Editorial / Hatred in action
Lines in the sand
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

There is nothing more hideous than hatred in action. But before that action there was a build-up towards exactly this kind of an outcome, and a country full of people — the man on the street or in his house, the state and Central governments, the bureaucracy, the police — sat back and let the passions grow. The horrors in Gujarat are not limited to the actual nature of the killings, predominantly by burning alive. The horror lies in the dramatic change of mentality of neighbour towards neighbour, of households towards familiar households. Sectarian violence involves and implicates everybody. It is enough that a person should have a faith, he can immediately become perpetrator or victim.

India has long been cursed with the knowledge of what riots mean. Many of the most powerful politicians today, those who could have prevented the violence from happening at all, have lived through India’s most terrible phases of communal violence. There is now a vast literature, in all Indian languages, of Partition: historical, fictional, autobiographical. The last most bloody bout of all-India sectarian violence happened just 10 years ago. That another repetition, after the Babri Masjid demolition, should be allowed to happen, and again around the same issue, is simply unthinkable. It is immaterial whether the violence is being contained or not, or whether the Inter-Services Intelligence is responsible for burning the Sabarmati Express. There was time to prevent things from reaching the danger mark, yet all that happened was a series of genteel appeals to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to wait for the court verdict.

Each episode of sectarian violence pushes the country a little further down the road to disunity, bringing to the surface buried hatreds and prejudices, fatal fears and blindnesses, and creating a whole new generation of victims and perpetrators who experience divisiveness anew. Each episode makes turning back towards the road to healing just that much more difficult. Every time it becomes a little easier to air the most vicious sentiments from a safe place. Therefore it is not enough that firemen and the police should be late or totally absent when people in trouble cry for help, that they should be left to die with their families in their houses like the former member of parliament, Ehsan Jafri. Now there are also senior policemen who talk openly about the “feelings” of their personnel, as a reason for police inaction while children burn.

A country that allows this to happen will find it difficult to flaunt its “secularism” before the world. What is horrific about sectarian conflict is precisely the fact that it is not a war. It is ordinary people engaged in the most inhuman violence with homemade tools. The scale of hatred, distrust and ignorance that is suddenly exposed is terrifying, as is the tendency of such violence to spiral on in an endless cycle of vengefulness and murder. If it can be stopped now, something can yet be salvaged. Nothing the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre has done so far suggests such a comparatively easy ending.


Perhaps time will bring perspective, but from where we are sitting now, the story of the present killing begins with the killings at Godhra where a mob of Muslims burnt railway wagons full of people alive. Like all stories, this one is partly contained within another one, the story of the Babri Masjid and its destruction, but the current pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat was set off by the evil swine who deliberately set men, women and children on fire, so that’s where we must begin. Historical explanation is dogged by the problem of infinite regression — every event is preceded by an earlier event that explains it, so where do you stop? — but over the past two days, most of us have been just trying to make sense of the headlines.

I actually want to believe the sangh parivar’s rumour that the Inter-Services Intelligence is responsible for the train massacre, because, if the rumour is true, I won’t have to wonder why a bunch of Muslims would do something as sick and insane as that at a time when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are doing everything in their power to boil the pot of tension and anxiety and rage. Before we go on, let us understand why the prevention of terrorism ordinance and capital punishment are too good for the murderers who attacked the train: they ought to hang because they killed scores of innocents and by that incomprehensibly evil act, they provided the animals on the other side with a limitless licence to kill. There will be many times more Muslims dead by the time the present frenzy subsides and every murdered Muslim will be explained away by the likes of Narendra Modi and Jana Krishnamurthy by that bestial alibi: they started it.

The response of the Gujarat government to the targeted killing of Muslims has been to allow the killing to proceed unchecked by police. Narendra Modi, the chief minister, has described the pogrom of Muslims as a restrained response to the provocation of the train massacre. His inspector general of police in Ahmedabad publicly justified his police force’s unwillingness to stop the pogrom by citing their wounded religious sensibilities. If the Gujarat government can’t or won’t restore law and order, it should resign. If the Central government doesn’t believe that the killings in Gujarat are an example of systematic terrorism, maybe it should resign. I haven’t once heard a state or Central government minister threaten to use POTO against the berserker Hindu mobs rampaging through the state.

Suddenly the treasury benches in the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly seem as attractive as electric chairs. There is talk in the ranks of the sangh parivar that this would be the perfect moment to let Mulayam Singh Yadav become chief minister because nobody wants to deal with the VHP’s mobilization in Ayodhya. There is knowing talk of how Mulayam Singh in 1990 had bragged about letting no one through to the then extant Babri Masjid and how he had failed. Most worryingly, there’s a new “realism” which consists of concerned citizens asking aloud, “Can this go on forever?” The answer is always “no”. “No,” because the site is indefensible and you can’t cordon off a city forever. The implication of this is that it’s time to settle, to heal this running sore before it becomes cancerous and so on. What this means, in turn, is that the state has to find a form of words which will allow the VHP to change the status quo again in its favour, by letting it perform a puja and shift some carved pillars on to the “undisputed” land around the site of the destroyed Babri Masjid. In brief, this new realism consists of finding a way that will allow the state to succumb discreetly to the “irresistible” force of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Today the sants have asked for a written promise that they will be allowed to symbolically occupy the area around the site of the demolished masjid. They have agreed in exchange to defer their building by three months in which time they expect the government to lean on the courts to come up with a favourable verdict. And this is a “concession”. We have witnessed for the past week, the remarkable sight of the RSS mediating between the BJP-dominated government of India and the VHP. It hasn’t always been clear that this is not a summit between two heads of state. Given the demeanour of the various parties to this negotiation, it has sometimes seemed as if the government of India is the supplicant and the VHP is the state.

Perhaps the “realists” are right. I don’t think they are, simply because, going by their logic, we should settle with Kashmiri separatists because decades of violent suppression hasn’t solved the problem of disaffection in Kashmir. I think the state should, as it has done in Kashmir, hold the line against every attempt to cow it, to bully it into submission. Whatever else a state does, it has to defend its borders and maintain law and order within them on its own terms.

The history of the Indian state’s confrontations with the forces of Hindutva in Ayodhya has so far been one of abject surrender. It (and here I refer to the state and not to any particular party) hasn’t even made the effort to stand up for itself. Before we begin to advise it to keel over and play dead, perhaps we could remember that thousands of soldiers have died in Kashmir because the Indian state drew a line in the sand and dared its enemies to cross it. When groups like the VHP threaten the Indian state with mass mobilized violence to achieve illegal ends, they become the enemies of this democratic republic. India should draw a line across Ayodhya’s loam. And then it should stop them.

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Mealy-mouthed in defeat

The results of the assembly elections in the four states may have shocked the entire BJP top brass, but not Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Oh no, our prime minister is made of much sterner stuff. In fact, Vajpayee could well have had a premonition of the beating his party was in for. So say snide BJP-wallahs, who point to how the gourmand Vajpayee skipped the elaborate luncheon organized by Vijay Goel on February 24, the day the results to the elections in four states were to be declared. The well-meaning Goel, who unlike Vajpayee is not given to enlightening premonitions in such matters, was sure the BJP would retain UP. And so he made special arrangements for the PM to meet a few journalists over lunch at his residence. On the menu was some khana and, need one add, peena, to be followed by the icing on the cake — television channels beaming a BJP victory, or so Goel thought. While the journalists — suckers for such dos — turned up dutifully, Vajpayee played hookey, no doubt to save himself the embarrassment of having to answer tricky questions. The hoary old man of the BJP preferred to watch his party’s decimation in all four states from the cool confines of 7 Race Course Road, in the far more conducive company of his foster family. The angry saffron top brass is now comparing Vajpayee with his predecessor, the Congress’s PV Narasimha Rao, whom many hold responsible for the disappearance of the Congress from large chunks of India’s political map. Some even go to the extent of likening Vajpayee to Bahadur Shah Zafar, who played chess and wrote poetry even as his kingdom was being gobbled up by the British. That’s a little unfair, surely.

Rewritten history of a failure

Murli Manohar Joshi has a novel theory about why the BJP did badly in UP. According to Joshi, it is because Jana Krishnamurthy, the president of the BJP, and Kushabhau Thakre, who was in charge of UP affairs, ignored his repeated pleas to play up the changes in NCERT history textbooks, changes introduced by him, it need hardly be said, in the run-up to the elections. Joshi was miffed because, apparently, he had modified the textbooks just so he could appease the Sikhs, Jats, Gujjars and Jains and win their support in UP. Thakre and Krishnamurthy, of course, passed the buck. It was LK Advani, they claimed, who was not interested in using history as an election plank, when there were so many more important issues like terrorism, POTO, not to mention Ram. At least someone in the BJP can see sense.

Serene reflections on Gujarat

The orgy of violence in Gujarat has quite dampened Sonia Gandhi’s spirits. If the BJP’s defeat in Uttar Pradesh could cause so much upheaval, what would happen, wondered the AICC chief, her alabaster brow creased with worry, when she took over as the prime minister of the country. With three more states in her kitty, Sonia is not losing sleep over whether she will ever be PM. She is only worried about what she will do to calm tempers, afterwards. Talk about self-absorption!

Where have all the supporters gone

Not having won too many elections in the recent past, the Congress seemed at a loss at its unexpected victory in three states in the recent assembly elections. Not a single soul was to be seen at the party headquarters at 24 Akbar Road when the results started coming in on February 24. There were no crowds raising victory slogans, no sweets being distributed and no gulal being thrown. Sitting in their plush offices, the Gandhi topis could not fathom where the usual hangers-on had disappeared. With Sonia Gandhi expected any moment for a meeting with the gensecs, a worried Ambika Soni finally SOS-ed Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit asking her to arrange for crowds, pronto! It was only then that a ragtag group of hired hands was put together to mouth the mandatory zindabads and amar rahes.

Full steam ahead to the Oscars

Lagaan has won awards by the sackful and it just might take the Oscars as well. But here is one award even Aamir Khan might never have expected. Lagaan was recently honoured at the Floating Film Festival. Reportedly the smallest film festival in the world, it is a held on board the ship, M.F. Statendam, as it cruises down the Mexican Riviera. How on earth, one wonders, did Khan come to know of this festival, let alone participate in it? Well the answer might lie in the fact that Dusty Cohl, founder of the Floating Film Festival, is also the co-founder of the Toronto film fest, where Lagaan was very well-received.

Stars that glitter and those that don’t

Talking of films, UP Congressmen are very angry with Subbirami Reddy. They wonder why he deputed has-beens like Poonam Dhillon and Reena Roy to canvas for the party when he himself partied with the likes of Madhuri Dixit, Kareina and Karisma Kapoor. Well, why did he?

When the good life beckons

Morals seem to have become a touchy issue in the CPI(M) nowadays. There was a time, a long long time ago of course, when the party leadership worried about some of its comrades being seen in the company of women of questionable reputation. One minister was even censured for this reason. Recently, the party’s censuring eye fixed on a senior comrade who has since been divested of his senior position in a party publication and has even been banned from the party premises. The erring comrade had been given an opportunity to reform himself — but the lure of women and the good life proved irresistible. The official version has it that he did not heed the party’s line on madrasahs.

Footnote / Grandson’s path to fame

Feroze Varun Gandhi, the least known grandson of Indira Gandhi, who had been testing the turbulent waters of Indian politics in the assembly elections has been roundly rejected by the electorate in Pilibhit, his mother’s parliamentary constituency. Unlike his cousin Priyanka, who stayed well away and pregnant, Varun plunged into the thick of the elections, campaigning hard for the 11 candidates of mom Maneka’s party, the Shakti Dal. Poor boy! He could not get even a single one of them elected.

What was even more humiliating was that Varun campaigned in the name of his grandmother, “Indira is India”, and attacked the BJP, his mother’s ally. His speeches were full of how Atal Bihari Vajpayee is no comparison for his grandmother. Of how she had national interests at heart, of how she took on the might of the US of A, while the present BJP government had surrendered all to George Bush. Even better, he claimed his mother was as strong as Indira and thus the real heir to her legacy. Is the original Mrs G turning in her grave?



Please call a spade a spade

Sir — Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee may have managed to convince his party leadership to change its stand on disinvestment (“Party backs capital-chaser CM”, Feb 26). But his assurance that the closing down of some public sector units will not lead to retrenchment of employees sounds unrealistic. It is public knowledge that PSUs are overstaffed. Streamlining itself would require shedding excess baggage, not to speak of shutting shop completely. Bhattacharjee must realize that being “investor-friendly” means taking unpleasant decisions once in a while and also admitting to what is impending.

Yours faithfully,
Rita Sharma, Calcutta

Pay your due

Sir — It was shocking to see a group of unemployed youth polishing shoes in front of the office of the West Bengal public service commission to protest against the recent hike in examination fees on February 12. The unprecedented fee hike must have come as a bolt from the blue for the average unemployed youth, who till now could sit for state public service commission examinations after paying a nominal fee. Given that most of the applicants come from economically backward sections of society, many will find it difficult to pay the new exam fee. While scheduled caste and scheduled tribe candidates do not have to pay the amount, those who do not fall under the ambit of reservations will have to pay the high fee even if they come from poor families. Shouldn’t the commission reconsider the issue?

Yours faithfully,
Ahtesham Ahmad, Andal

Sir — Since the last four and a half months the students of law of the Calcutta University have been awaiting the results of their LLB examination. Despite innumerable visits to the university, we have no idea when the results will be published. The university authorities have also been responsible for the delay in holding the the examination. They seem unaware of the fact that they are gambling with the future of the students and could cause irreparable damage to their careers. Members of the bar council and the ministry of higher education should ensure that the results are published as soon as possible.

Yours faithfully,
Siddhartha Gupta, Calcutta

Sir — That the West Bengal board of secondary education should be considering the scrapping of the oral tests in the Madhyamik examination is bad news. The tests had been included as part of a reordered syllabi sometime in the Seventies. As a member of the board at that time, I was a participant in the debate that had preceded the restructuring. It was decided that special emphasis would be given to social and physical education and oral tests were to be held for all important subjects. This would help assessing both the intelligence as well as the responses of the students. We were optimistic about the plan at that point of time. But we hadn’t taken into account the loopholes in the system of internal assessment. It would be wrong to do away with oral tests. We should instead concentrate on trying to solve the problems.

Yours faithfully,
Baneswar Bhattacharya,Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — On my way to Magra from Chinsura by bus I realized quite late that I had not brought my purse along. The fare was Rs 5. On explaining the matter to the conductor, I was asked not to get off the bus but to pay the fare later. I told him that I would have to return back home and had no money with me at all. The conductor gave me a Rs 10 note and said that I could return it to him later. I wrote down his name and the vehicle number.

The next day, I went to the bus terminus, and not finding the conductor, deposited Rs 15 (for the fare and the amount that I was lent) to the time keeper instead. Just as I was about to leave, the conductor returned. When I gave him the money, he returned Rs 5 to me, saying that the previous day’s account had already been closed. At a nearby tea stall where we went for refreshments, the conductor insisted on paying the bill as well. Some people become difficult to forget.

Yours faithfully,
Kalipada Basu, Chinsurah

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