The Man Who is Afraid of a Skullcap

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject. He is the Political Editor of Open.
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Two books on Narendra Modi establish why it is silly to hope that the bigot will ever be any less bigoted
Narendra Modi: The Man. The Times | Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay | Tranquebar | 409 pages | Rs 495 || The NaMo Story: A Political Life | Kingshuk Nag | Roli Books | 188 pages | Rs 295

Towards the end of his book on Narendra Modi, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay relates the story of a shrine in Pirana, on the outskirts of Kutch. It was founded 500 years ago by Imam Shah (whom Mukhopadhyay describes as a deviant from Islam—I gather the implied sense is of deviation from orthodoxy), who established the order of Satyapanthis, drawing his disciples from Patels in the Kutch. Imam Shah ‘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’.

In the Gujarat of the 1980s, Mukhopadhyay writes, the identity of Satyapanthis, distinct from Hindus and Muslims, started undergoing a transformation. The dargah came frequently to be referred to as a temple to Shri Nishkalanki Narayan Bhagwan, the tombs around the shrine became adorned with Hindu motifs, and rituals at the main shrine, the tomb of Imam Shah, acquired Hindu characteristics. But in 1997, on a visit to the shrine, he still found the Syeds among the regular devotees.

When he returned in 2012, ‘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’. A building adjacent to the old shrine had become the main temple, and the Syeds had disappeared. In the same year, Modi’s Sadhbhavana mission (the text has a 2002 date, a proofreading error) got derailed when he refused to accept a skullcap from a man the media identified as a Sufi leader, Syed Imam Shahi. Mukhopadhyay notes, ‘He was actually one of the deposed members of the governing council of Satyapanthis. Due to this deposition, Syed now speaks more like a Muslim and less like a believer of a rebel-sect.’

This tragic tale sums up the recent transformation of Gujarat—from the 1980s shift of Patels towards the BJP and their adoption of a more aggressive Hindutva identity in response to Madhavsinh Solanki’s initiative to win the OBC vote for the Congress to the breakdown of any interaction between Hindus and Muslims outside the sphere of dhanda. It also sums up the failure of Modi’s attempts at self-transformation. It is when we are forced to act on instinct that our prejudices surface, and Modi’s discomfort undid the Sadhbhavana mission.


Much has been made in the recent past about the need for a gesture of atonement from Modi for the 2002 violence, even by otherwise sane and liberal voices. It is as if in their hypocrisy, all they ask for is the pretence of repentance. Given that one view of Modi is that he will do anything for the sake of power, the question worth asking is why does Modi not make the gesture many of his critics so avidly seek? It is not as if his core support base will not understand his compulsions.

There is an old fable about the scorpion and the frog, which may or may not have its origins in the Panchatantra. A scorpion asks a frog to ferry him across the river. Afraid of being stung, the frog refuses. The scorpion argues that he would be foolish to sting him as then they would both drown. The frog agrees to ferry him, but midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. Drowning, the frog seeks an explanation. The scorpion simply tells him that it is in his nature to sting. On the evidence of both these books, when Modi refused the skullcap, he was being true to his nature. He is a bigot and nothing indicates that this will ever change.

Mukhopadhyay, whose book is by far the richer in detail, even if Nag is more pointed in his judgment of Modi, refers to Modi’s 2002 election speech in Mehsana, “Let me ask my Congress friends, if water is brought during Sharavan month…what is paining them? Since we are here, we brought the water in Sabarmati during the month of Shravan, when you are here, you can bring in the month of Ramadan. When we brought water in the month of Shravan, you feel bad. What brother, should we run relief camps? Should I start child-producing centres there? We want to achieve progress by pursuing a policy of family planning with determination. ‘Ame paanch, Amara pachees!’ [we five, our 25]…. Can’t Gujarat implement family planning? Whose inhibition is coming in our way? Which religious sect is coming in the way?”

Eight years later, deposing before the Supreme Court-appointed SIT, Modi defended himself, “This speech does not refer to any particular community or religion… My speech has been distorted by some elements who misinterpreted it to suit their designs?” The SIT believed him, which says something about its intentions, but that others should continue to hope for a changed Modi defies all available evidence.


The shamelessness of his bigotry, disguised only to the extent that those seeking to whitewash his action, such as the SIT, have an excuse, is the secret of Modi’s appeal in Gujarat. In the aftermath of the riots, Mukhopadhyay notes that ‘support for Modi came from only one section: voices from a communally polarized society which greatly agreed with the action of marauding mobs and believed it was actually time that ‘they’ were taught a lesson’.

Mukhopadhyay does not spell this out, but it is implicit that Modi was backed by the vast majority of Gujarati Hindus. That they believed they needed the support and protection of the administration to mete out a lesson to a community they outnumbered 10 to 1 reflects a deeply insecure masculinity. It is this deep insecurity that connects mobs in the Gujarat of 2002 to the mobs of 1984 in Delhi who attacked Sikhs. The violence in each case was meant to emasculate as much as it was meant to kill.

This insecurity of the Gujarati Hindu male has a long history. Gandhi, early on in his autobiography, writes, ‘A wave of ‘reform’ was sweeping over Rajkot at the time when I first came across this friend. He informed me that many of our teachers were secretly taking meat and wine. He also named many well-known people of Rajkot as belonging to the same company. There were also, I was told, some high-school boys among them.’

‘I was surprised and pained. I asked my friend the reason and he explained it thus: “We are a weak people because we do not eat meat. The English are able to rule over us, because they are meat-eaters. You know how hardy I am, and how great a runner too. It is because I am a meat-eater. Meat-eaters do not have boils or tumours, and even if they sometimes happen to have any, these heal quickly. Our teachers and other distinguished people who eat meat are no fools. They know its virtues. You should do likewise. There is nothing like trying. Try, and see what strength it gives.”’

It is another matter that Gandhi found his own way through this insecurity, but that is not a path that has proved easy for others to emulate. Modi offers a different solution, as Nag observes: ‘“Ekaj hi mard manas che” : there is only one He-Man in Gujarat and this is Modi … This feeling was widespread and prevalent in post-2002 Gujarat. Between 2002 and 2005, from tea-vendors to auto-rickshaw drivers to office peons to top managers believed that Modi was their only saviour. Such a belief was held by both men and women and cut across caste lines.’

The development story that is now being made so much of sits atop this reality and is in keeping with it. As the evidence overwhelmingly shows, Modi’s ‘development’ discriminates against Muslims as firmly as his police had during the 2002 violence. It would be foolish to expect otherwise. The post-Godhra Modi did not come into existence out of nowhere and in his attitudes he has only remained true to his own life.

Modi’s RSS past

Even to casual observers, there was something different about the young Modi. The son of an oil merchant who helped his father out at a tea-shop, Modi was always the one who took the lead among his compatriots, whether at school or outside. He started going to an RSS shakha at the age of six. His eldest brother, Somabhai, recounts that “he liked their discipline and the line of authority—in the early days every time he returned from the shakha, he appeared to be a more mature person—like something had left a deep impression on his mind. He was always greatly impressed by the fact that only one person gave all the orders in the shakha and everyone followed the command.”

It is easy to see the model for Modi’s administration in these words. But what the RSS offered him was more than discipline; it offered him a chance that few of his background could aim for. Without the RSS, like one of his brothers, he could at best have hoped to be an employee at the state secretariat, which is now his domain. In turn, the young OBC boy’s quick rise in the hierarchy was unusual for the RSS. The story of the RSS’s early recognition of the reality of caste in Gujarat is what separates its success here from its attempts in many other states. And the interplay of caste and religion in Gujarat and how the RSS has managed to make it work in its favour is as much a part of the Modi story as are his own circumstances.

As a 17-year-old, Modi left his home, probably to escape settling down with his wife Jashodaben, to whom he had been married well before he had any say in the matter. He continues to remain vague about the next four years of his life, perhaps aware that while the initial abandonment of his wife may have been understandable, his subsequent failure to support her is not. He has told Mukhopadhyay, “Actually, even now I have not completely returned to the material world. But at a later point [of my wanderings] I felt that if I have to do something then I have to become part of some system, some structure.”

He found that structure within the RSS. He came to Ahmedabad as a pracharak. With his knack for picking powerful mentors, he became close to a senior RSS functionary, Dattopant Thengadi, who ironically, given Modi’s model of development, went on to found the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. In 1979, he was assigned the task of assisting Thengadi and he came to Delhi. Soon after, he was back in Gujarat, playing an active and enhanced role in the organisation. The key to understanding Modi’s politics and what unfolded in 2002 seems to lie in this decade. The Congress in this period had fashioned a social coalition of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims that made it electorally invulnerable for close to a decade. In January 1985, the Congress Chief Minister Madhavsinh Solanki raised reserved quotas for backward caste Hindus from 10 to 28 per cent. Anti-reservation violence broke out with the involvement of the BJP youth wing, the ABVP, in which Modi was then playing a key role.

The ensuing consolidation against the protests enabled the Congress to win 149 of the 182 seats, but the violence forced Solanki to quit soon after. Curiously, within months, the anti-reservation violence turned into a communal stir. The transition seems to have its roots in the history of the state. Mukhopadhyay notes that communal conflict in Gujarat dates back to 1893 and the state has India’s highest per capita rate of deaths in communal riots.

In 1985, when Dalits turned from battling upper castes to battling Muslims, it appears that it was the RSS’s engagement with caste in Gujarat that made this possible. One of the important players in this turnaround seems to have been Modi. Unfortunately, neither of these books and, in fact, nothing written on Gujarat delves in detail into Modi’s role during this period and neither is there a detailed study available of this transition from caste to communal violence.

The violence ensured that within a year of the Congress winning a huge majority, its chief minister had been sacked. Soon after, it lost the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation election to the BJP, and, as Mukhopadhyay relates, ‘the man who organized the campaign from behind the scenes was none other than Modi. In his interview with me he disclosed: “I was asked to look after the campaign. Everyone was surprised—there had been a debacle in the country (in the 1984 Lok Sabha election) but we won the corporation elections. Even though we had only 17 councillors earlier we won a two-thirds majority.”’

The violence after Godhra then was not the first time that Modi had taken advantage of RSS-backed communal violence to ensure an electoral victory. It is those who keep hoping that it was the last who are selling us an illusion.