We, the People of Gujarat: Urvish Kothari
This guest post by URVISH KOTHARI was originally written in Gujarati and has been translated by VISTASP HODIWALA
Some facts are so simple and self-evident that they elude you completely at the time they happen. Digesting them takes time – 2, 3,7, maybe even 10 years. By that time, the passion and the anger has abated a bit and there is a sense of composure that pervades our beings.
Like the fact about the communal violence that gripped the State of Gujarat in 2002.
Of course, a mere mention of this is enough to get the chief minister’s fanboys roll up their sleeves, even as their opponents ready themselves to launch a counter onslaught. But with the passage of ten long years, the first question should not be about whether the Chief Minister was complicit in the crime or not. No, it cannot be.
As a citizen, the first and foremost question should be one that we ask our own selves, and that is this: whatever happened ten years ago, without the lens of the party or religion, has it been enough to stir feelings of unconditional embarrassment, regret and penitence in us? There might have been reasons in our twisted minds to justify the cruelty and the inhumanity at the time, but a decade later, do we feel the need to reconsider our mute or open support for what we thought was ‘right’ back then? Unlike that famous dialogue from Deewar, ‘Go ask those guys before you even question us’, have we now developed a sense of calm that makes us look within and probe our own conscience for a change?
When a perfectly normal human being sets himself upon another just because he or she belongs to a faith not identical to his own, when he kills, burns, maims innocent people who are nowhere to blame for his blind rage-the thought that we can’t be doing this or even be seen defending this… this madness-do we at all find it within us after all these years to acknowledge that there is no way we can cling on to our position any longer? Or is our humanity merely satiated by a rickshaw driver who honestly deposits a wallet full of hard currency that he chanced upon in his vehicle at the police station? ‘Supercop’ KPS Gill, who found himself in the heat of Gujarat 2002, mentioned years later that even after all the death and destruction he had not seen any evidence of the ‘Kalinga effect’ within the people of Gujarat. While that phrase may certainly hold for the State’s powers-that-be, have we the citizens at least, found any evidence of our awakening? In the intervening years, there has been a feeling in a small cross-section of the troublemakers and even in miniscule parts of the police establishment of the sentiment ‘Yes, we had lost our heads then’. A few journalist friends who know some of these worthies are witnesses to this happy turn of events.
As for the rest, ‘We, The People of Gujarat’–which accounts for most of us–we should at least now speak the language of civility even if we, back then openly supported the madness, without caring much for what our trenchant critics would have to say about our volte face. There is no need to worry ourselves silly or be ashamed by this turnaround. That we should never have suffered a momentary loss of reason, is of course the ideal state of being. But for a short while, even if we did, then the most honourable recourse available to us is to accept our faults so as to be vigilant about our future. That, in essence, is the only mark and testimony of our being human. If we are not those political foxes who trade in human lives, just ordinary folks, then why must there be any shame or hesitancy in accepting our appalling past and expressing fulsome regret over it?
1984 and 2002
Mention Gujarat 2002, and there is a whole army of people who will instantly remind you of the Sikh massacre in Delhi that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination. But of course! Is there any way to forget that heinous crime? Especially when the victims are still awaiting justice?
And yet, the moment these two incidents of pure and utter bestiality are recalled together you have citizens neatly divided into two halves: On one hand we have those prone to party loyalty, wear ideological glasses or recycle the same old tired arguments who will declare with a sense of inevitability: ‘There was exactly this level of carnage that took place during the Congress’s reign. The victims are still crying for justice. But at that time, were you (as in, you Congressi, you ‘secular’ farce of a man!) ashamed? No. Did you raise you voice? No. So why do we have to feel guilty for recalling what happened in Gujarat 2002? Why should we raise our voices? Whatever for?’
Those who are Congress loyalists or what that quaint term suggests, ‘disciplined’ foot soldiers (which is a short handle for those who have locked up their conscience and given away the key to the high command) will say: ‘Let’s talk about 2002. Our leaders have time and again expressed their apologies to the Sikhs and for two consecutive terms, we have had a Sikh as the Prime Minister running our government, while your leaders still brazen it out without expressing the slightest remorse.’
One of these two arguments, mostly the first (Me? Ashamed? Huh), has always been advanced with tedious regularity by a sizable majority in the aftermath of the political charged atmosphere following the 2002 communal violence. It was naively understood and widely propagated that there are only two sets of people: Congress leaning pseudo-secularists or the BJP Chief Minister’s hardcore supporters.
The equation was framed in a manner which immediately painted anybody who opposed this violence as a dyed-in-the-wool Congressman, hence a pseudo-secularist, a rabid Hindu hater and a person who revels in double standards. On the other hand, anybody who was not an apologist for this brutality, or in fact, anybody who bravely denounced the statement of Gujarat-baiters that ‘we need to be ashamed about the 2002 violence’ immediately qualified as a ‘True Gujarati’.
Between these two convenient and politically expedient extremes, there was a third set of individuals whose very existence was summarily dismissed. This was a class of people who thought even then, as they do now, that the crimes against Sikhs in 1984 is a horrific Congress stain that could never be washed away. That stain is not going away either by having a Sikh PM at the helm for two consecutive terms or even by merely asking for forgiveness. The only way it can be made lighter is by delivering justice to the victims, punishing the guilty, and when the Congress itself duly and regretfully co-operates with the judiciary in furthering the cause of the victims. In fact, even before the Court announces its verdict, the Congress must pro-actively deal with the perpetrators of this violence within the framework of its organisation. Then and only then does an apology have any real meaning. Otherwise it’s akin to running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.
Now, if the right-thinking citizens of Gujarat display this awakening, it’s admirable. Any expectation from the Congress government in New Delhi is well-received, but the moment the same expectation is to be met by the BJP government in Gujarat, all hell breaks loose: Gujarat hater, pseudo secular, Hindu baiter, the epithets roll on…
The Delhi massacre of Sikhs in its time was criticised in no less measure by citizens’ rights organisations and public intellectuals from all walks of life. The relentless criticism of the then Congress government for its shamelessness and rigidity continue unabated to this day. But when the same people and the same organisations critique what happened in Gujarat, they must face up to that idiotic riposte of ‘Where were you when the Sikh massacre happened?’ The trouble with people who monotonously parrot that question is that they are in no way interested in waiting for the answer. Their interest lies elsewhere; in flinging that question like a stone and running away, not in the answer itself! Even more importantly, what is always conveniently forgotten is that except for Rajiv Gandhi and some of his Congress leaders and goons, nobody has ever defended the Sikh pogrom, leave alone the small matter of justifying it.
What did you do?
‘We are not communal but we oppose double standards’ is the other standard refrain that is used either to defend the violence that happened or to level with the people who have spoken out against it. But these ‘double standards opponents’ have never gone ahead and asked BJP leaders if they have done anything to help the cause of victims after the Delhi pogrom.
If it is merely about ‘double standards’, how is it that people who have chosen to keep quiet about the violence in this case have never asked a local BJP leader by squarely posing one simple question: Since you have been crying yourselves hoarse in demanding that justice must be done come what may in the case of the Sikh riots, should you not be equally enthusiastic about doing the same for victims of the 2002 violence under your own administration? What exactly have you done to inspire confidence amongst the victims in their fight for justice?
If a political party only interested in cynically squaring up its misdeeds vis-à-vis opposition, stops at recounting its opponent’s sins, that’s acceptable. After all, there is not one party in this country which truly wants justice, not even the ones sitting in the opposition. The fight for justice is merely a tool by which to outmaneuver your main opponent. It has never been anyone’s lot to actually stand by the victims in a principled manner.
The contribution of the Congress in securing justice for the Sikh victims is in direct proportion to the BJP’s for the Muslim victims. Don’t we all know that already? It’s their fervent wish therefore that we as citizens neutralize their subsequent responsibilities for political crimes by taking adversarial positions favouring either this party or that. This is clearly a possibility when citizens instead of speaking out on behalf of fellow citizens indulge in arguments like “You Congress, Me BJP’, or start defending the indefensible under the garb of party loyalty or a strange, mythical fear of the other.
On moving on
The most natural response or reaction one gets after ten years is ‘How long do you want to remember this? Forget the past and move on.’ (Of course, in the same breath, these worthies do not ever forget to conveniently recall the 28 year old Sikh massacre, but that’s par for the course.)
Fact is, be it Delhi’s Sikhs or Gujarat’s Muslims or for that matter, victims from anywhere, they are in any case moving on without the need for such homilies. But ‘moving on’ cannot become a mere ruse for ‘moving on without hope or expectation of justice’. The tragedy in this case is that the government of the day in Gujarat is in no way interested in seeing that happen and yet, its proud flag bearers don’t shy away from doling out such ill-timed advice.
Whenever there is talk of justice, the issue is muddled by dragging in the D word. D for Development. There is certainly scope for an independent debate on Gujarat’s progress–How, how much and who is behind its development is another issue altogether. But for a moment, even if one assumes and accepts all the fancy theories on development, it still cannot be anyone’s case that it can serve as a substitute for real justice. And this plain fact must be understood by We, the Citizens of the State.
As for the Chief Minister’s role in the violence, without which no debate on this subject can culminate; there is one noticeable fact which exists sans all the theorising. That, it is in his reign and under his watch, that the Hindus in the Sabarmati Express and thereafter with the riots, the Muslims and others got mercilessly butchered. For both these acts, the moral responsibility rests solely with the Chief Minister. If instead of mouthing platitudes such as ‘It’s natural for every action to have a reaction. Neither does one want action, nor a reaction.’ he could have chosen to act as an elected leader should, and dealt with the rioters firmly. That would have been enough to send a strong signal to the lumpen element everywhere, that no one but no one, was above the law. The bureaucracy and the police administration are past masters at deciphering their ‘Chief’s’ unspoken orders. If the signal that was conveyed had been timely and unambiguous, his friends in the bureaucracy and the police would have stopped these crimes as they were unraveling, not as an exception but as a rule.
Even after ten years of this violence, there is a sizeable set of people who don’t accept the difference between reason and justification. If a biker dies in an accident without having worn a helmet, all that can be safely concluded about his demise is that he died in an accident and he wasn’t wearing a helmet. But it can’t stand to reason therefore that he deserved to die because he wasn’t wearing protective head gear and anyone who doesn’t wear one also deserves to meet with the same fate.
Maybe it’s time for the vast majority of us to also think about Godhra, post-Godhra violence and the nuanced difference between reason-justification from that lens.
(Urvish Kothari is a well-known Gujarati journalist based in Ahmedabad. The Gujarati original of this text can be found at Kothari’s blog.)
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