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April 20, 2002
Bet you didn't know: Traitors are traitors
One day in 1992, Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena wrote this in his party newspaper Saamna: "Pakistan need not cross the borders and attack India. 250 million Muslims in India will stage an armed insurrection. They form one of Pakistan's seven atomic bombs."
Given that India has about half that many Muslims -- some 120 million - it was clear to anyone who read this what Thackeray was saying. All Muslims in India, he meant, were loyal to Pakistan and thus traitors to India.
As many people, including some of our most eminent legal minds, pointed out, this was an obvious violation of section 153B of the Indian Penal Code. That section reads: "Whoever, by words either spoken or written, makes any imputation that any class of people cannot, by reason of their being members of any religious group, bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India ... shall be punished with imprisonment up to three years or fine or both."
In fact, it seems to me that you don't need the opinions of eminent legal minds to know that Thackeray's statement violates section 153B. Anyone who reads it will know that it does. You can't pronounce that all members of a given religion are traitorous; but Thackeray did just that, with Muslims.
Citing this and other Thackeray writings in Saamna, a petition was filed in the Bombay high court in April 1993. It asked the court to direct the government to take action against Thackeray for these violations of section 153B.
While the case was being heard in late 1994, the Shiv Sena counsel told the court several times that Thackeray had not meant "all" Indian Muslims when he wrote "250 million Muslims in India". He had meant only "anti-national" Muslims. The judges, M L Dudhat and G R Majithia, pounced on this and repeated it in their final judgment. Since Thackeray was referring only to "anti-national" Muslims, they held, this could not be considered an objectionable statement.
And that 250 million figure? Oh, that was a mere "typo", said their Wise and Honourable Worships.
Consider what happened here. Thackeray deliberately tells his readers that all Muslims are traitors. When challenged, he says that he really meant only those Muslims who are traitors: that in effect, he is making the meaningless claim that "all Muslims who are traitors are traitors". (All together now, let's applaud the rare insight: but why didn't he write it that way in the first place?) And a high court bench latches on to this pronto and dismisses the case.
But of course, Thackeray's original purpose has been achieved: he has put the impression of traitorous Muslims in his readers' minds.
That's Thackeray for you: makes his pronouncements, but when challenged, swiftly finds the sly way to deny them, duck responsibility for them. Yes, that's Thackeray. Somehow, you'd think we might expect more from a prime minister.
In Panaji only days ago, before an audience of BJP stable-mates, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had things to say about the recent killings in Gujarat that were not very different from Thackeray's pronouncement in 1992. "Wherever Muslims are living," our PM proclaimed, "they don't want to live in harmony. They don't mix with society. They are not interested in living in peace" [quoted by Sheela Bhatt on rediff.com, April 12, 2002; there have been many other reports on this].
Challenged by the press and others about this statement, the prime minister quickly "clarified" that he really meant only those Muslims who are "jihadis": the terrorists who claim they are fighting a holy war when they launch murderous assaults on Indians. In effect, he says he made the meaningless claim that "Muslim terrorists don't want to live in harmony and peace". (Well now, there's a revelation indeed: but why didn't he say it that way in the first place?)
Like with Thackeray, Vajpayee's original purpose has been achieved: he has put the impression of violent Muslims, whom nobody can get along with, into peoples' minds. Doing so, he performs the old trick that so appeals to small men with much to answer for, the world over: blame the victim. That Muslims were slaughtered in hundreds across Gujarat is, and our PM wants us to believe so, really just their fault. "They don't want to live in harmony", after all.
Vajpayee bristles, as he should, as we all do, when people make insinuations about how the karsevaks on that train in Godhra invited trouble on their heads. We bristle, because nothing remotely justifies that massacre. But the same Vajpayee feels no compunction pronouncing that Muslims don't want to live in peace: therefore insinuating that they brought all the nauseating violence they suffered, their own slaughter, on their own heads.
So when I heard what this same Vajpayee said, when I understood just what this prime minister wanted me to believe, I remembered some of that violence.
In a relief camp in Godhra, I met 22-year-old Zohra from the village of Pandarvada, 30km away. "When the mob came for us," she told me, "we ran into the fields and hid." The sarpanch (village head) actually told them to stay there while the mob rampaged, that it would be his responsibility to bring them water and food until they could return home. Only, he seems to have gone straight to the mob and directed them to the fields. "They came and set fire to the crop," Zohra said, now starting to sob. As they fled the burning fields, the mob caught and killed them. The murderers ran Zohra's husband through with swords; when she tried to help him, they assaulted her and left her for dead.
Fatima, another young widow who saw her husband die; a thin 10-year-old called Nurunissa; a strapping teen called Yakub; several others at the camp from that same village: they all told the same story of hiding in fields, then fleeing from burning crops into the clutches of a slavering mob.
All, no doubt, because Zohra and Fatima and Nurunissa and Yakub "are not interested in living in peace".
I spoke to Bilkees, a 24-year-old from the village of Randhikpura. In front of her, her three-year-old daughter and her sister's two-day-old child were sliced into bits that were then flung about her. Next, the men who did this -- a dozen, she thinks -- set upon her and raped her. The caretakers at the camp told me she was now pregnant from those rapes. But Bilkees seemed beyond knowing, or caring. She sat there with a vacant, drained stare that upset me infinitely more than if she had simply -- simply! -- wept.
And this horror happened to Bilkees, no doubt, because she didn't "mix with society".
These are just two tales from just one camp I visited. From several other people at that camp and at another in Ahmedabad, I heard many more grisly accounts like these. Multiply my experience hundreds of times, even thousands, and you begin to understand the scale of suffering that's been inflicted on Muslims across Gujarat.
And that suffering happened, a prime minister tells a nation, because "wherever Muslims are living, they don't want to live in harmony".
What's more, he has learned well from Thackeray: make pronouncements, then swiftly find ways to deny them, deny responsibility for them.
But unlike Thackeray, Vajpayee is a prime minister. He is in that post because people expect something more from him than slipperiness and denial. Because they expect him to know the meaning of responsibility. Because he has a duty to the people -- all the people -- of this country.
Clearly, all that is too much to expect from this prime minister. Which shames him and -- maybe more than the tragedies of Godhra and Gujarat -- shames us all.
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