May 4, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

George tells the 'truth'

In 'Countdown', his essay written after the 1998 Pokhran bombs, Amitav Ghosh's conversations with George Fernandes paint Fernandes as a tortured, pathetic figure. To some, that must have come as a surprise. Because this is the jaunty hero of the Baroda dynamite case -- in that famous photograph, he wears a winning, defiant smile as he is led off to jail -- and innumerable other political flashpoints. The same man, but in 'Countdown', nearly impossible to recognise.

To Ghosh, Fernandes makes statements like this: "[T]his country is cursed to put up with a leadership that has chosen to sell it for their own personal aggrandizement." Or like this: "Everyone in India knows what the challenges are. But nobody is prepared to stand up and say that these are the challenges and we must face up to them. Nobody is prepared to accept a disciplined life." Or like this: "I tried many doors. I went to the BJP only when all other doors were closed. I was facing a wall. There was nowhere else to go."

Or like this: "There are no Indians left."

Yet for all his evident sorrow and introspection, and despite an idealism of sorts that Ghosh thinks still clings to the man's khadi kurtas, Fernandes leaves Ghosh with the impression that "what had prevailed finally [with him] was vanity, the sheer vanity of power". And so the comment about personal aggrandizement seemed to Ghosh "like a self-indictment ... in acknowledgement of the fact that he had abandoned all his most dearly held convictions in embarking on this, the most shameful episode of his career".

The episode, of course, being Fernandes's marriage to the BJP and their joint honeymoon with the bomb.

The shame, of course, has just got compounded.

Participating in the recent debate in Parliament about the tragedy in Gujarat, leading up to a test of confidence in his government, Fernandes said some things that left even people who are already disillusioned with him slack-jawed in astonishment. There was "nothing new" in all that had happened in Gujarat, he said. "Are the killings, murders and rapes taking place for the first time in the country? Nothing different is happening in Gujarat than whatever happened in the country during [the] past 54 years." In particular, he pointed out, it happened in Delhi in 1984.

"A pregnant woman's stomach being slit, a daughter being raped in front of her mother," said our own defence minister in our own Parliament, "aren't new things" [quotes from The Indian Express, May 2].

What depths has this man plumbed? How much lower can he sink? In clinging to his spot in power, is there no principle, value, moral, scruple he will not throw out with the trash? Or did he never have any to begin with? Is his facade of principle and idealism, carefully constructed over half a century, just that? A facade? And now that's to be thrown out too?

It takes different forms, this effort by the Parivar's sullen supporters to defend the indefensible. George Fernandes's is just one. While you digest his proclamations, consider a couple of others.

On April 22, the ministry of external affairs put on its Web site an entire 'Slide Show' called The Present Situation in Gujarat -- The Facts. 55 slides, the first few of which have pictures of the train in Godhra and at least two mentions of the 58 passengers who were burned to death in it by "a mob of about 5,000 (sic) miscreants". 55 slides, and apart from the Godhra atrocity and "145 people killed in police firing in (sic) all over the state" (Slide 24), there is not a single mention of any other deaths anywhere in Gujarat. Not one.

That very careful omission is repeated in an ad -- though nowhere is it actually called an ad -- across pages 32-33 in the May 6 issue of India Today: "Gujarat: Facts & Reality." Read it to learn that "58 passengers aboard the Sabarmati Express died in Godhra". And that "as many as 168 persons have died in police firing so far". But you guessed it: all through pages 32-33, there is not a single mention of any other deaths anywhere in Gujarat. Not one.

"The Facts", "The Reality", in Gujarat. Laid out for you. Why should they have place for the hundreds of ordinary Gujaratis who have been slaughtered by mobs since the end of February?

This India Today ad also notes that Gujarat is "BACK TO NORMAL". One sign of that, we learn, is that "in Ahmedabad 47.74 lakh cheques involving Rs 25,531 crore were cleared between March 1 and April 15, 2002". Go back to the MEA Web site, where these numbers are repeated in the April 24 Latest Update on Gujarat situation. There we learn from a table that in January 2002, 35.61 lakh cheques (Rs 17,724 crore) were cleared; in February 2002, 32.56 lakh (16,754 crore) and in March-April (up to April 15), yes, 47.74 lakh (25,531 crore).

"It can be seen," the MEA concludes, "that the transaction value has more or less remained stable and the figures for April are indeed going up." Right, you think: 35.61, 32.56, then 47.74 -- going up indeed. Bravo!

Except that the 47.74 and 25,531 figures, by these authorities' own admission, is for one-and-a-half months. Divide by 1.5 to get 31.83 and 17,021: at best, comparable to January and February, and really slightly worse (35.61, 32.56, then 31.83).

Yes indeed, the Gujarat government chose this ham-fisted way -- this comparison between a month's figures and a month-and-half's figures -- to try to convince us that all's BACK TO NORMAL. They were ham-fisted enough to actually admit it, confident that none of us readers would so much as think about what these numbers mean.

Actually, by themselves those monthly figures would have made the case that cheque clearings were at about the same level in March. Why then did these authorities feel the need to inflate them? Because they firmly believe that "Facts & Reality" and "Latest Updates" about Gujarat, if put out for public consumption, are best comprised of half-truths. (Sometimes, even a one-and-half truth). Put them on the official MEA Web site, in an ad that is meant to look like news -- and voila! Pretty soon, half-truths acquire the ring of truth.

Yet when you stumble onto these transparent and bumbling efforts to paper over a great tragedy, they themselves tell the tale: things are really not back to normal. For if they were the Gujarat government would not need to resort to buffoonery with figures. Nor to so carefully omit mention of hundreds of murders that the omission itself shouts about them loudest of all.

Now, in the light of these MEA/Gujarat government perversions of truth, return to Fernandes's parliamentary musings. Then his crude sugar-coating of this poisoned pill we have had to swallow -- the savagery our fellow citizens, whatever their religion, have exhibited in Gujarat -- takes on whole new meaning.

For if this man who still claims principles says, oh, don't worry about these things in Gujarat, they happen everywhere, all the time; if he tells us that rapes are just everyday happenings; if he can gloss over slicing open a pregnant woman as "nothing new" -- why, here we are, we are BACK TO NORMAL. Even better, savagery itself is normal. Or NORMAL.

What Fernandes wants to do, because above all else he wants to continue as defence minister for a while longer, is to take away the greatest weapon we ordinary citizens have: our outrage. He knows that widespread disgust over the horrors of Gujarat can, potentially, throw him and his government out just as surely as he has thrown out his famous idealism and values. Therefore his only option is to strip us of that outrage.

I don't know of too many things that I would consider worse than cutting open a pregnant woman and spearing her foetus. But one, for sure, is the idea that -- instead of a vicious crime that horrifies us, whose perpetrators must be punished -- it's just the usual. That we must see it that way.

That's where Fernandes wants to take us. To a place where figures are slyly cooked, crimes coyly winked at, and men like Fernandes become half-men. To that place where Hannah Arendt stumbled upon the sheer, bland, dreary, even bumbling 'banality of evil'.

The Sabarmati in Flames: Complete coverage of the carnage in Gujarat

Dilip D'Souza

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