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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 14, March 27, 2010

Remembering Gujarat Pogrom after Eight Years: Interview with Harsh Mander

Saturday 27 March 2010, by Humra Quraishi

Harsh Mander quit the Indian Administrative Service to work as an activist-writer. His latest book, Fear and Forgiveness—The Aftermath of Massacre, published by Penguin in 2009, focuses on the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 and its aftermath. This interview was taken in the backdrop of the aftermath of the 2002

pogrom and what realities stand out today in Gujarat after eight long years.

How can the continuing climate of ‘dread‘ get diminished in the riot affected areas of Gujarat ?

I believe that this fear cannot end without justice being done and seen to be done. The impunity that the political leadership, the civil adminis-tration, and organisations that manufacture hate and organise mass violence enjoy must change. And, side by side, healing requires that people in the majority community acknowledge the crimes of the carnage, express remorse, and join hands to welcome back and help rebuild broken lives.

Your book talks about forgiveness and reconciliation- in practical terms is this actually possible?

I believe forgiveness cannot authentically arise from a situation of surrender in which fear persists. A person can authentically forgive only when he or she has the power to choose whether or not to forgive, and these choices have conse-quences on the wrong-doer. This is impossible without justice, and therefore I feel that unless justice is accomplished, there can be no true forgiveness and reconciliation. These also require that the larger society admits that people have suffered great injustices in the brutal carnage and in what has followed. There should be sincere public expressions of regret, and reparation for the affected people. But all of these are actively blocked by the political leadership and communal organisations, which have a vested interest in cementing and widening the divide between peoples. But I have faith that the centuries-old traditions of diverse peoples living together with peace and respect will ultimately prevail.

You have mentioned in this book that as a civil servant you had witnessed several communal riots /clashes but the 2002 pogrom that occurred in Gujarat was much worse. Comment.

Even though these were separated by 18 years of history, there is tragically a great deal in common between the communal massacres that played out on the streets of Delhi in 1984, and in settlements and by-lanes across Gujarat in 2002. Both these massacres were not spontaneous conflicts between people of different religious identities; they were pogroms systematically and cynically enabled by acts of commission and omission of public agencies at all levels, including in positions of command authority. State officials similarly stood by in both episodes, as mobs were allowed and even actively encouraged to loot and torch properties, desecrate places of worship, and gruesomely murder often by burning alive people of specified minority faiths: Sikh in one case and Muslim in another. In both instances, communal organisations and political leaders worked openly in tandem to stir and stoke communal hatred, and to organise the logistics of the slaughter, efficiently trans-porting men, weapons and inflammables to settlements and commercial establishments of the communities marked out for slaughter. Similar stories are told in both events of people relying on voters’ lists to know which properties were to be targeted.

The major differences are that although once the slaughter was underway, it was deliberately organised in both pogroms; but it is no one’s case that there was advance planning before Mrs Gandhi’s assassination of the 1984 massacre that followed in its wake, whereas there is considerable circumstantial evidence gathered by nearly 40 citizens reports to confirm that the 2002 massacre was planned long in advance of the actual flashpoint of the train burning in Godhra. The Gujarat carnage targeted women and children with gruesome and sadistic mass killing and burning alive, whereas the massacre in Delhi mostly reserved its brutality for men and male youths. The biggest difference was that the 2002 carnage was followed by an organised social and economic boycott of the targeted community, which continues even seven years later at the time of writing.

Both brutal pogroms against religious minorities were sought—both by the political leadership and in wide sections of popular perceptions in the community of majority faith—to be ‘justified’ and even ‘righteous’ violence because entire communities were deemed to be guilty merely by their shared identities with alleged killers. The attacks in both pogroms were on communities and not individuals; they built upon and further consolidated large and persisting social hostility prevailing at the time of the massacres against the communities. The two massacres also had in common the role of communal organisations in manufacturing and sustaining hatred; and underlying agendas of political power, riding on waves of engineered hatred. Ruling governments in both massacres reaped rich, even unprecedented, electoral harvests in elections that followed in the wake of the slaughters.

Both massacres also share a common history of impunity, with the majority of the killers and marauders and all those in command positions of authority in government and the civil administration still unpunished. There was in both cases a spectacular and comprehensive subversion of justice by all arms of the criminal justice system: the police, prosecution and courts. The difference has been that unlike the 1984 massacre, the Gujarat carnage was followed by unprecedented sustained legal activism by a range of human rights and survivor organi-sations, and by a far more activist role both by the National Human Rights Commission (which was not in existence in 1984) and the Supreme Court. Therefore compared to the accused of 1984, almost all of whom still walk free, many of those accused of crimes in 2002 have been arrested and are facing jail sentences at the time of writing, and the Supreme Court ordered the re-opening of more than 2002 cases which had been closed even without trial, the transfer of some cases to courts outside Gujarat, and special investigation teams with the court’s own nominees to re-investigate some of the biggest massacres.

Is the communal virus there to spread out?

I believe we are living through very troubled times. The 1990s saw an ascendancy of the fascistic politics of difference, hate and division. This was further fuelled by the global legitimacy to prejudice and the violation by states of democratic freedoms in the name of the war on terror. But there are signs of hope in the elections of 2004 and 2009, which I see as a vote by the majority of Indians for secular and inclusive politics, for equitable growth, and for decency in public life.

In your opinion is the Minorities Commission or for that matter the Ministry for Minority Affairs (GOI) doing the needful to reach out to those affected in Gujarat?

I found the Central Government in its first term from 2004 sadly reluctant to correct the injustices of the carnage of 2002 in Gujarat, and its aftermath. I hope that with the decisive mandate of 2009, it will feel less constrained to perform its constitutional duties, to restore the rights guaranteed by India’s Constitution to the affected people.

You have dwelt extensively in this book on the persisting climate of injustice in Gujarat. Comment.

To an outsider, it may appear that peace has been restored to Gujarat. But the reality is painfully very different. There is now little overt violence, but minorities have been forced to live with fear and segregation as a way of life. Many people who fled their homes during the massacre in 2002 are still, after eight years, too fearful to return to their villages, and instead subsist in relief colonies, or in Muslim ghettoes, with the safety of numbers. Those who have returned to their old homes have had to accept many conditions of second class citizenship, of silence—not pursuing legal justice for the crimes that they suffered—and to live in segregated habitations, with social and economic boycott.

You are from the Indian Administrative Service. Comment on the role of civil servants in Gujarat or even at the GOI level when the Gujarat pogrom was in full swing or even thereafter.

I am firmly convinced that no riot can go on for more than a few hours, unless there is active complicity in this of the state authorities. This is not just a ‘lapse’ or a ‘failure’. Such ‘culpable inaction’ of public officials in times of communal (and anti-Dalit) strife is to my mind an enormous crime, because it enables the massacre of innocent people in the name of religion and caste. There were some police officers of extraordinary courage and integrity, like Rahul Sharma who quelled the violence and prevented the carnage in his district charge in Bhanvnagar in 2002, and Neerja Gortu who helped unearth evidence of mass graves and massacre in Panchmahals. These unsung heroes actually demonstrate what could have been done by other officials, and the gravity of the crimes of omissions.

Is there a nexus between the politician and the police and the babu?

The founders of free India, such as Nehru and Patel, had hoped that the police and civil authorities would be the steel frame of modern India. Even as certain political groups would continue to foment religious, caste and linguistic divisions and hate, the permanent civil service would through firm and impartial imposition of the law in times of strife and mass violence, ensure that this teeming diverse country holds together. In early decades after Independence, many remained faithful to this most sacred of their duties. But in the massacres in Nellie in 1983, Delhi in 1984, Hashimpura in 1987, Bhagalpur in 1989, Mumbai in 1992-93, and Gujarat in 2002, there has been a precipitous decline, in which more and more civil and police officials have not hesitated in joining hands with communal agendas of their political masters.

Why did you quit the IAS?

There is little more precious to me than the promises of our secular democratic constitution to the people of India, that regardless of the faith you practice, your gender, caste or wealth, the language you speak or the region you live in, you will be a fully equal human being and citizen, assured of equal protection by the law of the land, so that all our diverse people can live together without fear and with head held high. This is truly the pluralist ‘idea of India’ itself. When I saw these values under grave attack, I felt I wanted to be free of the constraints of being part of government, to fight in all the ways I could, in defence of what is paramount to me to protect our shared future as a humane people. And I believe that the politics of hate and injustice cannot be fought by hate, but instead by constructing an alternative politics of love, and justice, and peace based on understanding and mutual respect for our diversities. In a very small way, this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

For the last eight years (ever since the 2002 pogrom) you have been working for the affected in Gujarat. Together with that writing and focusing on the ground realities ...what’s kept you going and the hurdles you have faced?

Most of all, I can keep going because however communalised the executive, bureaucracy and middle classes may have become, there are extraordinary examples of women and men who stand up for what is just and humane. Above all, there are ordinary Muslims and Hindu people who quietly resist the climate of divide and hate, by extraordinary acts of courage and kindness. Because of them, I can continue to hope.

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