Ordeal by fire

SUGUNA RAMANATHAN

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AFTER such knowledge what forgiveness? We who have lived through the last so many weeks in this once beautiful and hospitable state are left with nothing to say. A Hindu activist on one of those mad nights was carrying a four-year old Muslim child to safety in his arms. Stopped and interrogated, he replied that this was a Hindu child. They let him go. As he walked forward the child looked back over his shoulder and cried out ‘Abba’. They tore the child from his arms and hacked it to death. No hearsay – this was told by that traumatized activist to one of my Jesuit colleagues who works at the relief camps; it actually happened.

At one level our voices fail in the face of such brutality. At another, why are we quiet, why aren’t we screaming that this is not our faith, this is not the Hinduism in which we were brought up? Who gave this group the right to take our Hinduism away from us? The truth is we are afraid, moderate Hindus are afraid; there is no space for us; we too are under threat, and the shameful thing we discover about ourselves is that we are afraid. We cannot be sure we will not be betrayed by a watching eye and punished because we have aided the Muslims. It is now possible to understand what happened in Germany.

But why Gujarat? To have revenge on Gandhi fifty years later? Or does its economic progress feed a certain pride in its unique ‘Hindu’ culture? Perhaps the marriage between commercial clear-mindedness and religious conservatism is a natural contract; perhaps religious imagery readily masks hatred of competition in the market place. Whatever the explanation, hatred has become natural here in these times.

 

 

One does not need to be a saint to be appalled by the incidents, one only needs to have a body. Let us admit that the psychologists (aggression is stored in the unconscious around a demonized other), and political scientists (civil society has always posed a problem for political theory), and sociologists (religion is a social fact) are all saying valid things. But beyond all theory there is the human body. That human body experiences pain. The most fundamental thing of all, something that every living creature knows and wants, is freedom from bodily pain. More than any other sound we can make or word we can utter, a cry of pain coincides with the moment of the experience. Given this primacy of the body, how does it happen that we make other bodies suffer unendurable pain – burning them alive, for instance?

I put it down to a failure of the imagination. When one does not feel the pain of another, one’s imagination has failed. When one does not feel what it must be to be terrified like our Muslim friends in Khanpur and Dariapur and Gomtipur, one’s imagination has failed. When one does not feel the flames lapping the skin of those trapped in those coaches of the Sabarmati Express that morning in Godhra, one’s imagination has failed. The body is the final non-reducible point. The rest are signs. All our religious beliefs, traditions, languages, cultures, all that makes up our identity is a matter of signs.

 

 

Academics in Gujarat have failed to realize the gaps between the signs in the mind and the pain of the body. Thinking here has ground to a stop; the place from where progressive, decent thoughts should emanate and spread out has itself been captured by forces that inhibit critical reflexivity. If the best lack all conviction, it is hardly surprising that the worst are full of a passionate intensity.

The deep and wide spread of a ‘pseudo-Hinduism’ in all classes, most especially the middle class, is a matter of deep surprise. When did this happen, and how? Those popular television versions of the mythologicals? (Such splendid stories, but a minute’s reflection shows how they, in true epic fashion, glorify a warring society.) Those films projecting a comfortable traditionalism replete with modcons? Add to that the systematic and silent campaign of groups (bitter irony, they call themselves NGOs) distributing pamphlets that spew hatred against minority communities. An axe demolishing a cross, with ‘Father do not forgive them for they know what they do’ for caption, is an instance of the mildest of attacks against a minority in 1998 for instance.

Far worse is the scurrilous stuff being circulated today. I thought first of reproducing through transliteration and translation of the Gujarati a sample that no self-respecting reader can read without outrage. But so vile and demeaning is it, so inflammatory, that it may do more harm than good. Suffice it to say that it incites Hindus to engage in the most horrible and humiliating acts towards Muslim men and women while driving them out of every town and village. And this is in the name of Hinduism, of a world Hindu organization. Is it our vocation to pour poison into the world? Is the blue-throated one only a pretty icon, or are we giving him more poison to hold?

Across the spectrum of college teachers, only a tiny handful has resisted the poison. Amazingly, shockingly, the majority offers this reason or that for the attacks, explaining it in terms of historical memories, of changes in agricultural patterns, of migration, of cricket matches and ‘pampering’. Worse, stereotypes of violence to be feared from Muslims abound: protect your teenage daughters (advice given by an educated neighbour to the wife of one of Gujarat’s senior police officers); compensation to Muslim widows will be four times the amount for Hindu widows because all Muslim men have four wives (an opinion reportedly expressed by a Gujarat minister at a closed door meeting); ‘they’ are taught mistrust and violence in the madrasas (a colleague with a Ph.D, no less). This from the educated class.

 

 

As academics we need to ask ourselves some serious questions, like, what pampering? A pilgrim subsidy? Can that bring on this kind of madness? Clearly, not. Are we moral, responsible human beings? Clearly, yes. Then the moral imperative leaves us with no choice. Being good is not something we can choose; we are required to be good, we are soldiers in that moral army. Academics and schoolteachers have a crucial role to play here.

Finally, the only hope lies in a different socialising process and a different kind of education: a base of ethics and a habit of, not passive reception, but critical reflection. We need a schooling in which, in place of a headlong rush towards the technologies, we inculcate a sense of the human. The Humanities are not so named for nothing; they are meant precisely to develop the humane side of our selves. So more poems, more tragic plays (fewer epics) – not a soft option any more, not a matter of appreciating the beautiful but of cultivating the heart, of developing the imagination. If we are to be damned by religion, let us turn to literature.

Last night the prime minister made a moving speech at the Shah Alam refugee camp (but fine words butter no parsnips). The chief minister stood stony faced beside him. When the prime minister spoke of what needed to be done, the chief minister said into the microphone that that was what he was indeed doing. Outside the Circuit House his supporters shouted, even as representatives of the Citizen’s Initiative went in to meet the PM. These are sinister signs of an utterly cynical man planning his rise to power, using his pseudo Hinduism to fool the people. Let us read those signs right while thinking of the body. If our imaginations serve us, we will not forget that child in the arms of the Hindu activist crying out for its parents in the last few moments of life.

 

 

As one thinks of what it has meant to be a Hindu, one remembers sadly that its inbuilt ‘indifference’ which one sometimes critiqued was no bad thing; at least it left bodies alone. Rationality and economic development came to the West before it came to us; they got the industrial revolution before we did; and the scientific revolution. Here that gradual evolving kind of modernity did not happen; what we have is technological advancement and a ‘sudden’ nation state emerged full grown, without the processes that led up to this.

We could have profitably learned from their mistakes but we have chosen to follow the most mad of all the ways they chose in seeking final solutions. The worst is that the rich source of images that move, beautiful images – the Ayodhya group, a blue skinned Krishna in his tribhanga pose, Siva with the Ganga flowing from the knot of his hair, the eternal Mother whose palms are stretched out to bless (ours to love and cherish but not to fight and kill for) have been put at the service of irrational anger and hatred only to push electoral gains.

 

 

Sadly, those in office today have discovered the appeal of the supernatural in moving men to madness. And our philosophy lies discarded and forgotten. Only life (any life, every life) is sacred. What sort of Brahman are these pseudo Hindus aspiring towards? They have understood and loved neither our philosophy nor our mythology. Which of us does not know this, but we are powerless to bring down a government that engages in such chicanery. When corruption grew beyond acceptable proportions in 1974 (was it?), all of Gujarat was out on the streets – men, women, all – shouting till the chief minister was removed. But today that alternative is not open; violent threats to peace-makers and to those who help have silenced the voices of sanity.

This was a state where we were proud that women could walk unharmed late in the night; where a kulfi at Ashrafi at 11 pm was a treat available to all; where at Gamtiwalas in Dhalgarwarh one could spend hours over the bolts of hand-printed cloth. May it all be as it once was. May peace return to this strife-torn state and fall like a blessing once again over this golden land.

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