View: Making sense of Gujarati ‘Asmita’, from Mahatma to Modi


Standing on the seashore of Porbandar with an expansive Arabian Sea in front, I was befuddled by the land of Gujarat which summarises the Indian conundrum. Porbandar is the birthplace of the apostle of truth and non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi. It is a pilgrimage for anyone conversant with modern Indian history. Contrast this with the fact that barely a few kilometres away lies Moti Paneli, the ancestral village of Muhammad Ali Jinnah who dubiously earned his name in the history by becoming the antithesis of Gandhi.

Nobody can deny that both the Kathiawaris redefined the map of South Asia. Gujarat is a veritable microcosm of the Indian subcontinent. It is a paradoxical delight. Yet, its complexity can be easily unravelled by people with discerning sight. Take the manner in which the state was founded. The basis was linguistic but there was a deep yearning among people of the region to discover their own “asmita”. It would be naïve to conflate “asmita” with English expressions like “self-identity” or “pride” though they come close.

Just before 1960 when Gujarat was carved out of the Bombay State, a score of lives were lost in the struggle for this “asmita” which is akin to discovering and asserting cultural and historical roots of the society. Unlike cultural revanchism, the movement was intended to engender pride in the society of its cultural moorings with a pacifist objective. However, Morarji Desai, the biggest Gujarati leader then and chief minister of the Bombay State (1952-56), was not in favour of bifurcation. But the people of Gujarat were so much overpowered by the sense of “asmita” that they decided to let go of Mumbai.

This brief history bears significance to understand Gujarat. A year after the foundation of Gujarat, its first chief minister, Jivraj N. Mehta, said, “It is the duty of all of us to build the new state of Gujarat as an integral part of India, keeping in mind the requirements of the country.” Nine years later, another chief minister, Hitendra Desai, echoed the same sentiments on the foundation day by saying, “The people of Gujarat are proud inheritors of the legacy of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. Complete dedication to duty, love for justice and progress through peaceful methods are the hallmarks of the character of the Gujarati community.”
Despite regional variations within the state, people of Gujarat are uniquely bound by a thread of Gujarati pride which is intertwined with fierce nationalism. Barely 14 years after its formation, Gujarat proved to be the harbinger of a great political change in the country. A students’ movement in the state later snowballed into a serious crisis for the redoubtable Indira Gandhi and eventually led to the imposition of the Emergency. Ironically, Gujarat then became the fulcrum of Jayaprakash Narayan’s clarion call of “Total Revolution”.

The post-Emergency period proved to be quite transformative for Gujarat. In the course of research for my book, ‘The Architect of the New BJP: How Narendra Modi Transformed the Party’ (Penguin), I discovered how the 1979 Machchu dam breach tragedy in Morbi of Saurashtra had brought out the best in Gujarat. The entire society came together to help survivors and rebuild the town. Narendra Modi, who was then a young RSS pracharak, rushed to the site and initiated the relief and rehabilitation work which is still recalled as an outstanding operation. But more than an individual, the impulse of the society to stand as one in the face of crisis is something that is distinctly intrinsic in the Gujarati character. It overcomes social fault lines of religion and caste.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, the political ingenuity of aggregating certain social groups – Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim or ‘KHAM’ – to make a formidable election-winning combination ran counter to the spirit of Gujarat. The state then passed through a very turbulent phase, socially and politically. Strife and violence became the feature of an otherwise placid and tranquil social life in the state. The emergence of the BJP as a dominant political force in the 1990s was an apparent result of people’s craving for a change in tune with their consistent search for Gujarati “asmita”. Since then, people of Gujarat have not looked back.

The cohesion and inherent strength of the Gujarati society were demonstrated on many occasions. But what amazed me was the resilience of people in the face of adversity in relief and rehabilitation work after the 2001 earthquake that flattened Kutch and Saurashtra regions. Within two years, the devastated town of Bhuj resurrected like a proverbial phoenix with no trace of destruction or despair in sight. That never-say-die spirit of people in Kutch was not episodic but is part of the Gujarati nature. Modi, as chief minister then, led from the front to revive this dormant indefatigable spirit of enterprise and cooperation in the state. Gujarat has truly found its mooring.

Those visiting Gujarat on the eve of elections have a natural propensity to miss the tree for the woods. They tend to interpret social fault lines on the basis of their own understanding of castes and communities. More often than not, Gujarat is analysed through a prism that has long become irrelevant. The era of stoking mutinies for political gains has passed into history and cannot be revived. People of Gujarat are at peace with themselves.

Ajay Singh is Press Secretary to the President of India.


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