Friday, May 24, 2019

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TORCHBEARERS OF HATE

Normally, folly in everyday use means a foolish act. Or being foolish. When used in relation to acts of governments, folly takes on a different dimension. It often translates into a dangerous odyssey on which states are launched by recalcitrant leaders whose reckless acts kill countless people. As the depraved killings across Gujarat showed, governmental follies can take a deadly toll. If the central government’s perverse persistence in the politics of religion precipitated the Gujarat massacres, and its refusal to intervene swiftly and decisively imparted an even more sinister edge to the tragedy, the state government’s deliberate inaction under its fundamentalist Chief Minister allowed the murders to continue unchecked for over four days and nights. Between them these two put the official seal of approval on Gujarat’s ethnic cleansing. In no civilized country do those elected to govern so abuse the trust placed in them, with the exception of Slobodan Milosevic or some other Serb or Bosnian despot. India has proved it is no better than them.

What made the Gujarat nightmare worse was the sense of deja vu, a re-enactment of the macabre dance of death orchestrated against the Sikhs in 1984. Then, as now, the central government, its ministers, members of parliament, and the police and administration colluded in the killing of innocent Indian citizens. But Indian Muslims have borne the main brunt of such murderous attacks over the years, instigated and encouraged by the political and civil establishments, with the active assistance of parties whose sole justification for existence is to communalize the Indian polity. The anti-Muslim riots which stand out for their methodology and viciousness took place at Ranchi and Hatiya (1967), Ahmedabad (1969), Bhiwandi (1970), Jalgaon (1970), and Bombay (1992-93), in addition to the Muslim killings which came in the wake of Mr. L. K. Advani’s 1990 journey across India in a Toyota dressed-up as a mythical chariot.

The chronology of such crimes does not end there. Attacks on Christians and their places of worship – hitherto unaffected by the blood-letting of other minorities – also began in the 1990s. And despite the RSS chief, Rajendra Singh’s condemnation of them (on January 2, 1999) as being against "the very grain of the Hindu ethos where all ways of worship are treated with respect", the intensity and frequency of the targeting of Christians has increased year after year.

In the context of Hindu-Muslim riots, a short but significant Hindi novel, Curfew in the City, by Vibhuti Narain Rai, published in 1988, provides valuable insights. In normal circumstances it might have gone unnoticed, but for the fact that Vibhuti Rai was – and still is – a serving police officer of integrity and strong convictions who as Senior Superintendent of Police in Allahabad in 1980, had handled communal rioting there. The experience made him embark on his novel whose story – covering just three days – is centered on a Muslim family in an Allahabad caught up in the frenzy of a Hindu-Muslim riot. Another reason why Curfew attracted attention was that since its theme covers more than those three days, the book – as C. M. Naim explains in his Foreword – earned a fatwa from Shri Ashok Singhal, the Secretary-General of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Not surprisingly, he had not even bothered to read the book, for he advised Mr. Rai to resign from the government service before publishing his book.

What is more, because an Allahabad journalist wanted to make a feature film based on Curfew in the City, Singhal threatened to burn down any cinema house that would dare to show the proposed film. Considering the large-scale arson in Gujarat over the last several days, not just of properties but of men, women and children as well, Mr. Singhal and his followers are no pushovers when it comes to torching properties and people. So the producer with remarkable prescience dropped the film project.

The English translation of the book was published in 1998 which I read, before meeting Rai. By that time he had spent a year studying the role of the police during communal riots, with special emphasis on the rampant communalism in the subcontinent, and its ugliest manifestation, the communal riot. I found his analysis and assessments informed and incisive, and was impressed by the fact that the National Police Academy had given him a fellowship and funded his research. This goes to prove that the communal virus has neither affected all Indians, nor everyone of a particular community. Have the remarkable findings of his study been used in a handbook for the police to prevent tragedies such as Gujarat’s from occurring? Given the degree to which the authorities suborned arson and mass murder there, it could also be one way of making it more difficult for politicians to prevent the police from carrying out its responsibilities.

Of particular interest are Rai’s clarifications on who suffers most in Hindu-Muslim riots. In his Afterword on the anatomy of the "most terrible riot" in Ahmedabad in 1969, he points out that: "According to the figures presented by the State government to the Inquiry Commission headed by Justice Jagmohan Reddy, 6742 houses or shops were burned down in that riot; out of them, only 671 belonged to the Hindus, the rest 6,071 belonged to the Muslims. The total value of the property destroyed in the riot came to Rs. 4,23,24,068: out of it the value of the property that belonged to the Hindus was Rs. 75,85,845 while the value of the property that belonged to the Muslims was Rs. 3,47,38,224. Of the 512 fatalities, 24 were Hindus, 413 were Muslims, while the remaining 75 could not be identified." He also says, "there was probably not a single riot where the percentage of the Muslim casualties to the total were less than seventy", and adds
that "in the many riots all over the country subsequent to the destruction of the mosque that percentage has in fact been above ninety." The question worth asking here is : if the terrible riot of 1969 took such a deadly toll, how is that an even worse riot was allowed to take place in the same city 33 years later?

On the psychology of the majority community Rai feels that "without fully changing it, it wouldn’t be possible to stop communal riots. Right-thinking members of the majority community will have to acknowledge that repeatedly the victims of their aggression are the members of the minority community; that the minorities have as much right to this land as they have and that during periods of communal tension, the job of the police and the army is not to take the side of the majority community but to provide protection to the minorities". He is equally straightforward and even-handed in analyzing the shortfalls of the Muslim community.

Now for the experience of the Sikhs after Mrs. Gandhi’s death on October 31, 1984. The Nanavati Commission which is presently conducting hearings into the systematic killings then, will hopefully, provide valuable insights into the anatomy of that tragedy. So that when – and if – an inquiry into the Gujarat events does take place, it could benefit from it. Justice Nanavati is an upright and honest man and his findings should come as a reminder to the smug Indian state of the sleazy methods its functionaries resort to, to achieve their sordid political ends.

I was the first witness to depose before the Nanavati Commission on April 17, 2001. It has since examined 170 witnesses including former Prime Ministers, politicians, police and administrative officials. In my affidavit to Justice Nanavati, and during my personal deposition as well, I pointed out that on the afternoon of November 1, 1984, I.K. Gujral, Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora and I had gone to see the Home Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao to urge him to take immediate steps to stop the killing of Sikhs – which had started already – all over Delhi. We found Rao at home "looking impassive and seemingly without a care. The atmosphere at the Home Minister’s house did not show at all that there was any crisis in the country, and in the very capital around the Home Minister’s own house." We told him that the least he could do was to call in the army. He said it would take up positions in Delhi that very evening.

The Home Minister lied to us because the army was not called till the night of November 3. What is not so well known is that a unit of the 15th Sikh LI had already taken up duties on the morning of November 1, and had saved several lives in the Safdarjung Development Area, when it was abruptly ordered back to barracks that same afternoon. I have recounted this in detail in my book The Sikhs. Had it not been withdrawn, 3000 Sikhs would not have died, nor would their homes, shops, factories, taxis, trucks, and places of worship been torched under the indulgent eyes of the administration and a partisan police force.

Does this ring a bell? Does the administration’s deliberate inaction, secret collusion and dereliction of duty in Delhi in 1984 help us better understand the callousness of Gujarat’s Chief Minister, his misleading propaganda, his deliberate stalling of the army’s deployment, the blackout of TV coverage, his attempts to stop members of parliament from visiting the state, his uncouth description of the killings and torching of properties as the "natural outpouring of people’s anger"? His list of misdeeds warrants his government’s dismissal, and the imposition of President’s rule in Gujarat. Is the central government willing to prove to a watching world that India is as prepared to end state terrorism, as terrorism of other kinds?

There can be no divergence of views on what needs to be done about the depraved murder of 58 men, women and children when the train they were traveling in was set on fire at Godhra on February 27. This appalling crime must be thoroughly investigated and the guilty severely punished. By the same token the sadistic killers who were allowed to run riot all over Gujarat must also be awarded exemplary punishment. But will they? The levels of our degradation can be judged from the fact that when Raashid Alvi, MP, stood up in the Lok Sabha on March 1 to bring to the Speaker’s notice the killing of Eshan Jaffrey by a mob in Ahmedabad on February 28, no one supported his motion to pay homage to this former Member of Parliament. Not even Jaffrey’s own party members, the Congress MPs!

Now consider this disgraceful move by the Gujarat Chief Minister: he has awarded Rs. 2,00,000 compensation to the heirs of Godhara victims, and Rs. 1,00,000 to others done to death all over the state! Is this how secular India evaluates the worth of its citizens? Incidentally, Parliament is yet to condole the deaths of 3000 Sikhs killed in the capital in November 1984.

These aberrations do not reflect the health of India’s democracy. They mirror the malfunctioning of a lawless state. As a sequel to my article on the survival of democracies published in this paper on February 10, a communication from Siddhartha Banerjee, a friend who lives in Wilmington, Delaware, had this to say: "On September 11 last year, some twenty Muslims from abroad kill some 3,500 Americans. There are fears of a backlash against Muslims, or people who look like them in the US. Two people are killed in the backlash…People all over America, politicians included, speak out against murder or discrimination premised on guilt by association. Considering the enormity of America’s shock and suffering that awful day, the system worked.

And in India? Last week Muslims kill some fifty compatriots, Hindus, on a train. The result, some 500 Muslim dead so far…victims of avenging Hindu killers. The police watch. The system fails to intervene to protect its minorities. The sin of the Muslim dead? They shared the faith of the killers of the 50 Hindus on the train. Guilt by association is clearly alive and well in India. Perhaps, it is time to send Prime Minister Vajpayee a parcel containing a few hundred of our Indian passports with a small note saying, "Mr. Prime Minister, thanks, but we renounce our citizenship. A state that will not protect its minorities is no democracy". And then, let’s pour our passion for the country, and our time and money, into groups who are working to ensure that India does not become a murderous theocracy."

That about sums it up.

2100 w.

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Patwant Singh

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