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Home > News > Columnists > Dilip D'Souza

Marks of Disgrace

December 06, 2002

Remember the Ambassador, that venerable stalwart of India's auto industry? If you do, you may also remember that it came in incremental "Marks". Every few years, its maker would change the grill, or the taillights, or the odometer, and trot the car out with a new Mark; and for additional impact, the Mark numbers were always in Roman numerals. So we went, Mark I to Mark II and up, all the way to Mark VI, which is where the Marks ran out. I think. Or maybe the grills ran out.

Even if the grill looked different, nothing of significance changed from one Mark to another. Not the engine, not the body, nothing. In fact, I am certain the sole change between Mark V and Mark VI was that the "V" became "VI".

December is a good time to remember the Ambassador, because this is when some other marks tick over. Like, it's eighteen years this week since a cloud of gas whispered death to thousands of residents of Bhopal, and left
thousands more lives in ruin. Like, it's ten years this week since a mosque was torn down by a mob in Ayodhya, setting off weeks of loot and murder and rioting in my city and across my country.

The anniversaries have piled up. But if you search for anything of significance that has changed since those events happened -- you know, things like justice, punishment, reconciliation -- you'd be hard pressed.

So you settle for the ticking over of the years. Eight becomes nine becomes seventeen becomes eighteen. V becomes VI. The arithmetic isn't difficult, I assure you, so come back again next year. (Take me: this week a year ago,
what did I write about? Bhopal and Ayodhya).

When I went some months ago to Bhopal's JP Nagar, across the street from the Union Carbide plant and so first caressed by the gas back in 1984, I was thinking of years that pass, Ambys that evolve. So may years later, would people really remember that night?

Partap, half-blinded by the gas, had no trouble remembering. "It was as if someone was roasting chillis," he said, an analogy most gas-affected Bhopalis make to explain the creeping horror they woke to. That was the aroma they inhaled as 27 tonnes of gas drifted silently on the night breeze. Imagine that, 27 trucks -- or Ambassadors of indeterminate Mark -- hanging in the air. JP Nagar residents began to run for their lives, stumbling over neighbours who dropped dead as they ran. "People lost control of their bodies," said one account of the night, going on to more explicit description:

Urine and faeces ran down their legs. Some began vomiting
uncontrollably. Others were wracked with seizures and fell dead. The
gases irritated people's lungs into producing so much fluid that their
lungs were filled with it, "drowning" them in their own body fluids.

Horribly as they died, they died. Lucky for them, those left behind sometimes say. Through five, then six, ten and now eighteen years, survivors and victims' families in Bhopal have scrabbled for justice and compensation, struggled to pay for treatment for continuing gas-caused illness. Struggled to keep an indifferent administration and country interested in the multiple ways they have suffered.

Of late, there's new trouble to cope with. The water in the wells of JP Nagar, the water they drew to bathe in and drink, is contaminated with seeping toxics from the abandoned but not emptied plant. A security guard
at the site -- what are they protecting? -- himself told me I could not enter because large quantities of chemicals are stored in the plant. "The soil itself", he said matter-of-factly, "is now poisonous."

But don't take the guard's word for it. In a 1999 survey, Greenpeace researchers found evidence of "general contamination of the site and immediate surroundings with chemicals arising either from [plant operation or] ongoing release of chemicals from materials ... dumped or stored on site."

Last week, some of the people who have to live with indifference that has turned to poisoned water held a demonstration on the plant site, in an effort to ask you to pay attention. The Bhopal police arrived and actually
thrashed them. For the audacity to stage a protest in the grounds of the rusting hulk that once killed sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, the police thrashed these victims of a deadly gas.

Indifference turns to poison turns to being belaboured. Oh yes. Like V changes, inexorably, to VI.

On January 20, 1993, well before rioting ended in Bombay, I went to JJ Hospital to speak to some of its victims. I was part of a team that visited affected areas of the city and later compiled a report on the riots. It was not my first visit to JJ during the riots. It would not be my last.

I met several injured victims that day: men and women who had been attacked by mobs or shot by the police. Almost more than the pain of their injuries, they wore an air of bewilderment at what had happened to them; at the
madness that had settled, Bhopal gas-like, on this city where they had made their lives.

One, in particular, has remained in my mind these ten years.

He was a 22-year-old called Pappu, a cable televisionoperator working in Girgaum. Based on the notes I took while speaking to him, I wrote this paragraph for the report I mentioned (Bombay's Shame: A Report on Bombay Riots, Ekta Samiti, 1993):

Pappu is from Azamgarh in UP. In October 1992, he came to Bombay (his
aunt lives in Dahisar) to look for work. He has been working for a
cable televisionfirm since then, installing cables in buildings. He is Hindu.
On January 10th, at 8 am, Pappu went to Kamathipura to buy some
cigarettes. About 12 Hindu boys surrounded him and asked him his name.
When he told them, they began to assault him with knives and choppers.
Pappu ran to a private car and asked the driver for help; the driver
took him to JJ Hospital. He says several policemen watched him being
attacked but took no action. Pappu plans to return to Azamgarh as he is
too scared to continue living in Bombay.

I heard a lot of harrowing tales that day at JJ Hospital. Pappu's was just one more. But in some ways, his story seemed to me to capture the essence of the riots.

Most other victims were Muslims attacked by Hindus or Hindus assaulted by Muslims -- horrifying, but at least in line with the twisted logic of those weeks. But Pappu was, on the face of it, a senseless instance of the violence. He was a Hindu attacked by other Hindus.

Why, you ask? Because of a little detail I have not told you yet. Because Pappu wore a beard that made him "look like a Muslim." Because Pappu wore that beard, Pappu was sliced with swords.

Ten years ago, that was how depraved and senseless his city had become. To the point where hair on a young face invited murder.

To me, that senselessness said things about the tragic perversity of the riots. It said things about what set off the riots: the destruction of that mosque this week ten years ago. It told the truth about the claims of honour and national redemption that were made for that destruction: that all it really amounted to was bloodshed and disgrace.

In these ten years, I have often found myself wishing this particular senselessness had got more attention. Because I think if it had, there would have been more questions about all that made us turn on each other in this vicious, but vacuous, way. Maybe we would have seen the slaughter for what it was: not Hindus and Muslims killing each other for weeks on end, but Indians killing other Indians. And that -- Indians dying at other Indians' hands -- shames us.

It shames us still. Because while the anniversaries pile up, we have not found the wherewithal to punish one significant figure from that time. Not just "boys" like those who attacked Pappu, but the Imams and Hriday Samrats who drove them to their crimes, whose intransigence and rabble-rousing brought a country -- my country -- to its knees. Whose hatred caused a repeat, every bit as horrific, this year in Gujarat.

Yes, the anniversaries pile up. The arithmetic is simple indeed. V changes to VI. Bombay changes to Gujarat. And I dread the coming of Mark VII.

Dilip D'Souza


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