To understand BJP’s brazen attitude to Lakhimpur Kheri 2021, we must seek answers in Gujarat 2002

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A minister’s refusal to resign over the killings of farmers invokes the memory of another leader’s refusal to quit after mass murders 20 years ago.

There is shock and anger. The Opposition is upset that the Union minister of state for home has not been asked by the prime minister to resign. The minister is seen as the man responsible for the killings of farmers in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri in October. It is impossible to hear these demands for the minister to resign without recalling the calls for another resignation in 2002.

That appeal was made to a “poet-prime minister”. At first, he made some sympathetic noises. When the demand persisted, he retorted, “But who lit the fire?” The demand was buried there and then, for it was a rebuke from a high-minded man who was greatly concerned about rajdharma – “the duty of rulers”.

One mass murder, even though the scale is much smaller, invariably reawakened the memory of other mass murders and our responses to it. So it isn’t surprising that the Lakhimpur Kheri killings, which resulted in eight deaths, brought to mind the killings in Gujarat in 2002.

A conspiracy

Though the Lakhimpur Kheri killings were initially described as an accident, investigators now say that the murder of the farmers was the result of a conspiracy. That isn’t the only charge of conspiracy being discussed in India now. A persistent old woman in Gujarat has succeeded in motivating the Supreme Court to reopen an older case of mass murder. But few are talking about it. To discuss 2002 is to reawaken bad memories.

At that time, the state chief minister inspected the burned coach with his entourage, making it difficult for the forensic experts to collect uncontaminated evidence.

Before the culmination of an official investigation, the government and the ruling party concluded that the coach had been burned by the Muslims of Godhra. We did not find anything wrong with the pronouncement. We let the government propagate the assumption that Muslims had burned the coach. As a consequence, violence against the community was rationalised as being justified if not lawful.

The bodies of the 56 people who died in the coach fire were handed over, not to their relatives, but to a Hindutva organisation. It paraded the corpses around in a procession to incite hate against Muslims. Then the massacre started. A “spontaneous outburst of emotions” was allowed.

The man presiding over it later justified the killings and organised a Gujarat Gaurav Yatra to lead his people into denial. He asked them to believe that nothing had happened. He blamed those talking about the pogrom for defaming Gujaratis.

After this mass murder, he was rewarded by his electorate with another term. This mandate was used by the elite to validate the man and his politics. Didn’t this have the support of the people? Are you not disregarding their sentiments? There was a bargain. Should we keep mourning the murders of approximately 2,000 people or move firmly along the path of development? The answer was made clear. India’s industrial giants anointed the man the saviour of the country.

Editors and journalists pleaded with him to offer an apology, after which all would be forgotten. They were not obliged. They adjusted to the new reality. The man was whitewashed, turned into an icon and presented to India as the future it could not do without. The politics of murder got a new name: the politics of development.

Turning into cowards

Some brave souls were open to experimenting with this kind of politics. Have you wondered why this genocidal politics did not disturb them as it shook Kannada author UR Ananthamurthy who warned in his trembling voice: “Never allow the seat of power to that bully, you will be turned into cowards.”

Then we elected him as India’s leader. The politics of murder got other names: the politics of cleanliness, the politics of hope.

With 2014 and after, murders of Muslims became a commonplace affair. The power to murder was decentralised. Filming the bloodletting and forwarding the clips on WhatsApp became a national sport.

The brave souls were unmoved. Didn’t the number of new toilets outstrip the number of murders? After each murder, there was plea to the supremo to condemn the violence. He never obliged. He was firmly focused on the path of development. We then reasoned the poor man had more important matters to attend to. We adjusted to this reality.

Of course, it is clear that the politics of murder is the politics of distraction. It takes the attention away from the rotting economy, high unemployment and rising inflation. We’re so engrossed by the spectacle, it’s little wonder that we don’t believe the perpetrators should be held to account.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.

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Disclaimer: To understand BJP’s brazen attitude to Lakhimpur Kheri 2021, we must seek answers in Gujarat 2002 - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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