Vegetarians who roast humans

Gujarat, north India, reveres Gandhi and some of its people won't eat onions for fear of hurting mic

There are perhaps more Gandhian symbols in Gujarat today than almost anywhere else in India. First, there is the state capital, Gandhinagar, named after the apostle of non-violence. Ahmedabad itself, where ethnic violence has claimed hundreds of lives since 27 February, was Mahatma Gandhi's home for many years. At twilight, the city comes alive with a son-et-lumiere show on Gandhi. A little further west lies Gujarat Vidyapeeth (university), run according to Gandhian philosophy, with a curriculum that its administrators believe is suitable for India. Acknowledging Gandhi's abstinence, Gujarat is dry, with an official ban on alcohol.

And yet Gujarat is one of India's most violence-prone states, as we have seen from the events of the past couple of weeks. A Muslim mob attacked a train, killing 58 Hindus. Hindus retaliated, killing hundreds of Muslims. Sadly, this tit-for-tat violence is not unusual for Gujarat. One of the worst Hindu-Muslim riots in independent India took place in Ahmedabad in 1969, the year of Gandhi's centenary. In Gujarat in the 1980s, thousands were killed in religious and inter-caste violence. The situation worsened after December 1992, when politicians of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) destroyed the Babri Masjid (or mosque) in Ayodhya, northern India, because they wanted to build a temple for Rama, a Hindu deity, on the same spot.

The Gujarat state government won't tell you any of that. The home page of its website, www.gujaratindia.com, bears a portrait of Gandhi. It points you towards investment incentives and development plans and talks about Gujaratis' entrepreneurial dynamism. Indeed, Gujaratis have gone far and wide, setting up industries across India and doing business in the Middle East and Africa, Britain and the US. They are stockbrokers and diamond merchants, textile-mill owners and commodities traders. Many Gujarati Hindus are chaste vegetarians; Gujarati Jains go several steps further: they won't eat tuberous vegetables such as potatoes and onions because, in uprooting them, one might hurt microbes.

Yet there are other Gujaratis who do not think twice before roasting human beings. Look at what happened to Ehsan Jafri, a former member of the Lok Sabha, the lower chamber of the Indian parliament. On 28 February, a mob attacked his house at Chamanpura in Ahmedabad. When Jafri could not rouse the police, he fired his revolver in the air. He was dragged out and lynched, stoned and burnt to death.

We know the story of Jafri's death because he was a politician and a prominent Muslim. We will never know the names of the hundreds of others, many of them Muslims, some of them Hindus, who also died, or the many more who may yet die.

It may seem puzzling that this land of pacifist Gandhians and humble vegetarians can breed such cruelty. The explanation possibly lies in Gujarat's segregated polity. The 10 per cent Muslim population is overwhelmingly poor; the upper and middle classes - upper-caste Brahmins and trading Banias, the warrior-like Rajputs and landowning Patels - account for about 30 per cent of the region's population; but the rest is what the constitution refers to as "backward", or lower, castes. All castes respect an unofficial segregation - for instance in housing, and even employment - that unscrupulous local leaders can exploit to their political advantage.

Indeed, leadership at the state and district levels has often fomented violence. For example, the prime suspect in the Godhra train carnage that set off the latest round of rioting is a man called Mohammad Hussain Kolota, 45, a local Congress leader and president of Godhra municipality. He was arrested on 3 March.

Similarly, on 27 February, after the train had been burnt, the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi of the BJP, did not immediately deploy his now-discredited police force in sensitive areas of Ahmedabad, despite the city's violent history. Instead, he offered an explanation of the violence, saying this was "public anger" in response to the Godhra carnage. When journalists asked him about Jafri's killing, he said it could have been provoked by the former MP firing his revolver.

The communities of Gujarat have been pitted against one another since the late 1970s, when Congress forged an alliance called Kham - with Kshatriyas (Rajputs), Harijans (the former untouchables), Adivasis (indigenous people) and Muslims - to defeat its rivals. It helped Congress win elections, despite growing disenchantment with the party's corruption. To keep its vote bank secure, Congress offered entitlements to Kham, upsetting upper-caste Hindus. Inter-caste riots followed.

In 1986 in Delhi, the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, placated conservative Muslims by overturning a progressive Supreme Court judgement that gave Muslim women the right to seek alimony from husbands who had divorced them; meanwhile, the opposition alliance extended affirmative-action entitlement programmes for lower castes nationwide. Both actions fuelled upper-caste rancour and increased support for the BJP.

In 1986, I spent a month travelling in Gujarat, trying to understand why there had been riots each year since 1981. Many of the disturbances turned harmless pastimes into savage incidents. Gujaratis love flying kites in mid-January, when the winds are fair. In Surat, after hearing rumours that Muslims would deliberately fly green-coloured kites, Hindus flew saffron-coloured kites. Dozens were killed in the ensuing riot. "It was only a kite-flying competition," a Muslim woman in Begumpura told me, lamenting the death of her son.

In Rajkot, I heard a Hindu woman complain: "Why do they need loudspeakers for their mosques? We will also have loudspeakers for our prayers." My cousins who lived in Gujarat told me there hadn't been a peaceful night since. The Navaratri, a popular Hindu festival before Diwali, had only got noisier; the Hindus used more powerful speakers to amplify the music of their dandiya-ras (the traditional stick dance). "Each community is screaming louder, as if their God is deaf," my aunt in Ahmedabad sighed.

Fuses were short; the wires emitted sparks. Petty jealousies and imagined slights were enough to turn people violent. In village after village, town after town, I kept running into bizarre, violent stories. A farmer in Jambusar was convinced that his wife was having an affair. He returned home one day and chopped off her nose. A man in Jitgadh village in Bharuch district picked up his axe and hacked another man, who had failed to invite him to his son's wedding.

"How can you even think of calling Gujarat the land of Gandhi?" an exasperated Madhavsinh Solanki asked me one afternoon in his garden. He had recently resigned as Gujarat's chief minister, after failing to quell riots. "Sixty years of Gandhi's influence is not enough to tame Gujarat's anger," he said.

The rage stems from ignorance. Many Gujarati Hindus believe the VHP's assertion that India's "pseudo-secular" politicians (that is, Congress and the left) keep Hindus down by favouring Muslims - although, by almost every economic and social indicator, Muslims are worse off than Hindus. They certainly suffer more during riots. In the 13,000 communal incidents since independence, 80 per cent of the victims have been Muslims.

If more Hindus do not know this, it is because of the failure of education. When I last met Jaspal Singh, a former police officer in Gujarat who later turned to right-wing politics, he had warned: "We have messed up education. We are spending five times more on midday meal schemes for children than on primary education. By 2001, we will have 21-year-olds who've gone to school to eat, not to study . . . our children will have learnt how to eat free meals."

And throw stones, he might have added, avenging imagined wrongs and believing in myths such as the VHP claim that "800 million Hindus" want the Rama temple built in Ayodhya.

Hindu leaders, in Gujarat and beyond, mournfully call their multi-ethnic community weak. Ultimately, however, it is India's greatest strength, because it permits a secular, liberal democracy to survive even vicious body blows such as the latest riots. The fires of Ahmedabad have cast a pall of gloom over India. But if voters in the country's largest state can turn the BJP out, then an obliterated sun may still emerge from the darkness. Maybe it's time to understand rather than deify Gandhi.