The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A state cannot belong to the Modis and Togadias alone

The curtain would appear to have been drawn finally on the Best Bakery case. The nation's highest judiciary has sentenced for life a number of people for the bestial crimes they committed on a dark February night in 2002. Fate, which she herself actively contrived to create, has finally caught up with Zahira Sheikh too: she would have to spend one year in prison atoning for the series of false testimonies she tendered at the instance of elements close to the parivar. She, some would say, deserves to be more pitied than scorned.

Whatever that be, the wheels of justice may now be thought to have come full circle. The rejoicing in a great many quarters is natural, rejoicing accompanied by quiet satisfaction at the discomfiture the Supreme Court verdict must be causing to Narendra Modi and his Gujarat.

It is precisely here that danger lurks in the wings. It is so easy to be ensnared by the cult of demonization. In the subconscious of a considerable number of our countrymen, Gujarat has in recent times tended to be equated with the doings of the Bajrang Dal and its cohorts. The assumption is both fatuous and morally wrong. For one thing, it betrays a morose defeatism, as if the nation is reconciled to the situation where some of our own people are in permanent bondage to the forces of darkness. Besides, a deviant part could never claim to represent the whole, in this instance, the whole of Gujarat. The propensity to paint Gujarat in the luridest of parivar colours can only promote divisiveness, and thereby actually give a boost to the cause of the fundamentalists.

Persons with an excess burden of self-assurance may of course question the social relevance of the so-called silent majority. A plurality which keeps mum in the face of outrageous happenings around them, it will be commented with a sneer, is a species not deserving much attention. But, then, to indulge in bravado which would only expose the flanks of the moral brigade is bound to be equally futile.

Why forget the other side of the picture' Should we not recall, with pride and gratitude, the sequence of the narrative which in the final round persuaded the Supreme Court to sit up and order a thorough review of the grisly scandal of the Best Bakery case' No question, this turnaround was made possible by the nearly single-handed efforts of a brave young social activist from Mumbai. Had Teesta Setalvad not bestirred herself, the Best Bakery criminals would have gone scot-free. For four long years, Teesta and her associates waged a relentless struggle against adversarial forces. She had built her case to a large extent on the testimony of Zahira Sheikh whose family was butchered by the bigots at the bakery. Teesta was either not a terribly good judge of the frailties of the human character, or she was incapable of imagining the enormity of the spellbinding terror religious fascism is capable of generating. What followed was a testing time for Teesta. Attempts were made to turn the tables on her on the basis of Zahira's blatant perjury. Teesta fought back and has come through. No group of politicians and none in the media have bothered till now to offer congratulations, thanks and homage that are her due. That, however, is only to be expected in these out-of-joint times.

This is where the other major issue asserts ' or should assert ' itself. Must the sins of the likes of Narendra Modi be sufficient reason for blackening Gujarat' The fact that religious bigots discovered fertile ground to perpetrate their grisly acts in one part of the country is neither here nor there. The impulse to desecrate humanity is not an attribute that exclusively features any particular population group; the historical set of circumstances which unleashes savagery amongst some men and women in one neighbourhood is capable of reproduction under other skies too. Besides, Teesta Setalvad herself is also from Gujarat, even though her family is settled for generations in Mumbai. The steel in her, it is possible to argue, is of impeccable Gujarati lineage.

To condemn a region or the people inhabiting it for distasteful incidents or events on its soil is absurdly wrong. The temptation to generalize, however, dies hard. It is, let us admit, only rarely, that bigotry is met by sweet talk. More often, it is matched by counter-bigotry, including recourse to generalizations. The consequence is misunderstanding, and a fresh lease of life to the hate brigade.

The world is full of contrariness and Gujarat is no exception: a Narendra Modi finds his match in Teesta Setalvad. Why only a concourse of people, even an individual can be a bundle of contradictions. Consider, for instance, the persona of a former prime minister, the late Morarji Desai, who, again, was from Gujarat. Morarji had the reputation of being an obdurate person, holding most reactionary views on life and matters, and exhibiting some queer propensities in his daily perambulations. Perhaps solid objective reasons did exist for his infamy. On at least one particular issue, though, he provided a major surprise. Way back in the Fifties, the Union government took charge of Tagore's abode of peace, Santiniketan, and converted the institute of higher learning there, Visva-Bharati, into a Central university. A convention developed to invite the nation's prime minister to be the rector, acharya of Visva Bharati. Quite candidly, with the exception of Jawaharlal Nehru and, to an extent, Indira Gandhi, no other prime minister had possessed the necessary capital stock of aesthetics and perceptiveness to fill that position. And yet, only one amongst them had the sensitivity to convey his disinclination to occupy it because he did not fit the bill. That exception was Morarji Desai. This man of ugly image from Gujarat believed in plainspeaking: he lacked, he went on record, the qualities which should be amply present in a person who dared to agree to preside over Tagore's dream institution. Morarji stepped aside, and nominated Uma Shankar Joshi, the poet and novelist, to the position. Uma Shankarbhai was more than the answer to Visva-Bharati's prayer. Combining humility with scholarship, he succeeded in spreading Tagore's message of love and tranquillity across Santiniketan and beyond. His tenure, unfortunately, was much too brief.

The point refuses to get lost. Gujarat is not just Narendra Modi and his fellow vandals. It boasts of an Uma Shankar Joshi too. No amount of sectarian endeavour would therefore be able to detract from the secular dignity of the state.

Should there not be an addendum' This may be regarded as descent to a somewhat banal level, but cognizance has to be taken of what is described as ground reality. Whether one likes it or not, cricket has emerged as the country's most popular sport. In the course of the past couple of years, two new cricketing stars have shot into the firmament; first, Irfan Pathan, and now, Munaf Patel. Both have, as they say, made the nation proud. Both are from Gujarat; their emergence is a slap on the face of the sectarians strutting around there. Gujarat, we therefore have to keep reminding ourselves, does not belong to the Modis and Togadias alone, but also to Uma Shankar Joshi, Teesta Setalvad, Irfan Pathan and Munaf Patel.

It would be buffoonery to drag Mahatma Gandhi into this debate.

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