The terror in Gujarat is a South Asian calamity. It is also a reminder of the calamities of the past and a forewarning of manmade disasters ahead. The restraints of civilisation are sometimes all too thin. The targeted mass killings of Muslim children, women and men is an expression of the violent urge that can be stimulated in a mass of people who have been systematically reared to think of others as less than human.
Everywhere in South Asia, there are people who nurture the desire to conduct pogroms and wipe out of existence those who are supposedly different. The energies and urges of such forces are generally kept in check by the weight of law and social sanction. But every now and then, they spring out through the cracks and contradictions of civil and political society. That is when the lives of others are consumed to settle imaginary scores with history. When the beasts prowl among citizens, communal riots and sectarian killings happen – be it in Nellie, Surat, Bhiwandi, Bhagalpur or Bombay.
It is possible to douse the communal flames quickly when the state is willing. The worst conflagrations occur when the exclusivist ideology takes control of a government – as has happened in Ahmedabad – and the state then becomes a killing machine.
South Asia condemns the carnage on the Sabarmati. No barrier of nationality and citizenship can keep us from denouncing the killing of innocents on the basis of religion. In humanitarian empathy, the citizens of Karachi, Calcutta, Colombo, Madras, Dhaka, Kathmandu and Guwahati, equally abhor what has happened in Godhra, Ahmedabad and elsewhere in Gujarat.
Atal Behari Vajpayee, prime minister of a billion-plus souls, said before the Muslim refugees that Gujarat had shamed India before the world. Before his tears were dry, he went to Goa and shamed India and South Asia before the world. “Wherever they are, Muslims do not want to stay peacefully,” was among the ideas he shared with an apparently appreciative audience of his ruling party.
This was the moment of heart-stopping realisation. Not that it showed Mr Vajpayee for what he apparently is, but that he speaks the mind of a good portion of India’s population by generically lumping all Muslims (of India, of the world) into one malevolent category. In the psyche that is emerging, are all Muslims to be merged into one monolithic community that acts with singular purpose?
“Why did they carry out that massacre in Godhra?” is the refrain in the households and bazaars across north India, as if the torching of the train bogey full of Hindu devotees was a design of all Indian Muslims. It is this mindset – this forced ascription of a unitary agenda to all the Islamic faithful – that one encounters again and again, in railway sleeper-cars, family dinners or neighbourhood cafes. This mindset can rip India apart, with unfathomable consequences for the whole Subcontinent.
To repeat, everywhere in South Asia there are individuals capable of the slaughter that in this instance overtook Gujarat. All our communities have, at different times and under dissimilar circumstances, come under threat from the inner barbarism that does not flinch from clenching its fists, thrusting the dagger, or hurling the bomb. Everywhere in the Subcontinent, there are killings underway, Gujarat’s distinction being a government’s macabre acts of omission and commission against innocents.
While the elite establishments in each of the other countries of South Asia wear their anti- Indianism on the sleeve, there is unstated confidence in Indian democracy and secularism as a role model. If New Delhi begins to let so of the credo that has been the glue for a, then the repercussions will buffet not only its own regions, but all South Asia. Reactionary elements – of all hues and not just ‘Hindu’ – will take advantage of the message that is emanating from Ahmedabad and New Delhi and crawl out of the woodwork to continue with what Gujarat has started.
When the Sangh combine screams its exclusionist ideology in the north and west of India, it gives fillip to reactionaries in the far corners of the Republic and across the expanse of the Subcontinent. When the checks and balances are off the Indian state, extremists everywhere in South Asia feel free to exploit the primal emotions churned up by the appeal to religion and nationalism.
It is for South Asia’s largest and most populous country to rediscover the traditions of tolerance it has officially nurtured over the last many decades. India’s plurality is too vast to be contained in the restrictive formulas of sectarian politics. The peril to India lies within, but not in the places they are looking to find it.