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They didn't start the fire

Unkaa khoon khoon, hamara khoon pani? (Is their blood blood, ours merely water?) This melodramatic enquiry from a Hindi film protagonist championing the cause of the economic underdog in the 1980s sprang to mind as one absorbed media reactions, largely scripted by Hindu secular-liberal intellectuals, to the carnage that travelled from the charred Sabarmati Express at Godhra on February 27 to the streets of Ahmedabad the following day. 

Gujarat was "burning", "innocents" were dying, there was "arson and loot" on the streets-all this on February 28; all references to the manner in which the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) fashioned its response to the carnage on Sabarmati Express. The singling out of Muslims is indeed unforgivable. But was the 2000-strong Muslim mob, which should forthwith surrender its membership to a club called human civilisation, "innocent" in its decision to attack a bogey-full of Ramsewaks because the latter committed the crime of singing bhajans on their way back home from Ayodhya? 

Secular defendants of the Muslim cause in India promptly pronounced the Ramsewaks guilty of "provoking" a bunch of miscreants into medieval barbarity? Apparently the sewaks had committed a crime serious enough to invite a retribution that reminded some of us of the terrible days of Partition, of bogeys being locked from the outside as countless Hindus, particularly women and children, went up in flames. Then, February 28 brought news of attacks on Muslims, Muslim shops, Muslim restaurants, Muslim places of worship, etc, etc; not one report on Godhra the previous day even hinted at the fact that the 58 Ramsewaks, sent to their deaths in cold blood, were victims of Muslim violence; that it was a targeted attack on the Hindu community. Those who perpetrated the Godhra massacre were merely identified as a bunch of "miscreants" of a "particular community" who set a train afire, never mind if their impotent rage killed 25 women and 14 children out of a total of 58.

So much for media squeamishness when it comes to calling a spade a spade. Quite clearly, a nation obliged to preserve its secular credentials, on the basis of its august foundation, is often forced to do so at a cost unacceptable at least to some of us. Violence is condemnable. That is a trusim. But then simple truisms lend themselves to extremely subjective, prejudiced, and partisan interpretations when it comes to the question of communal tension in this country. If violence against Muslims is condemnable, so is brutalisation of Hindus. What was indeed the provocation for snuffing out 58 innocent Hindu lives in a gory carnage, an act that was bound to invite retaliation? If tears must be shed for the loss of Muslim lives, they must in equal measure be sapportioned for the Hindus. Certainly, action and reaction must both be judged by the same scale.

Those attacked on the Sabarmati Express were not masons carrying construction material to Ayodhya, in defiance of the law of the land. Even if they had been, they should have invited retribution from law-keepers, not lawless barbarians. The country's "secular" brigade, a section that Muslims of the kind who attacked the Sabarmati Express must remain eternally indebted to, lost no time in issuing indifferent "violence-is-condemnable" statements. Worth noting however were warnings highlighting the immense threat the VHP posed to the country's internal security and secular harmony. For this section, Muslims continue to be the victimised community, even if that "victimisation" stems from grave physical provocation of the Godhra variety. One section even extended a dangerous and patently subversive theory, of the kind the Pakistani President voices when an Indian aircraft is hijacked; that Godhra may have been a VHP subplot in the Ayodhya saga.

Would Gujarat have burned had the Sabarmati Express not been set on fire? The Hindu secular intellectual would insist Godhra was a result of the VHP's growing belligerence. For this section of opinion it is as marvellously simple to flog Hindu fundamentalism as it is intriguingly difficult to identify its Muslim equivalent. For others less committed, however, the manner in which the Muslim mob at Godhra chose to respond to the VHP's defiance over Ayodhya is not humanly, ideologically, socially or civilizationally justifiable. Strangely, in a world where opinion-makers are not shying away from talking about Islamic fundamentalism, in India voices are quick to rise against Hindu fundamentalism but not against the one which constitutes its Muslim equivalent. If the evil of fundamentalism is to be condemned, the condemnation must be honest, comprehensive and total.

Admittedly, the VHP's intransigence on the Ayodhya issue was waiting to step out into the open. In this, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) must take its share of the blame. It is after all the party that once rode the Hindutva vehicle, the mandir issue catapulting it to national recognition. Political expedience of the kind that arises out of running a coalition Government at the Centre subsequently dictated the BJP's move away from a regressive Hindutva agenda. The delinking, eminently desirable in a party that was to head a Government at the Centre, however ought to have been engineered in a manner the party did not lose control over a fringe like the VHP that always carried with it the potential of going berserk, in no small measure owing to a sense of alienation from and betrayal by its erstwhile political patrons.

The recently-concluded elections in Uttar Pradesh proved that the mandir has ceased to be an issue in the State. At the national level too, Ayodhya was hardly a concern. Given the dictates of a globalising world, the BJP successfully shed the negative connotations of being a "Hindu nationalist party" that the international media painted it as till the other day. What this metamorphosis did not take into account however was the fact that the mandir issue would fester and rear its head at a future date, a time when the BJP leadership would be expected to exercise the necessary control. However, not having carried the Ayodhya issue to its conclusion, logical or otherwise, the BJP is now left battling rebellion from the VHP, mounting criticism from its political allies and detractors alike, while facing an unfortunate test of its leadership's credibility, a leadership that is left "appealing" to the VHP, instead of ordering it, to desist from violence. The situation to say the least is grim.

It may take days for the fire in Guajrat to be doused. For the moment it has caused substantial damage to India's secular credentials. Only a month ago, one sat in Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres' office at the Knessett in Jerusalem, savouring the veteran leader's compliments on how India was a model of secular harmony, a democracy which admitted a 140 million Muslim component in its billion-strong population. Secular India is under attack today. As much from Hindu fundamentalists who swear by a temple no one seems to particularly want, as from those Muslims who consider carnages like Sabarmati Express a fitting response to that fundamentalism.

Ironically for the country's leadership, the Gujarat carnage comes at a time when it was revelling in Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's discomfort over reining in the jihadis he had painstakingly nurtured till only a while ago. Deja vu?


"Salim Abdul Gaffar, vice-president of the Youth Congress, lead the frenzied mob".

"How come there were 2000 people awaiting outside the Godhara station waiting with Petrol at 8 am in the morning."



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