Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Here, There, Nowhere...

A response to Salil Tripathi - I

1984 and 2002 are not comparable.

Rarely, if ever, have I commented on an article penned by a fellow writer. That’s not because I do not react to what they have to say or I hold views with which I disagree as not worthy of comment. It’s largely because writers must be allowed to have their say (and space) and partly on account of the fact that I try not to bruise feelings. I am known for not bothering with vacuous niceties; it makes sense not to compound that shortcoming by penning my opinion on the views of other writers.

Yet, I feel compelled to react, in writing, to Mr Salil Tripathi’s column, ‘Here, There, Everywhere’, which appears in Mint, a Delhi-based newspaper, that has been published under the headline “Incredible impunity” on February 29, 2012. The strap line reads: “Of all the potential and credible contenders to be the next Prime Minister, the one least deserving is Narendra Modi.” It’s a free world and this country is still a democracy where freedom of thought, expression and speech, though circumscribed by restrictive laws, is not entirely absent from the public domain.

Hence, Mr Tripathi has the right to not only believe that it is his burden to decide for more than a billion resident Indians who is the most and least deserving contender to be the next Prime Minister but also express that belief in suitable words, which he has done in his column. My response to his views is not an attempt to shout him down or point out why he is wrong in saying what he says, but to posit a set of counter-views. I have no intention to play evangelist to a heathen or convert a non-believer; such lofty tasks are best left to those who mistake their writing desk for a pulpit and their chair as a pedestal.

Mr Tripathi is outraged that those who cannot stop raging over the retaliatory violence which followed the arson attack on coach S-6 of Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002, at Godhra, in which 58 Hindu men, women and children were killed, should be reminded of the anti-Sikh pogrom (it was definitely not a ‘riot’) of 1984 by those who are not impressed by the ceaseless cant of the self-righteous and sanctimonious army of the good and the virtuous. He sees this as a “despicable” attempt to equate the two unfortunate events (my words, not his) of our recent history. I would agree with him.

The hideous blood-letting by Congress goons that we witnessed in Delhi and several cities even before Mrs Indira Gandhi’s mortal remains were consigned to the flames cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be equated with the ghastly violence that gripped parts of Gujarat after the torching of coach S-6 of Sabarmati Express by a Muslim mob. There are three reasons why any attempt at comparing the two tragic events would be immoral and wrong.

First, the scale of violence is incomparable, as is the loss of lives and property. With the help of documentary evidence and those who fought (and are still fighting, although with receding hope) for justice for the victims of the anti-Sikh pogrom, I had computed the death toll to be not less than 4,733. Most of the deaths occurred in Delhi. In the post-Godhra riots, 1,044 people (not “thousands” as Mr Tripathi says) were killed: 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus. Lest I be accused of being callous, let me hasten to add that I believe every life matters and even one death is one too many.

Second, the Government of India, which was then (and still remains) responsible for maintaining law and order in Delhi, refused to lift a finger in admonition, leave alone crack down on mobs of Congress hoodlums led by Congress cronies of the party’s first family, for 72 hours. The Congress, and the Government which was then headed by Rajiv Gandhi (whom Mr Tripathi is keen to exonerate) wanted to “teach the Sikhs a lesson” -- the crime of a few individuals was converted into a collective crime deserving of collective retribution. As Rajiv Gandhi was to later declare, without the slightest trace of contrition or remorse, “When a giant tree falls, the earth below shakes.”

In contrast, Mr Narendra Modi decided to call in the Army when it became clear that the State police were incapable of controlling the rioting mobs. Nearly all the 254 Hindus who died in the violence were killed in police or Army firing. Not a single tormentor of Sikhs suffered so much as a lathi-blow in 1984. But let that pass. Could Mr Narendra Modi have done better? Could he have stamped out the riots before they exacted a terrible toll? Could he have ensured absolute peace and calm despite the provocation of the arson attack at Godhra?

These are questions that can be debated till the cows come home (the reference to cows, Mr Tripathi, is idiomatic and not an attempt to push what you would derisively call the ‘Hindutva agenda’) without reaching a conclusion that is acceptable to all. I’d say he tried his best; others like Mr Tripathi would say he didn’t. I would stand by my truth just as others would stand by their perceived truth. A cock fight of truths does not excite me.

We could, however, look at how ‘successful’ other Chief Ministers have been in controlling riots. For instance, we could look at riots in Uttar Pradesh, in Bihar, in Andhra Pradesh, in Maharashtra, in West Bengal, in Assam, in Tamil Nadu, in Kerala, in Karnataka, in Rajasthan, in Madhya Pradesh, in Odisha -- virtually every State of the Union. Each one of these riots is well documented. Each one of them resulted in a terrible loss of lives and property -- well, not really because often the victims were too poor to own any property.

I don’t know if Mr Tripathi has ever found himself trapped in a riot; I have seen the Jamshedpur riot of 1979 from close quarters. When blood-lust grips people, when insanity takes over, even shoot-at-sight orders don’t have the desired result. In Jamshedpur I saw tribal Christians looting the homes of Hindus and Muslims while they battled in the streets: What does that tell us of a riot?

In Maliana, the PAC was accused of playing a partisan role. Shall we then hold Vir Bahadur Singh, the then Congress Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, personally responsible for that massacre? Nellie wouldn’t have happened had Mrs Indira Gandhi not insisted on holding a disputed election in Assam. Should we then blame her for the massacre of 2,191 people, a vast number of them suckling infants? We could go further back in history and blame Jawaharlal Nehru for the Great Calcutta Killing of August 1946, for it could be argued, and convincingly so, that had it not been for his cussedness Mohammed Ali Jinnah wouldn't have called for Direct Action.

Third, no two incidents of communal violence are comparable. The causative factors differ as do local political, social and cultural dynamics. How can we then compare 1984 to 2002? More so when 1984 was a state-sponsored pogrom endorsed by the then Prime Minister of India, an endorsement that reverberated in his infamous declaration that the earth is bound to shake when a giant tree falls?

It would, then, be asked, why is 1984 mentioned at all in the context of 2002? Here’s the reason why: Intolerant ‘secularists’, sanctimonious leftists and self-righteous liberals who are unsparing in their criticism of Mr Narendra Modi take extraordinary care in steering clear of even remotely accusing the Congress, let alone Rajiv Gandhi, of complicity in the mind-numbing brutalities of 1984.

I hold Mr Tripathi in high esteem. Had I not done so I’d have been appalled by his exertions to exonerate Rajiv Gandhi who knew what was happening in Delhi and made it a point to turn a deaf ear to pitiful cries for help and groveling appeals by noted Sikh personalities.

Did he do so because he was in mourning?

Rajiv Gandhi’s grief and anguish did not quite stand in the way of his decision to take oath as Prime Minister the same day his mother was assassinated. That swearing in ceremony could have waited till the last rites were performed. But he chose not to wait lest the crown be snatched from him. Mr Pranab Mukherjee still pays the price for an indiscrete comment made earlier that day. So let’s not say with disarming certitude that “presumably Rajiv Gandhi had other things on his mind (like grief) than planning a pogrom”.

(To be continued.)