Feast of Vultures

By dangling the economic carrot the government glosses over increasing communalism

Ghazala Wahab

Finally, the cat is out of the bag. In its list of achievements in home affairs, the government claims that, ‘there was a significant reduction in communal and caste violence in the past five years compared to previous years. The tragic happenings in Gujarat in 2002 were an aberration.’ Good. The natural corollary of this admission of guilt should be that the government regrets what happened in Gujarat and is determined to take corrective measures. Right? Wrong. It simply means that a veil of superficiality must cover everything that we don’t want to see or acknowledge. Much like what happened during the US President Bill Clinton’s visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra. Since the government of Uttar Pradesh couldn’t be bothered with clearing the garbage and fifth on the road to Taj, it simply erected walls of pristine white cloth on both side of the road to hide the muck behind.

Similarly, by a simple statement like this that Gujarat was an aberration the government has glossed over the acute communal polarization that has taken place in the last five years, Actually six, if one were to include the previous 13-month experiment in 1998. To begin with the Gujarat aberration, let’s see what the Union government was doing when the state was burning. Nothing. The anguished poet-Prime Minister suggested to the chief minister, Narendra Modi to follow ‘Raj Dharma’ whatever that meant. Despite a strong case against his government’s role, both active and passive in abetting violence against the Muslims in the state, Narendra Modi was not dismissed. The Prime Minister paid lip service to the victims on his visit to Gujarat and soon thereafter at the Bhartiya Janta Party convention at Goa, endorsed Narendra Modi’s physics equation of ‘every action having an equal and opposite reaction,’ by almost justifying riots because of the Godhra incident when kar sewaks returning from Ayodhya were torched in Sabarmati Express allegedly by Muslim miscreants. Later, just as Modi retracted his famous statement, Prime Minister Vajpayee also had a change of heart and he insisted that his statement was misunderstood. Perhaps, most pseudo secular people – not being poets at heart – are unable to successfully decipher what people with a poetic bend may be saying. Incidentally, during his Bharat Uday Yatra (part of the BJP election campaign). Deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani said more or less the same thing. According to him, the attack on Akshardam temple Gandhinagar Gujarat. Was more terrible than the riots in Gujarat which claimed over a 1,000 lives. Moreover, is there was no Godhra, there would have been no riots and no attack on the temple.

However, going back to the riots, on a more practical note, the government said that law will take its own course and the guilty will be brought to book. Probably, the police in Gujarat misinterpreted this statement. Hence, such cased were prepared that nearly half of them, almost 1,000 were dismissed for lack of evidence. In the notorious Best Bakery case (where 14 people were burnt to death inside the bakery), all accused were acquitted as witnesses turned hostile following intimidation by the perpetrators, including members of the ruling party. The Bakery case assumed high profile, as one of the hostile witnesses later approached the Human Rights Commission and said that she was pressurised by the local MLA to change her statement. Given the bad publicity the case attracted and also an appeal for a retrial outside Gujarat, the state government immediately appealed against the high court verdict acquitting the accused. But this is just one of the many cases. The other cases which have been admitted in the court have either met the same fate or are on the verge of meeting it. New evidence is now emerging that a large number of dead bodies of Muslims were buried with salt for instant decomposition, so, that if they were exhumed they won’t tell tales.

At least, the government admits that Gujarat was an aberration, but the treatise of achievements does not mention a word on low-grade ongoing violence against the Christians in the country, right from Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh to Orissa. According to a 37-page report by Human Right Watch, attacks against Christians have increased significantly since the NDA government came to power. The attacks include killing of priests, raping of nuns, and destruction of Christian institutions, such as schools, churches, colleges, and cemeteries. Christians are also being forced to convert to Hinduism. Smita Narula, author of the report and researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, writes, “Christians are the new scapegoat in India’s political battles. Without immediate and decisive action by the government, communal tensions will continue to be exploited for political and economic ends.” Most of these attacks are perpetrated by the sister parties of the BJP, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, both offsprings of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. And the government has been somnolent for most part. It reminds one of the old Indian saying. ‘Jab Saiyyan Bhaye Kotwal to Phir Dar Kahe Ka’ (Why should I fear when my beloved rules). It is clear that both the VHP and the Bajrang Dal are confident in the belief that the BJP led NDA government at the Centre will not take any action against them. Given the trends it seems they are not wrong in their beliefs. According to many low-level administrators, the Uma Bharti government in Madhya Pradesh has allegedly given instructions to the state machinery that Hindus should not be touched even when there are complaints against them.

Between 1964 and 1996, there were only 38 reported incidents of violence against Christians in India, in 1997 there were 24 such incidents (by then the BJP was in power in a number of states) and by 1998, when Prime Minister Vajpayee led a 13-month government at the Centre, the total number of registered cases had touched 90. This figure does not include cases, which went unreported. Between 1999 and 2004, the numbers of atrocities against the Christians have sky-rocketed with no hope of justice among the victims. The most gruesome of incidents was perhaps the ruthless burning to death of Australian missionary. Graham Staines and his two young sons in 1999. The three were sleeping in their car in Keonjhar district of Orissa when their vehicle was doused with kerosene and set on fire. A few months later, the killers of Staines burnt a Muslim trader in the same area. Subsequently another Christian priest, Reverned Arul Doss, was killed in the same district. Clearly the killers were neither repentant nor worried about law finally catching up with them.

The Indian Constitution gives every individual the right to practice and propagate his or her own religion. However, Prime Minister Vajpayee after returning from the site of one such carnage in Dangs in Gujarat, where a number of churches were torched said that there was a need for a national debate on conversions, thereby tacitly justifying the violence against Christians, just as he later tried to justify the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat. Subsequently, he retracted and said that what he meant was not a debate but a discussion on the issue or conversion as it was causing a lot of rift in the society. But before an elected representative of the people makes such a suggestion, should not he assure the minorities that their interests are safe and in case of an assault they should be confident of getting justice.

Unfortunately, the government’s conduct has been to the contrary. Among many other evidence of this is the junking of the Srikrishna Commission Report indicting the Shive Sena for the Bombay riots of 1992-93. Justice B.N. Srikrishna, formerly of the Bombay High Court, handed over his report in February 1998 to the state government of Maharashtra, which was then the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. A month later, the BJP-led government came to power at Centre as well. Despite repeated demands from all quarter that the report be made public, both the state and the Union government prevaricated and finally junked it saying that the report was anti-Hindu. The Shive Sena supremo went to the extent of challenging the government to arrest him.

Says an IPS officer. “The most worrying aspect about this government has been the legitimization of communal agenda. It has been successful in penetrating the professional class to such an extent that it is scary. Earlier, one believed that some low-level policemen might be communal but the officers would be above such biases. But now many officers and bureaucrats toe the communal line of the government, either out of conviction or for furthering, their career.” According to him, the RSS is not unambiguous about its agenda; still the government tries to create incorrect impression about it. “By permitting civil servants to attend the RSS shakha meetings you are further legitimizing communalism,” he says.

Worse is the filp-flop by the government “The Prime Minister says one thing at one place and something completely contrary at another,” says Razzak Sheikh, an entrepreneur. “He kickstarts the election campaign from Ayodhya saying that Ram Mandir is close to his heart and then goes to Ajmer asking Muslims to trust him. What is one supposed to make of this?” he asks.

Coming back to the achievements of the government, it is true that there have been fewer large-scale communal riots during the NDA tenure, but it is also true that there have been any number of small communal incidents throughout the country, even in areas that hadn’t seen tensions before. A case in point in the fishing village in Kerala which saw unprecedented communal tension last year. So much so, that Hindu neighbours openly said that their Muslim neighbours deserve a Gujarat treatment. But riots are not the only parameter for judging the divisiveness in the country. The VHP and its kin have been creating communal issues out of thin air. As if Ayodhya was not enough. They brought in Mathura-Kashi into the dispute. Last year, it was Bhojshala in Madhya Pradesh which became a communal flashpoint and subsequently, the VHP and its kins turned their sights to the dargah of the sufi saint, Baba Budan, revered by both Muslims and Hindus, in Karnataka. Praveen Togadia went to the extent of saying that they will ensure that all the graves of the Sufis are removed from the dargah so that it can be turned into a pure Hindu shirne.

It does not even need to be said that insecurity among the minorities has increased like never before. Not just Muslims but Christians as well. Till six years ago, by terrorism people meant the violence in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast. But now, there are terrorists in Maharashtra and Gujarat. Now we are faced with the Gujarat Revenge Force. This certainly is an achievement. Today, we are fighting our own people. The genuine concern about deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani’s Bharat Uday Yatra is not without merit. The first yatra in the early Nineties left in its wake a trail of communal violence. The memories among the victims are all too fresh. In 1992-93, there was a slight eagerness among some Muslims to join the BJP so as to ensure the safety of their immediate family and also a regular supply of foodstuff during curfew hours. Something similar is happening today. A few Muslims and Christians are increasingly trying to ally with the BJP to ensure their safety. If you cannot fight them, join them. This huge sense of insecurity is certainly an achievement.

It is like a feast of vultures where the single point agenda is personal greed, whether for power or the carrot of economic growth. What is the point of this growth when there is discrimination and dissension within? It is in bad taste to nitpick when the country is shining. It is, perhaps, in worse taste to scratch the sheen to expose the muck below. Unfortunately, the sheen is so thinly spread that one doesn’t even need to scratch. All one has to do is touch the surface and the sheen dissipates.



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