Feb 27, 2009

The Silence Was Deafening...

Godhra. The name conjures up horrific scenes of a burnt train, heart-rending screams, the sight of charred human bodies, the terror of severed limbs. It is reminiscent of the subsequent clashes that turned out to be ugly by any figment of human imagination. The year 2002 saw the worst of communal clashes in modern Indian history, perhaps next only to those witnessed during the days of partition.

Sanjeev* has truly been through hell - he saw raging fires, heard desperate screams, smelled burning flesh and tasted his own blood. He was shaking when he arrived at Ahmedabad aboard an undamaged bogey of the ill-fated and charred Sabarmati Express. He tumbled on to the platform and sank to his knees, screaming in anguish as the horror replayed itself in his mind. He saw the corpses of children; fifteen of them had been burnt alive, he remembered. He heard the anguished wails of deperate mothers and helpless fathers. He could smell death all over him as he clawed at his own flesh in vain hope of cleansing himself of the horror he had witnessed.

Seven years on, life for Majid* has come to a standstill. His eyes are a deadened black hole, unable to forget for a single living moment that his wife and six children were massacred in the post-Godhra riots. Majid, who witnessed the Naroda Patia massacre, escaped the carnage by jumping onto the terrace of a neighbouring building, but his family was not so lucky. Later, he found the bodies of his children amidst the rubble that was once his home, all of them charred. The body of his wife was found in a dustbin; she had been raped multiple times before she was mercifully killed. His daughters, the youngest being just six-months-old, had all been raped and brutally murdered. One little daughter had her eyes gouged out, while a teenage son had his limbs chopped off.

The stories are different, but the horror in them is the same. It is about two people from different communities - for the average Indian, as different as chalk and cheese - but the suffering is essentially human. The blood that soaked the soil of Gujarat is human blood - not Hindu blood or Muslim blood. The wounds are raw, and both need to be assuaged equally. The political clout leaped into the boat of polarised sentiments, and happily went fishing for votes in the rivers of blood. A section of the media helped them dish out their crass propaganda for power. All the norms which were needed to be done were either thrown overboard or conveniently sidetracked. All evidence and explanations contrary to the scenario favouring the polical leadership were pushed under the carpet, and later incinerated.

The gut-wrenching carnage that stole the lives of hundreds of Gujarat's citizens moved an entire nation. India saw (and still sees) the plight of those who have been left grieving for lost family members, or have been orphaned at a tender age, or have been gravely debilitated for the rest of their lives. That this tragedy was not the result of a natural disaster but was man-made is perhaps what is even more chilling. Undoubtedly, the burning alive of passengers in the Sabarmati Express was horrific and gruesome crime, but that it may unleash such barbaric retaliation has left India collectively shamed.

The intent of the Hindutva leadership has been, apparently, to instill amongst the nation's Hindus a sense of dignity and pride, and to awaken the nation to the despotism of Islamic fundamentalism. Then Godhra happened. What occurred in the aftermath of the slaughter has undoubtedly shifted the focus to more fundamental questions. What truly is the essence of India and Indians? What are the duties of the state towards its people? What has been and what should be the role of organized religion in India? What is the secular agenda and why is it so fragile and vulnerable?

These are perhaps just some of the questions that need to be asked if we are to assess this catastrophe in sociological terms. What has emerged quite unmistakably is that there exist elements amongst both Muslims and Hindus who are seeped in feelings of sectarian hatred. Their anger is uncontrollable and manifests itself in indescribable acts of reckless and brutal violence. A spirit of vengeance shrouds their collective wisdom and dormant humanity. Shockingly, such elements enjoy the tacit patronage of the political clout, who feed off them to survive in a turbulent politico-social climate.

The credibility of the entire Hindutva movement is at a particular low; unless their leadership calls for serious introspection and recognizable rectification of past errors, it is very much likely that they would arouse only greater distrust and disdain in the Indians' hearts. At the same time, those who pander to Islamic extremism and approach secularism in a distorted way must also engage in some re-evaluation. The politics of opportunism especially needs challenging. Those who attempt to extract votes - majority or minority - at the cost of principle or national interest all need to evaluate their own role in stoking the communal cauldron.

Our greatest homage to those that died in the tragedies of Godhra would be to truly build an India where there is genuine respect and camaraderie between social communities. Let us take the nation to a new and more equitable secular milieu. Let us not at any level compromise with the evils of organized religion. We have for too long divided ourselves along lines of faith, and have been alarmingly shackled to primitive ideologies. Let us create new political organizations, or at least sanitize the existing ones of divisive thoughts. Indian secularism needs to be invigorated; all sectarian and psuedo-revivalist tendencies need to be quashed. We must get back to our most essential task - that of preserving our delicately forged unity.

The Gujarat crisis has at least illuminated some of the problems of India's fragmented opinion in relation to communal antagonism. In its Indian avatar, secularism is far from being the panacea that many of us believe it to be. It is profoundly misinterpreted as a concept, and heavily tainted in practice. Our religious bigotry remains as real a threat to society today as it was in 2002, in 1992, or even in 1947. That is an inescapable conclusion imposed upon us by the Gujarat crisis.

The question India needs to ask herself today is this. Will justice, if it ever comes, help to heal the emotional and economic wounds? Unfortunately, I have asked this question repeatedly over the last seven years, and each time the answer was lost in silence, and the silence was deafening.

* Names changed to protect privacy


  1. Surbhi this is so hard to read ..how did you write it?how?
    bravo for doing this..

    I agree the Indian 'secularism' is a mockery of a word..
    we need no words just compassion,and humanity....each one of us is the same , a human being,one of flesh and blood...same joys,same sorrows...when will people understand this?when will people stop forgetting conveniently all the carnage that took place?

    we should remember as you help us to do..so that we never forget and this never happens again..

  2. Hey tell me, what have you studied ??
    Seriously !!!!!

    Thats really amazing. I hope it could be reached to those so called educated ones who still lead their lives filled with religious hatred.

    I remember a kind of concept told to me by somebody, he's a sikh, regarding the respect of religions. If my God is my father, then other Gods are my Taaya aur Chacha. My father might tolerate his disrespect by me, but he would never tolerate the disrespect of my Taaya or Chacha from me.

  3. The sooner the better otherwise a whole generation will be swept away :(
    This will now or some day later give rise to terrorism, actually it has starting giving rise to the same.
    Today if in some place we are having Hindu Supporting govt s, they will be biased towards their supporters e.g:Bangalore/Maharshtra/Gujrat
    Later if we have the Hindu opposing govt in the same places then earlier dominating groups will turn into guerrilla's and Life will be Hell.

  4. Indyeah:
    I know it is hard to read. It was intended to be so. I wrote those stories about Sanjeev and Majid myself. I guess it comes from all that I've written at my other blog under my current series.
    Thanks for the appreciation and support. I always cherish it, always will.
    BTW, the Women's Day special post for "No Gender Inequality" is coming up! How should it reach you?

  5. RK:
    Thanks! I've not studied anything different, but I use the Internet a lot, read a lot and was always a topper in English at school. Nothing more, nothing less. :)
    I love that remark by your Sikh friend. It must reach out to the people who, if you as much as talk about Hinduism, start pointing out faults with Islam or Christianity or other religions, stating you are a Hinduism-basher. Wonder when people will actually grow up and start taking criticism constructively.
    I think Sikhism is more tolerant of other religions and is also quite progressive in its thinking - as compared with other major religions of the world.
    As much as I find the entire concept of religion faulty and unnecessary, I absolutely cannot understand the need and desire for multiple religions. When were we last satisfied with the same thing, and did not want it to be different from the others.

  6. Tarun:
    I agree, and I strongly believe politics/ governement should be free of religion, and vice versa. They are not interdependent and not even related, and they shouldn't coexist. Never ever. Sadly, politics and religion are being used interchangeably today.

  7. I love Hinduism/Sikhism/Christianism/Muslimism/Hooliganism :) and every other sort of "ism".
    (To make the things lite):D

  8. Nice post Surbhi. Are the stories of sanjeev and majid real or fiction? They are too gruesome for the mind to comprehend ...although I know fact can be stranger than fiction...

    Have you read Freedom at midnight?..the stories of savagery and butchery during the pre-independence period between hindus and muslims are heart-rending ..and the violence in godhra pales in comparison..however, I have hope..if we could come out of it (not entirely though)....maybe we will come out of this too... as long as people don't exacerbate the communal divide..

    I agree with your observations on the communal fringe elements
    However let me ask you a few question..

    you mentioned

    "What has been and what should be the role of organized religion in India? What is the secular agenda and why is it so fragile and vulnerable?"

    Do you think organized religion can play any role at all? Why hasn't it been able to bring about peace and harmony for the last few millenia...no I am not speaking about people choosing to live in peace but religions vying for dominance ...how can the dogmatic insistence that someone is right and others are wrong help in bridgng the divide? Why do you think the secular agenda is fragile and vulnerable?

    "those who pander to Islamic extremism and approach secularism in a distorted way must also engage in some re-evaluation"

    What is the root of islamic extremism -distorted views of Islam or Islam itself? How do you propose they re-evaluate themselves since criticizing Islam immediately gets you the label of an apostate - the punishment for which is death?

    "Indian secularism needs to be invigorated"

    I agree, although I am not sure how it can be done given the lack of political will and the political backbone of our country. Do you have anything in mind ?

    "In its Indian avatar, secularism is far from being the panacea that many of us believe it to be. It is profoundly misinterpreted as a concept, and heavily tainted in practice. "

    I can see why it is not the panacea but is India really secular in practice? Unless we are truly secular, can we hope to have any resolution to the communal divide?

    OK maybe I am asking too many questions...but your excellent post gives rise to other questions and makes one wonder what are the practical possibilities for ending the hatred that perpetrated such violence

  9. Nitwit:
    The stories of Sanjeev and Majid are real, though the names are not, and the words are mine. I didn't tweak the essence of their suffering, just wrote it in my own words to keep their identity safe.
    What you ask is exactly what I feel. Religion - organised or otherwise - can and should not have any place in governance. Never. And like I said to RK, even though I find the concept of religion per se unnecessary and faulty at its core, the idea of multiple religions is simply beond comprehension to me. There is an inherent flaw in religion itself, which is why people use it not as a wa of life (which it was supposedly intended to be) but as a tool to influence and control others. It is a power tactic now, and no longer associated with worship or trying to connect with the 'higher being' or whatever it was supposed to be initially. On the lines of 'uski kameez meri kameez se safed kyun', we now have 'uska religion mere religion se behtar/bada kaise'. And since there is no logic to prove your religious ideologies or disprove theirs, people take to believing they are right and the others are wrong. Like I said, the fault lies with the concept itself.
    As for Indian secularism, it is more the fault of extremists than regular politicians who distort religious ideologies (which are anyways twisted) and feed them laced with sensationalism and pseudo-nationalism. Today, religion and patriotism have come to be synonmous and are used interchangeably. Nothing can be worse than that. To believe the country belongs to a particular community, and that all other communities sprung from that community (through violence or force, no less), is something only a twisted bigot would think. Worse, if the extremists take it upon themselves to avenge the wrongs done by people 100s of years ago (Mughals, 'foreigners', British), then reason and common-sense all fly out the window. More so when this revenge is taken against people who have absolutely nothing to do with whatever happened or was supposed to have happened.
    I'm doing a post on all of this, so some of your questions on religion may be answered there, and some new ones may arise. Till then, happy reading! :)


Your comments will not be moderated, so feel free to speak your mind. However, with freedom comes responsibility, so abusive and/or violent language is strictly prohibited.