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After Mumbai, it's Gujarat

KALPANA SHARMA

Life might limp back to normal in Gujarat but it will not be the same again. The damage to a fractured society cannot be repaired overnight.


Gujarat burns ... violence in full flow.

I WRITE this column with a heavy heart and a sense of grief I have not felt in a long while. And the image that brings home the sense of loss and helplessness, is the photograph that appeared on the front pages of many of our newspapers — of a Muslim man, his eyes blinded by tears, begging the police to save him from a crazed mob. The picture was taken on March 1, a day that will live long in our collective memories as a day of shame — when Gujarat burned and hundreds of innocents were consumed in its flames.

I wake up wondering whether this man in the picture is alive — or whether he was one more victim in the revolting march of barbarity that overtook parts of the state of Gujarat for several days after February 27. Did he have a family? What did he do? The problem is that the media tells a story, and then forgets it. It flashes images, many of which haunt you. But then we do not know what followed that instant when the camera clicked.

Other images that I cannot erase from my memory were scenes on television. On March 1, one channel repeatedly showed people in the crowded walled city of Ahmedabad, where Hindus and Muslims have lived for decades within shouting distance of each other, deliberately throwing burning tyres and rags and stones at a house that clearly belonged to some Muslims. Even as the camera recorded this blatant act of arson, on the parapet sat a group of women, one of them nonchalantly dangling her legs, watching the tamasha.

What kind of people are these? How can women, who are supposed to be homemakers, watch without a tinge of discomfort such blatant acts of violence? Have we now become so insensitive that communities other than our own are not considered fellow human beings? What kind of values do these men and women pass on to their children?

Worse still are the stories we have read of the style of killing after the arson attack on the Sabarmati Express at Godhra which led to the death of 58 ram sevaks, including 25 women and 15 children. So if "they" torched 58, we will burn five times that number. That seemed to be the thinking behind the incendiary mobs that took to the streets with swords and sticks, and cans of kerosene. As Muslim families fled in panic, men, women, children, even infants, were surrounded, doused with kerosene and set on fire. The mob stood by and watched, as did the police. And all the while they chanted slogans in the name of their god and their religion. What kind of human beings are these that can resort to such barbarity? How do such people sleep at night?

But then, I think to myself, our society has specialised in this brand of barbarity. Have we not been burning our women within the confines of our homes, young women who have not brought enough dowry? Have we not punished women by pouring acid on them? Are we not well practiced in the art of using the cruellest and most brutal forms of violence to punish those we hate, those who fall out of line, those who dare to speak up? And yet we continue to delude ourselves that we are essentially a tolerant, non-violent society.

By the time this appears in print, perhaps most of the killings will have stopped. A Gujarat Government that does not deserve to be in office might continue to rule because its like-minded brethren, who rule us at the Centre, protect it. And life might "limp back to normal" as our newspapers love reporting.

But life will never be normal in Gujarat for a long time to come. As we know from the experience of the communal carnage in Mumbai in 1992-93, you can restore physical infrastructure but you cannot erase prejudice and memories, heal wounds and repair the damage of a fractured society overnight.

It has taken almost a decade for Mumbai to reach the point where people are making a deliberate choice to be restrained. This did not happen on its own. It is the result of concerted efforts by civil society groups to bring communities together, to reduce the justifiable distrust between the Muslims and the police who were openly partisan during the riots, and to promote secular values. It has not been easy, particularly with a political party like the Shiv Sena ever ready to scratch open wounds that are healing.

But on March 1, when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) called for a Maharashtra bandh, and on a day when disturbing television images of the terrible violence in Gujarat brought back chilling memories of the dark days of 1992-93, the citizens of Mumbai were not provoked. No one, barring bands of VHP supporters, took to the streets. The only other people on the streets were groups calling for peace and communal harmony.

One such person was Saib Jamal, a member of the Pydhonie mohalla peace committee. On March 1, when the rest of Mumbai stayed indoors, Ms. Jamal, dressed in a bright yellow printed nylon sari, kept a lonely vigil at a junction in the usually busy Mohammadali Road. With her was a white-haired and bearded man of an indeterminate age, who everyone called Chatriwala chacha (uncle who makes umbrellas). Sitting on a white plastic chair, a stone's throw away from the Minara Masjid, where a confrontation between Muslims and the Mumbai police on December 6, 1992 triggered off the first phase of the riots, Ms. Jamal represented a voice of sanity in a world gone mad.

"Of course people will be angry," she said, referring to the news about the ghastly attacks on people of her community in neighbouring Gujarat, "but they have learned to control it. If we do anything, people will suffer. And people are people. Why should we break down mandirs and masjids? Why can't we learn to talk to one another?"

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