Una is Godhra, Modi stands where Sonia stood in 2002

He does not have Vajpayee's excuse. He must ensure the criminals assaulting Dalits in Gujarat are punished in an exemplary fashion.

 |  6-minute read |   06-08-2016
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History, in Indian and Greek thought, is cyclical. This implies that historical patterns repeat themselves. Willfully shutting one's eyes to these patterns will not keep them from happening. If anything, it makes the force of their recurrence more devastating.

Gujarat in 2016, as in 2002, is still the testing ground. Modi was, in 2002, the state's chief minister. Vajpayee was the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi, the Leader of the Opposition, whose principled stand on national issues won her Vajpayee's affection and appreciation. Politics was then, in comparison to its present cacophony, a less malignant transaction.

In April of 2002, more than a month after the Gujarat riot had begun to rage, some of us, as concerned citizens, decided to throw ourselves at the shame and misery of that state, hallowed by Bapuji's legacy of non-violence. Our group included, among others, Nirmala Deshpande, the revered Gandhian, and Swami Agnivesh, the social activist who has recently joined JD(U) and several other religious leaders representing all faith traditions in India.

We decided to organise what we called "A Pilgrimage of Compassion to Gujarat," to reach the people of that state with the message of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.

It was decided that we would, before setting out from Delhi, seek the endorsements of the PM and the Leader of Opposition. While, Nirmala, Agnivesh and I were to meet with the PM, the task of getting Sonia's endorsement was, for want of time, fell to my lot.

Appointments with both were secured with flattering ease and promptitude. Vajpayee gave us a patient hearing. When urged to intervene in Gujarat to halt the mayhem in progress, he pointed to his compulsions on account of the federal structure of our polity. He agreed, however,  that it was a basic duty of the State to secure the life, limb and liberty of all citizens.

He consented, in the end, to issue a statement supporting our initiative, which reached us, through a special messenger, soon after we reached Godhra. We left from the meeting feeling somewhat disappointed, but also touched by the PM's native goodness andgeniality.

The very next day I met Sonia Ji in 10, Akbar Road. She was even more winsomely receptive. As good a listener as she was a reader (the BJP used to taunt her, in those days, that she was a "reader", not a "leader", as though a good reader could not be an effective leader. Or, one had to be a bad reader in order to be a good leader!) Sonia heard me out with patient attentiveness.

It was obvious that she was deeply concerned. That her heart was with the victims, forsaken to live in terror and helplessness. Encouraged by this, I moved to the next step:

"Sonia Ji," I pleaded, "The least you should do is to issue a statement condemning this atrocity and calling for its immediate halt."  I went on to add, citing a specific example, that "Indira Ji, would have reached Godhra within days, if not hours, of the communal outbreak."

(Looking back, I wonder at my temerity in saying this. Such a statement made to any other politician of comparable importance by one as politically insignificant as I was, would have resulted in the abrupt cessation of the meeting and my precipitous dismissal.)

"I am under advice," she responded with evident disquiet, "by the Congress leaders in Gujarat, not to intervene. They tell me that meddling with this communally explosive issue would devastate the party in Gujarat".

I was shocked at the mere thought that even a lunatic with a foggy inkling of the history and heritage of the Congress, could advise his leader to that effect.

To me, it was painfully obvious that the party was committing harakiri. That it was betraying the trust that Muslims (and all well-meaning people) had traditionally reposed in it. The price that the Congress would pay, I told Sonia Ji, would not stay limited to Gujarat.

I pleaded, but to no effect. She had to go by the advice received. For her, it was a party matter. For me too, it was a party matter. The difference was between saving the Gujarat skin of the party on the one hand, and the national soul of the party, on the other.

Sonia agreed, nonetheless, to issue a statement endorsing our mission to Gujarat, which she did then and there.  Her statement urged the people of Gujarat to substitute "politics of cruelty with politics of compassion."

The Indian National Congress was put to the test in 2002.

It was found wanting. Woefully wanting...

Una is today the counterpart of the Godhra of 2002, except that the roles are reversed in perfect symmetry. In place of Sonia, Modi is being tried in the court, this time around, of the nation's conscience. Dalits are now, where Muslims were then. The trial that Modi faces is, politically, even more radical and far-reaching.

Modi, unlike Sonia in 2002, is a son of the soil, the leader of che karod Gujaratis (six crore Gujaratis), which includes, he will agree, the Dalits as well. He has far less excuse today, compared to Sonia in 2002, when she was a reluctant novice in politics.  

I can't say what advice Modi is getting from his aides and cabals in Gujarat. Be that as it may, his silence on the brutalisation of Dalits in that state (and several other BJP-ruled states) is sure to cost the party heavily. Insulting the dignity of Dalits, and gloating over it publicly, is an offence which, in popular perception since globalisation, is more boorish than the massacre of 3,000 Muslims.

It is easier to apply closure to murder. But the burning eyes of anger, opened once by public humiliation, are unlikely to close any time soon. We are not living in feudal times, after all.

The mercenary silence of the Congress in the face of unspeakable human suffering in Gujarat shattered its credibility as never before. And that, not just in the eyes of Muslims. BJP's silence on the humiliation of Dalits in Gujarat and other states, will shatter the party's greatest asset: the mesmerising power of the matchless Modi rhetoric. His silence will infect his words with hollowness.

Hollowness will degrade voice into mere noise. Noise may pierce eardrums, but not reach hearts. The blows dealt in Una have lashed the back of the BJP. The welts are visible from the four corners of Bharat.

Even now it is not too late to bring the forest fire under control. Modi must speak up. He must go to Gujarat and reassure the Dalits that they will be, like all other citizens, within the ambit of law and order and allowed to enjoy their rights both as citizens and as human beings. That they would not be orphans of the State, whose life is like a primeval jungle where anyone may hunt at will.

Modi does not have Vajpayee's excuse. His writ will run in Gujarat. He must ensure that the criminals involved in this atrocity are punished in an exemplary fashion.

"Justice" is the first and foremost ideal embedded in the Preamble of our Constitution. Safeguarding it is an imperious imperative. The days of making do with cosmetic gestures and tokens of appeasement are over. Each day lost will make Modi's task difficult by that much more.

May be Modi should invite Sonia for a cup of tea and compare notes on Gujarat 2002 and Gujarat 2016. If they can cooperate to midwife GST, why not also to heal the souls of the terrified Dalits of that much maligned state?

This is the time, not for political book-keeping,  but for bold initiatives in statesmanship.


Valson Thampu Valson Thampu

The writer is former principal of St Stephen's College, Delhi and former member of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI).

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