South Asia Citizen's Web Special
October 4, 2003

The Ganj Basoda case

by The Bhopal Group on Communalism

On the 14th of January, 2003 "riots erupted" in Ganj Basoda, a small town of Madhya Pradesh -the first tremors of a post Gujarat Hindutva. The incident was swiftly attributed to the slaughter of a cow. This article following the incident and its surroundings inverts this modality to argue that the alleged ëcow-slaughterí, far from being a reason of the riots could only have been a necessary appendage of the economy of the riot itself.

"The incident happened at around nine in the morning. Near 11:30 the shops were on fire. Within an hour, 132 out of the 144 muslim-owned shops in the town had been gutted and burnt down. Soon the ash settled and the administration took charge "
Janpad panchayat president, Ganj Basoda

"According to the police, the trouble began on Tuesday morning when the word spread across the town that a cow was being slaughtered in the house of a rickshaw puller, identified as Salim, 33, a resident of Choori mohalla. As the word spread across the town, an angry mob gathered in the area and went on the rampage, indulging in arson and stone peltingÖÖÖ. Though the accused managed to escape, two carcass and 12 hides were reportedly recovered from his houseÖ. Police later arrested the accusedÖÖÖ..The accused was involved in such activities in the past also and a similar incident was reported in 1999, a senior state police official said"
Hindustan Times, Wednesday, January 15, 2003

"It was an assemblage of about five hundred people, who divided into smaller groups of 70-80. Each group responsible for a location and consisting largely of people from that particular locality." An observer

Ganj Basoda, the town that witnessed the ëriotsí -a classification, we shall challenge in this article- on the 14th of january in which almost all the muslim owned shops were selectively gutted and put on fire is a small town of about eighty thousand people of whom a very small fraction (about 5-6 percent) are muslims. The town is apparently not one of those afflicted sites, where communal violence erupts habitually, echoing the faintest, distant howls; like a mourning in which continence itself may bear violent overtones, a mourning for which a violence had to be self-inflicted.

"The trouble began on Tuesday morning when the word spread around that a cow was being slaughtered in the house of a rickshaw puller, Salim " [1]. What does the word ëtroubleí allude to here? What is the expanse of ëeventsí that it circumscribes? Is it a uniform sequence of events to be put into a single box, engendered by a single event- the first disturbance of a peace; the first disturbance on a still surface. Let us broach the subject further. This ëdisturbingí event, the alleged ëgenesisí of the trouble was: A cow had been killed. To use a hackneyed phrase -which however on that account, should only be more seriously taken, leave alone, trivialised- ëthis hurt the sensibilities of the majority communityí. The rest, was the revenge of ëthe hurtí.

All empirical evidence, as we will argue in this article, suggests that this alleged sparking point -the slaughter of a cow- could only have been a fictional point created as a lump to which reason is made to fall back upon - the sinful, illegitimate, matricidal lump. But how could reason rest there. This lump will need to be broken into minute parts, the ëeventí into its component ëeventsí. Where exactly did the ruckus begin? Did somebody see a cow being slaughtered? Or did somebody see a cow being taken inside a house, where the lone purpose could have been to slaughter it? How did the news travel; who were the harbingers? None of these and many such questions, the just demands of a logical coherence, were followed. Logic, once it reached (leaping over obstacles) to a comfortable end - the Event- was stubbed. These aspersions of fiction on the Event are however not meant to make a positivistic statement claiming an umbrella inculpability for Salim and his family. This is only to say that there is little evidence to support the particular charge against Salimís family of having slaughtered a cow on that particular moment, the trigger to the ëriotsí-The Event. In fact, as the imbricated facts and interests are gradually unfolded, one effortlessly shifts to the point, where one can see it strip into an astute plot carefully timed and placed. That however does not mean that this plot excluded every element of spontaneity. Far from it, it harvested -a harvest perhaps provided for in its modality- deeply sown seeds of hatred, a structurally misdirected organicity; an organicity which is more akin to a malignant tumour than to a growth of life.

Salimís family of three included his wife and an adolescent daughter. They lived in a rented house, a small kutcha house with a polythene sheet for a roof with the landlordsí double storey building providing the backdrop. Salim: a rickshaw-puller (what economy for a personís description!); his wife: a housewife and by many accounts, an industrious woman who used to trade in animal flesh, bringing it from Sagar and Sironj towns which house licensed butcher houses; his daughter: a girl-child entering that age (of marriage) when parents in many parts of the country anxiously start scrambling for the tiniest bits of resources. In this poor familyís struggle for a living, the petty trade in animal flesh was an important aspect.

Animal flesh is an expensive commodity, often beyond the means of the working classes. Among the different types of animal flesh, beef - meat of the buffalo and cow family- for the simple demand-supply equation costs only a fraction of the cost of meat and poultry. While beef, as most who have eaten it say, has no particular palatal advantage -except may be the advantage of difference, no mean advantage- it is no gross disadvantage either. This skew, largely a creation of the partial ban on beef in the state, carves a niche in the market for beef. Surprisingly, contrary to expectations where a ban should have hopped up prices, beef rates remained more or less stable -a clear indicator that the prices were being determined not by discerning palates but the hungry needs of the masses, from whom there was little to gain by bargain; the risk element could not be converted into money, for there was just no surplus to appropriate; a cornered dealer can do nothing but squirm. It was this market that Salimís wife, eager for avenues to augment the family income, was battling in. Commuting to Sagar every few days by a local train, surreptitiously carrying flesh in it, regularly bribing the railway police personnel and the ticket checker, secretly bringing it home and selling it from there -no mean labour for a small amount of money. And for all this labour, Salim remained a rickshaw puller, pulling people twice his body weight; his house, the rented shanty it was. This destitute family, breaking its back in the struggle for life was however not even to be spared to live its lot; after all, it had hurt ësensibilitiesí, venomous sensibilities which like flying snakes in waiting, would hover from all around to bite it.

While Salimís wife used to trade in animal flesh and also beef, there is little evidence to suggest that she traded in cow-beef and none which points towards their ëslaughtering of cowsí. Besides, even if for a moment we were to disregard this dearth of evidence, a backward logical movement from the embellished, smooth structure of the larger events (which are blamed to have been engendered by the cow slaughter, The Event) that followed, proves that The Event -or rather its fiction- fits in too well, comfortably and organically with this structure to have been exterior to it -and the structure too well laid out to be precariously built on this tenuous foundation. It could only have been this structureís creation, its own necessary appendage. We need to discerningly follow and disentangle these events, which left entwined are fiddles for the dominants.

"The incident happened at around nine in the morning. Near 11:30 the shops were on fire. Within an hour, 132 out of the 144 muslim-owned shops in the town had been gutted and burnt down". There are no hiccups between the first and the second sentence, for those two and half hours. This is the interregnum when the Event (whatever be its form) is transformed into a riot: stone pelting, plundering and finally, burning of shops -the culmination, the final vengeance, complete annihilation of the symbol in the shop- after which the revenge, the thirst quenched, it settles down. This is the period of the spreading of the word, the swarming of people, the incitement of passions, the formation of the frenzy. This period of transformation is the main culprit for which the tenuous beginning (the Event) is a poor alibi. That beginning could only have been the necessary elongation of this interregnum, the initiation of the elements of the interregnum -a holy initiation.

This interregnum is the breathing space that ideas shocked with the first brush of reality need, to gather their appurtenances, reorganise their senses, to cast one last look to see that everything is settled for the launch. As the events to follow it would tell, it was during this interregnum that the Basoda ëriotsí were infused with the rational core that determined their fine method -an exacting strategy, precise targets and a limit.

"Within an hour, 132 out of the 144 muslim-owned shops in the town had been gutted and burnt down". Ganj Basoda has a fairly spread market, in which there is little to distinguish shops on the basis of their ownership. There is no spatial or functional segregation -no concentration of muslim shops. But for some convenient cases, it is difficult to make appellate distinctions -identifications of shops are more often than not secular. How then does it become possible to segregate every single of these scattered muslim-owned shops -they constitute no more than 5-6% of the total number of shops- plunder them and set them to fire, all within an hour or a little more. Let us not forget that this is as precise an exercise as any, an error of less than ten percent, that too not human, but solely due to the swigs of fire. The few muslim shops that remained, by most accounts belong to members of one or the other factions of the right -the BJP, the RSS, the Bajrang dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

What informed this method? Were they catalogues that had been astutely prepared, discerningly studied, mnemonically memorised. Probably, yes. But that would still be insufficient and not unfold itself as full-proof as the real act suggests. It needed the aid of a method, organic and structurally located; harnessing a raw and alive information.

"It was an assemblage of about five hundred people, who divided into smaller groups of 70-80. Each group responsible for a location and consisting largely of people from that particular locality." The division of the mass on neighbourhood lines, clusters of local people carrying minute details -If the shop was rented by a muslim, only the ware had to be destroyed; if it belonged to a muslim, the shop was to be put to flame- also perfect foil to settle old scores, vengeance that may have long forgotten its roots. Spreading over the town, these groups break into identified shops, plunder and set fire. Within a period of about an hour, the project- benefiting from the economy of decentralisation- is completed. These groups never move to the residential areas or indulge in further damage. The commotion ends at its very peak, when it has tasted ëvictoryí, a surrender of the adversary. Would a rabid crowd be satisfied with a symbolic end -burnt shops? Would it not push itself straight into the adversaryís den -the residential areas- to lay the enemy prostrate physically, in the ërealí sense? Would it not at least, cross the limit somewhere, for a moment, may be?

This divided mass instead stops abruptly after the commercial areas, without a single leap towards the residential areas, nor towards any other object. Its consummate economy -precisely marked shops looted and burnt to order, a finely defined finitude, an absolute lack of transgression- never betrays the lack of a central rational control. There is no ëmassí here, no traces of disorder, no madness -no ëriotsí. This was a project that had met its objective and its objective successfully completed, it vanished living behind haunting traces. We however do not mean that this project was devoid of all organic appendages, a glossy ball that collected no dust. Far from it, it gained profusely from these organic wastes. But its core, the movement defining element remained till the end, in the anterior, the programmed instrumental rationality which it inherited from the moment of conception. To understand the conceptual constitution of this project, we need to cast a glance at the surroundings, from where the seed was cast, or at least from where it got the orders to finally erupt out of its shell -the portentous shadows of which the teratogenís actual birth was only a concretisation, a cold condensation.

If Salimís family traded in beef (of any kind) there was nothing extra about the 14th of January. If it had exceeded legal limits, the excess continued from years before and the VHP, Bajrang Dal etc. -by all accounts, the executors of the project- with their extensive ruffian network could not have been oblivious of it. Salimís landlord (Soni) as also the household opposite of the street (Yadav) are both active VHP and Bajrang Dal activists (respectively). It is worth noting here that two years back, the muslim community had disallowed Salim, a rented house in their locality for his alleged indulgence in beef-like trade. For whatever legal transgression Salim may be exposed to blame, he can not be tried for making that moment, the moment of the Event (or rather, the fiction of the Event) possible. And what dubious logical leap is made to account for the transformation of this fiction into a violent display in which the property of a particular community is selectively put to fire, the hard-earned savings of a lifetimeís labour reduced to ash, a people converted into illegitimates in their own land -the religious identity of the fictitious transgressor!

It was not Salimís excess that marked the 14th of January. The project -or its timing- was a necessary congealing of the surroundings, the filling of a void, the exuberant overbrimming of the void; a reckoning to be finally counted, to be at last rewarded. A sign of the surroundings that hovered about the project, anterior to its actualization, can be found in the events that followed the project. The hoverings themselves came into overt lustrous forms -public declarations, speeches with much fanfare, statements of intent- culminating in threats of carry-over to the elections, the final front. It is at this end, this constantly alluded final point that this economy finally bares the aetiology of its projects, of the project. It is the economy of the front i.e., the election-market, which insinuates itself, back and forth, in all its projects.

We would do well to take a view of some ësignificantí moments that surround the events in Godhra. In February 2002, the Godhra carnage takes place which, irrespective of its cause, is efficaciously used by the BJP regime in Gujarat to allow a violent deluge against the muslim community. A delirium is created. A delirium strong enough to wipe away the formations of political rancour against the BJP, which had been steadily building up for more than a year, and tenacious enough to yield a bumper harvest, nine months later. The consummate economy of the frenzy could not but vehemently push the case for its own repetition -even if a ëriotí had to be manufactured.

Following the Gujarat results, members of the BJP and the VHP openly assumed menacing tones, threatening repeats over the country: Hindutva had finally come of age; the instrument had passed the acid test, it waited eagerly for another prey -writhing against the tether to jump on the next passersby. It could not have laid low long. Madhya Pradesh seemed to be the most convenient and potentially rewarding spot to give it its bite of flesh. In late December itself, Uma Bharati -Madhya Pradeshís potential Narendra Modi - was handed over the reins and Narendra Modi -the beast himself-, the stewardship. By early January, she had started camping in Bhopal, travelling into the hinterland and building the ëtempoí of the party cadres. Not to be left behind, an upbeat VHP, asserted itself in the form of a rally in Bhopal chaperoned by its version of Narendra (Milosevic) Modi, Praveen Togadia. And there were many more marches of the exuberant ëvictors of Gujaratí, uninitiated into restrain.

Togadia on the 11th of January declared in a press conference in Bhopal [2.], "Not only Madhya Pradesh but also other states would be painted in saffron colours by the time the next assembly elections are held here". There are no interludes in this exposition. The particular is precisely located in the general, it is the later from which it derives its substantiality. The period is defined by the ëgivení -project end. The instrument is clear by its colour and the act clear in the continuity of its expanse -paint. This statement however reflects a position that has moved far ahead of its vacillating countenance a decade back. The ëSaffroní had dropped from being a supposedly ideological position to its real place in the squalor of the election-market. It is this squalor, which determines its forms and its moments of assertion.

It of course requires no digging to locate the roots of the discourse on cow slaughter -or the event of cow slaughter- in the election ground. And as cows are everywhere, temples are everywhere too -scattered ready-to-harvest sacrednesses. Be it the Ayodhya site or the recent case of Bhojshala in Dhar, the archaeology of ëHindu religious sitesí is well synchronised with the movement of the election machine. So are other aspects of the BJP (and its alliesí) propaganda: Swadeshi, Islamic terrorism, Muslim population burst, Pakistan bashing etc.

But these phenomenon are obvious enough not to warrant a reiteration. The relation that the BJP has helped congeal between genocide and electoral fortunes in a liberal democratic setup, the possibility of a (necessary) relation between gross violence and a democratic sham, is finally on a vulgar display. This forthrightness is obviously a result of the substantial power and resources edifice that it has structurally established for itself, specially in the last decade or so. While symbols like temple, cow etc. have undoubtedly played an important role in its rise, it was only a matter of time before the organisation outgrew these symbols. It obviously still progresses stepping on symbols, but then with the growth and establishment of the organisation, the scarcity of symbols ceases to be a limiting factor. There it is important that the resistance movement too move beyond a ësymbolicí to a real contest; from a contestation of symbols to a battle of organisation; from tolerating a democratic chimera to a movement for substantive democracy.

In the cow, temple etc. were traces that the sangh parivar fed, cultivated and harvested. The selection was a shrewd one not only in terms of the potential of their appeal but also in the inherent proclivities of the tendencies so galvanised. In such a situation, the congress strategy of attempting to appropriate the BJPís symbols, and therefore of feeding the same tendencies is characteristic of its vulgar opportunism. While the possibility of this providing a temporary strut to the congress cannot be theoretically dismissed, it is more probable that in the sloughs of the last vestiges of liberalism -once its very raison díetre- may finally be the appearance of its own disintegration. Cows and temples, the BJPís steps of ascendance may well be the steps that the congress uses to descend.

1. Extract from HT, quoted above
2. Press Trust of India, 11th January, 2003

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