There are a few books I’ve read – whatever their academic value may be – which have provided me such distinct visuals in my mind, that I’ve become a little emotionally connected to issues that didn’t concern me directly.
I’ll give you an example. Back in boarding school, when we’d study history and independence, I always read that partition was traumatic. But I didn’t have a very clear picture of what had happened on the ground. To ordinary people. So I picked up Freedom at Midnight, which Mrs. Datta (my high school history teacher) told me was a Hollywood version of partition stories. But to me, all of 14 (I think) it was just painful to read these accounts of families being torn apart, fathers being killed in front of their children, complete train carriages being destroyed.
It’s just that I don’t have any family which was affected by partition. The Kashmiri side of my family was already in Delhi for generations, in fact, they avoided much of the chaos of Kashmir too. And my moms side, from Pune, were involved in the freedom struggle (her grandfather led the struggle for independence for the Princely States) but there was no cross-border struggle. But despite that, I’d always wonder what Kashmir was like, what happened there.
Again, I walked through the library looking for something on Kashmir. I’d been there as a child, but all I have is memories of snowballs, apples and houseboats. I finally came across Tavleen Singh’s book, Kashmir: A Tragedy of Errors. It’s ironic that now, with the Indian Express, I have to edit her columns every Sunday! It was my first window into the Valley. I could sense the emptiness, the discontent the Muslim population had with the Kashmiri Pandits and her lament at the general state of the valley. I probably can’t remember specific details about incidents, it’s been about 15 years since I read it, but her descriptions of the empty feeling you got in the towns, the curfew that was stifling life there, still remain with me.
So, it was even more ironic that when I met Tavleen Singh’s son, a journalist, he was talking about comparing Gujarat with the Sikh riots after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination. And it just occurred to me that although I know a fair deal about what happened in 2002 (I was in Montreal at the time), but I didn’t know too much about the Sikh riots, besides the immediate cause. I’d read some accounts, but suddenly I wanted to know more. I picked up When a Tree Shook Delhi, by Manoj Mitta and H.S. Phoolka at the Delhi airport, and by the time I landed in Bangalore, I was done. I think I almost started crying a few times. It’s still absolutely shocking me to what a mob is capable of, I’ve written about this before.
I’m ashamed to say, but when Tehelka came out with its findings on Gujarat, complete with first-hand accounts and boasts from the perpetrators, so many people shrugged it off saying “well I knew that, I really thought their big announcement would be something else”. THIS is how used to violence we have become, whatever the reason.
It’s just that with Nandigram and accusations hurled at the CPM that the state allowed the party cadres to do whatever they wanted, comparisons to Gujarat came about. And again, here you have messages from the top, direct or indirect; in effect allowing people to do what they want, victimize whoever they want. Could we ever seriously wonder why most Indians have no faith in the police? When I started reading Mitta’s account of how the police in Delhi did nothing to stop the violence against the Sikh community for three days – no, helped fuel the violence in many places – I had goosebumps. And that one account from a police officer, which is the closest they came to implicating someone on top – that there had been a senior level meeting where the top of the police were also present, and it was decided to allow riots in the wake of the assassination – is too crazy for me to digest. I mean that.
And I know… I shouldn’t be so wide eyed when faced with these incidents. I mean, after all death surrounds us in this country, but to think that genocide has been a part and parcel of our democracy is too scary a thought.
My colleague at work was talking about the difference between India and Pakistan today. She said that we never had to fight for democracy. We sure did fight for independence, to inherit the system of governance already in place, but it was a top down change of guard. And Pakistan today is actually showing a preference for a particular political system. It’s the same thing that Sunil Khilnani said in The Idea of India; that people in India are largely more connected with their communities than with an overall government (clearly, I’m not directly quoting here!!). But to the point, I think we as a country have finally started to fight for our government too – the government we want – and if I may say so, the media has pretty much everything to do with it.
Why? Because when I saw CNN-IBN this evening, a young doctor from AIIMS was telling a reporter that they were not going to operate on any more politicians, after all, AIIMS is not solely meant for them, I felt a few confidence. She asked him if he can really go through with this, and he said he would, and especially because “you are with us” (talking about the media).
Maybe we didn’t think about how well our democratic set-up would work, but these are important questions that need to be addressed. And if there is a government that cannot, or will not, protect its people – well, its time we hold them responsible. Really. But in real life, can that happen? Will Tehelka’s investigation go anywhere? I won't even go into the delayed and very corrupt justice system in this country.
You know what the scary part is, I think the next time (and I hope there isn’t one) something like this happens – I won’t be able to hide behind my age, or that I was away in university – I’m going to be an adult with voting rights and the ability to protest loudly… wait. Nandigram happened. I was all those things. So are you, whoever is reading this.