Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Genocide, Denial and Celebration

By: Arundathi Roy

I never met Hrant Dink. From what I know of him, of what he wrote, I know that had I been here in Istanbul a year ago I would have been among the one hundred thousand people who walked with his coffin in dead silence through the wintry streets of this city, with banners saying, "We are all Armenians", "We are all Hrant Dink". Perhaps I'd have carried the one that said, "One and a half million plus one". [One-and-a-half million is the number of Armenians who were systematically murdered by the Ottoman Empire in the genocide in Anatolia in the spring of 1915. The Armenians, the largest Christian minority living under Islamic Turkic rule in the area, had lived in Anatolia for more than 2,500 years.]

I wonder what thoughts would have gone through my head as I walked beside his coffin. Maybe I would have heard a reprise of the voice of Araxie Barsamian, mother of my friend David Barsamian, telling the story of what happened to her and her family. She was ten years old in 1915. She remembered the swarms of grasshoppers that arrived in her village, Dubne, which was north of the historic city Dikranagert, now Diyarbakir. The village elders were alarmed, she said, because they knew in their bones that the grasshoppers were a bad omen. They were right; the end came in a few months, when the wheat in the fields was ready for harvesting.

"When we left...(we were) 25 in the family," Araxie Barsamian says. "They took all the men folks. They asked my father, 'Where is your ammunition?' He says, 'I sold it.' So they says, 'Go get it.' So he went to the Kurd town to get it, they beat him and took all his clothes. When he came back there—this my mother tells me story—when he came back there, naked body, he went in the jail, they cut his he die in jail.And they took all the mens in the field, they tied their hands, and they shooted, killed every one of them."

Araxie and the other women in her family were deported. All of them perished except Araxie. She was the lone survivor. This is, of course, a single testimony that comes from a history that is denied by the Turkish government, and many Turks as well. The day I arrived in Istanbul, I walked the streets for many hours, and as I looked around, a friend pointed out to me young boys in white caps who seemed to have suddenly appeared like a rash in the city. He explained that they were expressing their solidarity with the child-assassin who was wearing a white cap when he killed Hrant. The battle with the cap-wearers of Istanbul, of Turkey, is not my battle, it's yours. I have my own battles to fight against other kinds of cap-wearers and torchbearers in my country. In the state of Gujarat, there was a genocide against the Muslim community in 2002. I use the word Genocide advisedly, and in keeping with its definition contained in Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The genocide began as collective punishment for an unsolved crime—the burning of a railway coach in which 53 Hindu pilgrims were burned to death. In a carefully planned orgy of supposed retaliation, 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered in broad daylight by squads of armed killers, organised by fascist militias, and backed by the Gujarat government and the administration of the day. Muslim women were gang-raped and burned alive. Muslim shops, Muslim businesses and Muslim shrines and mosques were systematically destroyed. Some 1,50,000 people were driven from their homes. Even today, many of them live in ghettos—some built on garbage heaps—with no water supply, no drainage, no streetlights, no healthcare. They live as second-class citizens, boycotted socially and economically. Meanwhile, the killers, police as well as civilian, have been embraced, rewarded, promoted. This state of affairs is now considered 'normal'.The initial outcry in the national press has settled down. In Gujarat, the genocide has been brazenly celebrated as the epitome of Gujarati pride, Hindu-ness, even Indian-ness. This poisonous brew has been used twice in a row to win state elections, with campaigns that have cleverly used the language and apparatus of modernity and democracy. The helmsman, Narendra Modi, has become a folk hero, called in by the BJP to campaign on its behalf in other Indian states. As genocides go, the Gujarat genocide cannot compare with the people killed in the Congo, Rwanda and Bosnia, where the numbers run into millions, nor is it by any means the first that has occurred in India. (In 1984, for instance, 3,000 Sikhs were massacred on the streets of Delhi with similar impunity, by killers overseen by the Congress Party.) But the Gujarat genocide is part of a larger, more elaborate and systematic vision. It tells us that the wheat is ripening and the grasshoppers have landed in mainland India. It's an old human habit, genocide is. Amongst the earliest recorded genocides is thought to be the destruction of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War in 149 BC. The word itself—genocide—was coined by Raphael Lemkin only in 1943, and adopted by the United Nations in 1948, after the Nazi Holocaust. Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as:

"Any of the following Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [or] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

Since this definition leaves out the persecution of political dissidents, real or imagined, it does not include some of the greatest mass murders in history. Personally I think the definition by Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, authors of The History and Sociology of Genocide, is more apt.Genocide, they say, "is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator."

Defined like this, genocide would include, for example, the monumental crimes committed by Suharto in Indonesia (1 million), Pol Pot in Cambodia (1.5 million), Stalin in the Soviet Union (60 million), Mao in China (70 million).When a set of perpetrators faces its victims, in order to go about its business of wanton killing, it must first sever any human connection with it. It must see its victims as sub-human, as parasites whose eradication would be a service to society. Here, for example, is an account of the massacre of Pequot Indians by English Puritans led by John Mason in Connecticut in 1636:

"Those that escaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyre, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente thereof, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice...."

And here, approximately four centuries later, is Babu Bajrangi, one of the major lynchpins of the Gujarat genocide, recorded on camera in the sting operation mounted by Tehelka a few months ago:

"We didn't spare a single Muslim shop, we set everything on fire...hacked, burned, set on fire... we believe in setting them on fire because these bastards don't want to be cremated, they're afraid of it... I have just one last wish...let me be sentenced to death... I don't care if I'm hanged... just give me two days before my hanging and I will go and have a field day in Juhapura where seven or eight lakhs of these people stay... I will finish them off... let a few more of them die... at least 25,000 to 50,000 should die."

I hardly need to say that Babu Bajrangi had the blessings of Narendra Modi, the protection of the police, and the love of his people. He continues to work and prosper as a free man in Gujarat. The one crime he cannot be accused of is Genocide Denial. Genocide Denial is a radical variation on the theme of the old, frankly racist, bloodthirsty triumphalism. It was probably evolved as an answer to the somewhat patchy dual morality that arose in the 19th century, when Europe was developing limited but new forms of democracy and citizens' rights at home while simultaneously exterminating people in their millions in her colonies. Suddenly countries and governments began to deny or attempt to hide the genocides they had committed. "Denial is saying, in effect," says Professor Robert Jay Lifton, author of Hiroshima and America: Fifty Years of Denial, "that the murderers did not murder. The victims weren't killed. The direct consequence of denial is that it invites future genocide."

Of course today, when genocide politics meets the Free Market, official recognition—or denial—of holocausts and genocides is a multinational business enterprise. It rarely has anything to do to with historical fact or forensic evidence. Morality certainly does not enter the picture. Crudely, the lowering or raising of the price of a barrel of oil (or a tonne of uranium), permission granted for a military base, or the opening up of a country's economy could be the decisive factor when governments adjudicate on whether a genocide did or did not occur. Or indeed whether genocide will or will not occur. And if it does, whether it will or will not be reported, and if it is, then what slant that reportage will take. For example, the death of two million in the Congo goes virtually unreported. Why? And was the death of a million Iraqis under the sanctions regime, prior to the US invasion, genocide (which is what Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, called it) or was it 'worth it', as Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN, claimed? It depends on who makes the rules. Bill Clinton? Or an Iraqi mother who has lost her child? Since the United States is the richest and most powerful country in the world, it has assumed the privilege of being the World's Number One Genocide Denier. It continues to celebrate Columbus Day, the day Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, which marks the beginning of a Holocaust that wiped out millions of native Indians, about 90 per cent of the original population. (Lord Amherst, the man whose idea it was to distribute blankets infected with smallpox virus to Indians, has a university town in Massachusetts, and a prestigious liberal arts college named after him). In America's second Holocaust, almost 30 million Africans were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Well near half of them died during transportation. But in 2002, the US delegation could still walk out of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, refusing to acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade were crimes. Slavery, they insisted, was legal at the time. The US has also refused to accept that the bombing of Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden and Hamburg—which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians—were crimes, let alone acts of genocide. Since the end of World War II, the US government has intervened overtly, militarily, more than 400 times in 100 countries, and covertly more than 6,000 times. This includes its invasion of Vietnam and the extermination of three million Vietnamese (approximately 10 per cent of its population). None of these has been acknowledged as war crimes or genocidal acts.

And what when victims become perpetrators? (In Rwanda, in the Congo?) What remains to be said about Israel, created out of the debris of one of the cruelest genocides in human history?

The history of genocide tells us that it's not an aberration, an anomaly, a glitch in the human system. It's a habit as old, as persistent, as much part of the human condition, as love and art and agriculture. Most of the genocidal killing from the 15th century onwards has been an integral part of Europe's search for what the Germans famously called Lebensraum—living space. Lebensraum was a word coined by the German geographer and zoologist Freidrich Ratzel to describe what he thought of as the dominant human species' natural impulse to expand its territory in its search for not just space, but sustenance. This impulse to expansion would naturally be at the cost of a less dominant species, a weaker species that Nazi ideologues believed should give way, or be made to give way, to the stronger one. The idea of lebensraum was set out in precise terms in 1901, but Europe had already begun her quest for lebensraum 400 years earlier, when Columbus landed in America. The search for lebensraum also took Europeans to Africa: unleashing holocaust after holocaust. The Germans exterminated almost the entire population of the Hereros in Southwest Africa; while in the Congo, the Belgians' "experiment in commercial expansion" cost 10 million lives. By the last quarter of the 19th century, the British had exterminated the aboriginal people of Tasmania, and of most of Australia. Sven Lindqvist, author of Exterminate the Brutes, argues that it was Hitler's quest for lebensraum—in a world that had already been carved up by other European countries—that led the Nazis to push through Eastern Europe and on toward Russia. The Jews of Eastern Europe and western Russia stood in the way of Hitler's colonial ambitions. Therefore, like the native people of Africa and America and Asia, they had to be enslaved or liquidated. It's not a coincidence that the political party that carried out the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, was called the Committee for Union & Progress. 'Union' (racial/ethnic/religious/national) and 'Progress' (economic determinism) have long been the twin coordinates of genocide. Armed with this reading of history, is it reasonable to worry about whether a country that is poised on the threshold of 'progress' is also poised on the threshold of genocide? Could the India being celebrated all over the world as a miracle of progress and democracy, possibly be poised on the verge of committing genocide? In bits and pieces, as the news trickles in, it seems clear that the killing and the dying has already begun. It was in 1989, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the two major national political parties, the BJP and the Congress, embarked on a joint programme to advance India's version of Union and Progress, whose modern-day euphemisms are Nationalism and Development. The Union project has been largely entrusted to the RSS, the ideological heart, the holding company of the BJP and its militias, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. The RSS was founded in 1925. By the 1930s, its founder, Dr Hedgewar, a fan of Benito Mussolini, had begun to model it overtly along the lines of Italian fascism. Hitler too was, and is, an inspirational figure. Here are some excerpts from the RSS Bible, We or Our Nationhood Defined by M.S. Golwalkar, who succeeded Dr Hedgewar as head of the RSS in 1940:

"Ever since that evil day, when Moslems first landed in Hindustan, right up to the present moment, the Hindu Nation has been gallantly fighting on to take on these despoilers. The Race Spirit has been awakening."


"In Hindustan, land of the Hindus, lives and should live the Hindu Nation... All others are traitors and enemies to the National Cause, or, to take a charitable view, idiots...The foreign races in Hindustan... may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizen's rights."

And again:

"To keep up the purity of its race and culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here...a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by."

By the year 2000, the RSS had more than 45,000 shakhas and an army of seven million swayamsevaks preaching its doctrine across India. They include India's former prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the former home minister and current leader of the Opposition, L.K. Advani, and, of course, the three-times Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. It also includes senior people in the media, the police, the army, the intelligence agencies, judiciary and the administrative services who are informal devotees of Hindutva—the RSS ideology. These people, unlike politicians who come and go, are permanent members of government machinery. But the RSS's real power lies in the fact that it has put in decades of hard work and has created a network of organisations at every level of society, something that no other organisation can claim. The BJP is its political front. It has a trade union wing (Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh), a women's wing (Rashtriya Sevika Samiti), a student wing (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) and an economic wing (Swadeshi Jagaran Manch). Its front organisation Vidya Bharati is the largest educational organisation in the non-governmental sector. It has 13,000 educational institutes including the Saraswati Vidya Mandir schools with 70,000 teachers and over 1.7 million students. It has organisations working with tribals (Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram), literature (Akhil Bharatiya Sahitya Parishad), intellectuals (Pragya Bharati, Deendayal Research Institute), historians (Bharatiya Itihaas Sankalan Yojanalaya), language (Sanskrit Bharti), slum-dwellers (Seva Bharati, Hindu Seva Pratishthan), health (Swami Vivekanand Medical Mission, National Medicos Organisation), leprosy patients (Bharatiya Kushtha Nivaran Sangh), cooperatives (Sahkar Bharati), publication of newspapers and other propaganda material (Bharat Prakashan, Suruchi Prakashan, Lokhit Prakashan, Gyanganga Prakashan, Archana Prakashan, Bharatiya Vichar Sadhana, Sadhana Pustak and Akashvani Sadhana), caste integration (Samajik Samrasta Manch), religion and proselytisation (Vivekananda Kendra, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Hindu Jagaran Manch, Bajrang Dal). The list goes on and on... On June 11, 1989, Congress prime minister Rajiv Gandhi gave the RSS a gift. He was obliging enough to open the locks of the disputed Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which the RSS claimed was the birthplace of Lord Ram. At the National Executive of the BJP, the party passed a resolution to demolish the mosque and build a temple in Ayodhya. "I'm sure the resolution will translate into votes," said L.K. Advani. In 1990, he criss-crossed the country on his Rath Yatra, his Chariot of Fire, demanding the demolition of the Babri Masjid, leaving riots and bloodshed in his wake. In 1991, the party won 120 seats in Parliament. (It had won two in 1984). The hysteria orchestrated by Advani peaked in 1992, when the mosque was brought down by a marauding mob. By 1998, the BJP was in power at the Centre. In 2002, Narendra Modi's government planned and executed the Gujarat genocide. In the elections that took place a few months after the genocide, he was returned to power with an overwhelming majority. He ensured complete impunity for those who had participated in the killings. In the rare case where there has been a conviction, it is of course the lowly footsoldiers, and not the masterminds, who stand in the dock. Survivor witnesses found that, when they went to the police to file reports, the police would record their statements inaccurately, or refuse to record the names of the perpetrators. In several cases, when survivors had seen members of their families being killed (and burned alive so their bodies could not be found), the police would refuse to register cases of murder. Ehsan Jaffri, the Congress politician was publicly butchered. In the words of a man who took part in the savagery:

"Five people held him, then someone struck him with a sword... chopped off his hand, then his legs... then everything else... after cutting him to pieces, they put him on the wood they'd piled and set him on fire. Burned him alive."

The Ahmedabad Commissioner of Police, P.C. Pandey, was kind enough to visit the neighbourhood while the mob lynched Jaffri, murdered 70 people, and gang-raped 12 women before burning them alive. After Modi was re-elected, Pandey was promoted, and made Gujarat's Director-General of Police. The entire killing apparatus remains in place. In the Tehelka sting operation, broadcast recently on a news channel at prime time, apart from Babu Bajrangi, killer after killer recounted how the genocide had been planned and executed, how Modi and senior politicians and police officers had been personally involved. None of this information was new, but there they were, the butchers, on the news networks, not just admitting to, but boasting about their crimes. Modi did win the elections. And this time, on the ticket of Union and Progress. At BJP rallies, thousands of adoring supporters now wear plastic Modi masks, chanting slogans of death. The fascist democrat has physically mutated into a million little fascists.

Preparations to recreate the 'Gujarat blueprint' are currently in different stages in the BJP-ruled states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. While the 'people' were engaged with the Union project and its doctrine of hatred, India's Progress project was proceeding apace. The new regime of privatisation and liberalisation resulted in the sale of the country's natural resources and public infrastructure to private corporations. It has created an unimaginably wealthy upper class and growing middle classes who have naturally become militant evangelists for the new dispensation. The struggle for lebensraum, Friedrich Ratzel said after closely observing the struggle between Native Indians and their European colonisers in North America, is an annihilating struggle. Annihilation doesn't necessarily mean the physical extermination of people—by bludgeoning, beating, burning, bayoneting, gassing, bombing or shooting them. Historically, the most efficient form of genocide has been to displace people from their homes, herd them together and block their access to food and water. Under these conditions, they die without obvious violence and often in far greater numbers. "The Nazis gave the Jews a star on their coats and crowded them into 'reserves'," Sven Lindqvist writes, "just as the Indians, the Hereros, the Bushmen, the Amandabele, and all the other children of the stars had been crowded together. They died on their own when food supply to the reserves was cut off." With the possible exception of China, India today has the largest population of internally displaced people in the world. Dams alone have displaced more than 30 million people. The displacement is being enforced with court decrees or at gunpoint by policemen, by government-controlled militias or corporate thugs. The displaced are being herded into tenements, camps and resettlement colonies where, cut off from a means of earning a living, they spiral into poverty.

(Abridged from a lecture delivered in Istanbul on January 18, 2008, the first anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink, editor of the Turkish-Armenian paper, Agos.)
(Click to view the original article in Outlook, 4-Feb-2008 issue)

A Beacon of Hope

By: Shivam Vij

“She’s a very brave woman,” said the host, Kavita Srivastava, about the “Chief Guest”, who was blessing the newly married couple. Kiran and Vinod have actually been married for a year and a half; the occasion was only a formal reception, which made their marital status public. Both hail from different parts of rural Rajasthan, and were studying in different colleges in Jaipur when they met. Vinod’s father is an agriculturist and belongs to the Mali caste; Kiran belongs to a Jat family, which owns four village schools. Therein lay the problem.

When Kiran’s parents found out about her attachment, they took their daughter away. She escaped. So they took her away once more, drugged her and beat her up. It was some days before she could call Vinod. He approached Kavita Srivastava, national secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, who in turn went to police.

At the reception held on September 28, the couple recited marriage vows that invoked Gandhi and Marx. Srivastava had invited Bhanwari Devi as the chief guest and paid her transport fare so that she could come from her village, Bhateri, 55 km from Jaipur. “All these movements are related to each other”, Srivastava said. “The women’s movement, the Right To Information movement, development - one has led to the other”. No one would know that better than Bhanwari Devi.

Fifteen years ago, she was gangraped by Gurjar men when she tried to prevent them from marrying off a baby girl who was just nine months old. They could not stomach the fact that Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit, had had the audacity to inform the police about the child marriage. Bhanwari Devi was just doing her job. She was employed as a saathin, a worker for the Women’s Development Programme run by the government of Rajasthan. To prevent child marriages from taking place was part of her job.

Women’s groups in Rajasthan and Delhi took up Bhanwari Devi’s case in a big way. They were shocked when the district sessions judge pronounced in November 1995 that an upper-caste man could not have raped a Dalit. The honorable judge made some other interesting observations; a man could not possibly have participated in a gang rape in the presence of his nephew; Bhanwari Devi could be lying that she was gangraped as her medical examination happened a full 52 hours after the said event; and that her husband couldn’t possibly have watched passively as his wife was being gangraped – after all, had he not taken marriage vows which bound him to protect her?

The judgement led to a huge nationwide campaign for justice for Bhanwari Devi. Which makes it all the more surprising that the Rajasthan High Court – in the fifteen years since the event – has held only one hearing on the incident. Today, perhaps Bhanwari Devi is the only person still clinging to the hope that she will get justice.

The High Court judge has refused to transfer the case to a fast-track court; two of the five accused have died; the families of the other three claim that the case is closed. Which, for all practical purposes, it is.

The Bhanwari Devi case became a landmark in women’s rights movement. She could have chosen to remain anonymous, in keeping with (still) prevalent notions of “honor” and “shame”. But she was made of bolder stuff. “First there was silence around the rape and when Bhanwari broke that”, says Srivastava, “there was denial – the police, the press and the judiciary maintained she was lying. The resulting furor led to the case being handed over to CBI.

The residents of Bhateri were very sore at Bhanwari Devi; they said she had besmirched the village’s name. When she was taken to Beijing for an international conference, they said, “Usne to Bharat ki naak kaat di”. (Bhanwari has sullied India’s honour.)

Bhanwari Devi refused to leave Bhateri. Her work as saathin earned her an honorarium of Rs 200 a month; nobody in the village bought her husband’s – who is a potter – wares anymore.

But Bhanwari Devi refused any monetary compensation, lest the people say that she cooked up the rape story to get money. “People tend to equate compensation for rape with prostitution, which is money in exchange for the body”, says Srivastava.

When her father died, Bhanwari Devi was not served food at the funeral ceremonies. She realized even her own caste had ostracized her as she had been “polluted” by rape. When Bhanwari Devi accepted Rs 25,000 from then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao (even as the Bhairon Singh Shekhawat government in Rajasthan remained hostile to her), her brother spent all of it in organizing a Kumhar caste panchayat to make the community accept her. It has made all the difference to her that her husband Mohan Lal has always stood by her.

Bhanwari Devi also got a one-lakh rupee bravery award, which she did accept.

After all these years the villagers still boycott Mohal Lal, choosing to buy their pots from another village. In his old age, Mohan Lal works as a labourer; Bhanwari Devi’s saathin honourarium has been raised to Rs 500.

She asks her husband to bring some registers, files and bank passbooks from the other room. Dalit women deposit money with her as membership fees and take a loan when they need it. At times the kitty has gone up to one lakh rupees.

Bhanwari Devi’s transformation from victim to a pillar of strength for many can be gauged from pictures of women showing their bruises, letters asking her to intervene in land disputes and cases of dowry harassment, domestic violence, rape and murder. To many women from villages around Jaipur and the neighbouring districts, she has become a beacon of hope.

Her two daughters are married – one is a school teacher; the other illiterate. Just like her, they were married when they were still children.

Mukesh, Bhanwari Devi’s youngest son, a married, unemployed man now, was barely four in 1992. He was ostracized everywhere. When he went to college in Dausa, local Gurjar boys would beat him up and kick him out of the bus. It wasn’t easy finding a family willing to marry their daughter to Bhanwari Devi’s son.

[Condensed by Mahendra Meghani from Tehelka weekly of Oct. 13, 2007]
By: Nicholas D. Kristof

Around Mukhtar Mai I can feel true greatness. Her village of Meerwala is an unassuming collection of huts, and she can be shy and quiet, but you follow her through the village and you sense that she is leading a revolution—against rape, illiteracy, and the repression of women—that is reverberating through all of Pakistan and indeed the entire world.

The backdrop of Mukhtar’s story is well-known: Her young brother was accused (wrongly) on having an affair, and so a tribal council decided to punish her family by ordering that she be gang-raped. The sentence was carried out then and there, and she was forced to walk home nearly naked before a jeering crowd. She was meant to commit suicide, and initially she thought she would—but then she became more angry than humiliated. Instead of killing herself, she prosecuted her attackers and told her story.

If Mukhtar’s story had ended there, it would have been one more tragedy in a world full of them. Fortunately, that was just the beginning, for Mukhtar used her compensation money from the rape to start a school in her village. Ultimately, she believed that the only way to fight feudal attitudes was to educate people.

I had heard of Mukhtar’s story, and in 2004 while on a visit to Pakistan I traveled to Meerwala to meet her. (Back then she mostly went by a variant of her name, Mukhtaran Bibi.) Visiting her involved a succession of flights from Islamabad to Lahore to Multan, and then a drive for several hours through the Punjab countryside, ending up on a dirt road. Meerwala then had no electricity, and when I finally got to her house her father and brothers were introduced to me but she hung back. If I had expected a magnetic and charismatic leader, that wasn’t her—she struck me instead as retiring and a bit traditional. She didn’t seem to think it was appropriate for a woman to do much talking, and so at first her brothers and father spoke.

Gradually, though, she began speaking to me more. She spoke bluntly of her shame at being raped, of crying endlessly, of having disgraced her family. She spoke passionately about her school, and increasingly she dominated the room. Mukhtar told me that her school was running out of money, so she was selling family jewelry to pay the teachers; she was at her wit’s end. The police who were supposedly protecting her were losing interest, and she feared she would soon be killed.

I wrote a column about Mukhtar and the responses deluged my office. American readers were moved by her story and wanted to help. I blithely told readers they could send checks, and I would forward them to her. Eventually, I was able to arrange to do so through the aid group Mercy Corps, and in the end readers sent more than $ 160,000, which she used to buy a van to function as an ambulance and school bus, and to start a high school.

Since that first trip, I’ve seen Mukhtar repeatedly—both in New York and in Meerwala. In the U.S. she appears at banquets, is hailed at the White House, and is feted at luxury hotels—and yet she is always counting the days to return to Pakistan.

For all the acclaim and goodwill that Mukhtar has won for Pakistan, she has had mostly trouble from Pakistan’s leaders. I think the problem is twofold. First, they feel she is displaying Pakistan’s dirty laundry in public, embarrassing her country. Second, they’re resentful that an uneducated peasant woman from a Punjab village is celebrated as a hero, getting more attention than they are. The upshot is the government has repeatedly tried to muzzle her.

In Pakistan the government has applied constant pressure on Mukhtar. Her mail is confiscated, her phones are tapped. Newspapers close to the government constantly publish disparaging articles about her, suggesting that she is an unpatriotic woman who allows herself to be used by foreigners to make Pakistan look bad.

Mukhtar is sensitive, and these criticisms really sting her. But over time, I’ve watched her mature and toughen. When I first visited her, she was still asking her brothers for permission every time she wanted to leave the house. That became ridiculous as she began to jet around the world and be feted by foreign ministers, so Mukhtar just breached tradition and came and went as she saw fit.

In March 2006 I visited Meerwala again, and I was impressed by Mukhtar’s school. They are much better equipped today. The high school was under construction, and at the elementary school graduation there was a wonderful school play in which the kids acted out the dangers of early marriage (the main danger turned out to be that the wide is murdered.) But what struck me the most in Meerwala was how Mukhtar tirelessly browbeat parents to keep their daughters in school.

That is why Mukhtar keeps refusing to move to safety in the city, or even to a haven in the West. Life might be more comfortable, but she would lose that sense of fulfillment that she now finds. This is a woman on a mission.

Most poignant of all is the scene in Mukhtar’s home. Desperate women from across Pakistan arrive in buses and taxis and carts, for they have heard of Mukhtar and hope that she may help. The worst cases have had their noses cut off—a common Pakistani punishment administered to women in order to shame them forever. So Mukhtar hears them out and tries to arrange doctors or lawyers or other help for them. In the meantime these women sleep with Mukhtar on the floor of her bedroom (she gave the bed to the principal of her elementary school, Naseem Akhtar). So every night, there are up to a dozen women sleeping with Mukhtar in her bedroom, lying all over the floor, huddled against one another, comforting one another. They are victims with wrenching stories—and yet they are also symbols of hope, signs that times are changing and that women are fighting back.

Women who were raped simply killed themselves, but increasingly they are following Mukhtar’s example. Gradually, Mukhtar is chipping away at the old repressive way of life, and helping to usher in a new Pakistan.

As you read In the Name of Honor, I think you will find a story that is tremendously inspiring. By the alchemy of her courage and stubbornness, Mukhtar has taken a sordid tale of gang rape and turned it into something heartwarming and hopeful. And that is one more reason why, when I’m around Mukhtar, I sense that this shy peasant woman is truly a great and historic figure—and why she’s one of my heroes.

[Abridged from the Foreword to In the Name of Honor: A Memoir by Mukhtar Bai, p. 172, 2006]

Gujarat 2002, The Truth

Readers’ responses to the expose ‘Gujarat 2002: The Truth’ in Tehelka weekly of 3 Nov. 2007

As I write this, I feel some part of my existence has gone numb. How can people take pride in nothing less than cannibalism?

Danish Iqbal (USA)

Can a country where police, judiciary and politicians collude to kill thousands of its citizens ever call itself developed? Do you really want your children to live in a society where the police can brutalize common citizens and go unpunished? Today you might belong to the right religion, but tomorrow it may be your/mine or our kids' turn.

Meha Khanduri

I sit here with my head down in shame, crying. When will this change? Is there any hope for India?

Saloni Puri

The country hangs its head in shame.


If after this expose, the perpetrators still swagger around, how do we look at Islamic fundamentalists and feel any different? If an entire state turns against the values that define the nation, what is to be done? Less than 150 years ago, the US faced a choice between the universal right to liberty and equality and the right of 11 states to practice slavery. In this instance the US chose to go to war to defend its values and in doing so struck a blow against barbarity. India faces a similar choice. Not to act on this evidence of genocide is to begin our Nazification.


If Gujarat were an independent country, Modi and his men would have faced the same international military action which Milosevic faced in Yugoslavia for the genocide of minorities.

Vincent Fernandes

What more evidence do we need? Do we want the dead to rise from their graves and tell us who hacked and burned them?

Ashwin Kak

For the past 75 years, the RSS/VHP have been silently at work through schools that teach the young to hate the 'other'. It is from these kids that bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, journalists and politicians emerge. One had earlier thought that with the spread of education, awareness among people would rise, but that proved false during Gujarat 2002. In a democracy that's turned into a mobocracy, it is very hard to stand up and say, "So what if you are 80 per cent, you do not have the right to kill the rest."


When the Babri masjid was demolished by the Hindu fundamentalists, we failed to launch an all-out campaign against the perpetrators. Ten years later, they struck again, killing thousands. If we fail once again, we do not know what awaits us in 2012.

John Stanley

All I am asking of the BJP biggies is that, as human beings, you watch those tapes and read the transcripts and then tell me with a straight face that you don't suspect the Gujarat government people from your party of being involved in this.

Chitta Baral

Muslims should take a very cautious approach to the whole situation, for it is the intention of the RSS/VHP to provoke them. Instead of becoming vengeful and adopting violence, they should approach the peaceful path shown by Mahatma Gandhi. Think a while, think of Punjab, Kashmir, Palestine, Sri Lanka and the many instances where violent resistance generated more violence from the other side. There is no end to it.


This leaves me speechless. The rot that we live amidst. Have we really descended into hell? Can it be possible that these men roam free and wild in our midst?


If we become the barbarians we despise, what is the difference between us and them? Do you think we will be wiped out by the actions of a few Jihadists? No, we are in danger of becoming one of them and losing our identity.


I used to pin a BJP flag on my soft-board and supported the party in college politics. But 2002 changed that. I feel shame that I have never felt before. I feel guilty that because we kept quiet, this could happen.

Anirban Bhattacharya

The VHP/BJP and Pakistan have an identical agenda. They both believe in the one-nation theory. Pakistan believes India is no place for Muslims and so does the VHP.

Gopal Karunakaran

If we cannot work to get justice for the genocidal killers in India, it will inevitably be dismantled, as were the USSR, Yugoslavia etc.

Kuljeet Tuteja

I feel like hiding my face in the mud; for the first time in my life, I feel ashamed to call myself an Indian.

Paramjit Arora

Make no mistakes about it, Modi's Gujarat is the germinal of Hindu Rashtra. Its ideology is sectarian supremacy, its postulates are hatred and bigotry, violence is its key directive principle. It's a bewilderment how such a state has come to prosper in our midst. That's where the essential ideas of India needed to be fought for, rescued. The Congress [is] running scared from confronting Modi head-on. Why? It's the fear of losing the Hindu vote. The Congress cannot espouse secularism on paper and practice soft Hindutva on the street.

Sankarshan Thakur

Tehelka makes out a formidable prima facie case for prosecuting Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the others of the Sangh Parivar who, by their own admission, were privy to the pogrom. If former British prime minister Tony Blair could be interrogated by the police in the Cash-for-Honours scandal, there's no reason why a man like Narendra Modi should be placed beyond the pale of law.


When such an expose is made it is the state government that must act since law and order is a state subject. The Central government cannot initiate action. With evidence from the Tehelka tapes, one can file a case against Modi after seeking permission from the governor. The Supreme Court could order a CBI inquiry.

Hosbert Suresh
(Former Supreme Court judge)

The UPA government at the Centre did not take any action against those responsible for the Gujarat massacre because the main coalition member, the Congress party, would have had to account for the 1984 massacre of Sikhs. What we call terrorism is a fallout of our system’s failure to ensure justice to the minorities. The expose calls for action against the Gujarat government. Failure to act even now would mean that we are not governed by the Constitution.

(President, PUCL)

Following the Tehelka expose, the police has no choice but to file FIRs and take action. It would be right for the state government to refer it to the CBI, else the High Court or SC should be moved for a direction to that effect.

Nitya Ramakrishnan
(Supreme Court lawyer)

In 1985, unruly students at Columbia University, Cornell and Syracuse set up shantytowns on their campuses that resembled poor black settlements in South Africa, and demanded their universities divest funds from companies that did business with the apartheid regime. Companies like Pepsi, General Motors, Nestle, Citibank, Mobil and Union Carbide. Within a month, ordinary citizens, faith leaders and unions echoed the divestment cry. It was the single biggest push, Desmond Tutu said later, that was needed to topple the white regime. More than 100 companies were forced by their shareholders and customers to leave and the capital flight was estimated to be around $ 10 billion.

Just as the companies were forced to leave South Africa, it’s time to hold them culpable for their presence in Gujarat – both Indian and foreign firms.

Kunal Basu

Gujarat is the leading edge of the onslaught of communal fascism in this country. If we as a society do not show the nerve to confront this beast, future generations will remember us as cowards who caved in and squandered away a nation painstakingly built by the struggle of many led by the Mahatma.

Prashant Bhushan
(Supreme Court lawyer)

I visited Gujarat between April 1 and 5, 2002 as part of a group. This genocide, and the state’s total complicity…we had sensed all this. But after the ‘Tehelka’ report, I am beginning to feel that Godhara itself was staged. We realized this entire party is debased. We filed a case in the High Court seeking BJP’s de-recognition as a political party under the Representation of People Act. Our contention was that the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and BJP are all one. These different names are just for show; their identity is one. If all of them are violent, communal and have participated in genocide, the BJP as the political wing of the Sangh Parivar should be de-recognized under the RP Act. The judgement on the case is not yet out.

A lot of Muslims were killed; but the real murder happening here is that of Hinduism, of the liberal face of Hinduism.

Swami Agnivesh

The real crisis of Gujarat is the factor that seems to have paralysed everybody, that has muffled the media and emasculated the Congress, the real crisis is the fear of the ‘Hindu vote’. People would have us believe this is ‘Hindu sentiment’ today. But this is a lie. This is mere cowardice. The fact is that nations are built by the words men use to describe it. This strain of rabid Hindu thought – the RSS and its fascist thinkers – was in our bloodstream even when our nation was birthed out of the chaos of Partition. But the eloquent visionary men who led us then pulled the country away from the madness of the Hindu fanatic and gifted us a nation that was sane and inclusive. We could have gone another route. We could have been Pakistan.

Shoma Chaudhury

The inquiries and commissions and reports that we have piled for ourselves is a route of escape. A talkative society talking endlessly. About who and how. About cause and consequence. About crime and the absence of punishment. Never once do we dare look ourselves in the mirror. Never do we stop pointing fingers at others.

There are a myriad contemporary Indian stories we have forgotten. They are all true stories. They have pegs and dead people hanging by them. And there are, among us, the many hands that hung them there, that have since been washed in collective forgetting. The truth about mass murder in this country we haven’t learnt to tell. Even less to confront. Which is why, someday, when that diabolical sloganeer appears again with a manic prescription and a surcharged bloodcry, we will again turn upon each other and consume, and call it someone else’s ugly conspiracy. And someone will win an election.

Shankarshan Thakur
(Executive Editor: ‘Tehelka’)

The tragedy of Gujarat today – the tragedy of India altogether – is that perversion is becoming the norm. The men on the ‘Tehelka’ tapes do not represent Hindu sentiment. They are its distortion. The fact that Modi won the election in 2002 is not a true index of Hindu sentiment: it is the face of what happens when a communal experiment goes uncontested. Modi has not failed Gujarat, the Congress has. They have abandoned the people to their basest instincts. They have let the rabid strain flower unchecked. They have not erected any alternative rhetoric that people can cleave to. We need words that remind us of humanity and love. Words that force us not to succumb to the beast. India is not just about the Gujarat election of 2007, there is the longer road ahead. A higher truth at stake. To se that requires courage and intelligence.

The real crisis today is not between Hindus and Muslims. It is between Hindus and Hindus. For too long now, Hinduism, like Islam has been hijacked by its ugliest and most virulent face. Hindus have to reclaim what being Hindu means. It is not just the Muslim that the Hindu fanatic hates. It’s you and me and everyone who doesn’t subscribe to their narrow world. They hate lovers who hold hands, they black out channels, burn galleries, hostage films, destroy books, ransack institutions.

The truth about Gujarat 2002 is not just about 2500 Muslims killed, it’s also about a State that has turned its back on democracy. The perversion so quickly can become the norm. We are all in for a long fight, and there are many impediments along the way. There is none more dangerous and disheartening, however, than India’s glassy-eyed elite. And defunct political parties.

Writer unknown

(Condensed by Mahendra Meghani from Tehelka of 17 Nov. 2007)

The Good Germans Among Us

Ten days ago The Times unearthed yet another round of secret Department of Justice memosstandard response: “This government does not torture people.” Of course, it all depends on what the meaning of “torture” is. The whole point of these memos is to repeatedly recalibrate the definition so Mr. Bush can keep pleading innocent. countenancing torture. President Bush gave his By: Frank Rich

“BUSH lies” doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s time to confront the darker reality that we are lying to ourselves.

By any legal standards we are practicing torture, and we have known we are doing so ever since photographic proof emerged from Abu Ghraib more than three years ago. As Andrew Sullivan, once a Bush cheerleader, observed last weekend in The Sunday Times of London, America’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques have a grotesque provenance: “Verschärfte Vernehmung, enhanced or intensified interrogation, was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what became known as the ‘third degree.’ It left no marks. It included hypothermia, stress positions and long-time sleep deprivation.”

Still, the drill remains the same. The administration gives its alibi (Abu Ghraib was just a few bad apples). A few members of Congress squawk. The debate is labeled “politics.” We turn the page.

There has been scarcely more response to the similarly recurrent story of apparent war crimes committed by our contractors in Iraq. Call me cynical, but when Laura Bush spoke up last week about the human rights atrocities in Burma, it seemed less an act of selfless humanitarianism than another administration maneuver to change the subject from its own abuses.

As Mrs. Bush spoke, two women, both Armenian Christians, were gunned down in Baghdad by contractors underwritten by American taxpayers. On this matter, the White House has been silent. That incident followed the Sept. 16 massacre in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, where 17 Iraqis were killed by security forces from Blackwater USA, which had already been implicated in nearly 200 other shooting incidents since 2005. There has been no accountability. The State Department, Blackwater’s sugar daddy for most of its billion dollars in contracts, won’t even share its investigative findings with the United States military and the Iraqi government, both of which have deemed the killings criminal. The gunmen who mowed down the two Christian women worked for a Dubai-based company managed by Australians, registered in Singapore and enlisted as a subcontractor by an American contractor headquartered in North Carolina. There will be no trial. We will never find out what happened.

We can continue to blame the Bush administration for the horrors of Iraq — and should. Paul Bremer, our post-invasion viceroy and the recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts, issued the order that allows contractors to elude Iraqi law, a folly second only to his disbanding of the Iraqi Army. But we must also examine our own responsibility for the hideous acts committed in our name in a war where we have now fought longer than we did in the one that put Verschärfte Vernehmung on the map.

I have always maintained that the American public was the least culpable of the players during the run-up to Iraq. The war was sold by a brilliant and fear-fueled White House propaganda campaign designed to stampede a nation still shellshocked by 9/11. Both Congress and the press — the powerful institutions that should have provided the checks, balances and due diligence of the administration’s case — failed to do their job. Had they done so, more Americans might have raised more objections. This perfect storm of democratic failure began at the top.

As the war has dragged on, it is hard to give Americans en masse a pass. We are too slow to notice, let alone protest, the calamities that have followed the original sin. We first learned of the use of contractors as mercenaries when four Blackwater employees were strung up in Falluja in March 2004, just weeks before the first torture photos emerged from Abu Ghraib. We asked few questions. When reports surfaced early this summer that our contractors in Iraq (180,000, of whom some 48,000 are believed to be security personnel) now outnumber our troop strength, we yawned. Contractor casualties and contractor-inflicted casualties are kept off the books.

It was always the White House’s plan to coax us into a blissful ignorance about the war. Part of this was achieved with the usual Bush-Cheney secretiveness, from the torture memos to the prohibition of photos of military coffins. But the administration also invited our passive complicity by requiring no shared sacrifice. A country that knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch was all too easily persuaded there could be a free war. Instead of taxing us for Iraq, the White House bought us off with tax cuts. Instead of mobilizing the needed troops, it kept a draft off the table by quietly purchasing its auxiliary army of contractors to finesse the overstretched military’s holes. With the war’s entire weight falling on a small voluntary force, amounting to less than one percent of the population, the rest of us were free to look the other way at whatever went down in Iraq.

We ignored the contractor scandal to our own peril. Ever since Falluja this auxiliary army has been a leading indicator of every element of the war’s failure: not only our inadequate troop strength but also our alienation of Iraqi hearts and minds and our rampant outsourcing to contractors rife with Bush-Cheney cronies and campaign contributors.

Last week Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war combat veteran who directs Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, sketched for me the apocalypse to come. Should Baghdad implode, our contractors, not having to answer to the military chain of command, can simply “drop their guns and go home.” Vulnerable American troops could be deserted by those “who deliver their bullets and beans.” This potential scenario is just one example of why it’s in our national self-interest to attend to Iraq policy the White House counts on us to ignore. Our national character is on the line too. The extralegal contractors are both a slap at the sovereignty of the self-governing Iraq we supposedly support and an insult to those in uniform receiving as little as one-sixth the pay. Yet it took mass death in Nisour Square to fix even our fleeting attention on this long-metastasizing cancer in our battle plan.

Similarly, it took until December 2005, two and a half years after “Mission Accomplished,” for Mr. Bush to feel sufficient public pressure to acknowledge the large number of Iraqi casualties in the war. Even now, despite his repeated declaration that “America will not abandon the Iraqi people,” he has yet to address or intervene decisively in the tragedy of four million-plus Iraqi refugees, a disproportionate number of them children. He feels no pressure from the American public to do so, but hey, he pays lip service to Darfur.

Our moral trajectory over the Bush years could not be better dramatized than it was by a reunion of an elite group of two dozen World War II veterans in Washington this month. They were participants in a top-secret operation to interrogate some 4,000 Nazi prisoners of war. Until now, they have kept silent, but America’s recent record prompted them to talk to The Washington Post.

“We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an M.I.T. physicist whose interrogation of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, took place over a chessboard. George Frenkel, 87, recalled that he “never laid hands on anyone” in his many interrogations, adding, “I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”

Our humanity has been compromised by those who use Gestapo tactics in our war. The longer we stand idly by while they do so, the more we resemble those “good Germans” who professed ignorance of their own Gestapo. It’s up to us to wake up our somnambulant Congress to challenge administration policy every day. Let the war’s last supporters filibuster all night if they want to. There is nothing left to lose except whatever remains of our country’s good name.

(The New York Times, Op-Ed Column, Oct. 14, 2007 – Abridged)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

My Murders are Better Than Yours

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar

Some analysts want to explain away Narendra Modi’s victory in Gujarat by saying Gujaratis are a special breed different from the rest of us Indians: that they have been especially communal since the Muslim destruction's of the Somnath Temple; that they have shown unforgivable amnesia in not penalising Modi for the mass killings of Muslims in 2002; and that they are a special breed willing to tolerate the quasi-fascism of Modi. Phoeey!

I personally am dismayed that the high political principles of our independence movement have given way to the cynical tolerance and use of violence in politics, with criminals and killers winning elections. But this cancer affects all parties, not the BJP alone.

Before 2002, analysts did not denounce Gujaratis as insufferably communal and quasi-fascist. But when Gujaratis voted for Modi in 2002, and again in 2007, many intellectuals were aghast that voters had opted for a man clearly complicit in the mass killing of Muslims.

Very sad. But the solution cannot be to condemn Gujaratis for ignoring the bidding of their moral superiors. Some intellectuals come close to saying, if I may paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, that the Gujarati people have lost the confidence of intellectuals, and so we must elect a new people.

The post-Godhra killings in 2002 were horrifying. When I heard of a pregnant Muslim girl having her stomach ripped open and her foetus set on fire, I almost vomited. I fully agree with Sonia Gandhi that the BJP perpetrators were "messengers of death".

But were her own husband and party men very different? When Indira Gandhi was killed by Sikh security guards in 1984, Congress party cadres went on a killing spree in Delhi, murdering 3,000 Sikhs. The PUCL report showed that many Congress leaders were complicit in the killings, and encouraged instead of curbing murderous mobs, exactly as in Gujarat in 2002.

According to data tabled in Parliament, the 2002 toll in Gujarat was 790 dead Muslims, 254 dead Hindus, and 223 people missing. Far more were killed in Delhi in 1984.

Many critics call Modi a fascist who carries out pogroms. They do not apply the same label to the Congress. Yet, the 1984 data are more suggestive of a pogrom than the 2002 data. The Hindu casualties in 2002 were a quarter of the total, suggesting two-way violence (even though Muslims suffered far more). But no Hindus died in Delhi, so it looks much more like a pogrom.

Around 190 people were killed in police firing in Gujarat, of whom slightly over half were Muslims. This confirms suspicions that the Gujarat police came down very harshly on Muslim rioters while treating Hindu mobs lightly. Yet, in 1984 there was no police firing at all on Hindu mobs. The Congress messengers of death co-opted the police more thoroughly than their imitators in Gujarat.

So, on virtually every parameter you can measure, 1984 was worse than 2002. Why then is Modi called a fascist while the Congress is heralded as a secular saviour? Sitaram Yechury of the CPM points out that the Congress ultimately apologised for the 1984 killings, but the BJP has still not done so for 2002.

That is indeed a difference. Modi needs to make a similar gesture. But have the two Communist parties apologised for the millions murdered by their comrades globally? Stalin killed 3 million kulaks in the Ukranian famine, not allowing food to go in or people to come out. Mao boasted of liquidating 3 million capitalist roaders. Our Marxists fulminate against American imperialism but will not apologise for their life-long support of murder and torture in the Red Empire. They object to murder only when committed by other parties. The people of Nandigram will tell you as much.

Many regional parties are tainted too. The DMK was hand-in-glove with the Tamil Tigers long after their murderous ways became public. Many Akali leaders were closely associated with the Sikh militants in Punjab in 1978-93, and allowed terrorist supremo Bhindranwale to occupy the Golden Temple.

Baba Ranjit Singh, who killed the Nirankari chief, was made head of the Akal Takht because of, not in spite of, that murder. When the courts ordered him jailed in 1997, the "secular" United Front government headed by Inder Gujral granted him an official pardon in the interest of communal peace! If peace can be legitimately bought by condoning a convicted murderer and making him Akal Takht chief, is the condoning of Modi by the Gujarati people so exceptional?

No, Gujaratis are not a bunch of communal fascists. They are no different from the Delhi wallahs who killed far more people in 1984. Rajiv Gandhi’s sins were forgiven/forgotten by voters just two months after the Delhi killings, and he won a landslide victory. Is it so strange for today’s Gujaratis to forgive/forget the sins committed five years ago?

When rivals denounce Modi, they divert attention from their own sins. In effect, they are saying "my murders are better than your murders." This is not the sort of competition democracy is supposed to encourage.

(The Times of India, 6-Jan-2008)

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Bilkis Bano's Brave Fight

By: S. Anand

Justice has been a fugitive in the Republic of Gujarat, but sometimes it finds refuge in neighbouring Maharashtra. In 2006, the retrial in a Mumbai Special Court of the Best Bakery case — the burning to death of 14 Muslims on March 1, 2002 in Vadodara resulted in nine of the 17 accused being sentenced to life imprisonment. Now, the Mumbai Sessions Court’s verdict after the in-camera retrial in the Bilkis Bano gang rape and mass murder case reinforces the point. Thirteen of the 20 accused were convicted on charges of criminal conspiracy, rape and murder. Additional Sessions Judge UD Salvi awarded life imprisonment to 11 accused and three years’ jail for the head constable of Limkheda police station for framing a false complaint. One policeman died during the trial. This is also a landmark judgment, as Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover points out: “For the first time in post-independence India, a communal riot-related rape case has seen conviction.”

Sexual violence against women has been used as a key weapon in the many communal riots and pogroms in India. Yet, as feminist legal activist Flavia Agnes says, “The scale and extent of atrocities perpetrated upon Muslim women in Gujarat far exceeds any reported sexual crime during any previous riot in the post-independence period. Such violence was part of the genocide in Rwanda too.”

Bilkis was raped on March 3, 2002. Soon after news of the post-Godhra violence reached Randhikpur village in Dahod district, Bilkis, who had been at her father Abdul Issack Ghanchi’s place, was traveling with her relatives from one village to another in search of a safe refuge. On the afternoon of March 3, a gang of 30 Hindu men — wielding sickles and swords — descended on the entourage of 17 near Pannivella village. Bilkis and her relatives knew most members of the gang since they were all from their village, Randhikpur. Fourteen of Bilkis’ family were murdered. Shailesh Bhatt, one of the accused, killed Bilkis’ 3-year-old daughter Saleha — smashing the infant’s head on the ground. Bilkis, five months pregnant and 19 years old, was raped by Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai and Naresh Kumar. She was left for dead. Regaining consciousness after two hours, she says in her deposition: “I found myself naked. I saw dead bodies of my family members lying around. I got frightened. I looked around for some cloth to cover myself. I found my petticoat... I was carrying fear in my heart. I felt that I was saved by God. I went sitting and squatting up the hill. As I proceeded, I saw the dead body of [my cousin] Shamim’s newborn daughter. Many dead bodies were there. I did not try to know whose dead bodies were lying there. I stayed at the top of the hillock the entire day and night…”

Bilkis subsequently sought refuge in an Adivasi home, gathered her wits, and bravely made her way to the Limkheda police station. Like in almost every other case, the derailment of justice began right here. The police threatened her, saying if she insisted on filing charges of rape the hospital authorities would administer her a “poisonous injection” and kill her. She says, “I was frightened but I told them to write what I was narrating.” The police did not. They wrote a distorted and truncated version stating that about 500 unidentified persons came and attacked Bilkis and her relatives. The FIR did not record even one of the 12 persons Bilkis named. Says Harsh Mander, social activist who has been tracking the Gujarat genocide, “This was the pattern. In most cases, the accused were not named, and instead the violence was attributed to anonymous mobs, to render investigation completely unwieldy and confused.”

The Limkheda judicial magistrate predictably closed the case on March 25, 2003. Backed by activists and civil rights groups, Bilkis, the only survivor of the massacre, then moved the National Human Rights Commission. The NHRC got senior counsel Harish Salve to argue her case in the Supreme Court. The NHRC-backed Bilkis petition in the SC sought the quashing of the Limkheda magistrate’s order, an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation, action against erring Gujarat police officers, and compensation. On December 18, the SC directed the CBI to take over the investigation. Soon, the results followed: the CBI arrested 12 accused by January 22, 2004; and by March that year arrested two police officers as well. The CBI’s final report also mentioned gross violations by and complicity of the Gujarat police. In May, Bilkis, facing threats, was given CISF protection. In July, Bilkis sought the transfer of the case outside Gujarat; in August 2004 the SC obliged and even sought the appointment of a public prosecutor by the Centre.

The CBI discovered several packets of salt while exhuming human remains from a mass grave in Dahod where Bilkis’ family had been buried. The CBI found that 60 kg of salt had been used in March 2002 to ensure early disintegration of the bodies; but fortunately the high moisture content in the soil countered the salt’s effect.

Justice in Bilkis’ case was achieved not merely by the transfer of the case out of Gujarat. One of those involved with the case says, “There was a broadbased team, involving a cross-section of people and activists, who gave Bilkis emotional, material and legal support for six years.”

More speciously, every effort was made in Gujarat to subvert justice with the State becoming an active colluder in ensuring injustice. Says Prashant Bhushan, senior advocate, “Communalisation has set in at all three levels: investigation, the prosecution that involves the police, and the judiciary itself. … “In Gujarat the problem is compounded by the fact that the entire government, from the chief minister down to the constable, is totally communalised.”

The strongest indictment of the Gujarat government’s complicity, of course, came from the SC judgment on April 12, 2004 in the Best Bakery case, when it said, “The justice delivery system was being taken for a ride and literally allowed to be abused, misused and mutilated by subterfuge.” The investigation was “perfunctory and anything but impartial, without any definite object of finding out the truth to book those who were responsible for the crime. The public prosecutor appears to have acted more as a defence counsel... The role of the state government... [suggests] that there was no seriousness... in assailing the trial court’s judgment.” The SC also rapped the Gujarat High Court for failing to provide the necessary corrective justice in the Best Bakery case, saying “the entire approach of the High Court suffered from serious infirmities, its conclusions [were] lopsided”.

The facts and figures related to the Gujarat genocide cases tell their own story. Of the 4,252 cases registered, more than 2,107 were closed within months of the carnage without even the issue of a chargesheet to the courts. More than 200 courts in 17 districts passed these completely illegal orders of closure. In around 300 cases, the accused were acquitted after trial in the early months after the carnage. Under pressure from the SC, the state government reopened 1,602 cases, but over 500 cases were again quickly shut. The price of return for Muslims was withdrawal of cases.
This is the path Narendra Modi rode to victory. In his Gujarat, justice shall remain a fugitive. And Bilkis Bano a refugee on the run.


Bilkis Bano spoke to S. ANAND

What’s your reaction to the conviction and the life term for the 11 accused?
There’s some relief. But what still rankles me is the fact that several employees of the government — policemen and doctors — who actively tried to scuttle the case havebeen let off. I shall ask my lawyer to appeal against this.

Gujarat had an Assembly election in December. Were you there then, did you manage to cast your vote?
I was indeed in Gujarat during election time, but I did not vote. I do not want to vote. When such a huge tragedy befell me — I lost my two sisters, two brothers, my mother, my 3-year-old daughter, my uncle, aunt, my in-laws… they murdered them all; they raped and killed my kin, they raped me. After all this, it was the duty of the Gujarat government to protect me, to get me justice, to support me. But the government did nothing. I had to abandon Gujarat and move to other lands with my little children to get justice. I have no faith in the electoral process in Gujarat. The elections have no meaning for me.

Are your relatives still there in Randhikpur?
Some of them were there till the judgement date was announced. But they have since fled the village. We still fear for life. The government should now assure me that I need not fear anything and that I can return to my village. But I have not received any such assurance.

Did you ever wish to seek an audience directly with Modi to demand justice?
No. I would never want to see him. I do not trust him. After all this happened to me, he did not get me justice in my state. He knows of everything that happened in Gujarat. It was he who orchestrated the murders and rapes.

(Condensed from Tehelka Magazine, February 2, 2008)

The Master in His Absurd Exile

By: Shoma Chaudhary

On 19 January, 2008, the day twenty men with hockey sticks smashed NDTV’s office in Ahmedabad, and beat two of the staff, for running an SMS poll on whether MF Husain should be awarded the Bharat Ratna, the master himself sat quietly on the floor of his home in faraway Dubai, rapt in a sketch of two ceremonial horses — a wedding card for Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s son. A meditative silence enveloped the room, heightened by the rhythmic sound of his sketching pen. Nothing could touch him, immune in his concentration. The sun set outside on a brilliant skyline. The beautiful room acquired a sense of prayer. Husain had just spent hours outlining his love for Hindu philosophy and culture, a life lived in its worship. Eight years spent painting the Ramayana, as many painting the Mahabharata. Hundreds of canvases of Ganesha and Shiva and Parvati and Hanuman, the ragas, the natyas and Benaras. Seventy years spent as “Chobi Das”, a devotee of the image. Seventy years spent roaming the earth, seeking to enrich its understanding of India. And now, they were smashing offices in his name. Declaring him an apostate.

“It is just a moment in history,” says Husain. “Kya kar sakte hain (what can one do)?”

Exile, however, is not a dark experience for the 93-year-old. Not for him the stereotype of the bitter and the hunted. That would be a terrible defeat. His statement is to live in celebration. In Dubai, plush, ordered, but as he says with a laugh, “like a Hollywood set, a façade with nothing behind”, he has bought apartments for each of his children, and two giant 21st century apartments facing a quay for himself. In one, he lives in an affectionate nucleus with his nephew, Fida and his family, and two valets, Hasan and Imraan. The other, he has converted into a “Red Light Museum” — a name designed, he chuckles, “to make people sit up”. Three rooms are dedicated to his art: one room houses 88 canvases from the late 1950s; another houses a series of paintings he calls Husain Decoded; the third has a series on Mughal-e-Azam. In between these two apartments, Husain lives his life, in an ever-widening flurry of excitement and action that people a third his age cannot keep up with. “When chacha is at home, there is no time to breathe,” laughs niece Sabiha, Fida’s wife. Husain is in constant, infectious, prodigious motion, his fingers drumming restlessly to an imaginary tabla. One day in Abu Dhabi, the next in Qatar. Each summer in London. He is currently learning Arabic and working on four simultaneous projects: a series of 99 canvases on the Arab Civilisation, commissioned by the Queen of Qatar; a series of similar scale on Indian Civilisation, commissioned by Lakshmi Mittal; a series on the history of Indian cinema; and a series on Mughal-e-Azam. For all this, for all his Kubla Khan-like wealth, he sleeps on a mattress in the drawing room, as he has always done, and everywhere, he travels alone. A man of 93. Fluid, unfaltering, possessed of a mysterious joie de vivre — an embrace of life — that borders almost on the divine.

Husain, the dramatic, flamboyant persona, associated more with the pursuit of wealth than the work, will never admit to a sense of betrayal in finding himself, at 93, hounded out of the country he has loved and promoted for close to a century. “Why is there no anguish, no political statement in Husain’s work?” asks Anwar Siddiqi, a close friend and admirer of Husain. “I really feel no bitterness,” Husain responds. “My life’s work is my statement. I reached my peak as an artist in the late 1950s. All my other work is a manifestation of that. I do not feel called to make any other statement. I lost my mother when I was one-and-a-half. I lost my first child, Shabir, when he was three. I lifted his body out of a gutter. What is loss after that?” There is a kind of wisdom in his stance. He makes it look easy, so it is easy to mistake it for something shallow.

Yet, cast even a cursory eye over the span of Husain’s prodigious life, and the sad absurdity of his exile comes through with unnerving force. Here is a man who has borne witness — enshrined — every facet of Indian life for close to a century. By 1955, he was one of India’s leading artists and had been awarded the Padma Shri. By 1971, he was being invited to Sao Paulo Biennial with Pablo Picasso. He was Rajya Sabha Member in 1986. And these are merely surface things: cast your eye over the work: more than 10,000 paintings in celebration of India, and the absurdities gather greater and greater force.

MF Husain is a kind of living history, a national heritage site. And what do we do? We drive him out.

Husain had left India for good in 2006, when an increasingly violent right-wing mood had precipitated a non-bailable arrest warrant against him by a Haridwar court, directing the attachment of all his properties in India. Though the Supreme Court stayed the order, the past year alone has seen several incidents of violence against Husain and his work. An exhibition at Asia House, London, was stalled and vandalised by a Hindu right wing group in 2006. Ditto for the Peabody Essex Museum in the US, which was exhibiting his Mahabharata series, Epic India. The same show was broken into at the India International Centre in Delhi, late last year. The attack on the NDTV office is only the latest in the line.

This does not comprise even a decimal percent of India’s population. The pity is, this decimal percent — intolerant, disinterested in dialogue, brazen violators of law — has come to dictate our public life. And no arrests have been made in any of these incidents, though as Sibal says, the State, courts and police have not only the power but an obligation to intervene when any violation of law and order is brought to their knowledge.

In being the most high profile of its kind, Husain’s case, in a sense, has become a litmus test for the country. Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Mridula Garg, Habib Tanvir, Vijay Tendulkar, Deepa Mehta… the list of artists and writers vandalised by intolerant Hindu, and Muslim, fringes runs painfully long. Artists censored not by dialogue but by coercion. TEHELKA itself is facing a criminal case in Bombay for publishing photographs of nude women by reputed photographer Raghu Rai. Every time the hearing comes up, the editor-in-chief has to appear in court to take bail.

Four big civilisational questions underlie all these cases. What is the definition of “obscenity”? What is the threshold of “religious sentiment” — today an easily hurt thing — that should not be crossed? What is the role of the writer and artist in society? And, how will we conduct our dissent in a civilised society?

MF Husain came most vigorously into the line of fire in 2006, when an untitled painting, a depiction of the country as a naked woman was auctioned by Sharon Apparao’s Saffronart. Some Hindu groups took great umbrage to this.

Husain's other work, which gets the conservatives in a twist, is a Saraswati painted way back in ’88, sold privately, and published only in a limited edition of a book produced by Tata Steel. Its publication details are significant because one of the crucial questions in any consideration of obscenity is: how public was the act? In Husain’s case — in the case of any artist — they are not thrusting their work on you, they are not splashing their work on giant hoardings that you must look at every day. Common sense would say, if you don’t like their work, don’t look at it. Don’t go to gallery, don’t buy book. Publish scathing counter articles in some sympathetic media. That would be a civilised response.

Hearteningly, the Supreme Court has been fairly nuanced in its considerations of what constitutes“obscenity” in public life. In several seminal cases like the Ranjit D. Udeshi vs State of Maharashtra (1965), Ajay Gosw ami vs Union of India (2005), Samaresh Bose vs Amal Mitra (1985), the court has ruled that sex and nudity in art, per se, cannot be deemed obscene. Only if there is an intention to deprave and corrupt, or arouse the lascivious and prurient instincts of the viewer can something be deemed obscene. Further, the Court has ruled that it will not use the“standard of a hypersensitive person” in defining what is obscene. Intention counts for much.

Given this, the cases against Husain can never stand in court.Barely three paintings, out of a body of over 10,000 canvases, are in dispute. Did he mean to insult? On the contrary, the entire body of his work has been a testimony of devotion.

Husain himself will not speak. He lives by a dictum. “Never explain. Never complain.” Disraeli’s advice to Queen Victoria.


MF Husain tells Shoma Chaudhury
why his faith in India’s secular and tolerant traditions remains undiminished

Husain saheb, what do you feel about the fundamentalist attacks against you?
I’m not really perturbed by all this. India is a democracy, everyone is entitled to their views. I only wish people would air their views through debate rather than violence.The media comes to me looking — almost hoping — for strong statements, but I am actually very optimistic about India. I see this as just a moment in time. For 5,000 years, our work has been going on with such force, this is just a minor hiccough. I am certain the younger generation will get fed up of the fundamentalist, conservative mood in the country and change things. I didn’t want to leave my home. At the same time, it’s not even as if I want the conservative element to be pushed out of society. We are all part of a large family and when a child breaks something at home, you don’t throw him out, you try and explain things to him. Yeh aapas ka mamla hai. (This is a family matter.) Those opposed to my art just do not understand it. Or have never seen it.

Why don’t you come back to India and take on the fight?
As things stand, I cannot come back. No one has exiled me; I came away myself because I am an old man and vulnerable to physical danger. It’s not just the cases. If I came back, given the mood they have created, someone could just push or assault me on the street, and I would not be able to defend myself. The only way I can come back to India, perhaps, is if the BJP comes to power at the Centre. Or maybe, Mayawati. This government has no spine. Their hands are tied. They think if they speak out or take action, they will be accused of appeasement. The irony is, out of power, the BJP uses issues like this to fan its votebank. In power, they would probably control their extreme brigades to look respectable and secular! (laughs) These are the ironies of India. Actually, it is for the courts to sort this out. The allegation that my work is obscene or hurts religious sentiment can never stand merit in a court.

Why did you apologise for your art? You know more about Hindu iconography and the shastras than the goons who deface your work.Never.
I have never apologised for my art. I stand by it totally. What I said was that I have painted my canvases — including those of gods and goddesses— with deep love and conviction, and in celebration. If in doing that, I have hurt anyone’s feelings, I am sorry. That is all. I do not love art less, I love humanity more. India is a completely unique country. Liberal. Diverse. There is nothing like it in the world. This mood in the country is just a historical process. For me, India means a celebration of life. You cannot find that same quality anywhere in the world.

Could you talk about how your exposure and love for Hindu iconography and culture began?
In Hyderabad, in 1968, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia suggested I paint the Ramayana. I was completely broke, but I painted 150 canvases over eight years. I read both the Valmiki and Tulsidas Ramayana and invited priests from Benaras to clarify and discuss the nuances with me. When I was doing this, some conservative Muslims told me, why don’t you paint on Islamic themes? I said, does Islam have the same tolerance? If you get even the calligraphy wrong, they can tear down a screen. I’ve painted hundreds of Ganeshas in my lifetime — it is such a delightful form. I always paint a Ganesha before I begin on any large work. I also love the iconography of Shiva. The Nataraj — one of the most complex forms in the world — has evolved over thousands of years and, almost like an Einstein equation, it is the result of deep philosophical and mathematical calculations about the nature of the cosmos and physical reality. When my daughter, Raeesa wanted to get married, she did not want any ceremonies, so I drew a card announcing her marriage. On the card, I had painted Parvati sitting on Shiva’s thigh, with his hand on her breast — the first marriage in the cosmos. Nudity, in Hindu culture, is a metaphor for purity. Would I insult that which I feel so close to?

(Condensed from the article in Tehelka magazine, 2-Feb-2008)
(Visit to read the original)