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|March 15, 2002||
Vignettes from the Ides of March
Beware the Ides: but I'll begin in January. A year after the earth shook, the rubble still lies everywhere in old Bhuj. Some areas have been cleared, but elsewhere you see piles of stones, homes and temples left in their crumbled state, steel rods and chunks of concrete hanging alarmingly overhead, people picking their way through it all. You still find residents living, playing and eating on the boulders. Here, an old woman who has slept on them, under a thin blanket, out in the open, for a year. There, kids watch the cricket match on a television that sits precariously on the ruins.
And if you stop to talk, the sense of frustration and disillusionment runs thick. Everyone expresses angry disgust with their government -- for delaying compensation, for not clearing up, for not rebuilding. I listen, take notes and pick my own way over the stones, moving on to the next person who clamours to tell her story, the next person traumatised by a quake and made to feel victimised by his government.
So in this landscape of destruction, on the empty shells of shattered buildings, on walls that hold up nothing at all; all around them for despondent and angry, if still resilient, citizens to read; yes, painted in foot-high letters on vertical and not-so-vertical surfaces all over this broken city, what do you think I see?
Slogans written in the Gujarati script, though most are actually in Hindi. Slogans painted onto the rubble after the quake by such organizations as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Jagruti Abhiyan. Slogans like these:
Jo nahin prabhu Shri Ram ka, vah nahin kisi bhi kaam ka.
Ram naam jai karish ghar maan, mandir banshe Ayodhya maan.
Ab nahin rukega yeh abhiyaan, mandir ka hoga ab nirman.
And this simple one:
Mandir vahin banayenge.
In this tumbled-down city, the VHP and brothers are certainly going on about construction. Only, it's constructing a temple in many-mile-distant Ayodhya they mean. People lie under blankets for a year, and the VHP goes on about building that temple. Homes are reduced to stones, and they talk about building that temple. On those very stones, on the very ruins a quake wrought, they scrawl words about building that temple.
Two weeks ago, much of Gujarat erupted into human flames. Bhuj and Kutch did not. Why? Perhaps the quake left them more aware of humanity and the meaning of suffering. Perhaps. But call me a hopeless optimist: I like to think there's one more reason. Maybe quake victims saw how VHP slogans appeared on their destroyed homes and drew conclusions about how much the heroes of Hindutva care for their everyday concerns.
Some unscrupulous soul whipped together a fictitious explanation for the Godhra atrocity, down to an abducted daughter of a tea-vendor, and sent it out over the wires. He was sick enough to put the names and numbers of two real journalists at the end, as "sources" for the story. I hate to think how many calls from the world over that hapless pair fielded (mine was one), how many times they had to explain that it was all a hoax.
But malicious kite-flying happened in the other direction too. Early reports from Godhra mentioned ten girls among the karsevaks on the train, "abducted by miscreants belonging to the minority community" and whisked to some unknown destination, some unknown fate. As with the tea-vendor story, this tale zipped round the world in seconds flat, helped along by outraged writers and email jockeys.
Until the Additional DGP of Gujarat, J Mahapatra, said: 'No woman passenger has been reported missing after the Godhra murders. We have accounted for each and every passenger. These are all rumours that have been doing the rounds with the intention of spreading violence.' [Rediff, March 6].
The bloody truth of hatred and murder is apparently not enough for some people on either side of this putrid and God-forsaken wrangle. Intent on whipping up even more hatred, they concoct and spread lies as well.
Two days ago, a woman we know slightly came to leave her little collection of jewellery with us: mangalsutra, another chain, a couple of anklets, some earrings. The next day, her 15-year-old daughter came to stay. "Please keep her for a few days around the 15th," the mother had asked us at the beginning of March, right after the Gujarat massacres. "There's talk of riots, isn't there?"
This Marathi-speaking Hindu family lives in a mostly Muslim neighbourhood near the station. Afraid that the VHP's Ayodhya plans for March 15 might lead to trouble, they think our seven-storey building with our geriatric watchman is safer than their home. Why should it be? In Ahmedabad two weeks ago, mobs were equipped with gas cylinders. They released gas into buildings like ours and, as the IAS officer Harsh Mander writes in a horrifying report, a 'trained member of the group then lit the flame which efficiently engulfed the building.' (Question: just what had he been trained in? By whom?).
So I'm not convinced that our home is particularly safer than our guest's. But she's here, with the family jewellery.
This too has its mirror-image. Sharat Pradhan reports for rediff from Ayodhya that the 'bulk of the [Muslim] families have temporarily shifted base' out of their largely Hindu surroundings. Given the 'mob frenzy that we witnessed in December 1992,' the ongoing 'build-up of karsevaks from outside" and the "recent violence in Gujarat,' they fear carnage around March 15. So they have sent their women and children away.
And the men who have led my country into this crazy mess? I see them on my front pages, on television, addressing press conferences, claiming their cause is above the law, that they are not subject to Supreme Court decisions. I see them surrounded always by alert commandos fingering triggers on some very long guns.
If we needed more perversity, surely this qualifies: that Indian lives are turned inside-out, too often snuffed out, by the hatreds these men encourage; but those same ordinary Indians must nevertheless pay to protect these men.
Mander's report, written after visiting riot survivors' camps in Ahmedabad, is not for queasy stomachs. 'The horrors that [the survivors] speak of are so macabre,' he writes, 'that my pen falters in the writing.'
Me? My eyes falter in the reading.
An eight-month pregnant woman's stomach was slit open and her foetus slaughtered in front of her. A family was killed by 'flooding their house with water and then electrocuting them.' Everywhere, women were raped and then burned or beaten to death, 'in one case with a screw-driver.' Enough.
I forced myself to read all this, remembering the horror of Godhra as well. When I finished, I brooded over how this temple wrangle has filled so many Indians with this intense hatred. I thought about the nearly 300 responses I got to my last column (Till Retaliation Do Us Part). The volume floored me, but what made my flesh crawl was what most of them said.
A typical one: The killings across Gujarat, a respected town-planner I know wrote, were 'a natural reaction of people who despite being the original inhabitants of this country are today oppressed and relegated to a third class citizenship. ... It is good to see that they at least have the courage to retaliate.'
What kind of lying propaganda persuades an eminently successful Indian that he is a third class citizen? And as a common friend wondered: 'Does he think slaughtering Muslims and slicing pregnant women open makes him first class again?'
That he does think so, that a great majority of my 300 respondents seem to as well, actually turns my stomach far more than Mander's report does.
So many are discussing what might happen on March 15. The rickshaw my wife took the other day had Jai Bajrangbali' painted above the windscreen; the driver went on at length, even after she got down, about the futility of this agitation. "What happened 500 years ago is finished," he says. "Why won't they let us live in peace now?" At the office, a colleague muses: "What will they get by building that temple? Why are they insisting on it when it makes so much trouble?" I stop at my regular courier to send a package and overhear the manager telling a colleague, "Temple or mosque, I'm sick of it. We should be progressing, but we're sliding backwards." And our dhobi arrives early and seems in a hurry. "I just want to finish and get back home quickly," he says. "Who benefits from this temple bakwaas [nonsense]? Not us. Only those sadhus and leaders."
I know, I know: hardly a representative sample. But these random snatches were all from Hindus. Is the wind shifting?
Wondering about that, my mind goes back a year. Back to the quake. Four of us are returning to Bombay after a week working with a team in a ruined village. With a horde of Kutchis fleeing the area, we struggle into the Kutch Express at Bhachau's flattened station.
Inside, I notice idly that the coach is plastered with colourful RSS stickers. The blue one says:
Desh hamein deta hai sab kuch, ham bhi kuch dena seekhen!
Rashtrabhakti ka bhav jagayen, dharam, sanskriti aur desh bachayen.
Hindu ghata, desh banta; Hindu jagega, desh jagega.
When I wake the next morning, our Kutchi fellow-travellers have torn several of the stickers. Curiously, only -- only and all -- the yellow ones are torn.
Yes, call me a hopeless optimist. But I take this as a sign that -- its heroic work in quake-torn Kutch notwithstanding -- folks are tiring of the simple equation the RSS makes between Hinduism and India.
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