Ahmedabad, March 29 —Today is Holi, and elsewhere Indians are welcoming Spring with color and revelry. Here, riots of the real kind are keeping citizens behind closed doors. Yesterday, the death count rose to 732. Police and army patrols are out on streets scarred by the worst violence in independent India, exactly four weeks after a group of Muslims torched 58 Hindus returning from a temple-building campaign in the north.
Careful forethought was evident in that attack at Godhra station, and in the anti-Muslim pogrom that followed immediately. Democracy’s basic tool, voter lists, was converted into hit lists. But who could possibly have benefited, on either side?
Targeting Muslims as the source of the evil comes easily. One event after another is traced to Islamic elements. Guilt by association is simple here, where the Islamic minority is large enough to make India the second largest Muslim nation in the world.
The Hindu ‘holy volunteers’ attacked at Godhra were innocent victims of a dreadful, preplanned outrage. Yet there was nothing innocent in their mission to Ayodhya, or in the leaders who encouraged them to go there.
They were returning from the site of a small mosque (the Babri Masjid) that lay abandoned not too long ago. Claims that it was built on the birth spot of the Hindu god Ram by early Islamic conquerors to insult Hindu sensitivity had little impact on the pilgrim city of Ayodhya, where the worship of Ram and other deities is a daily event in countless shrines.
But if his birthplace is beyond proof, Ram’s presence in the Indian psyche is beyond doubt. He is the hero of the epic Ramayana, revered as the embodiment of compassion and duty. “Ram Rajya’ is the term all Indians use to describe a society of ideal justice. That politicians would pervert this manifestation of light to their own uses deepened the tragedies that followed:
Congress Party Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered the Babri Masjid opened in 1984, permitting ‘symbolic’ worship by Hindus. An election was pending.
In 1992, the right-wing BJP party (which now heads the government) launched a campaign for building a grand temple at the disputed site, supported by
fundamentalist allies, which include the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council). The campaign began in Gujarat, led by the current Home Minister L K Advani. In Advani’s presence, Hindu mobs decked in saffron destroyed the Babri Masjid. Riots that followed all over India included the Bombay blasts of 1993, the world’s worst act of urban terror before September 11, 2001.
But the real target was, and is, the tolerance essential to India’s survival as a secular society — one-sixth of humanity — governed by the ballot box and Constitution. The only beneficiaries of Godhra and the retaliation are those who believe that a secular, democratic India is a threat. These enemies may be across the Pakistan border. Their counterparts within are proving even deadlier. It is amazing what close allies fundamentalists are, even as they spew hate for each other.
Brave people are struggling for sanity, and against the odds of an obdurate state government that sees its current apathy as future Hindu votes. If Gujarat is to be brought to its senses, sanity may have to appeal to the entrepreneurial instincts that make Gujaratis India’s largest business community. One of them is Deepak Parekh, head of HDFC, India’s leading finance company. Parekh appealed yesterday to corporates to help re-build Gujarat. “I belong to Gujarat. It pains me to read in international papers that Gujaratis are barbaric and indulge in genocide”. Companies, investors and banks — particularly those overseas – will not risk their investments unless respect for the law, the Constitution and human rights is restored. The agenda of the Hindu Vishwa Parishad, supported by expatriates in North America and the UK, is that of a saffron Taliban. Four weeks have demonstrated its deadly potential. Signals are needed that it will be kept under watch.
Gujarat’s agony is rife with contradictions. Ahmedabad was Mahatma Gandhi’s base. It was here that he advocated his dream of an India united in its diversity and refined a theory of non-violent struggle that brought the British Empire to its end.
Gandhi offered a talisman for a just society. “Recall the face of the poorest, most helpless person you have known. Ask yourself if the action you propose will help to improve his life and dignity, or to bring millions like him any closer to freedom from want. This reflection will melt your doubts and illumine your decisions.”
That talisman lies half-buried with Ahmedabad’s dead and in the rubble of its homes and businesses. Lawyers and leaders here and abroad who can find and use it may be the only hope for the thousands whose fate now rests on burnt bodies in Godhra and Ahmedabad, and on mendicants agitating for yet another temple.
When Gandhi fell to an assassin’s bullet, his last words were “O Ram!” It was a cry to India’s symbol of decency, and a prayer that millions of the Mahatma’s countrymen still have on their lips today.