18 April 2002
The Times of India
The Mask is Off
A Tale of Two Hindus
By Siddharth Varadarajan
Two weeks ago, the resident editor of The Times of India in Ahmedabad sent our office in Delhi a photograph so shocking it made my stomach churn. Shocking not just for what it depicted but because, to paraphrase Barthes, "one was looking at it from inside our freedom." This was my India. This is my India.
On a hot and dusty patch of asphalt lies the naked body of a woman, Geetaben, her clothes stripped off and thrown carelessly near her. One piece of her underclothing lies a foot away from her body, the other is clutched desperately in her left hand. Her left arm is bloodied, as is her torso, which appears to have deep gashes. Her left thigh is covered in blood and she is wearing a small anklet. Her plastic chappals sit sadly alongside her lifeless body and in the middle of the photo frame is a gnarled, red, hate-filled remnant of a brick, perhaps the one her assailants used to deliver their final blow.
Geetaben was killed in Ahmedabad on March 25, in broad daylight, near a bus stop close to her home. She was a Hindu who in the eyes of the Hindu separatists currently ruling Gujarat had committed the cardinal sin of falling in love with a Muslim man. When the Sangh Parivar mobs came for him, she stood her ground long enough for him to flee. But the killers seemed more interested in her. She was dragged out, stripped naked and killed. No lethal dose of Zyklon-B delivered surreptitiously in a darkened, secluded chamber. Geetaben's murder was never meant to be a furtive, secret affair. The holocaust that Chief Minister Narendra Modi's administration presided over was engineered in the knowledge that the Indian state never punishes murderers with political connections. Delhi 1984, Bombay 1993, Gujarat 2002. Neither Congress, Third Front or BJP believes in Nurembergs.
In these troubled times, when heroes are scarce and villains abound, Geetaben deserves to be worshipped. She is Gujarat's Jhansi ki Rani, its La Passionaria. I salute you, Geetaben, from the bottom of my heart for your one brief moment of defiance. For, even in death, with your helpless, innocent body bloodied and your clothes ripped apart, you showed more courage, humanity and dignity and more fidelity to the Hindu religion than Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has done in the past month. When the day of reckoning comes, no one will dare ask you where you were when Gujarat was burning. But when Yama waves a dossier at Mr Vajpayee and asks him how many lives he saved, what will he answer, I wonder. Will he hang his head in shame as he did at Shah-e-Alam camp in Ahmedabad? Or will he lecture the Hindu God of Death about Godhra and jehadi Muslims, and claim, as he did Wednesday, that if only Parliament had condemned the Sabarmati Express carnage, the genocide which followed would never have happened.
When I heard what Mr Vajpayee said at the BJP rally in Goa last week, I experienced the same contaminating, stomach-churning sensation of being present at a crime scene that I felt when I saw the photograph of Geetaben. Though the PM now insists he was misquoted, whichever way his words are parsed, what he told his party faithful at Goa was bone-chilling. "Wherever Muslims are," he said, painting a broad brush to describe not just the followers of Islam around the world but the one-fifth of India's citizens who happen to be Muslim, "they do not want to live with others peacefully."
At the best of times, such a statement would be unforgivable. But when you consider that he was talking about the killing of as many as 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat - and to an audience which believed this genocide was justified - one can only react in horror. Already, the Sangh is enforcing an economic boycott of Muslims. There is not a single Muslim business left in Gujarat. Photocopying stalls near Gujarati courts turn Muslim lawyers away. Men with beards are not served in restaurants and shops in the state. Muslim mothers pray their children won't call them ammi on the street. Instead of speaking out against this, Mr Vajpayee actually had the gall to say Muslims do not wish to live in peace.
For tens of millions of Indians, including those who might have flirted with the BJP, Mr Vajpayee's remarks have served as a wake-up call. At the Shah-e-Alam camp, he said the riots had shamed India. But what he said at Goa has shamed India even more.
For all his fulminations against jehad, Mr Vajpayee's ideology is equally jehadi. His party does not believe in people living in peace, in ensuring that the citizens of India - whether Hindu, Muslim or other - have the wherewithal to live as human beings. The BJP does not respect the rights of citizens or of the nation as a whole. Instead, a bogus, hollow ideology of 'Hindutva' has been erected to cover up their utter contempt for the rights of the people of India.
If historians use the phrase 'Muslim separatism' to define the struggle to carve out a Muslim nation from India in the last century, the project of the RSS-BJP could well be called 'Hindu' separatism. Separatism or secessionism is not just about the desire to create physical distance; it is as much about striving to distance oneself from the political, cultural and philosophical mores of the country. The BJP's separatist project poses as 'Hindu,' but it aims to secede from the philosophical and cultural foundations of India, including Hinduism, and from the political principles that Indians have evolved over the past 200 years of struggle for their rights.
The aim of this project is to establish a state where all Indians, including Hindus, will be devoid of rights except those which will be bestowed upon them as a privilege. Today, Mr Vajpayee tells Muslim, Christian and Sikh Indians at Goa that "we (i.e., the BJP) have allowed you freedom of worship." Tomorrow, Hindu Indians will be told what they are "allowed" to do. Those that transgress - like Geetaben, or Medha Patkar, journalists and others - will be dealt with. Gujarat has thrown a challenge to the country. The writing is on the wall. Either we stand up to defend the rights of all citizens; or we will all go down eventually.