-eastern sections, have been among the more neglected areas of the district as far as social or economic development is concerned. Even after over half a century of independent nation-building in India, these populations still remain illiterate, the state school system is lacklustre, and access to water and basic amenities is, sadly, still lacking.

This is partly explained by residents of this area as the “lack of political will” to develop this area because it is inhabited by the political and religious minorities of the region – Muslim pastoral populations, scheduled castes and adivasis.

However, in the midst of this perhaps calculated underdevelopment, there are a couple of strategically located industrial complexes along the border. This apparent paradox becomes easier to understand when viewed within the context of the larger socio-political concerns of border management. “Development” in Kachchh may be located along two broad axes. Initially, it came about primarily through Kachchh’s trade relationship with the outside – primarily Bombay, East Africa and the Persian Gulf. There were pockets of development initiated mainly through individuals and families who maintained circulatory connections outside Kachchh. Foreign exchange remittances were crucial to village maintenance and aggrandisement over time. Post independence, however, this long-standing pattern of development and investment has undergone a significant shift.

While the Patidar-vegetarian-agrarian belt, especially in southern Kachchh has continued to prosper as a result of foreign investment by expatriate residents, the ports of this region have been significantly improved and upgraded by the central government following independence. Kandla in south-eastern Kachchh was planned as a port to replace the loss of Karachi to Pakistan after Partition. More recently, the privatisation of Mundra port has also added to the maritime economy in this area. But quite apart from these areas of development in Kachchh that were either restricted to merchant families, their villages and kin networks or the post 1947 central government led initiatives of developing ports. There was also some significant activity in terms of setting up of large industries within Kachchh. These were located in the area of northern Kachchh known as Banni. There are two main industrial units in the Rann of Kachchh, both relating to agro chemical production.

The Banni area is commonly designated as “backward” by other residents of Kachchh who typically have very little idea of the kind of life lived here. When Banni does merit positive mention, it is to extol its virtues as a unique and “exotic” ecological and cultural phenomenon, to be marketed as a tourist destination. From the point of view of the local population, however, there is little solace to be had as icons of local colour and rustic pride when basic amenities of life such as water and access to transportation are so compromised.

The absence of “modern” capitalist development did not ever translate into an absence of social or economic capital for vast majorities of the Kachchhi population. Emphasis has been laid on the maritime trade and commercial networks of Kachchh, but the pastoral populations of the north were also well connected with capital networks of the pre-industrial sort. Trade networks linked these pastoral populations with almost as wide a web of exchange as the better-known maritime traders of southern Kachchh. While the latter were more explicitly linked up with trans national entrepreneurial networks, the former were equally significant to the overland trade routes that linked pastoral and trading populations through Sindh, Punjab, Afghanistan and central Asia.

Once the centre of a thriving trade and pastoral-centric economy, the Banni grasslands have steadily declined through the decades following 1947. Some of this has to do with political compulsions following the geographical reorganis ation of this region consequent to the partition of the subcontinent, following which the pastoralists lost their traditional access to the pastures of Sindh. However, the ecological decline of Banni is also related to its neglect by the state government following independence. The pastoralists themselves see the lack of water and fodder supply to them as a political conspiracy against them.

The feeling of exclusion has been exacerbated in the aftermath of the statesanctioned massacre of Muslims. After these events the state has understandably lost all its credibility as a safeguard for its minorities. During the period 200304, speeches made by local politicians on the occasion of village functions or inaugurations of new post earthquake settlements in this area invariably exhorted villagers to remain “vigilant” citizens for they lived on a border. This was also accompanied in 2003 by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) agenda of ‘trishul diksha’ (distri bution of tridents) to non-Muslims living in border villages accompanied by the injunction to be vigilant citizens and guardians of the border. Most pastoralists interpret this as a policy of mistrust directed against the Muslims who are suspected by the authorities to be in consortium with Muslims across the border in Pakistan and inevitably branded as “anti-national elements”.

Isolated pockets of industrial activity do generate some limited employment locally, even though a large number of employees are from outside Kachchh. Equally important, these interventions are also an aspect of the surveillance and control of frontier populations, a measure to keep residents of the border villages suitably employed and away from potentially lucrative but illegal cross-border activities. While they serve these other ends, these industries cannot really be viewed as contributing

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to the district’s development index in any real sense.

Ethnographic Research

Ethnographic research (conducted among pastoral populations during 2001-04) suggests that the operation of industries along the border, although certainly dependent on the availability of raw materials (this area is rich in bromine, potassium and magnesium), also enables the state to consolidate its task of securing the border. This has social and cultural dimensions in addition to the physical task of demarcating the frontier. Banni is the name given to the grassland area located within the Great Rann of Kachchh. Muslim pastoral nomadic communities, whose lifestyle tends to constitute a threat to the physicality of the border, for they have historically moved freely between Kachchh and Sindh, now in Pakistan, primarily populate this region. There are also significant cultural, linguistic and kinship networks across the border amongst them. After the 2001 earthquake and subsequent events in 2002, “development” in Kachchh ends up reinforcing the same kinds of neo-liberal policies and attitudes that are seen as central to Hindutva politics.

Within Kachchh, development and surveillance continue to be two sides of the same coin. The work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the area may end up reinforcing – albeit perhaps unintentionally – neoliberal policy as well as religious polarisation in the region. The politics of NGO practice in Kachchh then becomes intricately involved in the state’s mandate of development, to such an extent that they also become complicit in the task of surveillance and border security in addition to their other interventions. The role of development agents in the area cannot therefore be isolated from the state’s mandate of surveillance and control of minorities and frontier populations.

The history of “Vibrant Gujarat” is therefore not just about the kind of economic development that makes for an “India Shining” campaign. Lurking just beneath its narrations of pride in region and homeland, grounded in a spirit of resilience and entrepreneurship are other stories that tell of ever-deepening divides of caste, class and religion; of regional imbalance and the imperatives of defining borders and boundaries.



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