Sunday, November 4, 2007

Read and be afraid


IN AUSCHWITZ the exposed-brick barracks sit in neat rows, in a calm so deep it must necessarily rise out of death. The tidy paths cut each other at right angles, and the trees are stately and still. The sweet boxy buildings could be town houses, or school blocks, or military quarters. Or killing factories that smoothly sucked in human beings, separated them from their clothes, their hair, their gold teeth, their reading glasses and their children, and then processed them in a furnace. The electrified barbed wire fences that run in straight lines held up by concrete pillars could have kept out unwanted intruders, or kept in helpless innocents.

The Nazis believed in the differences in men, and believed in the extermination of these differences. The imagination can never fully get around the horror of Auschwitz — and adjoining Birkenau — where in less than three years the Nazis gassed and incinerated nearly one-and-a-half million men, women and children, many no more than a few years old. In a world full of memorials to our creativity and genius, this is a memorial to the darkness that ever lurks in the heart of men.

As you walk through those surreally peaceful double-storey blocks, you will invariably find yourself tailed or led by a crocodile of teenagers — scrubbed shining, brightly attired, speaking in hushed voices — winding their way through a byway of history to which they — and each one of us — are deeply connected. Round the year, ceaselessly, the Jews ship out their children from all over the world to show them the beast that resides in us all. By their own long suffering they understand that the battle of life against death is the battle of memory against forgetting. That to not look the beast in the face is to have the beast on your back all the time.

There is nowhere in India that you can take your daughter if you wish to level her with the beast of Partition, the beast of the 1984 Sikh riots, the beast of a hundred communal and caste massacres, or the beast of Gujarat 2002. Because we do not remember, we repeat; because we do not look the evil in the eye, it dogs us all the time.

There is nowhere in India that we enshrine our cruelty so that we can look at it and be dismayed and be afraid.

Well, read this special issue of TEHELKA and be dismayed and be afraid. Ashish Khetan's extraordinary six-month investigation — one of the finest in the history of Indian journalism — peels off all kinds of masks, and shows us the beast in us. For five years since the carnage, we have heard charges and counter-charges. We have heard the victims, the government, the police, the judiciary, and the civil rights groups. Now for the first time hear the story of the killings from the men who did it. Put to rest your doubts about the foetus that was pulled out from its womb; about the systematic slicing of Ehsan Jafri's limbs and torso; of the raping and chopping and burning of women and children; of law officers who turned on the victims; of the collusion of the police and the government.

Read it and be afraid.

One problem is we live in an age of spiralling hype and sensation.An age of cheap spectacle in which the indulgences of sports and cinema can be so easily deemed landmark and historic. An age in which words like chilling, appalling, inhuman, outrageous, have all lost their charge. We are all desensitised viewers set upon by a turbofuelled media. Image is chasing image at such blistering speed that we dare not hold on to anything — lest we burst. This issue of TEHELKA, perhaps, can be a kind of litmus test. Read the following pages and see if you rediscover the meaning of some words — barbaric for one; for another, heartbreaking.

Read it and see if you can still be made afraid.

Illustration: Uzma Mohsin

Of the many things that are uniquely appalling about Gujarat 2002, three are particularly disturbing. The first that the genocidal killings took place in the heart of urban India in an era of saturation media coverage — television, print, web — and not under the cloak of secrecy in an unreachable place. The second that the men who presided over the carnage were soon after elected to power not despite their crimes but seemingly precisely because of them (making a mockery of the idea of the inevitable morality of the collective). And finally — as TEHELKA's investigation shows — the fact that there continues to be no trace of remorse, no sign of penitence for the blood-on-the-hands that — if Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky are to be believed — is supposed to haunt men to their very graves.

Like Germany and Italy once, Gujarat begs many questions. How do a non-militant people suddenly acquire a bloodthirsty instinct? Does affluence not diminish the impulse to savagery? Does education not diminish the impulse to bigotry? Do the much-vaunted tenets of classical Hinduism not diminish the impulse to cruelty? If tolerance and wisdom will not flourish in a garden of well-being and learning, in the very land of Mahatma Gandhi, then is there any hope for these things at all?

Are we all, finally, only making a reckoning of differences and numbers? Would we all, given the advantage of numbers, and protection from the law, gleefully brutalise anyone who is different, or in disagreement? Today it is the overwhelming question in the mirror. Each of us needs to see it and to answer it. For the violence that bloomed so bloodily amid the Gujarati is also all around us. Every day brings news of a fresh mob attack, a fresh case of vigilante justice. The strong will tame the weak — if only law and order will look the other way for a moment.

Is it possible that contrary to all the hoopla we may have already lived out the high tide of our democracy? Many Indians may get richer and richer but as a people — a deep civilisation — we will now only get poorer and poorer? Is it possible that a country sprung from the vision of giants can now only sustain small men with small concerns? Once a few good men shaped a modern egalitarian nation out of a devastated colony; are there none now to staunch the rot?

FOR MORE than three years there has been a government at the centre that claims a legacy of the founding vision. Amazingly it has not once lifted a finger to alleviate the grief of Gujarat. There has neither been a display of the impartial steel of law and order, nor the soothing balm of any efforts of peace and reconciliation. Shining names like Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh present abject report cards — full of the desperate calculus of votes and seats; fully bare of any act of courageous morality. On the other hand, there is the bravery of the bigot: with élan Narendra Modi walks the talk and flings the gauntlet. And the idea of India dulls by the day.

Great leadership — power — is a complex duet of control and vision. India lives with a generation of politicians who at any given time only possess one of the two. The resulting catastrophes erupt around us like rash on an allergy.

Today India has a thousand mutinies awaiting an opportunity to violence, but this is the most important story of our time because the schism in Gujarat is the biggest slap in the face of the idea of India. We would do well to remember that there were once other contesting ideas to that of the liberal secular democracy. We would do well to remember nothing is forever. We could still become other things, the beast within us could still tear us apart — as has happened in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar — if we do not do what we need to do, if we do not look into the mirror and fix our face.

The face can neither be an angry snarl nor a glassy-eyed indifference. And it certainly cannot be the vacuous grin of the shining Indian. In equal parts it must reflect concern and memory and compassion. Read the following pages and know why. Read the following pages and be afraid.

Selected Articles:

We have to take bold steps to put an end to terrorism, be it by an individual or a state. Any one who disrupts the peace must be tried as a criminal without giving him a religious cover. We have "protected" criminals too long giving them a religion to hide under; be it in Kashmir, Gujarat, Mumbai, Delhi, Ayodhya, Hyderabad or any where else. If we do not bring Justice, the problems would linger, shifting our energies from prospering to dealing with unabated terrorism. No one should be above the law.

Mike Ghouse
(214) 325-1916

1 comment:

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