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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 35, New Delhi, August 14, 2021

Fugitive moments of compassion | Sukumaran C V

Friday 13 August 2021, by Sukumaran C.V.


In India the words Hindu and Muslim always bring into our minds conflict, riots, rapes, killings and incessant bickerings. There are numerous stories that narrate the love and cooperation between Hindus and Muslims in India to show that they coexist as the citizens of our country. But such narratives are blurred by the actions of the bigots and fanatics of both sides. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas tells in his autobiography—I Am Not An Island: An Experiment in Autobiography—the touching story of an old pious Hindu lady saving him from the lathi blows of the British police while he participated in the protest rally held at Shivaji Park in Bombay in the evening of August 9, 1942 against the arrest of the Mahatma and other Congress Working Committee members for passing the historic Quit India Resolution.

Abbas writes: “We were stopped by a contingent of police who attacked us, first blinding us with tear gas bombs, then raining canes and lathis on our heads and chests and backs. I also got hit with a blow on my head but in the moment I felt neither pain nor the blood oozing out of the injury. Coughing, groping blindly, almost stepping over the victims of the lathi charge and tear gas attack, I came out of the park when two delicate and wrinkled hands held me, supported me and guided me.

“Come this way, son,” said a woman’s voice in Marathi.

She guided me over the stairs of her house and took me into a room, made me lie down on a bed. The head injury was cleaned with cotton wool and iodine which made me wince. Then she applied a wet cloth to my eyes, after a few moments the smarting seized. Now I could open my eyes but saw darkly, as if through a glass. When the focus of my eyes was restored to normal, I saw the oleographs of Bhagwan Krishna, Lakshmi Devi, and Shivaji on the walls. In a corner reserved for Puja, there was the idol of some god where an oil lamp flickered. The old woman was praying—perhaps for me.

In those days, religion was surrounded by all kinds of taboos and I was afraid I had been mistaken for a caste Hindu. I got up with a start.

The old woman came to me and said in Marathi, “Why have you got up, son. Rest here for a while.”

I didn’t speak Marathi, but I could understand a little of what she said. So I said, “No maaji. Now I am all right. It is night. I must go now.”

“No, son. First you take some hot milk.”

She got the steaming milk from the kitchen in a brass cup, and I was so moved by her humanity that I hesitated to take it. I was afraid of defiling her religion.
Maaji, I am a Muslim.”

This, I thought,was conclusive information which would induce her to have second thoughts about entertaining the unknown stranger.

“So, what of it?” she said simply, and gave the cup in my hand. I drank the milk in one gulp, and said, giving back the cup to her, “Forgive mother, I interrupted your puja.”
She said simply, “This is also puja, my son.”

Another touching narrative I have read is that of Mankumar Sen, the well-known Calcutta journalist whose family was uprooted from East Pakistan. The riots that started in Noakhali in October 1946 reached the doors of Mankumar Sen’s village too. Sen and his family members would have been killed had the milkman Kasem Ali not helped them to escape by ferrying them in his boat stealthily. Mankumar Sen writes: "Terror struck our village, Balia, with the suddenness of a volcanic eruption. Our village bordered Noakhali district, where with the slaughter of the zamindar Chowdhury family at Choumahani on October 10, 1946, the killings began. In the next ten to twelve days, the fanatics had reached our borders. The whole day witnessed an exodus of men, women and children. The flames at one end of the village were indication enough that by daybreak our village would be the next target."

"By evening, out of sixty households only ten were left. The flames were now visible at a mile’s distance. We could hear the cries of the armed gangs and the pathetic wailing of the villagers."

"Throughout the day we were determined to stick to our guns. Why would we leave our home? Our neighbours, mostly Muslims, with whom we had a cordial relationship, were dumfounded by the frightening rumours. They repeatedly requested us to shift for a while to Chandpur. How could we get out into a safety zone? I had my old parents, my wife and a few young dependents. I had got married only 12 weeks before. All professional boatmen had disappeared under dire threats. The canal from Choumahani to Chandpur was our only way out."

"Suddenly Kasem Ali appeared—our next-door neighbour. A milk vendor with his characteristic smile, short-tempered, loose-tongued and desperate, Kasem was looked down upon as a notorious character by his own community. His intolerance of his own community was vehement. Kasem bhai told us to get ready at once. He had his boat ready and would escort us to the town. Someone whispered that to accompany Kasem would mean death. But we decided to go ahead. We assembled in darkness in the backyard of our home. Kasem had intelligently followed the obscure route that led to the mainstream canal."

"Kasem dimmed his lantern. We huddled together within, while a heavy tarpaulin covered the boat. Only the milk cans were in view. We had hardly proceeded a mile when a voice wanted to know who was passing. Kasem shouted, "Not your father, this is Kasem Ali." Next a chorus of shaky voices inquired where he was going in the dead of the night. Kasem replied that he was on way to Chandpur to supply milk to the sweet shops. We carried on."

"Dawn was breaking when we reached the shores of river Meghna. As we disembarked, Kasem touched my mother’s feet and offered the lantern to my father. ’Jathamasay (elder uncle), keep this with you,’ he said, sobbing. We bade farewell forever."

"We owe our lives to Kasem bhai and he is a part of us—wherever he may be." ("The Longest Journey", Express Magazine, August 13, 1989).

The above incidents happened before Independence. Such acts of compassion happen in contemporary India too even though not in such terrific situations. In June this year, I read a touching Facebook post by a professor (who "was stuck in a rigidly vegetarian home") describing a ’lovelier’ experience of hers when she gave birth to her daughter in June 1998.

The FB post says: “I was writing the last chapters of my PhD thesis then. No one really cared about my pregnancy, not even the better ones at home..."

She continues: "My daughter was born. What a miracle she was, her perfect round head, that single dimple on her golden cheek... But something lovelier was to happen. I had no one to take care of me; no sisters, no sisters-in-law. My mother and mother-in-law were too senior to stay up at night with the baby. But I had enough and more of breast milk so my baby slept soundly. That was not the case in the next room, where a younger woman had delivered a baby boy all of four and half kilos and the poor little fellow was screaming because his mum had no milk. ..... when the nurse came round, I told her that I could feed him. His was a Muslim family; his mum had several sisters, and they were carrying him in turn. But he would just not relent. Finally, at around dawn, they brought him, and I fed him. The poor darling drank his fill and slept! The family—the little chap’s aunts—were delighted."

"Then, by evening that day, his father’s family came. They were more orthodox and were shocked to know that he was fed by another woman!"

"...After four months, when his mother was ready to go back and join his father abroad, the family brought him over to see me. That was the last I saw of him. I wonder where he is now—my son of a few hours. He must be a strapping young man now.”

And she wishes him happy birthday just as she wishes it to her daughter.

As Howard Zinn says in A People’s History of the United States, “Our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”

We want more and more fugitive moments of compassion like that are seen narrated above than the crimes against humanity we see around us. Rapes and communal riots may be the most terrible calamities in the world. In both, the victims are horribly traumatised. India witnessed many rape-filled and murder-filled communal riots before and after Independence. Srikrishna Commission Report meticulously documents the atrocities perpetrated on the Indians by the Indians in the name of religion in the Mumbai Riots of 1992-93. I am quoting here some of the numerous cold-blooded crimes committed by both the police and the mob during the riots, to let the readers realise we are in dire need of compassion rather than animosity and warfare:

“(Witness No. 200) Salma Aziz Merchant’s husband was sick because of chronic ulcer, heart ailment and was under continuous treatment from Dr. Moledina. On 10th January 1993, at about 1200 hours, 20-25 policemen entered the house and ransacked the household articles under the excuse of searching for weapons. They took away Salma’s 16 year-old boy and sick husband. When she tried to protest they brandished rifles and threatened to shoot her and her son. Subsequently Salma learnt that her husband, Aziz Merchant, had died in a police encounter on 11thJanuary 1993. According to Salma, when she went to identify the body at J. J. morgue, the bullet-ridden body was virtually beyond recognition. Salma was emphatic that her husband was incapable of joining the riot in the state of his health and the police have murdered him. Her evidence is corroborated by Dr. M.J.M Moledina (Witness No. 201). We can see many such incidents in the Srikrishna Commission Report (Volume II, Chapter I, 11.74).

“Three Muslims traveling in a Maruti car in Pratiksha Nagar were pulled out, severely assaulted, put back in the car and the car was set on fire resulting in their being burnt alive. The incident occurred opposite Building No. 20, Manohar Kini Memorial Library, Sardar Nagar No.1, Pratiksha Nagar on 14th January 1993 at 14.30 hours. (C. R. No. 27 of 1993). Three police constables, one of them armed, were present on fixed bandobast duty at Shivaji Chowk in Sardar Nagar No.1 and they were all in uniforms. The place where this incident took place was hardly 150 feet from Shivaji Chowk where this picket was on bandobast duty. No attempt appears to have been made by the police picket to stop the gruesome incident.”

“An interesting fallout of this incident is that on 15th January 1993 the police arrested two persons in connection with this incident and on the same day a morcha of 3000 to 4000 men and women led by the local Shiv Sena Shaka Pramukh Prahlad Thombre, Shiv Sena MLA Shri Kalidas Kolamkar, Congress MLA Shri Eknath Gaikwad, Congress Corporator Smt.Karuna Mahatre, Shiv Sena Corporator Shri Krishna Vishwasrao, Shiv Sena Vibhag Pramukh Sudam Pandit and one Arvind Samant came to the police station demanding release of the arrested accused.” (Report of the Srikrishna Commission, Volume II, Chapter I, 2.14).”

“One 18-year-old girl, Shamim Bano, was kidnapped and, in spite of the names of the culprits being disclosed to the police, the police took little action in the matter and the girl was not traced thereafter (C. R. No. 27 of 1993)" (Report of the Srikrishna Commission, Volume II, Chapter I, 2.23).

“On 12th January 1993, a Hindu mob surrounds, strips and assaults two Muslim women. The older woman manages to run away. The uncle of the younger woman, who comes to rescue the young girl of 19, and that girl are beaten and burnt alive by the violent mob. The names of the miscreants are disclosed to the police by a Hindu lady in the locality. Though the miscreants were arrested and tried, they were all acquitted.” (Report of the Srikrishna Commission, Volume I, Chapter II, 1.15).

“There is one incident which is very serious in the view of the Commission and amounts to coldblooded murder by the police. Between 1100 to 1130 hours on 10th January 1993, after having arrived at Pathan Chawl, the police forcibly entered the premises of the Muslims and started picking them up. They entered the residence of one Hasamaniya Wagale, terrorized his wife and daughter at the point of rifle, picked up his 16-year-old son, Shahnawaz, and dragged him out, all the while kicking him and assaulting him with rifle butts. Wagale’s daughter, Yasmin Hasan Wagale, saw Shahnawaz being taken towards police vehicle, when one of the constables shot him from behind at point blank range..... Yasmin Hasan Wagle is a young intelligent and educated girl who gave evidence before the Commission. Her evidence was precise and clear, though punctuated with bitter sobs. ...Despite overwhelming evidence which, in the opinion of the Commission, clearly indicts the police for cold-blooded murder, the Deputy Commissioner of Police has adroitly white-washed the affair.” (Report of the Srikrishna Commission, Volume II, Chapter I, 5.58, 5.59). 

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