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Sackcloth and Ashes: Why for Modi Alone?
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

In the good old, days of the Old Testament when miracles used to happen, sackcloth and ashes were symbolic of debasement, mourning or repentance. Someone wanting to show his deeply plaintive heart would often wear sackcloth, and smear his body and head with ashes. Sackcloth was a coarse material usually made exclusively of black goat’s hair, and that made it extremely uncomfortable to wear. And the ashes were symbols of both desolation and ruin. That’s how – brush up your Old Testament stories - David mourned the death of Abner, the commander of Saul’s army, and Jacob also demonstrated his grief by wearing sackcloth when he thought his son, Joseph, has been killed.

Today, in the year 2014 of our Lord, India’s self-styled secularists and pseudo-intellectual chatterati want the BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi to appear in public, wearing sack cloth and ashes or if you’ve gone chic in sartorial preferences in dress preferences, wear grief and repentance on his shirt sleeves all the time? (Is it to avoid the latter that has perhaps driven Modi to invariably don half sleeved kurtas?) And he must do some sort of penance day so after day to atone for the killing of 790 of our Muslim brethren in the 2002 Gujarat riots for whom all of India’s secularists have been shedding tears –crocodiles of the world are embarrassed - day in and day out.

Lies “gross as a mountain”

When we talk of 2002 Gujarat Riots – the first major riot of the twenty-first century India, do you know the number of major communal riots in the previous half century after 1947. But before that a word on casualties in 2002.

How many people died in the Gujarat riots will possibly be discussed and debated till the day of reckoning when even the Almighty may be seized with uncertainty. Innumerable guesses are on offer depending upon who hazards the estimate. I’ve quoted the figure given by the Congress Union Minister of State for Home, Shriprakash Jaiswal, who belonged to the Congress Party, in Parliament on 11 May 2005, as per which 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed in the riots, 2548 people were injured and 223 people were missing. This was in a written reply to a question asked by a Congress member on the religion-wise casualties in Gujarat after Godhra. However, the numbers go on changing to suit political convenience like Falstaff’s men in buckram in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I –something that infuriated Prince Henry to exclaim:

These lies are like their father that begets them, gross as a mountain, open, palpable. Why, thou claybrained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson, obscene, greasy tallow-catch

We find everyone citing a number to corroborate the case he wants to build.

Personally, I put more reliance on figures I’ve cited for two reasons. First, it comes from a Government representative of the then Government, which by no means was favorably inclined to Modi. Secondly, the stakes by 2005 had not risen to the present extent in exaggerating the number of Muslims killed.

Public Memory is Short

Fortunately for politicians, public memory is proverbially short. Let’s face in all honesty that our recent past is replete with communal clashes. Here, in chronological order, is a list of major riots till the new century dawned:

Riot No 1 : and the worst ever recorded: 1947 Communal riots in Bengal. 5000-10000 Killed. Ruling party happened to be Congress.

Riot 2 : 1964 Communal riots in Rourkela & Jamshedpur. 2000 Killed. Ruling party Congress

Riot 3
: August 1967. 200 Killed. Communal riots in Ranchi. Party ruling again Congress

Riot 4
: 1969. Communal riots in Ahmedabad. More than 512 Killed in the city. 3000 to 15000 range in the entire state. Riots continued for 6 months. Ruling party happened to be Congress

Riot 5:
1970. Bhiwandi communal riots in Maharashtra. Around 80 killed. Ruling party Congress.

Riot 6
: April 1979. Communal riots in Jamshedpur, (Then Bihar). More than 125 killed. Janata Party (under Karpoori Thakur)

Riot 7 : August 1980. Moradabad Communal riots. Approx 2000 Killed. Ruling Party Congress

Riot 8
: Feb 1983. Communal violence in Nellie, Assam. 2000-5000 killed. PM – Indira Gandhi (Congress party). India's worst slaughter of Muslims in any single riot lasting just 6 hours. Of course hours of hard work must have gone into its preparation.

Riot 9 : May 1984. Communal riots in Bhiwandi. 146 Killed, 611 Injured. Ruling party Congress . CM: Vasandada Patil.

Riot 10 : Oct 1984. Anti-Sikh communal riots in Delhi. 2733 Killed. Ruling party Congress. Almost 100% casualty were Sikhs, which makes this a Rajiv Gandhi led genocide on India’s minorities. Followed by “Big Tree falls” justification too from the Congress Prime Minister!

Riot 11 : April 1985. Communal riots in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. At least 300 Killed . Ruling party Congress.

Riot 12
: July 1986. Communal violence in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. 59 Killed. Ruling party Congress

Riot 13
: Apr-May 1987. Communal violence in Meerut, UP. 81 killed. Ruling party Congress.

Riot 14
: October 1989 Bhagalpur, Bihar riots 800 to 2000 killed. Ruling party Congress

Riot 15
: December 1990. Hyderabad, AP. At least 132 killed. Ruling party Congress.

Riot 16
: Dec 1992 - Jan 1993. Mumbai, Maharashtra riots. 800 to 2000 killed. Ruling party Congress

Riot 17
: Dec 1992. Aligarh, UP. At least 176 killed. Ruling party Congress (President's rule).

Riot 18 : December 1992. Surat, Gujarat. At least 175 killed. Ruling party Congress.

Having presided over 16 of the above gory riots, tell me, dear readers, what should the spokespersons of the Congress Party be wearing in public – sackcloth and ashes or the legendary Dacca muslin kurtas or Cashmere wool tunics or Shahtoosh shawls?

Let’s take what was, by all reckoning, one of independent India’s worst communal riots, namely, the Nellie riot in Assam which occurred on February 18, 1983. In a few hours thousands of Muslims were butchered to death. The Financial Times correspondent asked Mrs. Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, why she had not acted earlier to stop the violence during that massacre since the state was under President’s Rule.

Do you remember her epic reply? “One has to let such events take their own course before stepping in”. What on earth do you make of it? Or is it because she made the observation it was automatically secular and self-exonerating? What does it matter if 2,191 people died – almost all of them Muslims? Don’t you know riots are divisible in two broad categories: Congress-instigated secular riots and Hindu retaliatory communal riots? The first category is excusable, but the second is absolutely abhorrent.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was re-elected to the Rajya Sabha as a representative of Assam, he tweeted “It’s a great opportunity for me to rededicate myself to the service of the people of Assam.” Singh who took over as Prime Minister entered the Rajya Sabha claiming to be a resident of Assam and a tenant of the Congress party boss Hiteshwar Saikia. (Manmohan Singh being a resident of Assam will always top the list of the most blatant political lies of the last half century.) What did that great Assamese who was Prime Minister – albeit a dummy - for a decade from 2004 t0 2014 do for the State’s recurrent communal problem?

The present generation isn’t going to forget in a hurry the November 1984 anti-Sikh riots when thousands of Sikhs were done to gory death as the government of the day presided over by Rajiv Gandhi watched in shamefully abject passivity. On March 30, 2012, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) told a Delhi court that the Delhi police, acting in a pre-planned manner during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, kept its “eyes closed” to the violence.

On the other hand, four days after toxic gas spewed from the now defunct Bhopal Union Carbide Factory on December 3, 1984, killing more than 15,000 persons and maiming a hugely vaster number of people, The Chairman of the company Warren Anderson came to the Madhya Pradesh. He was arrested for a few hours but thanks to Rajiv Gandhi’s prompt personal intervention managed to escape. And even 28 years after the world’s worst industrial disaster, we’ve failed to extradite and try the prime accused in the case.

And how deftly did the Government act to whitewash the case.

Human Tragedy

At the end of the day, Gujarat riots aren’t not just a number game, but human tragedy. Every Hindu, Muslim or Sikh who died in the above-cited communal clashes was first and foremost an Indian first and an Indian last. Counting the number of Hindus killed and Muslims massacred only reflects how our Governments in the last sixty years have gruesomely fractured our society. Aren’t we Indians first before we’re Hindus or Muslims? We do want the rulers of the day to gloss over this simple truism.

It is also worth recounting that there has not been a single major riot in Gujarat since 2002 in a State notorious for regular periodic communal clashes. Doesn’t it speak volumes for the favorite ‘punching’ bag of ‘secularists? Some learn from a mistake and turn around; some persist in continuing to play the divisive communal role. The latter category is best exemplified by the Congress.

The one person who has made a serious – as distinctly different from the superficial journalistic analyses – of our recurrent communal conflagrations, is M J Akbar. That he too once hobnobbed with Nehruvian secularism and has now metamorphosed into one of the spokesmen of the BJP is a different story. He recorded in Riot after Riot how “the basic cause for the communal frenzy is the same: poverty, economic deprivation and a history which has been perverted and misused by religious zealots.” And the Congress nurtured and almost perpetuated the siege mentality among Muslims to consign them to a permanent vote bank.

Far away from their native land and further away from reality as it obtains in our society, the likes of the still-fleeing-from-fatwa Sir Salman Rushdie and the domiciled sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor are frantically busy beating the drum to warn the world how unfortunate would it be for India if BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi were to be elected to the top post. Hence, they spare no effort succeeds to resurrect what they describe “the horrifying events that took place in Gujarat in 2002”. The letter to the Guardian issue of 6 March 2014 signed by them and some British lawyers, activists and even three members of British Parliament contends that Modi becoming prime minister would “bode ill for India’s future as a country that cherishes the ideals of inclusion and protection for all its peoples and communities”. This petition comes days after prestigious Economist infuriated the BJP by calling Modi “divisive”. Should we let the so-called intellectuals who fled the country for greener pastures, to decide for us which party headed by whom should rule India?

All these goings-on show how prejudiced and biased are the left-leaning you-scratch-my-back-and-I-will-scratch-yours literati and some other influence-peddling beings entertain a pathological hatred towards Narendra Modi and everyone who talks of anything do with Hinduism. The BJP, however, has grown in spite of their opposition for so many years and the left has gone down in spite of their support because the people of India trust Modi and the BJP’s oft-repeated plea: “In a democracy, the people of India will decide. The motto of the BJP is India First.

Year after year we have discussed Gujarat riots, have we thought over a deliberately neglected side issue? The rioting in Gujarat in the first three days after Godhra was a result of not just the massacre at Godhra. It was the result of something else. And that something else was the reaction of the Left-liberal-secular media.

The Left-liberal-secular brigade then included the media in general and TV channels like Star News-NDTV (who then had a collaboration) in particular and all English newspaper editors of the print media. It also included all non-BJP politicians. Every non-BJP leader who appeared on TV did his best to rub salt into the wounds of the anguished people. And this was done by rationalizing and justifying the Godhra carnage.

May I draw my readers’ attention to an article that Vir Sanghvi the Chief Editor of The Hindustan Times wrote at that time? His incisive piece was titled “One way ticket”. It was published in The Hindustan Times dated 28 February 2002. I’m inclined to think he must have penned it on February 27 itself, the day of the massacre in Godhra. Here are some excerpts from that article:

“There is something profoundly worrying in the response of what might be called the secular establishment to the massacre in Godhra.…

Try and take the incident out of the secular construct that we, in India, have perfected and see how bizarre such an attitude sounds in other contexts. Did we say that New York had it coming when the Twin Towers were attacked last year? Then too, there was enormous resentment among fundamentalist Muslims about America’s policies, but we didn’t even consider whether this resentment was justified or not.

Instead we took the line that all sensible people must take: any massacre is bad and deserves to be condemned.

When Graham Staines and his children were burnt alive, did we say that Christian missionaries had made themselves unpopular by engaging in conversion and so, they had it coming? No, of course, we didn’t.

Why then are these poor kar sewaks an exception? Why have we de-humanised them to the extent that we don’t even see the incident as the human tragedy that it undoubtedly was and treat it as just another consequence of the VHP’s fundamentalist policies?

The answer, I suspect, is that we are programmed to see Hindu-Muslim relations in simplistic terms: Hindus provoke, Muslims suffer.

When this formula does not work – it is clear now that a well-armed Muslim mob murdered unarmed Hindus – we simply do not know how to cope. We shy away from the truth – that some Muslims committed an act that is indefensible – and resort to blaming the victims.

Of course, there are always ‘rational reasons’ offered for this stand. Muslims are in a minority and therefore, they deserve special consideration. Muslims already face discrimination so why make it harder for them? If you report the truth then you will inflame Hindu sentiments and this would be irresponsible. And so on.I know the arguments well because – like most journalists – I have used them myself. And I still argue that they are often valid and necessary.

But there comes a time when this kind of rigidly ‘secularist’ construct not only goes too far; it also becomes counter-productive. When everybody can see that a trainload of Hindus was massacred by a Muslim mob, you gain nothing by blaming the murders on the VHP or arguing that the dead men and women had it coming to them.

Not only does this insult the dead…., but it also insults the intelligence of the reader. Even moderate Hindus, of the sort that loathe the VHP, are appalled by the stories that are now coming out of Gujarat:….

Any media – indeed, any secular establishment – that fails to take into account the genuine concerns of people risks losing its own credibility. Something like that happened in the mid-Eighties when an aggressive hard secularism on the part of the press and government led even moderate Hindus to believe that they had become second class citizens in their own country. It was this Hindu backlash that brought the Ayodhya movement – till then a fringe activity – to the forefront and fuelled the rise of L.K. Advani’s BJP.

My fear is that something similar will happen once again. The VHP will ask the obvious question of Hindus: why is it a tragedy when Staines is burnt alive and merely an ‘inevitable political development’ when the same fate befalls 57 kar sewaks?

Because, as secularists, we can provide no good answer, it is the VHP’s responses that will be believed. Once again, Hindus will believe that their suffering is of no consequence and will be tempted to see the building of a temple at Ayodhya as an expression of Hindu pride in the face of secular indifference.

But even if this were not to happen, even if there was no danger of a Hindu backlash, I still think that the secular establishment should pause for thought.

There is one question we need to ask ourselves: have we become such prisoners of our own rhetoric that even a horrific massacre becomes nothing more than occasion for Sangh Parivar-bashing?”

I’ve quoted Singhvi extensively because he showed rare courage to swim against the intellectual tide of the day and had the grit to tell the truth. Allow me to give you, my readers, an unequivocal assurance that Vir Singhvi isn’t, or ever was, a spokesperson of the thrice-banned, much-maligned RSS. All he did was to draw our attention to the hopelessly dated secular construct that we unquestioningly inherited from the British – a construct which eminently suited their divisive imperial designs in the sub-continent. Do we the gumption to publicly debate this anachronism?

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Comments on this Article

Comment It strikes me that both Singhvi and you for all the laborious repetition of facts conclude in bafflement. The solution all the while is present: it is a matter of principle, the secular constitutional principle that in India Hindus and Muslims are equal citizens and that any conflict between them betrays the same. However, the presence of a Muslim homeland in adjacent Pakistan orients the thinking of Hindus in India (and by reaction that of Muslims) to a perception of partition on religious grounds that makes recognition of what should be the overriding secular principle of equal Indian citizenship interminably beset by tension.

04/21/2014 21:31 PM

Comment Starting of Godhra riots was train massacre, If this had not happened, there would not have been riots at all. Why does not the media bring home this point whenever mention of Godhra occurs. Even the BJP spokesperson does not mention.

04/19/2014 07:28 AM

Comment I think you have driven the point home amply. Even in your earlier articles this point was well researched and conclusions put forward. I believe that the most of the country (if not all of it except certain politically manipulative individuals) do not view Modi as an instigator or proponent of communal violence. It is no longer a significant factor in the ongoing elections.

I must commend you for your relentless dedication to drive your point home.

04/18/2014 15:17 PM

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