Journalist | Writer | Analyst
2 May 2009
Where silence prevails, justice will not
Narendra Modi is unwilling to even apologise for the Gujarat massacres because neither religious India nor political India considers his involvement a liability.
When Aman Kachroo was murdered by fellow students in a distant medical college in Himachal Pradesh last month, some politicians tried to appropriate his death to the narrative of forcible displacement that Kashmiri Pandits were subjected to by terrorist violence in the 1990s. Had the valley’s Hindus not felt compelled to flee, they argued, young Aman might well have studied in Srinagar, where the academic and social culture would not have allowed such wanton violence to be visited on a student in the name of “ragging”. Despite his death reflecting this invisible dimension of the larger tragedy of exile, however, the Kachroo family asked the politicians to back off. Aman died not because he was a Kashmiri Pandit or because the community was in exile but because of the insensitivity of the educational and law enforcement systems of the country. And his family was determined to make sure the lessons are learned and such tragedies never repeated.
The Kachroo family’s dignity and steadfastness reminded me of a meeting I had in September 2003 with a delegation of Kashmiri Pandits from the Hindu Welfare Society of Kashmir. They wanted something to be done to enable the community to return to their homeland without fear. Apart from official indifference, what angered the Pandits was the manner in which “Hindu” politicians had tried to exploit their plight. ”Since 1990, groups like the VHP and RSS have played politics with the fate of the Hindus of Kashmir,” Sanjay Tickoo, a young Pandit from Srinagar, told me. ”Riots were organised in Gujarat in our name. But tell me, what do the poor Muslims of Gujarat have to do with our plight?”, he asked.
That conversation – and the heartfelt manner in which one set of victims was attempting to reach out to another — moved me so much, I wrote about it at the time. And I bring it up again now because of a recent statement by Sri Sri Ravishankar on the condition of relief camps run by the Sri Lankan government for Tamil refugees displaced by the war against the LTTE in the Vanni. These camps, he said, had better facilities than “those the Indian Government has provided for the Kashmiri pandits and those provided for Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu.”
For Ravishankar to draw a parallel with Indian camps for Lankan refugees was entirely appropriate. I also applaud him for reminding us of the terrible conditions in which thousands of Pandits, who are now entering the 20th year of their displacement, are forced to live in camps in Jammu. But I must confess to feeling bad that Sri Sri, who is one of India’s most influential godmen, missed an opportunity to prick our conscience by remembering the callousness of the Indian authorities towards other internally displaced persons like the Muslims of Gujarat or the Christians in the Kandhamal district of Orissa. During the 2002 riots, the Gujarat government played no role whatsoever in setting up relief camps for the victims. Even today, an unconscionable number of Muslim IDPs there eke out a living under the most parlous of circumstances. And in Orissa, impoverished Christians who want to return to their villages are unable to do so because of the demand by Hindu missionaries that they first give up their faith.
Like the Pandits, the Muslims and Christians have also been forgotten by all of us. Ravishankar missed an opportunity to build collective awareness and empathy towards the three groups who are all victims of the Indian state’s indifference.
This omission of Muslims and Christians from the story of displacement is, I believe, not accidental or innocent. It is of a piece with the new age guru’s elliptical moral orbit which appears to be drawing him closer and closer to the sangh parivar. One manifestation of this is his pronouncement on various topics like the Babri Masjid. Another is the warning issued to his Art of Living foundation by the Election Commission that its Mantranaad programme in Gujarat not be misused to lend political support to any political party during the ongoing election. The warning was sent following a complaint by the Congress which alleged the foundation was backing the Bharatiya Janata Party. But the omission is also symptomatic of a wider silence maintained by most Hindu religious figures over the blatant distortion and misuse of their great religion by organizations like the RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Ram Sene, Shiv Sena and BJP.
Whenever terrorist incidents suspected to be the handiwork of jihadi groups take place, dozens of Muslim clerics issue immediate statements of condemnation. It is a different matter that our media usually doesn’t bother to report these statements. But when the large-scale killing of Muslims was orchestrated in Gujarat in 2002 by organizations claiming allegiance to Hinduism with the backing of the state administration, hardly any Hindu religious preacher stood up to denounce the profaning of their faith by these politically motivated groups. And this in a region where the concept of ahimsa was born and took deep roots, and where the followers of influential preachers like Morari Bapu or Asaram Bapu or sects like the Swaminarayans run into millions.
Is there a connection between this silence and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s refusal to speak when he was asked by a persistent television reporter whether he intended to apologise to the country for the Gujarat killings in the same manner that the Congress party now had for the 1984 massacres? Mr. Modi first replied that he had already given many interviews. When the reporter asked what he meant, he kept silent. When the question of an apology was again raised, he remained silent and gestured for a glass of water. And he refused to utter a word on the subject. When those who are tasked by the almighty to introspect prefer the comforting shores of silence, why should a mere politician be any different?
Now we are told that the BJP will create a regular “consultative mechanism” with religious leaders if it comes to power. In a letter to “1,000 religious heads of all denominations”, the party’s prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani, said that a government he heads would “seek on a regular basis” their guidance “on major challenges and issues facing the nation”. Among the two names the BJP confirmed sending this letter to was Sri Sri Ravishankar. The other was Baba Ram Dev. Were such a “consultative mechanism” to ever get established, it is unlikely that the spiritual heads who stuck to their vow of silence during Gujarat or Orissa would remain tongue-tied. Apart from making a mockery of the constitutional separation of religion and state, as the Left parties and the Congress have pointed out, this mechanism could easily metamorphose into something truly malignant. As in Pakistan, where Sufi Mohammed has tasted the sweet blood of appeasement, the opinions of our seers on everything except the misuse of religion in politics will flow thick and fast.
When Mr. Advani was presented with a “lifetime achievement award” by NDTV in January, he was asked by Prannoy Roy what he considered his greatest accomplishment to be. The BJP leader said it was the rathyatra he led as part of the Ayodhya agitation. That agitation led to the demolition of the Babri masjid, an event that Mr. Advani had once described as the “saddest day” of his life. But when Prannoy asked what was the one thing he regretted about his life, he said it was the fact that he belonged to an occupation where so many of his peers were corrupt!
What explains Mr. Advani’s unwillingness to introspect over how his greatest accomplishment could have ended in that “saddest day”? Could his unwillingness be the product of our unwillingness to ask such questions? Everyone agrees that the presence of Jagdish Tytler at the scene of an attack on a gurudwara in 1984 is enough to render him ineligible for public office. And yet we do not regard the presence of senior BJP leaders at the scene of the mosque’s demolition or the burning of Gujarat as being enough to morally disqualify them for the job of Prime Minister. Is this because the Congress party has more of a conscience than that of the BJP? No. It is because influential sections of our society – corporate leaders, religious personalities, media commentators, strategic analysts and everyone else who is in the business of forming and influencing the groupthink that goes by the name of ‘public opinion’ in India – do not consider 1992 and 2002 as crimes on par with the 1984 genocide of the Sikhs.
Unless that changes, we can forget about apologies and remorse. As for justice, I’m not holding my breath.