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INDIA: Tata Motors Move to Gujarat Less Than Secular

Analysis by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Oct 22 2008 (IPS) - Tata Motors’ decision to shift the production site of its ultra-cheap, iconic Nano car from communist-ruled West Bengal state to Gujarat – scene of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom – has caused consternation and dismay among liberals and secular-minded people all over India.

Nano, the world's cheapest car, has been dogged by controversy.  Credit: Tata Nano Car Info

Nano, the world's cheapest car, has been dogged by controversy. Credit: Tata Nano Car Info

The decision was personally taken by Ratan Tata, the company’s chairman, and one of India’s best-known and -regarded industrialists. Tata Motors hit world headlines in June when it acquired the British luxury automobile manufacturer Jaguar Cars and Land Rover.

Six years ago, Gujarat witnessed independent India’s worst massacre of a religious minority, conducted with alleged state complicity and collusion.

Over 2,000 Muslims were burned, speared or chopped to death and many more were raped in an orgy of violence in several cities in Gujarat, organised purportedly to avenge the death of 59 Hindu activists in a fire on a railway coach at Godhra in central Gujarat at the end of February, 2002.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party justified the butchery as a natural “reaction” to the original action, which he claimed was a planned act of “terrorism” and a Muslim conspiracy. (Later, an expert commission appointed by the railways found the fire to have been accidental.)

Modi’s police refused to save the lives of Muslims who begged for help. And some of his ministers and BJP legislators either participated in the campaign of looting, arson, and physical violence against Muslims, or directed the killing and incited militant Hindu-chauvinist activists to take part in it.

Modi, who came to be characterised as India’s own Slobodan Milosevic, has been roundly condemned by secular and democratically minded governments and people all over the world. He has been denied a visa by the United States, most recently this year. Many are dismayed at the Tatas’ move to Gujarat because they are reputed to be an enlightened, liberal-minded, secular and ethical business group driven by considerations larger than profit alone.

The main reason cited by the Tatas for the decision to relocate the Nano factory out of Singur in West Bengal was that there was an agitation against the acquisition of about 1,000 acres of land for the plant, led by opposition leader Mamata Banerjee.

“But that alone cannot explain the move,” says Zakia Jowher, convenor of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, an organisation of Muslim women campaigning against religious-chauvinist communal politics, which has long been active amongst the victims of the 2002 carnage.

“The West Bengal government was extremely keen on the Nano project,”Johwer said. ”Some alternative land acquisition formulas were proposed, which would have marginally raised project costs, but increased the compensation to farmers/sharecroppers. Tata Motors summarily rejected these. Besides, Ratan Tata himself said Gujarat offered him incentives and concessions that were even better than those given by West Bengal.”

The super-favourable treatment given to the Tatas by West Bengal’s Communist-led government attracted criticism from its own supporters and sympathisers like former finance minister and eminent economist Ashok Mitra.

The car project was offered full exemption from excise duty for 10 years and from income-tax for five years, besides land virtually at throwaway prices. Mitra estimates that these concessions total Rs 850 crores, or roughly half the cost of the project.

Yet, while moving the factory, Ratan Tata eloquently made a distinction between the “Bad M” (Mamata) and the “Good M” (Modi).

In effect, the Tatas have endorsed Narendra Modi’s claimed image as a dynamic, no-nonsense leader, and validated what the BJP calls the “Gujarat Model” of development. Critics regard the model as growth based on haphazard industrial expansion at the expense of human rights violations and environmental destruction.

“The Tatas were probably confident that Modi’s ruthlessness, repressive labour policies, and despotically imposed ‘stability’ would ensure the project’s smooth implementation,’’ Jowher said.

Secular activists like Jowher are upset that Tata has lent legitimacy to Modi’s brand of hate-driven Hindu-supremacist politics. Last year, Ratan Tata had famously told businessmen: “You’re stupid if you’re not in Gujarat”. Now, he has put his imprimatur on Modi’s “leadership”.

Social scientist Dilip Simeon, a senior fellow at the prestigious Nehru Memorial Museum and Library told IPS: “Tata has behaved like any other businessman – looking for low-risk investments and high profits. Within the logic of profit maximisation, it is hard to fault him. But the Tatas are meant to be ethical and socially responsible. That’s why people are shocked.”

Tata’s admirers believe he “can do no wrong”. They also attach a mystical value to the Nano as a great managerial-technological achievement, priced at Rs 100,000 (about 2,000 US dollars) – and destined become a middle class “dream machine”.

The premise about the Tata group’s exceptional nature involves three propositions: it pioneered Indian industrialisation by building a textile mill and India’s first indigenous steel plant, it has an unblemished labour relations and environmental record; and it offers a model of corporate social responsibility.

The Tatas indeed established textile and steel as nationalist enterprises. They also set up other industries. While the group’s in-house innovation has stagnated, it has expanded through aggressive acquisitions, like the 13 billion dollar takeover of the Anglo-Dutch steelmaker Corus in 2006.

Ever since he became the Tata chairman, Ratan Tata has tightened his family trusts’ hold on group companies. Under JRD Tata, holding company Tata Sons owned just 3 percent of their equity. Now, it holds a controlling share.

The Tatas’ labour record is far from glorious, according to Simeon, who has documented it in his book, ‘The Politics of Labour under Late Colonialism’.

In the 1920s and 1930s, he says “the Tata Steel management consciously used violence and intimidation to break up trade unions. It also promoted religious-identity based anti-union groups. This eventually disgusted nationalist leaders like Subhash Chandra Bose who had earlier supported the Tatas”.

In recent years, many Tata projects have got into serious environmental conflicts in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand and Orissa.

Ratan Tata has recently lobbied for Dow Chemical being allowed to escape its responsibility for the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster as the heir of Union Carbide. He wants Dow to be freed of its legal liability to clean up the contaminated plant site, which has poisoned water and affected 25,000 people.

Implicit in the Nano factory’s move to Gujarat is an endorsement of Modi’s style of governance, and above all, sanctification of his viciously communal politics.

The decision will be interpreted as an exhortation to forget the reality of the massacre of Muslims in 2002.

The victims of the carnage continue to be denied justice, live in insecurity, and face all manner of harassment, including trumped-up charges, arbitrary arrest and detention.

Tata’s endorsement of Modi is in line with a long process of the Indian industrialist class “normalising” Hindu communalism, and helping erase the memory of the pogrom.

This is happening at a dangerous moment in India’s evolution. Hindu-supremacist attacks on the religious minorities are rising in the states of Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Muslims are also, according to widespread news reports, being victimised in the name of fighting terrorism.

The Indian state has been criticised for showing little pollitical will to stop this and bring the culprits to book. Yet, India’s survival as a pluralist, secular democracy hinges on this.

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