Light In the Time of Madness

By Patwant Singh | April 13, 2002

Over a month after India showed the world in mind-numbing detail the damage she is causing herself by grafting religion onto politics, people continue to be murdered, mutilated and burnt alive in Gujarat. Even as its morally impaired Chief Minister – confident of the central government’s support for his sordid deeds – camouflages with lies the slaughter taking place under his stewardship. Are there any signs of hope in this haze of cruelty and unconcern for the brutalities inflicted by the state on its citizens? W. H. Auden searched for signs of hope amidst such profanities in his poem on Europe when it was reeling under Nazi excesses in 1940: Defenceless under the night, our world in stupor lies. / Yet, dotted everywhere, ironic points of light, flash out wherever the just, exchange these messages. / May I, composed like them of Eros and of dust, beleaguered by the same negation and despair, show an affirming flame.

In India, the exemplary conduct of some of India’s administrators and police officials sustains hope by keeping the affirming flame alive even amidst the perversities of religious fanatics and uncouth politicians. This was as true during the nationwide anti-Muslim violence which followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, as it is of Gujarat today. In that year, as communal killings claimed over 2,000 lives in eleven of India’s most affected states, Ashok Priyadarshi, Lucknow’s District Magistrate and D. N. Sambal its Senior Superintendent of Police, kept their conflict-prone-city out of trouble. Dimple Varma, the young woman Sub-Divisonal Magistrate of Khurja led her team from the front to preempt similar violence in her sub-division. In the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh, Indore – scene of much bloodletting after L. K. Advani’s rath yatra – no violence was permitted by its commissioner, Vijay Singh. In Maharashtra’s Bhiwandi, notorious for its record of communal killings, not a single incident took place because of the firmness of its top police official, Gulabrao Pol. Such noteworthy instances – in contrast to the craven officials who failed to measure up to their constitutional responsibilities – have provided points of light in the darkening world of a communally-maddened India.

Before looking at Gujarat, what needs to be emphasized is that as one of four pillars of the Indian democracy the permanent executive does not derive its authority from the politicians, but from the Constitution and the laws which flow from it. Regrettably, the executive has eroded its role in upholding the rule of law – of which citizens’ rights are a part – by caving in to the capricious and corrupt demands of politicians. Yet a society on the brink of medieval barbarism – as India’s is today – can only be saved from self-annihilation by upright members of the permanent executive. Though woefully few, some inspiring examples – or affirming flames – were visible even in Gujarat as the officially-sanctioned carnage continues to mock the citizens’ constitutional right to life. Bhavnagar’s Superintendent of Police, Rahul Sharma, respected that right and did not allow religious fanatics to disturb Bhavnagar’s communal calm, prevented a rally of Shiv Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders from inciting passions, stopped a mob from attacking 400 children in a madrasa, and rescued people from the inferno of a burning hotel. No less admirable was the role of Vivek Srivastav, Superintendent of Police, Kutch. He kept "the lid tight on a tinder-box district…with a 100 percent chance of communal riots," by coming down heavily on rioters, arresting several Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders including a Home Guard commandant "who wore his VHP links on his uniform sleeve", saving several dargahs from being torched, and made sure not a single life was lost. Only one property was damaged and one case of arson reported. How did he do it ? "I did whatever was required of me to keep law and order," and by not thinking of "whether the government would like it or not."

There were other points of light as well. Banaskantha’s Superintendent of Police, Himanshu Bhatt was one of them. A Deputy Commissioner of Police in Ahmedabad, P.B. Godhia, another. If you think the state’s Chief and Home Ministers decorated these officers for doing their duty, you have still to understand that not only has Gujarat’s secular fabric been shredded, but also the constitutional role of the services subverted. Because all of these officers have been relieved of their positions and sent to innocuous postings. Commenting on their transfers Julio Ribeiro, who successfully controlled Ahmedabad’s communal riots in 1985, said "the power of transfers is being misused" and is a "negation of the law". Padam Rosha, an outstanding police officer was equally forceful when he once told me that when "a system has made up its mind to have a pliable police which helps it in the misuse of authority, rather than a professional force committed to uphold the rule of law and accountable to the institutions established for the purpose, it is the beginning of the end of democracy."

This, in fact, is what the BJP governments at the Centre and Gujarat are cynically doing: dismantling democratic institutions, constitutional safeguards, and other checks and balances on which our republic was founded with idealism and hope. Is the informed public aware of the dangerous course India is taking? Are political falsifications being questioned? And the moral coarseness of men in high public positions being denounced ? Is public opinion building up against the cult of untamed violence and unrepentant attitudes towards the crimes committed openly all over India? These questions must be asked because with each passing day our moral clarity is getting more clouded by our religious prejudices.

On the plus side, sections of the English press have risen magnificently to the occasion by investigating, exposing, and headlining the ongoing depravities in Gujarat. Since the media has played a positive role in building up public opinion against the mass murders, burnings and looting there, it is difficult to accept that the Indian public remains unaffected by the daily exposures. Not everyone in India – a land of learning and humane traditions – can condone the Gujarat government’s genocidal policies. So even though dependable surveys are still to be conducted to establish the degree of public revulsion against the current crimes, there is enough evidence to indicate that a great many people are reacting against the moral coarseness of their elected representatives.

But the question still remains: why, despite a critical press and public opinion, didn’t the government act swiftly to re-establish India’s credentials as a civilized state? Why couldn’t public opinion force the sacking of Gujarat’s Chief Minister? Why couldn’t the Prime Minister be made to see the propriety of such a step? For that matter, why couldn’t the Prime Minister have been made to see the humaneness and wisdom of visiting that blighted state as soon as the rivers of blood had started flowing, and not after 35 days of unrelenting bloodletting?

Even against this backdrop of indifference to the daily snuffing out of human lives, Oaffirming flames¹ continue to glow. Fali Nariman, easily India’s foremost lawyer, in a hard-hitting interview in a national daily placed the Gujarat Chief Minister’s continuance in office and the Prime Minister’s inaction in sacking him, in perspective, by delineating that the Indian Constitution "had not contemplated the possibility of the breakdown of constitutional machinery in a state where the government belongs to the same political persuasion as the government at the Centre and where for political reasons the central government will not act." What this in effect means is that political reasons in today’s India are more important than the government’s avowed responsibility to protect its citizens’ right to life! Another blunt indictment of the government has come from Deepak Parekh, Chairman of the Housing Development Finance Corporation. Even though he owes his job to the Union Government, he forthrightly asks: "What is the Government elected for? If it can’t protect innocent lives….then it should go. Which kind of government allows the killing of women and children?" As the head of a powerful finance company his other observation is equally pertinent: "Riots have damaged India’s reputation in the international forum more than what is happening in Pakistan. Do we need to always sabotage our own chances of growth and international goodwill?"

A telling testimony of the terrible crimes in Gujarat was also provided by Harsh Mander, a serving officer in the Indian Administrative Service in a recent article in which some of his original text was left out. "What can you say about a woman eight months pregnant who begged to be spared? Her assailants instead slit open her stomach pulled out her foetus and slaughtered it before her eyes. What can you say about a family of nineteen being killed by flooding their house with water and then electrocuting them with high-tension electricity?"

What indeed can you say about these crimes and about the government that is presiding over them? They leave us astounded. Yet nothing stops us from admiring persons who have the guts to expose the misdeeds of those in political power. We need, however, to go beyond that. We need to ask ourselves what can we, the public, do to protect the rights of the Vivek Srivastavs, Rahul Sharmas, Himanshu Bhatts, P.B. Godias and Harsh Manders because such affirming flames must not be extinguished. They represent the decencies of which we were once proud of and which we took for granted. They are our hope for the future.

A thoughtful suggestion was made by an experienced administrator who underscored the need for a law to establish a tribunal which would deal specifically with the victimization of civil servants – which includes the police – who refuse to submit to the unprincipled and illegal demands of their ministers. Although CAT (Central Administrative Tribunal) exists, its terms of reference are too diffused. What he has in mind is a Public Servants Commission to deal specifically and expeditiously with cases such as those cited above. But there is a snag here: one can’t quite see the Centre rushing to enact such a law! It will willingly enact one to repress its opponents, but not to curb its own wayward acts. So it is time for concerned individuals to establish a Citizens Vigilance Commission which goes to Court if necessary to show the malafides of the government in such cases. The composition of State Public Service Commissions must also be drastically changed by new laws to prevent undesirable elements from being taken into government service by corrupt means. As at present. Such elements contribute to undermining the fabric of civilized governance.

Yet another affirming flame was a landmark event which took place in Punjab last week. It highlights the positive role the public can play in critical times. In the 17th century, Guru Hargobind, the sixth of the ten Sikh Gurus, built a mosque for his Muslim followers in Gurdaspur district. When the Muslims left for Pakistan following India’s partition in 1947, the Sikhs took over the mosque, installed the Guru Granth Sahib in it, and daily recitations from the Holy Book have been held there ever since. Being a historic structure, Guru Ki Maseed (The Guru’s Mosque), was recently restored by Gurmeet Rai, a distinguished Sikh conservationist with funds provided by Sikh organizations and UNESCO. Last week the mosque was handed back to the Muslims by the Sikhs after the Guru Granth Sahib was moved to a neighbouring building. "The performance of Muslim religious prayers in the mosque after 55 years would be recorded in history as an event when Sikhs showed so much magnanimity to Muslims," said Dr. Mohammed Rizwanul Haque of the Punjab Waqf Board, an elected body of the Muslims.

It would be appropriate in this context to mention a suggestion made by Fali Nariman with regard to the ongoing dispute over Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid. "If I were a Muslim, I would tell my brethren, look a certain group believes, and genuinely believes, that their God was born at a particular spot. I may not agree with that belief, but if no saint of mine or my God was born at that spot, I would say give them that land." Perhaps this is the time for the Muslim leadership to show the same magnanimity as the Sikhs showed with Guru Ki Maseed, and defuse the Ayodhya crisis once and for all. They will earn the admiration of countless people in India and abroad.

"Inactivity", Walter Lippmann once wrote of President Calvin Coolidge, "is a political philosophy and a party program with Mr. Coolidge." Inactivity also appears to be Prime Minister Vajpayee’s political philosophy. But India’s national interest requires him to be more active. History will judge him cruelly if he does not move swiftly to sack Gujarat’s Chief Minister, prevent anarchy from overtaking India, and restore the nations standing in the eyes of the world.

The Asian Age, April 8, 2002, 2171 w.


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