July 30, 2002


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Life and death: the
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Dilip D'Souza

Off the topic, on with the killing

In late 1999, I travelled to Orissa after the killer cyclone there, to help with the relief work and to learn. I got there not long after it happened and spent several days in Erasama, the worst-hit part of the state. When I returned, there was so much to write about that I did so sort of frenetically: Rediff carried some of those articles.

I also sent a piece about the cyclone to a magazine I have written for several times, then and since. The editor said he would use it. But a day later, he told me that it needed a few changes. I made them and sent it back the next day. This time, the editor refused it. He sent me a one-line explanation: "We are off this topic now."

Apart from wondering how the magazine had gone "off the topic" within two days, I was also struck by the very notion of going "off the topic." This was a colossal calamity, whose terrible effects had still not played themselves out all over Orissa. Dead bodies were still being found and burned; the state faced a massive job of reconstruction; questions were being raised about the apathy of officials; thousands of kids had been suddenly orphaned; telephone and electric lines were damaged over a wide area. Yes, at the time, the litany of Orissa's cyclone-caused tragedies went on and on. Even now, nearly three years later, the litany could still go on and on.

Yet for this magazine editor, this catastrophe was also just a "topic." And like every other topic in magazine-dom, it would make its way, sooner or later, into oblivion. In fact, it already had.

I still shake my head in wonder at that one-liner he sent me.

So fine, you say, he's a magazine editor, with his own magazine-publishing compulsions. But at times like there, I find myself marvelling at how news, and especially news about tragedy, is so like fashion. Big today, but must be banished to some distant hole-in-the-wall tomorrow. After that, even mention of it must be greeted with the derision you'd expend on someone who turns up wearing bell-bottoms and tie-dyed T-shirts. (Or are those back in fashion?).

I remember this episode today because somebody I know not at all -- and I am grateful every day for that -- has just sent me a copy of a letter he wrote to a major newspaper. At some length, it lists several objections to an article he read there. His first, and most serious, complaint says it all: the article is about "the same old and outdated subject of Gujarat." (Meaning the shameful violence in that state starting last February 27, I trust you remember it).

Oh yes. Hundreds of ordinary Indians were burned and hacked to death in that state, sixty of them in a train. They included many women, many of whom suffered unspeakable brutality before being slaughtered. Innumerable homes, places of worship, tombs and shops were flattened and, in some cases, quickly paved over to remove any trace they ever existed. Tens of thousands of Indians have lived for months in atrocious conditions in camps, terrorised by the bloodshed, fearful of returning to their homes, unsure if those homes even exist any more. Hatreds are entrenched to an unimaginable degree. A ruling party has itched for months to capitalise politically on all this violence, on the chasm between communities that has always been its best bet for electoral success. Now it is finally headed for elections.

And to at least one random Indian, this ghastly tragedy, this unprecedented horror, these cynical political calculations, this blot on us all -- put together, it all constitutes "the same old and outdated subject of Gujarat."

No doubt he would agree: we should be "off this topic now."

Here's a theory I nurse along from time to time: one reason we suffer a steady stream of episodes in which Indians murder other Indians -- Gujarat, 2002; Mumbai, 1992-93; Delhi, 1984; Bhiwandi, 1969, to pick just four -- is that we are so ready, so quickly, to look upon them as "old and outdated subjects." We don't care to punish the men who instigate and cheer on these bouts of bloodletting; far from it, we instead call them patriots and confer on them such titles as the Emperor of the Hindu Heart. Or hail them as the next Vallabhbhai Patel, may the Iron Man of our freedom struggle be spared turning over in his grave.

When we treat them this way, we willingly overlook all their crimes. We persuade them that the surest way to power, to keeping it, to earning unthinking reverence from millions, is to prod us into hating and even slaughtering each other. They also realise that it's only a matter of weeks till enough of us shout that it's time to forget "old and outdated subjects."

Never mind that those "subjects" involve murders and unpunished murderers left free to murder again. (Think of it: how outraged would you have been had there been no action against the crazed man who shot dead a Sikh gas-station owner in Arizona after September 11? If someone had written to say that crime was an "old and outdated subject"? Instead he has been arrested, tried and convicted).

It's an odd way indeed to handle crime: let a month or three pass, then simply pronounce that that very passage of time itself invalidates any discussion of the crime. Certainly it obliterates any need to punish the criminals.

But if it's odd, it's one we are learning to perfection. Within three months of the riots in Mumbai in 1992-93, I heard lawyers arguing in court for dismissal of a riot-related petition in which they appeared for the respondents, the Government of Maharashtra and the Shiv Sena party. "Much water has flowed under the bridge since the riots," they said; keeping this case alive would only "rake up" old issues and "reopen old wounds that have healed." This was the essence of their argument over the next 18 months. It turned out to be a most effective argument. The judges who finally heard the case began by asking the petitioners if they did really want to "rake up" the past. In their judgement, they actually observed that it had been nearly two years since the riots, and it was unwise to "rake up" these old issues. Therefore, they dismissed the petition.

Several angry letters to the editor pointed out the clear implication in all this: we need never punish a single crime. Let's simply let some months, perhaps a year or so, pass -- and then refuse to take punitive action. Because old issues must not be "raked up."

Savour that implication. Do you wonder why we have such a long list of crimes whose perpetrators have never seen justice? Bofors; the pickle scandal; Harshad Mehta and the stock scam; the fodder scam; Sukh Ram and his cash-stuffed bedsheets; the blood-spattered reaches -- our blood-spattered memories -- of Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi and elsewhere. Why do we lurch from one such calamity to another, seemingly condemned to do so for all time to come?

Not that I mean to pat myself on the back, but I think my little theory above explains that nicely, thank you.

And now, I suppose it's time to get "off this topic." Not least because another one like it is certainly on its way. Recite with me once more, won't you: Bhiwandi, 1969; Delhi, 1984; Mumbai, 1992-93; Gujarat, 2002. Who knows what's next, where's next? Let's get used to it: there will never be an end to Indians killing other Indians as we saw in Gujarat. Not as long as we let ourselves think of such massacres as "old and outdated subjects." Not as long as criminals are passed off as patriots.

When devastation struck Erasama
Miasma in Erasama
'I just had to see what I could do'

Dilip D'Souza

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