In 2002, Harsh Mander, a serving IAS officer, was so dismayed not just by the sins of commission of murderous and highly organized Hindu right-wing groups in Gujarat, but the sins of omission by the government and the bureaucracy in allowing the violence to go unchecked, that he resigned from the civil service and began to work directly with survivors of the Gujarat tragedy. Fear and Forgiveness, his account of the lives of the survivors in the long aftermath of the carnage, is, as the title indicates, a book that is both disturbing and warming.
New order: In this work, Istanbul’s far removed from the Ottoman days. Hocine Zaourar / AFP
Mander documents the intense suffering and survival strategies of those reduced to “refugees in their own homeland” merely because they belong to a particular faith. But he also lingers over surprising, unexpected acts of kindness in the midst of barbarism, and over the organized struggle of the survivors to wrest back some measure of dignity and justice.
The reports of several independent citizens’ groups and fact-finding commissions have already confirmed, in the greatest detail, the complicity of the Narendra Modi government in the massive loss of lives and property, mainly of Muslims, in what are euphemistically called the “riots” of February and March 2002 that followed the burning, on 27 February, of a train compartment full of kar sevaks near Godhra.
But, as Mander demonstrates, the genocide (which is a more appropriate term for violence so targeted and systematic) has also had the long-term effect, ardently desired by its perpetrators, of imposing on the Muslims of Gujarat a pervasive sense of second-class citizenship.
Pitted against a state that was hostile to their right to security during the violence then, and that is just as hostile to their right to reparation and justice now, the survivors to this day eke out a precarious existence, funnelled into relief colonies, boycotted socially and economically, and often harassed and rounded up by the police without any regard for due process.
Mander shows that, in the absence of proper state support, the cause of relief work has been embraced mainly by Muslim organizations, some with their own agendas, thus further entrenching the factionalism of a communalized polity. Reading his book, we understand how, firstly, what began in Gujarat in 2002 is in a way still current, and secondly, how an orgy of state-sponsored violence may radicalize an entire generation of both perpetrators and victims.
Mander is just as keen to address the implications of the position, still widely aired in middle-class drawing rooms around the country, that the Muslims of Gujarat “deserved it” or “had it coming”, either for the alleged role of some Muslims in the Godhra train-burning incident or more generally for the invasion of India and forced conversion of Hindus by Muslim rulers further back in history. It is striking, he points out, that this idea of collective and vicarious responsibility “seems apportioned only to minorities”. Further, if people are to use this logic of group identity to argue that “they” had it coming, then tomorrow upper-caste Hindus might be a similar “they” for Dalits, and all men might be punished for the bondage of women throughout history. All too often this “they” is merely a projection, and a displacement, of the beast within us.
No individual or group deserves to pay this kind of price for the real or imagined wrongs of co-religionists. Indeed, the scale of the supposedly retributive violence in Gujarat self-evidently shows that the genocide of 2002 was not a “reaction” to any action, as some have claimed and still claim, but a well-orchestrated action in itself. The sooner this truth is accepted, the closer we will be, in Mander’s view, to allowing the beneficial forces of reparation and forgiveness to come into play, and to achieving some kind of reconciliation and closure that allows people to get on with their lives with a measure of normalcy.
One of the best chapters in Fear And Forgiveness is devoted to the work of legal representation done in Gujarat by Nyayagrah, an organization with which Mander is involved. If the concept of satyagraha, he explains, was about peaceful mass disobedience of clearly unjust laws, then nyayagrah, by contrast, is about a mass campaign to “hold the state accountable to actually enforcing rather than disobeying its own just laws”.
Although a number of high-profile cases concerning the carnage of 2002 have resulted in convictions for the accused, in general the bad faith of the administration, the police and lower judiciary has led to hundreds of smaller cases being closed summarily. Nyayagrah attempts to provide legal support and representation, often with the help of trained local volunteers, to any of the victims of the genocide who wish to pursue their grievances in courts. The battle for justice is not so much an end in itself, explains Mander, as it is a means “for the victim to re-establish her or his equal citizenship and rights before the law in a secular democracy”.
He recounts how some Hindu volunteers of Nyayagrah are taunted for “siding with the enemy”. But, as this and many other examples of individual courage and compassion described by Mander show, it is only people who cross borders who may show us a way of erasing them.
The defining feature of the Gujarat violence to this day, Mander argues, “is the determined absence of remorse in both the state and many segments of the people”. In the absence of this remorse, it is citizens’ groups, individuals and the law which must fill the void as best as possible. Mander’s book, at once engaged and morally lucid, is a gentle counsel to not perpetuate the post-2002 universe of Gujarat within our own hearts, or wall in our own lives and consciences by such totalizing abstractions as “us” and “them”.
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