Sunday, March 29, 2009

On Harsh Mander's book on Gujarat 2002, Fear and Forgiveness

In 2002 Harsh Mander, a serving IAS officer, was so dismayed not just by the sins of commission of murderous and highly organised Hindu right-wing groups in Gujarat, but also the sins of omission by the government and the bureaucracy in allowing the violence to go unchecked, that he resigned from the civil service and began to work directly with survivors of the Gujarat tragedy. Fear and Forgiveness, his account of the lives of the survivors in the long aftermath of the carnage, is, as the title indicates, a book that is disturbing but also, in small patches, warming. Mander documents the intense suffering and survival strategies of those reduced to “refugees in their own homeland” merely because they belong to the wrong faith. But he also lingers over surprising, unexpected acts of kindness in the midst of barbarism, and over the organised struggle of the survivors to wrest back some measure of dignity and justice.

The reports of several independent citizens’ groups and fact-finding commissions (such as here, and here) have already confirmed, in the greatest detail, the complicity of the Narendra Modi government in the massive loss of lives and property, mainly of Muslims, in what are euphemistically called the “riots” of February and March 2002. The violence broke out following the deaths, on February 27, of 58 Hindus when a train compartment of the Sabarmati Express was set on fire near Godhra station after a dispute between Hindu kar sevaks and some Muslim tea vendors at the station itself. But, as Mander demonstrates, the genocide (which is a more appropriate term for violence so targeted and systematic) has also had the long-term effect, ardently desired by its perpetrators, of imposing on the Muslims of Gujarat a pervasive sense of their second-class citizenship.

Pitted against a state that was hostile to their right to security during the violence then, and that is just as hostile to their right to reparation and justice now, the survivors to this day eke out a precarious existence, funneled into relief colonies, boycotted socially and economically, and often harassed and rounded up by the police without any regard for due process. Mander shows, in the absence of proper state support, that the cause of relief work has been embraced mainly by Muslim organisations, some with their own agendas, thus further entrenching the factionalism of a communalised polity. Reading his book, we understand how, firstly, what began in Gujarat in 2002 is in a way still current, and secondly, how an orgy of state-sponsored violence may radicalise an entire generation of perpetrators and victims both.

Mandar is just as keen to address the implications of the position, still widely aired in middle-class drawing-rooms around the country, that the Muslims of Gujarat “deserved it” or “had it coming”, either for the alleged role of some Muslims in the Godhra train-burning incident, or more generally for the invasion of India and forced conversion of Hindus by Muslim rulers further back in history. It is striking, he points out, that this idea of collective and vicarious responsibility “seems apportioned only to minorities”. Further, if people are to use this logic of group identity to argue that “they” had it coming, then tomorrow upper-caste Hindus might be a similar “they” for Dalits, and all men might be punished for the bondage of women throughout history. All too often this “they” is merely a projection, and a displacement, of the beast within us.

No individual or group deserves to pay this kind of price for the real or imagined wrongs of their co-religionists. Indeed, the scale of the supposedly retributive violence in Gujarat self-evidently shows that the genocide of 2002 was not a “reaction” to any action, as some have claimed and still claim, but a well-orchestrated action in itself. The sooner this truth is accepted, the closer we will be, in Mander’s view, to allowing the beneficial forces of reparation and forgiveness to come into play, and to achieving some kind of reconciliation and closure that allows people to get on with their lives with a measure of normalcy.

One of the best chapters in Fear and Forgiveness is devoted to the work of legal representation done in Gujarat by Nyayagrah, an organisation with which Mander is involved. If the concept of satyagraha, he explains, was about peaceful mass disobedience of clearly unjust laws, then nyayagrah, by contrast, is about a mass campaign to “hold the state accountable to actually enforcing rather than disobeying its own just laws.”

Although a number of high-profile cases concerning the carnage of 2002 have resulted in convictions for the accused, in general the bad faith of the administration, the police, and the lower judiciary has led to hundreds of smaller cases being summarily closed. Nyayagrah attempts to provide legal support and representation, often with the help of trained local volunteers, to any of the victims of the genocide who wish to pursue their grievances in the courts. One of the best passages in the book describes the pressures borne by survivors of genocide not just from those who hate them but also from those who are working in support to them:
Most often, struggles for justice using the law are fought by lawyers and human rights defenders for the victim, in her name and on her behalf. It is reasonably believed that the victim, after all, cannot be expected to understand the complexities of the legal system, and even less the way to negotiate its opaque treatises to secure ultimate legal victory. Therefore, the victims are rarely consulted about important decisions regarding the case, and professional and well-meaning human rights workers sometimes neglect to inform these survivors even about the way the case is progressing. Their existence is recalled only when they have to give evidence in court, for which they have to be suitably “prepared” if the case is to be “won”, or occasionally by alert human rights defenders if they report being threatened so as to plead for witness protection. They are demonized if they turn “hostile” in court or succumb to intimidation or inducement to change their statements. It is ironical that the victim is almost instrumentalised for the “larger” purpose of a greater justice. This is a grave danger when large and high profile cases of major and spectacular massacres, involving significant numbers, are taken up as symbolic “test cases” to uphold the law. The “weak” witness who succumbs to intimidation or inducement, or both, is seen to fail not just his own case, but the entire victim community and indeed the lofty cause of justice itself. I do not believe any victim – even one who prevaricates, surrenders, or submits to inducements or intimidation – should be made to carry burdens of stigma greater than those he or she already bears.
The battle for justice is not so much an end in itself, explains Mander, as it is a means “for the victim to re-establish her or his equal citizenship and rights before the law in a secular democracy.” He recounts how some Hindu volunteers of Nyayagrah are taunted for “siding with the enemy.” But, as this and many other examples of individual courage and compassion described by Mander show, it is only people who cross borders who may show us a way of erasing them.

The defining feature of the Gujarat violence to this day, Mander argues, “is the determined absence of remorse in both the state and many segments of the people.” In the absence of this remorse, it is citizens’ groups, individuals, and the law which must fill the void as best as possible. Mander’s book, at once engaged and morally lucid, is a gentle counsel to not perpetuate the universe of Gujarat 2002-2009 within our own hearts, or wall in our own lives and consciences by such totalising abstractions as “us” and “them”.

An essay by Mander, "Inside Gujarat's Relief Colonies", is here. And some links to other essays: Prashant Jha's long piece of reportage from 2006, "Gujarat As Another Country"; "Understanding Gujarat Violence" by Ashutosh Varshney and "The Gujarat Pogrom of 2002" by Paul Brass, who are both scholars who have written a book each on the subject of Hindu-Muslim violence in modern India; Ashis Nandy's essay from 1991 "Hinduism vs Hindutva: The Inevitability of a Confrontation" ("That death of Hinduism in India will be celebrated by all votaries of Hindutva. For they have always been embarrassed and felt humiliated by Hinduism as it is. Hinduism, I repeat, is a faith and a way of life. Hindutva is an ideology for those whose Hinduism has worn off. Hindutva is built on the tenets of re-formed Hinduism of the nineteenth century"). An extensive bibliography called "Resources Against Communalism and Religious Fundamentalism in India" compiled by Harsh Kapoor lists hundreds of essays and book-length works on the subject, some of which you may want to track down in your local bookstore or library.

[A shorter version of this essay appeared yesterday in Mint)


Kartikeya Date said...

Did you read about the minister who has just been arrested about that? Her name is Kodnani, and she's a gynecologist by training!

Arati said...

Thank you for that excellent review..
you are right, it does appear that atrocities continue, in different guises, against different victims, in constant fracturing, marginalising, and eliminating from our diverse whole - as people, society, nation.

E Pradeep said...

Wrote a post about Firaaq last week and since then, I have been asked to explain why I am so critical about Modi and his administration. And when I mentioned Harsh Mander, it was pushed aside stating that he was close to another party (Congress) and canot be trusted. There is actually a huge section of people who believe that "they asked for it", "it was spontaneous" and that Modi is the best guy we ever had and these opinions belong to people who are highly educated, well-informed and doing well in life. Just came across the book today and incidenattly, stumbled upon your post too...

Anonymous said...

As a young teenager , I was personally traumatised by the mob fury perpetrated during the 1984 anti-sikh riots; a genocide of its worst kinds killing thousands of innocents, orchestrated in an organised manner by none other than the top leaders of our country. Those infamous words "The earth shakes when a big tree falls" reveberates in my ears forever and ever. But its a pity that the so called Human right activits have shown selective amnesia and have taken up only the issue of Gujrat while conveniently forgetting the role of Congress Party during the 1984 anti-sikh riots. Maybe, time will erase the madness of Gujarat too !!