Home > News > Columnists > Dilip D'Souza
Rust Lies Everywhere
March 29, 2003
The entire town seems to be dusted with rust. The roads, such as they are, are reddish-brown; the cars and trucks and buses are covered with it, as are the buildings and Dante-esque pieces of machinery; the runny-nosed kids in the slum anganwadi [creche] look like they have it in their hair and clothes. After a few minutes here, so do you.
This is iron-mining heartland, the town of Joda in the northern reaches of Keonjhar district in Orissa. The rust-coloured grime that comes from iron ore depresses. The conditions in which the mine labourers live depresses. Yet look beyond the grime and this is actually a lovely corner of India.
Gentle hills -- though some of them are actually enormous heaps of debris from the mining -- clear air if you can climb above the town, butterflies, a brilliant view of Kritika hanging high in the night sky, and the evening fragrance of champa: this might have been a classic Indian hill-station.
I travel up here and lose touch with the world outside. Partly, that's because I haven't found where to get newspapers. Partly, it's because I ache for a break from Iraq and the World Cup post-mortems and everything else. Mostly, it's on purpose: I know how to get news if I want to, but I almost don't want to. I just want a couple of days to put my feet up and read without a care. Why a mining town to do that? Then again, why not?
But of course, that plan crumbles away. Someone switches on a television and we are back in touch with sordidness that lies beyond the butterflies. In quick time, in this remote place so far removed from my usual haunts, I learn about how war in Iraq seems to be degenerating into a grinding quagmire. That over, I learn about the murders of 24 more innocent Kashmiris. I learn that even in Joda, I cannot leave behind these things.
Haven't we seen and felt it all before? How many more times? The gut-wrenching sadness of devastated relatives. The line of bodies under sheets. The rage against Pakistan's machinations. The meaningless television mouthings and endless finger-pointings of ministers who know only those things. The futility of it all.
I feel saddened and sickened and angered by this latest massacre. Here in Joda, I am also fed to my teeth with feeling all that. In no particular order, I am sick of: the terrorists who kill defenceless human beings. The guys for whom this terrible tragedy is reason only to throw more abuse at favourite targets, no more and no less. The politicians and so-called mullahs in Pakistan who would have nothing on their resumes if they did not have Kashmir to fulminate over, who have blood on their hands because they do. The politicians here in India who are loud with blame for each other, and for Pakistan, but have been large fat zeroes in assuring security to Kashmiri Pandit lives, Indian lives.
I am sick of being sick. I feel I've said that before.
Yet where does that leave me? What's the use of feeling sick? Where do we go from here? We can all condemn these regular outrages all we want, but will that alone put a stop to them? Or will we have to find another way?
To me, there is only one answer, though it has various shades. There is only one way we will break out of this not-so-merry-go-round of killings and accusations and hatred that will only destroy us. No, it is not all-out war with Pakistan: after all, that is what the gatekeepers of the go-round, whether in India or Pakistan, want to spiral us towards. Nor is it some kind of homeland for Pandits: after all, given that the same zeroes will still be in charge, why should they be any more secure there?
This is the kernel of this answer I'm talking about: As long as Pandits see themselves, allow themselves to be painted as, uniquely victimised, these tragedies will continue. This is in no way to say that what has happened to them is not awful. It is. But the notion that it is the greatest tragedy the world, or India, has ever seen is just the kind of fodder that leaders gorge on. It lets them posture, it lets them blame, it lets them thump their puny chests. Yet it lets them get away without doing what even Pandits look to them to do, what they have not done for decades in this country: give us reasonable governance.
And this will keep Pandits as they are. Driven from their homes, vulnerable and miserable. Because leaders know that in that state, they remain useful political pawns, available on demand to advance one or the other political cause.
Take Farooq Abdullah, just one example. Outside Kashmir, mindful of political benefits, he would weep endlessly for Pandits, earning himself unthinking bravos. In Kashmir, just as mindful of political benefits, he would speak of how they could return only if they 'earned the goodwill of the majority community' in the state. Why? If Pandits are to return, they must do so on their own terms, on nobody's sufferance. Yet this is precisely the brand of rhetoric Pandits have had to live with for years.
Whether Rao or Vajpayee or Mufti or Thackeray or Farooq: ever notice how freely they pretend concern for Pandits, but how miserly they are with actual moves to actually restore Pandits their lives and dignity and homes?
"They have used our tears," a prominent Kashmiri Pandit told me some months ago. He was speaking specifically then of the Advani/Thackeray/Vajpayee shade of leaders, but we both knew he might have been speaking of all the other insipid shades too.
The point of all this is simple. When Pandits see their tragedy as part of the larger failure of governance in this country, when they see that it is the result of the same misrule that has saddled us with Naxalites, Godhra and insurgency in the Northeast -- that is when they, and we, will begin demanding better. The one heartening thing is that some of them are starting to see it that way. Last year, a group of Pandits spent time in the camps of riot victims in Ahmedabad, precisely because they saw their own suffering mirrored, and repeated, there.
It is not uniquely Hindus, nor Muslims, nor Dalits, nor Tamil Brahmins, nor Kashmiri Pandits, nor the migrant labourers in Joda, who have suffered in India, even if they find themselves leaders and writers who tell them so. Ironically, the very fact that nearly every community in the country can and does lay claim to being victimised beyond belief tells the truth: the real story is how Indian government has failed all its people.
And the only way Indian government can be forced to deliver instead is if Indians -- all Indians -- find common purpose in demanding governance. If we would rather stay in our own limited pockets, drowning in our own sorrows, we will all indeed drown. All.
Two dozen little kids surround me at the anganwadi in Joda. Next to me is 5-year-old Jharna Das, son of a couple that works in the mines. He has been seriously malnourished all his life; at 12 kilos today, he is just starting to rise out of that state. As I play with this tiny child, I am thinking too of the massacre in Kashmir. I live in a country -- and I would not live anywhere else -- I live in a country where both such massacres and such malnourishment are parts of everyday life. That's the tragedy I must come to terms with, must live with. Every day.
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