People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
February 25, 2001
Using Earthquake For Political Gain
IT is well known that all kinds of vested interests creep in to cheat people of their due during calamities. Black marketeers, moneylenders, traders, etc make hay while the sun shines for them when others find their normal access to food and daily facilities disrupted. But the BJP government in Gujarat has beaten all records in actually supporting and abetting not merely corruption, but communalisation in relief work and rehabilitation of affected citizens. The BJP government in Gujarat has much more to answer for than mere inefficiency, as media reports are now beginning to show after the initial euphoria over the RSS activism has passed off. For a while the media did not mind even beating the BJP government just to show off the RSS bandwagons. BJP senior leader JP Mathur made the partys political agenda in the state very clear in his statements in the capital on January 31, saying it had decided to work independently of the central and state governments while dealing with the relief work. The BJP government is also deliberately fudging figures of those killed, underplaying them, and manipulating the identities of the number killed in order to corner more foreign funds and manipulate the use of these funds.
CONTRIVED THEATRICAL VISIBILITY
The BJP government actually contrived to not allow relief to reach people until the RSS had got its act together. Even subsequently as spontaneous aid from Indian citizens and from NGOs to the government began pouring in, the government studiedly and callously diverted and routed it through the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal cadres, who took time off to don their khakhi shorts, and black caps before going forth on the scene. In crude imitation of farcical theatre, they ensured maximum visibility for themselves, contributing heavily to their self-created new image of the "largest NGO" and "committed charitable organization", one suitable and ready to govern and carry the rashtra with them. For the BJP government it was a god-given opportunity after their disastrous performance in the municipal polls in Gujarat.
Saffron flags were unfurled everywhere the cameras went, recording the RSS presence. The message was clear: the RSS ventures where the government has no feet to tread. The Gujarat cadre officers of the Indian Administrative Service were ready with their accolades to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for their work in the rescue operations in Ahmedabad. Television news showed, for hours on end, men in khaki shorts scrambling over the debris of skyscrapers, carrying the injured to medical camps.
As journalist John Dayal pointed out, " there was little camera focus on anonymous civil society volunteers who bled from hands skinned raw as they too dug into the debris of huts in more distant areas, their eyes on the victims, not on the media in small hamlets which were little known in life, and still remain unknown in devastation".
While Mr. John of the Congress had to pay a heavy price for his spontaneous outburst that represents the extreme resentment and anger of the minorities and other oppressed towards the RSS and other Hindu Rashtra activists, the Sadhus at the Allahabad sangam had a field day taking credit for diverting the quake, fated to devastate the Maha Kumbh, to Gujarat though one can also ask the related question as to why this collective spiritual `shaktí should punish the people of Gujarat anymore than Gods wrath should? Yet no outrage has been expressed against this by the creators of the model Hindu state
As much as the Muslim fundamentalists who want to burn television sets to appease Gods wrath, the BJP government has been patronizing and encouraging not only astrological predictions of imminent earthquakes, which is causing public panic, but also pujas, havans, and yagnas all over the state, openly saying this is a means for bringing sinning people back to religiosity. If all this organized ritualism in the name of saving the people does not serve the Hindutva agenda, what else possibly could it achieve? The visible participation of BJP politicians and Gujarat cadre bureaucrats, shows clearly that the BJP government is not keen to distinguish itself from the Hindutva forces even to the extent of maintaining a form.
India should refuse the Rupees 20 crore assistance offered by the Catholic church says the VHP leader Ashok Singhal, implying that relief work is the prerogative of the RSS and the BJP which has abetted in discriminatory distribution. The VHP accused the Christian groups and Church aid as motivated by the ulterior motive of conversions.
According to a Citizens Report, a missionary, who went to the razed Himgiri apartments with six volunteers two hours after the quake, was barred from lending a helping hand; RSS volunteers told him they reserved the prerogative to "look after the people". Not surprisingly that in the media there was little mention of scores of hundreds of nuns and priests, Christian groups and teachers working around the clock to do their share of relief work.
The Hindutva forces have not spared the Muslims either. The VHP did not want relief from Muslim Pakistan, or from any trucks bearing banners written in Urdu. It characterized them as terrorist infiltrators in the name of relief. Accusing Indian Muslims of being unconcerned about national calamities, the VHP has demanded that the Muslim community return the Haj subsidy for relief in Gujarat. Opposing the subsidy per se, the Bajrang Dal Convenor gave the communal argument that "In any case, the subsidy for the Haj comes from the income tax and a majority of it comes from Hindus."
There have been newspaper reports of VHP and Bajrang Dal activists forcing Muslims to say Jai Sri Ram before letting them have any relief material or food. "Say Jai Sri Ram if you want food, " they were plainly told by these elements in Kutch (Asian Age, February 8, 2001). When cases of looting were reported from Kutch, Ashok Singhal of the VHP simply said anti national Muslims were behind it and he knew that because they were speaking in Urdu!
A volunteer, who returned from Rajkot, said the RSS was deliberately diverting relief material from Maliya, a village of 85 per cent Muslims. Of the 52 people who died in Maliya, 38 were Muslims and the rest Dalits. In another village close to Bhuj, the dominant Patels did not allow relief to reach a predominantly Muslim village, and when some of them stood on the roadside to beg for food, actually beat up the poor Muslims, and even murdered one of them. In another case more than a hundred Muslim diamond worker were locked up in the aftermath of the earthquake and prevented from escaping, on the grounds that they may steal. The guilty have not been questioned even because the victims were poor Muslims.
A Muslim correspondent of The Indian Express, Srinagar edition, was dubbed as "anti national", harassed and followed, around simply because he wrote on the protests of the minorities and dalits in the matter of receiving relief from the government. He was told by the administration to show them his reports before filing them.
The earthquake has killed thousands and razed entire villages to the ground. In the Kutch town of Adhoi (population: 10, 000), over 400 people have been killed, and not one house stands intact. But, all tents lie empty, for the simple reason that the dalits are not permitted to occupy these tents. As The Indian Express report (IE, February 10, 2001) shows, lower caste residents are braving the night chill in shelters they have rigged up with bamboo poles and tattered bed sheets, for no other reason than that the upper caste landowners, the Patels and the Dadhejas, refuse to live alongside them. The government that moves fast when a special census is to be instituted for the minorities, has remained inactive in this flagrant subversion of the Constitution. "If we force them to stay together, it may become a law and order problem" says the enforcer of law in the area - Sanjay Kumar Singh, Deputy Commissioner of the Rapid Action Force in the area.
And in the meanwhile while the upper castes continue to divert even relief materials, telling the truck drivers not to go to the "disease-ridden people", the BJP government through its swamis and RSS volunteers continues to operate separate relief kitchens in deference to "local sentiments".
NGOs who have handed over relief supplies to the sarpanches have found that in several villages dominated by the upper castes, relief has not been passed on at all to the lower castes. In Kalyanpur village, inundated with relief material, the lower castes received neither food nor clothing till the matter was reported in the press. Even the chief minister has been discriminatory in choosing his visits, and directing supplies.
Urban victims, very visible on
television, have undeniably suffered much,
whether it is in Ahmedabad, or in the rich enclaves of Bhuj. Yet a greater loss has been in rural Kutch. The devastation there is unbelievable The earth is flattened, not a single house remains standing in many villages, where life is very harsh even in normal times. Neither government, nor its pet storm troopers, have even bothered to visit these areas, leave alone try to estimate the real extent of loss of lives and of livelihoods.
In fact for the BJP and the RSS the poor urban and rural poor are non-existent. Old clothes, used blankets, and used utensils are not needed they say, because the people of Kutch are not poor. Obviously they either do not wish to provide relief to the poor, or they do not intend that material received for relief should be used for what it is meant for.
There are already reports of large hoardings presumably for sale, and the BJP government is already saying there is enough food, clothing, utensils and medicines, and relief should now be in the form of cash only. It is saying this when large enclaves of population are complaining that they have not received relief at all, and are going hungry. There have been protest marches of minorities and dalits to the effect that they are not being given relief, and the government already says it does not need anything in kind !
A forum of NGOs has decided to file a public interest litigation against the Gujarat government and the RSS for allegedly "communalising relief and rehabilitation" and doling out quake aid on lines of caste and religion. The PIL, possibly the first of its kind, will be filed by the Earthquake Affected Relief and Rehabilitation Services, based on first-hand reports of nearly 1000 volunteers.
In its report, the forum of 52 NGOs has stated, "relief efforts in Kutch and Saurashtra are biased against Dalit and Muslim victims. Sangh parivar organisations, in connivance with the state administration are systematically ensuring that the vulnerable groups do not get adequate relief and compensation."
According to the forum, preliminary investigations have revealed that relief has bypassed 76 villages in Kutch, Bhuj, Bhachau, Surendranagar and Rajkot. These villages "ignored by the state" need immediate attention, it said. The forum will also petition the NHRC and the Governor. Wilfred D Costa of the Indian National Social Action Forum said the NGOs are forced to file a PIL because "aid coming from all over the world is being directed to specific communities". It said that matters were worse because the state government had allowed the RSS to take the upper hand, which was misappropriating relief material and distributing it in any manner it thought fit.
It is now clear that what lies beneath
the rubble is greed, and an unholy nexus between the builders mafia, the bureaucracy and
the political leadership which has ruled Gujarat for some years now. Many of the buildings
that fell in Ahmedabad were built with
criminal disregard to laws of the land, and codes of structural safety. How this came about can be gauged from the facts that have suddenly been brought to light in the wake of the quake.
Surendra Patel, treasurer of the BJP unit and chairperson of the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA) since 1997, sanctioned 90 per cent of the illegal buildings that mushroomed in the AUDA areas. Patel was also chairperson of the steering committee of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, which he claimed was a development body and not a demolition body! The implication is clear. Many of his doings have surfaced now.
VHP General Secretary Pravin Togadias brother, Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation Chairpersons brother, and most of the Councillors and MLAs have connections with the building industry. The latest issue of Outlook has a detailed story on the nexus. The state home minister, the chief minister through his son, the state finance minister, the state minister for OBCs, the minister for labour and employment, former health and supplies minister, the state industries commissioner, minister for water resources, chairman Sardar Sarovar project, minister of technical and higher education - the list is a proverbial whos, who for Gujarat, belonging to both Congress and the BJP, but predominantly from the BJP, which has been at the helm of governance in the last five years when this construction boom began. Almost the entire high rise building edifice of Gujarat is illegal in terms of the bye laws of building.
As if that were not enough, it is widely reported that just two days before the Gujarat High Court heard a contempt petition pertaining to unauthorized constructions in the state, a Cabinet meeting was summoned hurriedly to approve just one item: an ordinance to sweep all illegal constructions under the carpet.
This ordinance authorized in retrospect and legalized all illegal constructions, bailed out the guilty officials-all on the payment of a small impact fee to be paid to the government.
The extent of illegalities regularized can be gauged from the fact that one of these buildings had a swimming pool on the tenth floor, and an unbelievably huge concrete water tank on the roof. All the high rise buildings that collapsed or developed cracks were built in the last five years.
Obviously all this makes for some accountability and culpability. As observers have pointed it out, earthquakes do not kill that many people; falling buildings do. The BJP government, apart from a few symbolic noises is hardly likely to move on the issue. Senior police officers, including the Ahmedabad police commissioner, shamelessly say on television it will be difficult to take legal action. As the commissioner said: Just because a building fell does not mean there was structural fault or that someone is to blame. It seems certain that most of the builders will go scot-free, and more money will find its way into the BJP-RSS coffers. Certainly, some of those who lived in these multi storied flats were salaried professionals who had invested the savings of a lifetime, or of two generations, in buying not a house but a home.
In this distressed context one can expect greater polarization along religious-caste lines to divide the already distressed people. The games of the Sangh Parivar must be widely exposed for what they are.