In mid-November 2001, the young founders of a small, now defunct, IT start-up in Bengaluru called Premier Infotech invited me to their office. They wanted to tell me about a wonderful e-governance initiative launched by the new chief minister of Gujarat. “Mr Modi is a dynamic chief minister, very tech-savvy. He wants us to complete the project in two months. We are running against time. Gujarat officials are working day and night – some of them are up with us until 2-3 am through the week,” the young fellows told me breathlessly. Those days, e-governance, smart cards, etc., were all the rage. Modi had become chief minister in October 2001, and immediately started the smart card project. All details of all individuals in one database with the government, and all services to citizens delivered efficiently. That was the dream that Gujarat had been sold.
Three months later, there was the Godhra train burning incident in which 54 karsevaks returning from Ayodhya were burnt alive. That was on February 27, 2002. The bodies were allowed to be paraded through the streets of Ahmedabad. The next day, the Gujarat riots and massacre started, and it went on for days, in places months together. Both media and official enquiry reports said gangs of rioters went around with lists of people and houses to be targeted. A cross-mark was put on the doors of Muslim households, and a day later they were attacked. People were pulled out of their homes, raped, butchered on the streets or whole buildings were set on fire and people burnt alive. The rest is history. Narendra Modi became Hindu Hriday Samrat. Then, facing worldwide opprobrium, transformed into ‘Vikas Purush.’ And eventually became Prime Minister.
I do not know for sure if those smart cards came in handy for the murderous rioters to find and target Muslims. But there’s an infamous prior example of a similar device being used to find and exterminate millions of people of a particular religion. Hitler’s Nazi establishment used Hollerith punch cards – primitive IT technology – in the 1930s to identify and locate Jews and mark them for elimination or concentration camps.
February 27 was a significant date in Nazi history too – it was the day Hitler began his capture of all State Power in Germany, as a precursor to the horrors that followed. The Nazis came to power in 1933 and Hitler had just become its head. On February 27, some arsonists set fire to the Reichstag, the German parliament building. Hitler immediately declared that it was the Communists who had set the building on fire. He imposed a national emergency and concentrated all authority in his hands. And thus was born the Führer, the man who would preside over the extermination of six million Jews and the devastation of Europe…
Be that as it may, so long as we are a working democracy, we will be able to work one step at a time towards eliminating corruption of most forms, whether Congress indulges in it or BJP or any other party. But, if we let politicians spread hatred and polarise society and we let their private armies indulge in violence with impunity and the rule of law and order is overwhelmed, if we let governments and businesses become one and take India on a path towards Fascism, that hope will be dead. Democracy can come up with institutions to tackle corruption, it cannot tackle communal hatred, its institutions cannot survive Fascism. As younger brother Ravi tells his elder brother Vijay in Deewar, ‘Saare Jahan Se Achcha’ playing in the background, in the toss up between corruption and communalism, “jis raaste pe main chal raha hoon, shayad uska anjaam bura bhi ho sakta hai, lekin jis raaste pe aap ja rahe hain, uska anjaam sirf bura ho sakta hai, bhai!”
So, my vote will be to first save our democracy. And, unlike Karna, I won’t forget the mantra at this critical time. What about you?