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A tale of two janaazas

By Saisuresh Sivaswamy
Last updated on: August 04, 2015 15:23 IST
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays homage to A P J Abdul Kalam


'Does India's first majoritarian government that is hard-focused on economic development have it in it to provide the Muslim community the healing touch? On evidence available so far, I am not hopeful at all.'

'Yet, like the besieged community, I too find it impossible to abandon hope in the land's millennia-old syncretic traditions,' says Saisuresh Sivaswamy.

Former President A P J Abdul Kalam's funeral that was attended by thousands of ordinary people was an unforgettable experience. That a simple man holding no office of profit or influence could act as a catalyst for so many, is heartening in the cynical times we live in, in which everything has a motive, even friendship, love, relationships.

Dr Kalam's passing, and the manner in which all of India seemed to grieve at his passing, put paid to that negative thought. The message that traditional values like honesty, simplicity, humility still command national respect was my biggest takeaway from the two days I spent in the temple town of Rameswaram.

Digital maybe India is turning into, but thankfully it has not lost its heart in the bargain. At least, not yet. Evidence: The scores of Hindus who were praying alongside Muslims at Dr Kalam's funeral at the local mosque.

If that was the takeaway from Rameswaram, what is the takeaway from Mumbai where, a few hours later, the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts convict Yakub Memon was given a farewell, with estimates of the turnout at his funeral varying wildly between 5,000 and 20,000?

Funerals are a time for an honest display of sentiment. So what was the sentiment being expressed in Rameswaram and in Mumbai, both where the turnout was voluntary?

Many I spoke to in Rameswaram spoke of Dr Kalam inspiring them, filling them with hope of a better tomorrow. One youth's words were memorable: "He spoke to us, we college students who no one takes seriously. Tell us, who was the last political leader to visit campuses and talk to students? Only he did that, because he thought of us."

I did not attend Yakub Memon's janaaza, and what I am about to say will likely earn me a lifetime's abuse online, but I daresay that for many in the crowd Yakub Memon represented hope, however twisted it may seem.

How can a person who was convicted of and hanged for a heinous crime give hope? What kind of people would draw hope from such a man? What does it make them then, accomplices after the act, as a state governor has suggested?

I was among the fortunate Mumbaikars who lived through, and emerged unscathed from, the horrific months of late 1992-early 1993 when the city lurched through one incident of bloodletting after another. I feel the agony, the trauma, of the victims of the 1992-1993 riots, as I do the pain of the victims of the March 12, 1993 bombings.

The fact is, both these incidents of violence were inter-connected, and the longer we take to acknowledge this fact will create a wider rift into which elements like Yakub Memon and his ilk will step in to exploit sentiments.

Inter-connected these two violent orgies may be, but look at the contrasting path to justice for the respective victims. The State -- regardless of the political dispensation of the day, so let us not target one side alone for this -- seems to be in no hurry to bring to court, leave alone get them sentenced, one set of perpetrators, while another bunch has, following a protracted legal battle, found their just deserts.

A wise man had said, before you judge someone walk a mile in their shoes. How many of us who blithely condemn one set of citizens as being pro-Pakistan, terrorists, anti-national and worse, paused to ever think what it feels like to be a Muslim in a country like India? Leave alone a mile, have we walked even a few feet in their shoes?

The country like India is the crucial bit, so don't gloss over it. India is a lawful nation, with a justice system that we can genuinely be proud of. The Constitution, the nation's holiest book, proclaims us to be a secular, democratic nation, and we have universal suffrage, an honour that is denied in many nations in our neighbourhood.

Among all these glorious things about our nation, what gives a citizen a feeling of belonging is equal treatment before the law. So ask yourself, are Muslims being treated equally in the dispensation of justice in cases of violence? How many perpetrators of anti-Muslim rioting have you seen punished, go to jail?

How do you expect a Muslim to react when the villains of the 1993 Mumbai blasts from his community get punished, as they should be, while the leader of the political party which was indicted by a judicial panel probing the riots that preceded it, in which the victims were predominantly Muslim, gets a State funeral with grieving lakhs following his cortege?

If I was a Muslim, I'd despair at my plight in a glorious country that promises its citizens equal rights and equal treatment.

The crowd outside Yakub Memon's Mumbai home. Photograph: Hitesh Harisinghani/<em></em>


Yakub Memon's path was the wrong one, there can be no justification for violence against innocents, this cannot be part of any scripture or faith. Yet, in the absence of any remorse from the State to one set of violence, in the absence of any movement towards just recompense, for those wilting under the unfairness of it all, where will they go, who will they turn to? What will you do if you were to walk a mile in their shoes?

"Tumlog toh hamari sunte hi nahi ho, phir hum kahaan jaayen, hamari kaun sunega?" This was a plaintive cry from a friend whose nationalism and patriotism I can vouch for, in whose custody I will entrust my life. Yet, for such a person to ask this question, shows the depth of despair that pervades the second largest community in India.

"Yeh log sab aise hi hain, sab ko Pakistan bhejdo," was a person from the other side vituperating at what he felt was treason committed by some of Mumbai's Muslims by turning up at Yakub Memon's funeral. A common refrain, if you think about it, but this ignores one basic fact, having allowed years of poisonous propaganda calcify truth into macabre thought.

Our Muslims are our own, as Indian as you and me, and have as much to do with Pakistan as you and me.

So how do I read the Yakub janaaza?

Not as a battle cry against the State, but as a plaintive appeal for succour, for justice, for equal treatment as promised by the Constitution. It is a cry for help, for assistance, for understanding their pain. Are we even listening?

Indian Muslims are in despair, their trust in the State at an all-time low. They face discrimination in every walk of life and yet have not broken that compact they formed with India in August 1947, despite the various provocations within and without.

In my view, never before has the rift between communities been as wide as it is today. Who will step into this, with what disastrous consequence, is too nightmarish a thought to even ponder.

We have seen various so-called secular governments pause by the Muslim community only to pay lip service, and having secured their vote move on.

Does India's first majoritarian government that is hard-focused on economic development have it in it to provide the community the healing touch?

On evidence available so far, I am not hopeful at all.

Yet, like the besieged community, I too find it impossible to abandon hope in the land's millennia-old syncretic traditions.

IMAGES: TOP: Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays his respects to former President A P J Abdul Kalam at his funeral in Rameswaram, July 30. BELOW: The crowd outside Yakub Memon's Mumbai home, July 30. Photograph: Hitesh Harisinghani/

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy /