31 March 2010

Your riot was worse than mine

When politics and double standards take charge, it is the victims of communal violence who suffer, be they the Sikhs of Delhi, the Muslims of Gujarat or the Pandits of Kashmir...

31 March 2010
The Hindu

Your riot was worse than mine

Siddharth Varadarajan

India's polity has an unerring taste for the irrelevant. That is why the controversy over a sitting Chief Minister being summoned to answer questions about mass murder has made way for an unseemly debate about the morality of an ageing actor.

After his embarrassing, nine-hour appearance before the Special Investigation Team, one would have thought Narendra Modi presented a large enough target. Instead, the Congress has launched a full-throated campaign against Amitabh Bachchan for choosing to become a brand ambassador for tourism in Mr. Modi's State. The party has accused the Bollywood superstar of being indifferent to allegations of State complicity in the massacre of Muslims which took place there in 2002. And it has started boycotting him in a manner that is as crude and mean-spirited as it is ineffective and pointless. Thanks to this, the mass media are today discussing Big B rather than the Little Men whose role the SIT is now investigating.

As can be expected, the Gujarat Chief Minister is thrilled. The spotlight which was earlier on him is now being trained elsewhere. Instead of being forced to rally others to his own defence, Mr. Modi has happily mounted the barricades on behalf of Mr. Bachchan. In keeping with his party's fondness for technology and Islamophobia, he has blogged that the actor's critics are ‘Talibans of untouchability'.

If Mr. Bachchan is guilty of overlooking mass violence today, it is because equally illustrious gentlemen, including some industrialists, did the same when they declared Mr. Modi prime ministerial material. For that matter, the actor himself has done this sort of thing before. In his movies, Mr. Bachchan was a crusader for the underdog. In real life, he is attracted to the kind of powerful men he once fought on the big screen. His fans have a right to feel cheated. Political parties, especially the Congress, do not have that right.

The party finds fault with him for representing Gujarat in the wake of 2002. But in 1984, barely weeks after the blood in the streets of Delhi had dried, the actor accepted a Congress ticket for Allahabad and got elected to Parliament. “As a brand ambassador does he endorse or condemn the mass murder in Gujarat?” Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari asked the other day, adding: “It is high time Amitabh Bachchan came out and said what his position on [the] Gujarat riots is.” Despite the party having ‘apologised' for its role in the massacre of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi's assassination, I doubt Mr. Tiwari or any other Congress spokesman will ever ask Mr. Bachchan what his position on the Delhi riots was or is.

But if the Congress prefers to forget the history of 1984, the BJP and its leaders act as if history ended that year.

In their telling, 2002 either didn't happen or pales in comparison with what preceded it. And so begins the sordid exercise of weighing the suffering of victims and, worse, of playing the plight of one set against another. Mention the suffering of the Muslims of Gujarat and the BJP will start talking about the plight of the Pandits, driven by terrorism from their homes in the Kashmir Valley in 1989 and 1990. Try talking about the injustice done to the Sikhs of Delhi and the Congress will insist on speaking only of Gujarat. And the minute the microphones in the studio are switched off, the politicians are quite happy to forget about the shared travails of all victims.

The reality is that the Delhi and Gujarat massacres are part of the same excavated site, an integral part of the archaeology of the Indian state.

Eighteen years separate 2002 from 1984. Eighteen is normally the age a human being is considered to have become an adult. Inhumanity also seems to take 18 years to fully mature. In an act of conception which lasted four bloody days, something inhuman was spawned on the streets of Delhi in 1984; by 2002, it had fully matured. Paternity for the ‘riot system' belongs to both the Congress and the BJP, even if the sangh parivar managed to improve upon the technologies of mass violence. Both knew how to mobilise mobs. Both knew how to get the police to turn the other way. Both knew how to fix criminal cases. Both knew what language to speak, even if one set of leaders spoke of a ‘big tree falling' and the other paraphrased Newton. Both had the luxury of not being asked difficult questions by criminal investigators. Until now.

There is one school of thought that Mr. Modi's summons and interrogation have come eight years too late. There is a lot of merit in that point of view. But the reality is that the call for a leader to render account for mass crimes committed on his watch comes 25 years too late. The veteran journalist, Tavleen Singh, said recently that if Rajiv Gandhi had been interrogated in 1984 about what happened to the Sikhs, Gujarat would not have happened. She is right. Had the courts and the entire edifice of the Indian state not failed the victims of 1984, many, many politicians, police officers and officials would have gone behind bars. Had that happened then, every leader would have been forced to think a hundred times about the legal consequences of instigating mass violence or allowing mobs to go on the rampage.

The debates on Mr. Modi over the past two weeks have been so incredibly divisive because neither the Congress nor the BJP is interested in a discussion on systemic remedies. Justice is about punishing individuals, rehabilitating victims and dismantling the infrastructure of communal terrorism. But our biggest parties want nothing to do with any of that. Gujarat 2002 should go unpunished because Delhi 1984 never saw justice, says the BJP. ‘No SIT ever interrogated Rajiv Gandhi so why is Mr. Modi now being interrogated?' is the party's self-serving refrain. On its part, the Congress is unwilling to incorporate in the draft Communal Violence Bill clear-cut legal provisions that could deter politicians and policemen from again abusing their power as they did in 1984 and 2002.

One of the questions the SIT was expected to ask Mr. Modi during his interrogation on March 27 was what exactly he said when Ehsan Jaffrey called him up on February 28, 2002, asking for help. The question is important because soon after the former MP put down the telephone, he was killed by a mob along with 58 other innocent people. I have no idea whether that question was put to Mr. Modi, let alone what his answer was. But when the same question was put to Jai Narayan Vyas, official spokesman of Mr. Modi's government, in a televised debate a few days ago, the answer was atrocious. Ehsan Jaffrey had been a Congress MP, said Mr. Vyas. “So I demand to know what the Congress party did to help him.”

There was, of course, nothing the Congress could have done to save the doomed member then. The BJP was in power in both Gujarat and the Centre. But the party has a chance to do something now: Pass a law with real teeth. It's been more than a quarter-of-a-century since a big tree came crashing down upon us. It is time for the earth to stop shaking.


ds said...

Superb. I hope some of the holier than thou's are reading this.

T Azeez Luthfullah said...

I agree with Tavleen Singh.
If the nation had acted swiftly in 1984, Gujarat may not have happened. Why 1984 alone? Is it not true that not a single goon has been hanged for communal killing till this date? The nation has witnessed mass murders in Moradabad, Aligarh, Bhiwendi, Neelie, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad etc. etc. Men and women, boys and girls, fathers and mothers have been mercilessly killed, maimed and burnt alive. The perpetrators of the crime have always gone scot free. Now things have come to such a state that we feel relieved that a known criminal has been subjugated to inquiry.

Sudhir said...

Your personal vitroil against some parties not withstanding, I wish to pose some questions here.

How many of us know who the Chief Minister of Maharashtra was during the 1993 riots? How many of us know who the Home Minister of India was during 1984? How many of us know the CM durung 1990 Hyd riots? 1983 Assam riots? These are just a couple of incidents of the many many riots that have happened in India.

Which brings me to my basic question. Who is responsible for the exclusive concentration of ANY riots related debate to center around 1984 ad 2002? My stand on 2002, 1993, 1990, 1984, 1983 1978 etc is the same, but if I demand equal justice in all cases, why am I being looked upon as someone with dubious political intentions?

Say for example, if I demand that the perpetrators of 1984 be punished on par with 2002 riots, why on earth is that argument twisted as if I am "justifying" the 2002 riots? Media blames Congress for 1984, Modi for 2002. Why can't it blame Rajiv and Modi, or the Congress and the BJP? How does my questioning of this distortion of the media, which has phenomenal reach to people of this country construed as a "justification" of the 2002 riots?

Why is the discourse of the riots in India, the "reliving of ghosts" exclusively limited to the 1984 and 2002 riots alone? Don't the people of this country need to have maximum information at their disposal and then be allowed to come to their conclusion? Why is asking for a full account of history termed as being loony and a right winger?

Who is responsible for not putting a full stop to the devious methods many many cheap politicians used to fan thse emotions, and even continue to do it today? Why can't we debate and set in process a motion that will ensure rioters think twice before embarking on mass killing and destruction?Why has the judiciary been let off in the criticism so far? If we are willing to go back in history to study these occurences in depth, why are we stopping at 1984? Aren't all these topics worthy of debate, or will I be called names for even suggesting this?

Go ahead and blame Narendra Modi. It's your(as in the reader) opinion, I won't contest it. But please extend that same courtesy to all those leaders mentioned above too. Please don't make the whole riots thing sound as a debate between 1984 and 2002. You are doing grave injustice by discussing selective history.

- Sudhir

Grace of Lord said...

Siddarth Varadrajan is henceforth expelled from the highly estemeed and prized club of secular intellectuals. From now onwards, he is neither secular, nor intellectual. How could he equate an extremely progressive, liberal and humanitarian party like Congress led by Sonia sacrifice Gandhi, with a Hindu fascist, regressive and animalist mafia like BJP?

Anonymous said...

Why is that the discussions on communal riot in India start from 1984 (along with 2002)? Why not talk about the communal riots that India had long before partition (for example riots rated to cow slaughtering or moharram processions)? Until few years ago, most of these riots were largely between Hindus and Muslims. You should understand that communal riots in India are as old as Indian Islamic history.

Rob Waters

Sruthi said...


i dont deny anything that u r saying. but i believe that the two incidents... 84 and '02 are more relevant cos of the implications tht followed.

and so to whether congress and bjp, should be blamed and not just one... i believe the masses should be blamed.

and as for incarcenating modi now.... it is precisely what he wants. he is riding the crest of his infamous personage. thts his political strategy right thr.

Siddharth said...


Apologies for the delay.

Who is responsible for the exclusive concentration of ANY riots related debate to center around 1984 ad 2002? My stand on 2002, 1993, 1990, 1984, 1983 1978 etc is the same, but if I demand equal justice in all cases, why am I being looked upon as someone with dubious political intentions?

First of all, I don't understand the basis of your question. The British committed many atrocities in India. Symbolically, Jallianwala Bagh achieved prominence in the public imagination. There were many martyrs who gave theirn lives against British imperialism. Somehow, the names of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ramprasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah have more recognition, at least in north India. In Bengal, they remember Khudiram Bose or Jatin Das. These symbols don't diminsh the significance of the others. Similarly, 1984 and 2002 have acquired a certain iconic status. You ask what is wrong if you demand justice for all other riots too. My answer is, nothing. I know I have been demanding. If I had the patience, I'd send you links on 1993, 2983, 1987, to name but a few. But before I do that, please tell me where and how exactly you have been demanding justice for the victims of those riots. Send me anything. A link, a xerox of a small 50 word letter to the editor that never got published, a cyclostyled leaflet who helped distribute in college. Then we'll talk.

Say for example, if I demand that the perpetrators of 1984 be punished on par with 2002 riots, why on earth is that argument twisted as if I am "justifying" the 2002 riots?

Who has done this twisting? Not me.


Sudhir said...

Thanks Sidd for replying.

The basis of my question is my interaction with many youngsters (college going folks) who seem to carry the impression that 1984 and 2002 are the only riots to have occured in recent times. Students in Hyderabad are themselves not aware of the turbulent times in the 90's. My question was thus directed towards the media which tends to focus only on 1984 and 2002 in any riot related debate. I have never implied that you didn't condemn the other riots, or that you haven't demanded justice. Or for that matter any media house/personality. But then after a while it is forgotten, and hence my question, why should other riots be not alteast mentioned to get a holistic view for the reader/viewer. It is one thing to condemn them once, but ignoring them later is what bothers me much. My contention was that in discussion and debating selective incidents in history, isn't injustice being done to the present generation? Hence I also asked how many remember the CM's of Maharasthra in 93, of AP in 90, of Assam in 83, the HM of India in 84 etc.

Mentioning 1984 and 2002 is just like polarising the opinion on basis of parties and personalities. Do you believe that it is fair? Also, with due respect, I find the comparision with freedom struggle and Jalianwala Bagh massacre a little out of place. Reason being we are all taught in our schools about other attrocities and about other freedom fighters. One doesn't come out of school thinking Jalainwala Bagh is the only massacre or that the heroes you mentioned are the only contributors to freedom struggle. They might tend to forget as time passes, but atleast they learnt about the others right?

Coming to the part where you wish to know when have I demanded justice. In writing, this is the first time. The Hindu has been generous enough to publish parts of the letter too. A couple of years back too, a letter of mine was published in The Hindu in which I derided both the 2002 and 1984 riots, but I was guilty of not knowing enough about the other riots. It was only after considerable exposure have I come to know about the non-vilification of other equally irresponsible political leaders. If raising my voice in a written forum for the first time makes me guilty of questioning, then I plead guilty. But am sure, that does not still take away the core point of what is the basis on which an "iconic" status has been accorded to 1984 and 2002. Number of people? Political parties? Vote bank?

The entire gist of my argument was not about branding me with fancy names, but about the perils of not reminding/informing the people (especially youth) of this country about other similar attrocities that took place post independence. Your post was aptly titled "Your riot worse than mine" - I only hoped that there will be mention of other riots too.

- Sudhir

Anonymous said...





Anonymous said...

Hi Siddharth,

Can we further this discussion ? Looks like Sudhir has a valid point in here.