The idea of retribution currently holds our nation in thrall, but there are also other, gentler voices that speak of mercy and justice, not for revenge but for deterrence, and of the possibility of reformation.
This is a season for public rage, India’s winter of vengeance. Two men were hanged in quick succession for grave acts of terror. Others — forest brigands, assassins, and serial killers — await their turn. For the boy and men charged with the brutal rape and murder of a young student on a Delhi bus, public opinion will be satiated with nothing short of their hanging.
The idea of justice as retribution currently holds the nation in thrall. But there are other, gentler voices, muffled in the clamour for violent public reprisal, voices that speak of mercy and forgiveness, of justice not for revenge but for deterrence, and of the possibility of reformation. I will — in this column in coming months — carry some of these voices, past and present, known and unknown.
I begin with the story of Yusuf Mansuri, a young bus driver I met in the Shah Alam relief camp in Ahmedabad just weeks after the carnage in 2002. Yusuf lived with his parents and three brothers in a small tenement in the working class Ahmedabad suburb Naroda Patiya. His father drove a bus in the state corporation, and Yusuf, the eldest, supplemented the income of his joint family driving buses when regular drivers were on leave, and apprenticing in an embroidery workshop. In the carnage of 2002, his home was burned down and looted, and more than a hundred people slaughtered and raped in his settlement, many his extended family.
The ravaged family, reduced to penury, began its new journey in the Shah Alam dargah. The medieval courtyards rapidly filled up with numerous families like Yusuf’s desperately fleeing the violence, until more than 10,000 people took refuge there. Yusuf recalls the humiliation of living on charity, wearing used clothes, eating food directly from the floor, using one toilet for 500 people.
I first encountered Yusuf in the camp teaching children in the open spaces of the graveyard with a group of friends. I sought volunteers for peace and reconstruction, and Yusuf was among the first to come forward. Six months later, when the camps were shut down, and I walked with Yusuf through the alleyways of Naroda. As he described to me the horrific slaughter, I remember wondering that if I had suffered what he had, could I have found the same spaces in my heart for ready forgiveness?
Shortly after the camps were disbanded, both Yusuf and his father were arrested, charged with the murder of the one Hindu who was killed in Naroda, with more than 100 Muslims. It was a tactic to intimidate the most active witnesses of the slaughter. During the three months he spent in Sabarmati Jail, I often worried how much this injustice would embitter my young friend. But after his release on bail, I found his spirit and morale unaltered. What he found most difficult was to see his father in prison. But his father would console him: “Do you know who else was confined in this jail, years ago? Mahatma Gandhi. If he could be here, who are you and me?” After his release on bail, he was summoned by the courts every month for four years, at the end of which his father and he, and all the accused, were acquitted. Yusuf worked with us as an aman pathik, or peace worker, for a couple of years. Then the pressures of supporting his family — he had a young bride and small son — compelled him to accept regular employment as a bus driver.
But nights and mornings between driving his bus, he enrolled in law school. He would call me proudly each year when the results were announced. “I have passed with 57 per cent,” he said to me the first year. He maintained his grades, and graduated as a lawyer. When violence broke out in Assam last summer in 2012, we called for volunteers to work in the camps. Yusuf joined the Aman Biradari volunteer group and, with young people from Gujarat, Delhi and Hyderabad, spent two weeks in the relief camps in Lower Assam. Aman Biradari had one condition: that Bodo volunteers would work in Bengali Muslim camps, and Muslims in the Bodo camps.
Conventional wisdom was that, in the bitterly polarised climate of Assam, after the bloody ethnic violence, this was impossible. But Yusuf knew it was not. He opted to work in a Bodo camp and announced to the inhabitants soon after he arrived there that he was a Muslim. The residents were first unbelieving, then enraged. For hours, they vented rage and abuse about Muslims, who had attacked their settlement. Yusuf looked at them steadily in the eye through all of this, never retaliating, but quietly insisting, “You cannot stop me from serving you.” In the end, they gave him a bed in their tents and food. In the days he spent with them, he organised meetings for the first time with their estranged Muslim neighbours. After uneasy silences and some recrimination, then weeping, both sides admitted of their longing for peace.
Back in Ahmedabad, Yusuf was a star witness in the Naroda criminal case. Over the years, he never missed a hearing. On the day the judgment sentencing former Minister Maya Kodnani and several others was announced, I telephoned Yusuf to ask how he felt. Vindicated, he said, his faith in justice and democracy further strengthened, and Judge Jyotsnaben Yagnik convinced him about human goodness. And yet, as the men sentenced to spend a lifetime in jail for the slaughter were driven away, he watched their young sons weeping piteously. A flashback to children orphaned a decade earlier in Naroda; he recalled their lonely years being raised without the care of their parents. “Their fathers were guilty, but not the children. I longed then to run to Judge Madam,” he said to me, “and to beg her…”
To beg her to let the men who had slaughtered his people walk free.