Siddharth Varadarajan

Your riot was worse than mine

India's polity has an unerring taste for the irrelevant. That is why the controversy over a sitting Chief Minister being summoned to answer questions about mass murder has made way for an unseemly debate about the morality of an ageing actor. After his embarrassing, nine-hour appearance before the Special Investigation Team, one would have thought Narendra Modi presented a large enough target. Instead, the Congress has chosen to launch a full-throated campaign against Amitabh Bachchan for choosing to become a brand ambassador for tourism in Mr. Modi's State. The party has accused the Bollywood superstar of being indifferent to allegations of State complicity in the massacre of Muslims which took place there in 2002. And it has started boycotting him in a manner that is as crude and mean-spirited as it is ineffective and pointless. Thanks to this, the mass media are today discussing Big B rather than the Little Men whose role the SIT is now investigating.

As can be expected, the Gujarat Chief Minister is thrilled. The spotlight which was earlier on him is now being trained elsewhere. Instead of being forced to rally others to his own defence, Mr. Modi has happily mounted the barricades on behalf of Mr. Bachchan. In keeping with his party's fondness for technology and Islamophobia, he has blogged that the actor's critics are ‘Talibans of untouchability'.

If Mr. Bachchan is guilty of overlooking mass violence today, it is because equally illustrious gentlemen, including some industrialists, did the same when they declared Mr. Modi prime ministerial material. For that matter, the actor himself has done this sort of thing before. In his movies, Mr. Bachchan was a crusader for the underdog. In real life, he is attracted to the kind of powerful men he once fought on the big screen. His fans have a right to feel cheated. Political parties, especially the Congress, do not have that right.

The party finds fault with him for representing Gujarat in the wake of 2002. But in 1984, barely weeks after the blood in the streets of Delhi had dried, the actor accepted a Congress ticket for Allahabad and got elected to Parliament. “As a brand ambassador does he endorse or condemn the mass murder in Gujarat?” Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari asked the other day, adding: “It is high time Amitabh Bachchan came out and said what his position on [the] Gujarat riots is.” Despite the party having ‘apologised' for its role in the massacre of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi's assassination, I doubt Mr. Tiwari or any other Congress spokesman will ever ask Mr. Bachchan what his position on the Delhi riots was or is.

But if the Congress prefers to forget the history of 1984, the BJP and its leaders act as if history ended that year. In their telling, 2002 either didn't happen or pales in comparison with what preceded it. And so begins the sordid exercise of weighing the suffering of victims and, worse, of playing the plight of one set against another. Mention the suffering of the Muslims of Gujarat and the BJP will start talking about the plight of the Pandits, driven by terrorism from their homes in the Kashmir Valley in 1989 and 1990. Try talking about the injustice done to the Sikhs of Delhi and the Congress will insist on speaking only of Gujarat. And the minute the microphones in the studio are switched off, the politicians are quite happy to forget about the shared travails of all victims.

The reality is that the Delhi and Gujarat massacres are part of the same excavated site, an integral part of the archaeology of the Indian state. Eighteen years separate 2002 from 1984. Eighteen is normally the age a human being is considered to have become an adult. Inhumanity also seems to take 18 years to fully mature. In an act of conception which lasted four bloody days, something inhuman was spawned on the streets of Delhi in 1984; by 2002, it had fully matured. Paternity for the ‘riot system' belongs to both the Congress and the BJP, even if the sangh parivar managed to improve upon the technologies of mass violence. Both knew how to mobilise mobs. Both knew how to get the police to turn the other way. Both knew how to fix criminal cases. Both knew what language to speak, even if one set of leaders spoke of a ‘big tree falling' and the other paraphrased Newton. Both had the luxury of not being asked difficult questions by criminal investigators. Until now.

There is one school of thought that Mr. Modi's summons and interrogation have come eight years too late. There is a lot of merit in that point of view. But the reality is that the call for a leader to render account for mass crimes committed on his watch comes 18 years too late. Veteran journalist Tavleen Singh said recently that if Rajiv Gandhi had been interrogated in 1984 about what happened to the Sikhs, Gujarat would not have happened. She is right. Had the courts and the entire edifice of the Indian state not failed the victims of 1984, many, many politicians, police officers and officials would have gone behind bars. Had that happened then, every leader would have been forced to think a hundred times about the legal consequences of instigating mass violence or allowing mobs to go on the rampage.

The debates on Mr. Modi over the past two weeks have been so incredibly divisive because neither the Congress nor the BJP is interested in a discussion on systemic remedies. Justice is about punishing individuals, rehabilitating victims and dismantling the infrastructure of communal terrorism. But our biggest parties want nothing to do with any of that. Gujarat 2002 should go unpunished because Delhi 1984 never saw justice, says the BJP. ‘No SIT ever interrogated Rajiv Gandhi so why is Mr. Modi now being interrogated?' is the party's self-serving refrain. On its part, the Congress is unwilling to incorporate in the draft Communal Violence Bill clear-cut legal provisions that could deter politicians and policemen from again abusing their power as they did in 1984 and 2002.

One of the questions the SIT was expected to ask Mr. Modi during his interrogation on March 27 was what exactly he said when Ehsan Jaffrey called him up on February 28, 2002, asking for help. The question is important because soon after the former MP put down the telephone, he was killed by a mob along with 58 other innocent people. I have no idea whether that question was put to Mr. Modi, let alone what his answer was. But when the same question was put to Jai Narayan Vyas, official spokesman of Mr. Modi's government, in a televised debate a few days ago, the answer was atrocious. Ehsan Jaffrey had been a Congress MP, said Mr. Vyas. “So I demand to know what the Congress party did to help him.”

There was, of course, nothing the Congress could have done to save the doomed member then. The BJP was in power in both Gujarat and the Centre. But the party has a chance to do something now: Pass a law with real teeth. It's been more than a quarter-of-a-century since a big tree came crashing down upon us. It is time for the earth to stop shaking.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 6:45:02 AM |

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