Harsh Mander

Barefoot - Blood and roses

If justice and equality are to be reclaimed effectively, it has to be done through instruments which are egalitarian and just too…

I am convinced of the impossibility of disinterested, humane violence. In her influential and eloquent essay, “Walking with the Comrades”, Arundhati Roy creates attractive portraits of young and idealistic men and women whose gentle human qualities (and even a measure of innocence) are untouched by the slaughter which is intrinsic to their chosen vocation. She is not worried by the young woman who prefers to watch videos of maimed bodies from Maoist bomb explosions rather than the popular film “Mother India”; or the boy with a brilliant smile who can casually describe summary executions over a shared meal. I believe that violence inevitably brutalises those who use violent means. This has been the story of every violent movement in Independent India. Maoists have been frequently effective in rooting out corruption by village, forest and development officials. But they are known to finance their militant operations from extortion of corrupt forest contractors and builders of roads and bridges. The life-blood of many insurgent movements, in India and the world, is trafficking of drugs and illegal arms.

Roy lists many examples of extreme brutalisation of women, and by implication celebrates their choice to avenge and resist their humiliation and violation by picking up arms. I quote only one particularly moving testimony: “I met Chamri, mother of Comrade Dilip who was shot on July 6, 2009. She says that after they killed him, the police tied her son's body to a pole, like an animal and carried it with them. (They need to produce bodies to get their cash rewards, before someone else muscles in on the kill.) Chamri ran behind them all the way to the police station. By the time they reached, the body did not have a scrap of clothing on it. On the way, Chamri says, they left the body by the roadside while they stopped at a dhaba to have tea and biscuits. (Which they did not pay for.) Picture this mother for a moment, following her son's corpse through the forest, stopping at a distance to wait for his murderers to finish their tea. They did not let her have her son's body back so she could give him a proper funeral. They only let her throw a fistful of earth in the pit in which they buried the others they had killed that day. Chamri says she wants revenge. “Badla ku badla. Blood for blood.”

Similar stories

The stories Roy records echo in so many ways literally hundreds of strikingly similar narratives which I have heard over the last nine years in Gujarat, about the brutality of the carnage of 2002. They reverberate with the same experience of incredible cruelty, violence or complicity of State officials, and public humiliation and torture at the frontiers of human endurance. The moral justification that Roy offers for violent retribution by the savaged people of Bastar is almost identical to the ethical claims to righteous violence canvassed by supporters of Islamist violence. For ethical consistency, if Roy and several others regard violent resistance by oppressed people justified in the context of Left militancy, they must then accept the ethical justification for terrorism to avenge and resist oppression of religious minorities for nearly identical reasons.

Yet, I must add that very rarely have the narratives of grotesque cruelty and indescribable loss which I have heard the past nine years from hundreds of survivors in Gujarat, ended with a resolve among those who have suffered, to seek bloody revenge through terrorist violence. Instead, I have been deeply moved again and again by how most have chosen to resist but without hate and shedding of blood, which they regard to be futile and both morally and politically repugnant.

In Gujarat, for almost 10 years, I have been privileged to work shoulder to shoulder with peace and justice volunteers — whom we called aman pathiks and nyaya pathiks, literally those who walk the paths of peace and justice — in a campaign called Nyayagrah, or a demand for justice. Many of these were working class young men and women who suffered mortally in the carnage, losing loved ones and lifetime savings, uprooted permanently from their homes and place of their birth, often by their own neighbours and friends of the past. Still they responded spontaneously to our call after the carnage to work not for vengeance or bloody resistance, but instead for healing and rebuilding. Despite a continued climate of hate, fear, boycott and the subversion of justice, they have not wavered from this path the past decade. I wondered then — and continue to do so today — how many of us in their position would be able to summon the same inner resources to forgive so quickly and cheerfully help others in need, in the way they have done.

***

Instead of a conclusion, I end by recalling one recent offbeat home-spun enterprise of alternate non-violent resistance to which I was witness. The year was 2003, the location Godhra in Gujarat, the epicentre of the carnage of 2002. Exactly a year earlier, a train compartment was destroyed in a deadly inferno at Godhra, killing many Hindu women and children. It was immediately officially claimed — but has still not been proved nine years later — that terrorists had torched the train; but this was propagated to instigate and justify the slaughter of Muslims across the state. On the first anniversary of the train burning in Godhra, Praveen Togadia, rabble-rousing leader of the Bajrang Dal who crudely instigates hatred against Muslim minorities, scheduled a programme to distribute trishuls or Hindu religious tridents (which can kill), as symbols of continued warfare against the Muslims. The openly sympathetic Right-wing state government refused to prohibit the meeting. The Muslim population of the small town of Godhra again cowered in their ghettoes, terrified by the prospect of a repeat of the killings of a year earlier.

Striking idea

In this climate of palpable fear, in which a mere matchstick could have set the city ablaze again, a unique idea of resistance was propounded. The plan arose from the ranks of peace and justice activists — the aman pathiks and nyaya pathiks — who we had recruited from working-class survivors of the carnage in relief camps. The scheme was not to block the trishul distribution, but instead to organise an alternate programme on the same day. While Togadia would hand out trishuls, the peace activists in another part of the town would offer to hand out roses. Both sets of organisers strenuously canvassed participation for their respective meetings. In the end, less than 200 young men finally assembled to receive the trishuls from Togadia. More than a thousand people of both Muslim and Hindu faiths gathered to receive roses. The first anniversary of the deadly carnage passed off in Godhra in a climate of complete peace.

***

The human spirit is never crushed permanently, and its continuous and diverse assertion marks the rhythm of human history, illuminating its cycles of oppression and resistance. As in all of human history, powerful injustice must be powerfully resisted. New generations will — and must — reclaim the ideas of equality, fraternity and justice, brick by brick. But to do this, they will need to fashion new instruments to achieve these ends. Instruments which are also egalitarian, fraternal and just.

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 8:47:36 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Harsh_Mander/barefoot-blood-and-roses/article2475934.ece

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