Partying While Gujarat Burned

Making trouble in India is easy. The country is mined with multiple identities: caste, community, religion, language, class, ethnicity. Mismanaging one can set off an uproar, and politicians of every stripe repeatedly tease up trouble by playing with identity as suits the moment. The result is continual protests, riots, violence, tragedy and farce.

There are times when the tragedy is particularly gory—as during the Gujarat riots of 2002, which, after someone set fire to a train carrying Hindu travelers in a town named Godhra, killing 59, saw the massacre and rape of more than 2,000 Muslims by Hindu zealots. On Oct. 25, Tehelka, the magazine I edit, broke a five-month-long investigation into the bloodshed. Wielding two spycams, Tehelka reporter Ashish Khetan had trawled his way through the entrails of the Sangh Parivar—a right-wing Hindu umbrella group that includes the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which ruled India between 1999 and 2004. Khetan managed to make contact with all kinds of Sangh men, including elected legislators, whose testimonies conclusively established that the 2002 killings had been planned, had enjoyed the sanction of the state and its chief minister, Narendra Modi, as well as the collusion of the police. Later on, the process of justice had been effectively manipulated to keep those responsible out of jail.

The evidence was graphic. Mass murderers appeared on camera, describing how they killed, why they killed and who helped them kill. One man described yanking a fetus out of a pregnant woman's womb; another of dicing the limbs of a former Congress M.P., Ahsan Jafri. Another explained how bombs were manufactured and arms procured. These are tales from hell—accounts of group killings and burnings, with specific details, one account corroborating the next.

So much for the tragedy. As is typical in Indian public life, the farce followed almost immediately. The BJP accused the staff of Tehelka of being Congress agents. Then, bizarrely, Congress made the opposite claim: that Tehelka was working for the BJP. One side said we were denigrating Modi; the other, that we were building him up as an anti-Muslim hero. In the process, India's two largest political parties seemed to completely lose sight of what was right and what was wrong. Rather than step in, dismiss the state government and impose central rule, as many advocated, the Congress government in New Delhi did nothing. No strong statements were issued; no inquiry was announced. It was left to civil society to explode in a rage, filing lawsuits and holding protests.

Sixty years ago, at the moment of India's birth, while Jawaharlal Nehru and his great associates were celebrating India's freedom in Delhi, Mahatma Gandhi was in Calcutta, lamenting the partition of the Subcontinent and walking the streets to quell Hindu-Muslim riots. In the years since, the idea of India—as secular, liberal, progressive and democratic—grew into one of the miracles of the 20th century. But the split evident in that seminal moment has persisted as a chasm between what is stated and what is done. Indians today take great pride in their functional democracy of a billion people. But the reality is more chastening. Electoral politics thrive. But the robust institutions of democracy grow more tattered by the year, as has been shown by the failure of the political class, the bureaucracy, the police, the judiciary and the media to respond properly to Gujarat.

Any nondoctrinaire Indian can see that a serious schism between its 900 million Hindus and about 150 million Muslims would tear the country apart. Gandhi spotted this threat early, and his apostles fiercely fought any injection of rabid Hindu nationalism into the national bloodstream. Yet over time, their Congress Party has lost both its moral compass and its inspirational energy. It is now run by small men and women, full of workaday corruption and petty electoral anxieties. It has neither the steel to face down communalism in Gujarat and elsewhere, nor the humility to seek forgiveness for its egregious role in prior ethnic battles, like the 1984 carnage against the Sikhs.

Still, ironies multiply like malarial mosquitoes. Amid all the knife sharpening, one can hear the celebratory noises of India's economy booming. Even this achievement should not be overstated, however, for India's economic explosion has involved only 200 million people, leaving 900 million more out in the cold. The latest statistics show that the numbers of Indians living in abject poverty are actually growing in five major states. In 30 percent of India's districts, Maoist insurrections, rising from crushing poverty, are on the upswing. Can Manhattan and sub-Saharan Africa exist in the same space without eventual torque? As in America's Gilded Age, could the ground be shifting beneath the feet of the partying elite?

The fact is India cannot be fixed through economic initiatives alone. It needs great political vision. And there are no signs of that. Yes, India is highly resilient, which allows the management of great contradictions and crises. But in the coming years, this resilience will be tested as never before.