“Narendra Modi is directly responsible” for what happened in Gujarat in 2002. Those four words do more to acknowledge the grief inflicted on India’s Muslims, who have been at the receiving end of twenty years of gaslighting, than anything the government has done or said.
In a documentary, the BBC—based on thoroughly reported documents and interviews— commits a crime only an outsider can: it spells out India’s worst kept secret, shattering a twenty-year etiquette to remain silent. Over two decades, as the Gujarat model was expanded, corpses piled up and bloated around us, while we, the people of India, kept our eyes fixed on our five trillion economy, our soft power and our new messiah, Narendra Modi.
It is irrelevant to us that, on his watch, over a three-day period, an angry but meticulously organised mob killed 1,180 people, almost eighty percent of them Muslim, and injured another 2,500. That Modi’s career was catapulted into national politics, and eventually into the highest office in the land, not after but because of the riots, is the stuff of legend. Since then, he has held on to power by timely riots, border disputes with neighbouring nations and promising temple constructions at strategic locations, in sync with election cycles. At this point, the debate is not whether the system failed to maintain law and order. It is about whether people were left to the wolves or fed to them. And about the rest of us who have colluded with a lie we know to be false, like true love or happy endings.
In the harsh light of the day, the truth is showing us the formidable problem India’s Muslims face. They are surrounded by majoritarian voters who feel no shame while enabling atrocities. They face a hostile administration, an indifferent legislature and a callous executive armed with a violent police force. The result is the unbridled venom you see spewed against the community, as television anchors incite one section of citizens to fight and stab and slit another section of its own people. Back in 2002, after three days of mass rape and mass murder and mass complicity, the rampaging mob chose to withdraw its claws. Peace was restored in Gujarat. It was the kind of peace that came with absolute power. The mobs killed when they were asked and stopped when they were told. Since then, Modi has never lost an election.
While the survivors of 2002 put their shoulders to the wheel and started working towards justice, Modi used that time to create a country in his own image: paranoid, angry and ill-informed. In the ensuing years, India set herself up for this grand confrontation we stare at today: between the comforting illusion of a booming economy and the ugly truth of how many corpses it takes to make the economy boom. The illusion matters more than the truth. But the dangerous thing about illusions is that when we persist for long, we start to believe them.
The illusion, grander in Delhi than any other city in India, is of a country that is allegedly the “mother of democracy,” at a “watershed moment” as the host of the G20. The national capital is a grand and tacky spectacle of lies, where one feels trapped in a party-funded ad campaign showcasing insincere smiles from menacing men at every street corner. We are living in a tough experiment: our society is now an immense accumulation of spectacles, where appearances mean more to us than the substance. Watching the archival footage on BBC, I could not miss the parallel with every riot since. It is not just another spectacle. It is a society of the exact same spectacle; the same violent mobs, the same war cries, the same police officials standing by, the same helpless victims, the same politicians who thrive on hate and the same voters romanticising the brokenness of our system by opting for it again and again. It is also the same, centuries-old, fact-free history that is used to flame current passions, in rhythms set to elections.
In 2023, the lies, especially about Godhra and its aftermath, have become so fundamental to life, that truth matters less than the lies that allow us to carry on with our lives. We cannot look Bilkis Bano in the eye so we invisibilised her. The denial of truth has turned into a fetish that is bleeding into everything—from front-page jacket advertisements to billboards and nightly television news, Bollywood movies and, of course, the WhatsApp universe. There are people who actually believe that Modi stopped the war in Ukraine for a few hours. We all know “WhatsApp uncles” who genuinely believed that the man they were placing their faith in was a magical being, who could “solve” Kashmir, and make everything from our borders to currency to passports stronger. This illusion is an incredible feat in a country where majority of the population lives hand to mouth.
Those of us unfortunate enough to see through the illusion now look at the 1975 Emergency as a prophecy—about the thin line between messiahs and tyrants. That week in Gujarat is the very essence of Modi’s governance, distilled to its most potent form. The BBC documentary, using mostly archival footage, shatters our collective illusion by pointing to the footsteps left in concrete—police officers, survivors and politicians, going on record to reveal the decisions taken by Modi’s office during those three deadly days. Despite the overwhelming evidence, Modi came out smelling of roses.
It was an abuse of the system in the grandest way. The abuse has not stopped. Modi has spent the last eight years lowering the bar to the point that all it takes to be a good politician is to not be outrightly criminally bad. It makes me miss good old-fashioned corruption.
The government that subsidised screenings of a propaganda movie like The Kashmir Files, has called the rigorously reported documentary a “propaganda” film peddling a “discredited narrative.” It is chilling to watch Modi state that his only regret from that week in Gujarat was that he did not control the media narrative. Since then, his media strategy has been to spin so many lies that it has left everyone disoriented. Each lie has taken us farther from reality. In two terms, we have come so far from the truth that we can no longer orient ourselves. All there is, is a dense fog with good lies and great lies, without a single pillar of truth to lean on.
It is this context that the BBC documentary shatters. We in India do not talk about what happened. What really went down. Because to talk about it would mean revealing an entire body of thought that will no longer simply be facts. They will become terrible, death dealing truths—that we conferred supernatural qualities of a messiah to a man known to have dedicated his life to cruelty and hate, and continue to build rituals around him. His illegal surveillance of the military and civil officers, politicians, activists, judges, journalists and, of course, the public has been termed treasonous by opposition leaders. On his watch, gang-rapists are pardoned, college students are imprisoned, and children starve to death. This is no longer about how horrible Modi is. It is about how horrible all of us are. If he is a monster, it is a monster we built, one lie at a time.
Over the years, Modi has dedicated himself to distancing himself from the Gujarat riots with the single-minded focus of a liar who will try every trick to drown the unpleasantness of his lies. The truth though, it does not simply drown. It floats to the surface like a pale, bloated, ugly body. Narendra Modi was directly responsible. That is the truth. We should get used to saying these words.