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February 17, 1998


Dilip D'Souza

I Want My Normalcy

There's this claim that's getting plenty of air time, as the election creeps ever closer. It was empty right from the start; but with smooth, brazen and very diligent repetition, it has gained a certain currency. In Maharashtra, we listen to Joshi and Thackeray, Munde and Mahajan, repeating it every chance they get. Outside the glittering realm of Shivshahi, Kalyan Singh and Advani, Vajpayee and Malkani, among others, sing the same mellifluous theme.

As that ungrammatical but spirited band from Oklahoma, The Tractors, might say of the tune: "This am the way it goes ... 2, 3, 4: There have been no communal riots in the states ruled by the Sena and BJP."

Ms Poonam Voter is supposed to find this lack of riots such a stellar achievement that she will leap to vote for the parties these gentlemen represent. Well, Poonam-didi, if the tune grabs you in the gut, you must certainly put your stamp on its composers's respective symbols -- do it many times, won't you? -- when you peruse your ballot paper this month. But if you possess, like most people do, something more than fragrant dabs of mango chutney masquerading as brains, you might realise something: this claim is no different from claiming that the sun rises every day. And let's face it: nobody gets a prize because the sun rises.

You see, Messrs Mahajan, Joshi, Advani and pals, it's supposed to be that way! A life free of rioting is only the normal course of things, just as the sun coming up in the East every morning is only the normal course of things. The BJP and Shiv Sena can ask for no credit for either. It's a sign of how low our expectations have been driven that these leaders can sing us this siren song and have it applauded as a profound accomplishment. I can see it now: soon we will be asked to vote for the Sena or BJP because all through the years they have wielded power wherever, the sun has risen without fuss every day.

It's hard to believe, I know, but there actually was a time when we thought riots were abnormal. Since we did, we also believed their absence was perfectly normal. Then, we might have recognised and applauded real achievements by our elected governments -- or demanded them, at least. Housing for 4 million slum dwellers in Bombay, perhaps; a real resolution -- not just words -- to the pitiful condition of Kashmiri Pandits, maybe; a definite dent in illiteracy among women, why not?

Now achievements like those would be quite out of the ordinary. But today, we have electoral aspirants who want us to pat them on their backs for the merely mundane.

Of course, I'm not trying to make out that a return to normalcy is unworthy of applause, or votes. Not at all. If you were able to bring normal times -- truly normal, peaceful times -- back to Algeria, for example, you would deserve and get the gratitude of millions. For that country is afflicted with a murderously intractable problem. No doubt about it, peace there would be an accomplishment.

But here, the claims of normalcy, of no riots, are just lies. And in more than one way.

For one thing, who are the people making this claim? Several citizens's inquiries after the 1992-1993 riots --The Peoples Verdictby retired Justices Daud and Suresh was only the most prominent among them -- spelled out the role the Sena and the BJP played in those weeks, besides the shameful intrigues Congressmen Sharad Pawar and Sudhakar Naik were up to. Sena politicians like Pramod Navalkar told the press without any particular pangs of conscience that their "boys" were out there rioting. All through that time, Thackeray's ugly, provocative writings inflamed passions and instigated violence.

Today, it's these men who shout from behind their Z-grade security that we are back to normal. I've tried swallowing that, but it invariably induces some serious gagging.

Gagging apart, there's also the question of what kind of normalcy we are talking about. The vast majority of those rioters, looters and murderers have not been made to pay for their crimes five years ago; nor is there even one police officer who has been brought to book for his misdeeds. Cases against Sena politicians like Thackeray and Sarpotdar have been withdrawn, not that they were being pursued with any vigour anyway. Pretty much all those who should be facing the law for their riot-related crimes are out mingling with the rest of the city; some are even running for election.

Meanwhile, the families of the people slaughtered, instead of expecting justice, must satisfy themselves with the bland announcement that under Sena-BJP rule, all is normal once more. Even if the killers of their loved ones roam freely. Some normalcy, this.

And what of the notion that there has been no rioting between the religions in Sena/BJP-ruled states? If true, it would be commendable. But it isn't, so it isn't.

Remember the riot that started it all? The day-long demolition orgy in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992? Glad you do. Well, Ayodhya is in Uttar Pradesh, which was under BJP rule at the time. Now when over two hundred thousand men gather and use crowbars and sundry other implements of destruction to tear down an edifice in open defiance of an order from the Supreme Court; when they beat up reporters and photographers; when they loot and burn houses and shops; when obscene songs and hate-filled speeches fill the air; when people are killed: when all these things happen, that's rioting whichever way you look at it.

If any other party had been in charge of UP then, the BJP itself would have called what happened that day a riot. But since the BJP was in power, either its faithful pretend that there was no mosque there at all, or they say the whole deplorable thing was just an "incident". You call riots "incidents" and presto! There were no riots!

In any case, you don't have to wander all the way to Ayodhya, December 1992, to find rioting under the Sena and the BJP. You need only look at everybody's beloved Shivshahi itself.

In 1996 alone, there were three Hindu-Muslim riots in Maharashtra: in Shrivardhan (June 6), Junnar (September 26) and Pen (September 28). In Shrivardhan, 12 people were injured and two platoons of State Reserve Police had to be called in to control the situation. In Junnar, about two hundred people were rounded up after shops had been looted, vehicles burned and several people injured in stone throwing.

Pen saw three people die in firing by the police, two more stabbed to death by rioters, and extensive damage to property, all in rioting that even spilled over into nearby villages. In all three cases, months of deliberate poisoning of the relations between Hindus and Muslims contributed to the rioting.

Certainly, none of these riots, and none of the other smaller clashes between Hindus and Muslims over the past three years, spiralled into the kind of horror we saw in Bombay. Still, they tell the truth about the "no riots" claim: it is a lie. That's all.

Is it conceivable that there are people who would agree that killers must not be punished and that things are normal even when they remain unpunished? That there are people who would say there have been no riots when there have been riots? Emphatically yes, on both counts: and several of those people are asking for our votes on the basis of these prevarications.

Which is why I'm talking about those who can still be honest with themselves. I'm talking about you.

Can you, being true to yourself, accept that riot criminals should escape justice? If you cannot, you will know that simply saying things are normal again does not make them that way. Simply saying there have been no communal riots means nothing. If Sena and BJP leaders truly wanted to make such a claim, they would have taken steps to ensure there will be no more riots. They would have gone after the guilty.

But they show not the slightest inclination to do that. Now Poonam, that's normal.

Dilip D'Souza


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