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The Tyson Who Didn't Fight Lewis
March 07, 2003
February 27, a year since the terror of Godhra and the massacres that followed. On the stroke of 530 pm, the small band of Vishwa Hindu Parishad faithful arranged themselves on the Churchgate steps, stood their mike to one side, carefully positioned their loudspeaker, unfurled saffron flags and a large banner, produced posters and placards.
"Shri Ram mandir banao, aatankwad mitao" ("Make the Shri Ram temple, destroy terrorism"), I read on one; "Kasam Ram ki khatein hain, mandir bhavya banayenge" ("We swear by Ram that we will build a glorious temple") was another.
They ranged from a youth in his 20s to an old man in his 60s or 70s. All looked like your typical Churchgate rush-hour commuters, simple clothes in pale colours, humdrum-to-a-fault Bombayites like everyone else in view. When they had finished their preparations, a pregnant moment passed, a sort of pause for a deep breath.
The show began.
A 35-ish man -- loose blue shirt, leather chappals -- stepped to the mike. In a calm, matter-of-fact voice, he began speaking. Ten minutes later, he was done, and was replaced by an older man in white shirt and dhoti, glasses and a mark on his forehead. He spoke for another twenty minutes. Between them, they listed the litany anyone even mildly familiar with the VHP would know about: build the temple THERE, hand over the land, why didn't people adequately condemn the Godhra murders, why were pilgrims on their way back from a holy spot murdered, what would happen if the same were done to Haj pilgrims, more in that vein.
An occasional rushing commuter stopped to listen; most didn't. From the road beyond the pavement, a balding man leaned through the fence and called: "But it's your government! Why don't you ask them about all this?" They ignored him, but his was the sole voiced reaction they got. Which was not really a reflection of the worth of whatever they were saying, but instead of the general and perpetual Bombay hurry. This is the fate of most Churchgate rush-hour demonstrations. I could have told these guys. On the other hand, they probably already knew.
Meanwhile, inside the station concourse itself, immediately behind these guys, a different demonstration was getting underway. As the crowds swirled around them, a number of women stood around with placards, held up posters, or handed out leaflets. 'Insaaniyat,' many of the signs said, not just because the women had gathered under the loose umbrella of the group that's goes by that name, but also because they yearned for a return of just that: insaaniyat, or humanity. Other signs they had said 'No more blood,' 'Peace in Gujarat' and such like.
The two demonstrations carried on side by side for a while. I wandered from one to the other, writing down what the signs said. But of course, the calm was deceptive. It couldn't last. It didn't.
Suddenly, a small knot had formed around one of the women; it grew quickly into a large crowd filled with noise and gesticulation. Seeing what was happening in the concourse, the VHP men had closed up their meeting and moved inside. They found many additional supporters and began arguing with the women. For strength, the women gathered in one spot. The men shouted at them, pointed, swore, harangued, faces soon contorting in anger. Several reached out and grabbed posters from the women on the fringes, tore them up and stamped on them. This prompted one of the women to hold high her poster. White on black, it proclaimed: 'Violence brings violence; peace brings peace.' Visible throughout the station.
But these were words which, for reasons unclear, the men did not want to hear. It got them even more frenzied. The loudest among the VHP lot -- a big, burly, sweating man in a moustache and pale blue shirt -- saw it, pointed angrily, shouted some more, shook his finger, worked his way around the crowd till he was within reach, leaped to grab it and ripped it to shreds. That wasn't enough. To applause from his colleagues, he stamped on the pieces. That wasn't enough. To more applause, he knelt to pound at the fragments on the floor. Fragments that carried words like 'peace.'
'You are all Christian missionaries!' they were shouting, and 'Bharat Mata ki Jai!' and 'You have no culture!' ("sanskriti" is the word they used, over and over) and 'You Christians and Muslims are destroying this country!' and much more. Never mind the little detail that most of the women were Hindu.
By now, these uncultured, destructive, missionary women were backed up against one wall of the concourse. A thin line of policemen and policewomen separated them from their enraged abusers. The women were angry too, and shouted back spiritedly. But no, I didn't see any of them snatching away VHP posters and tearing them up and stamping on them and pounding them with infuriated fists.
Without warning, a stocky man pushed past the policemen, punched the smallest woman in the face, turned and ran. Helped along by the inspector present, who saw the punch happen a foot from his nose, who actually had the man in his hands for a moment, but who made no attempt to hold on to him. Pushed him on his fleeing way. The woman crumpled to the floor, though luckily she was more stunned than hurt. The others around her screamed in anger and frustration, pointing towards where the punching braveheart had disappeared. I made my way unobtrusively through the crowd for the next several minutes, searching for this cultured Mike Tyson. No luck. He must have boarded the first train out and gone.
So much for culture.
After that, I simply stood near the women. Not participating in their discussions with the police, not listening to the hectoring from the VHP faithful, just making sure my body stood as an obstacle, even if a minor one, to any other Tyson who wanted to punch the few women nearest me. At my shoulder, one of the onlookers whispered: "why are they so angry about these signs that say 'humanity'"? Another said: "they must be Shiv Sena supporters, those guys are only good for shouting and abusing."
How was this going to end? The police had shown no interest in -- gumption for? -- disciplining the undoubted aggressor of the two sides: the shouting men. Not even when one of them hit a woman. This unwillingness was something the VHP men clearly knew well, and counted on: shout enough, be hostile enough, abuse enough, push and shove enough -- and the police won't stand up to this bullying. Sure enough, the inspector and his troops spent most of their time facing the women, urging them to leave. Not something the women wanted to do; after all, it wasn't them that turned two peaceful meetings into this vulgar fracas.
Yet in the end they did turn and walk out of the station. To jeers and applause from the men. So much, again, for culture. Still, the women had distributed nearly 5,000 leaflets. They had made their point.
I waited to see that the last one left, then walked out right behind them. Tap on my shoulder. One of the loudest shouters, a tall man with a moustache, asked me what I did for a living. When I told him, he said: "No, you are lying, you are a Christian missionary." I don't have to listen to this, I thought to myself, turned and walked off to buy a paper. Done with that, I found him at my shoulder, haranguing me again: "You are a Christian missionary!"
Forty or fifty people quickly surrounded me, many yelling angry abuse. To my astonishment one on my right even addressed me by name. How did he know? But there was little time to wonder. The tall man went on: "What culture were you born in? What culture will you die in? You people are destroying India! Do you dare to come meet me and discuss all this?"
"Sure," I said. "You give me your phone number, I'll give you mine, and let's meet." Several others shouted from the crowd: "Why were you insulting Hinduism in there?" "Tell me exactly how I did that," I replied, which got no response. Went back to writing down phone numbers. Gave mine to the tall man who turned out to be a VHP secretary. "I'm very willing to come listen to you, and I will gladly listen," I told him. "But you have to promise to listen to me in turn."
"Yes, yes!" he said. "Of course!"
I pushed through the crowd and walked out to Marine Drive. Sat on the wall, nerves on edge. Much later, it struck me: unnerving as the climax of this whole ugly episode was, hard as it was to stand there alone, surrounded by irate men accusing me of 'insulting' their religion and destroying India, at least I seemed to have served as the lightning rod that allowed the women to go their way without junior-league Tysons aiming punches at them.
Not that it made me feel any better.
A few days later, I called. The secretary and I plan to meet.
If you would like to send me your thoughts directly, you can still do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alumni of BITS Pilani (like me) are meeting in Bombay on March 8. For details, send a note to email@example.com