Two deaths and a common chorus

People welcomed and were also forced to revel in Kasab’s hanging just as they mourned Thackeray and were forced to grieve too

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:40 pm IST

Published - November 23, 2012 12:59 am IST

REGISTER OF REACTIONS: Fear was a guest at the mourning and the celebration. The picture is of a scene in Guwahati.

REGISTER OF REACTIONS: Fear was a guest at the mourning and the celebration. The picture is of a scene in Guwahati.

Generalisations about India have to be wrong. But we simply have to be the world’s best mourners. And the world’s only death-revellers. In one way or the other we have to make an occasion of it.

A funeral is about remembering but, in India, it is equally, about forgetting. The courtesies around death in India dissolve differences, make past acrimony seem meaningless.

To feel, let alone express, an ungracious thought about someone who has just died, is simply not done. Only in the half-lit world of bullet clickers and knife grinders are expletives spat upon the dead.

In the larger, open spaces of life where feeling is instantaneous and instinctive and courtesy ingrained, death is an occasion for grieving or sharing grief, receiving or offering sympathy. It takes on aspects of a festival. A festival of mourning.

Irrespective of whether the passing bier is of one known or unknown, one holds oneself in silence. “ Ram nam satya hai ,” is chanted by the pall-bearers but repeated in the mind by onlookers as well, invariably in an inward sweat over its post-dated applicability to themselves.

The funeral

When someone idolised by millions of Indians dies, one can be sure of a collective paroxysm. We have seen this happen time and time again. The grief is genuine, the sense of loss real.

To members of Balasaheb Thackeray’s family and to those who saw in him a father figure, the First Citizen of India himself has offered condolence. He has described the death as an “irreparable loss” to the nation. He speaks, by constitutional definition, for India.

Yet who can deny that there are those, and they are not few, who do not feel like grieving for him. They do not feel like joining the obsequies. Should they have been obligated to? This is a death, not a drill.

Unlike Indian bystanders at a funeral, Time does not stand still for anyone. Leaders’ legacies are judged by history and judged rather differently from what their followers, especially consanguineous followers, would like it to. They should not just be prepared for appraisals and reappraisals of Balasaheb and for consequent alterations in their own perspectives and attitudes.

Those of our political class who do not share the political ideology of the Shiv Sena but who went to the obsequies went not to condole in spontaneous sympathy but to be seen condoling. Their flower offerings garland came not from courtesy but craftiness. For them this death was an occasion for political consolidation. To warm political palms at a pyre, picking a funeral’s pocket is crass.

To millions of his followers, Balasaheb Thackeray was an icon. But who can deny the fact that to millions of others the same icon symbolised an in-the-stomach fear.

His death has to mean one thing to those for whom his life spelt a kind of courage, and something else to those it meant a kind of fear.

If I am a Muslim in Bhiwandi, Byculla or Borivli I should be able to move about without seeking strength in fellow-numbers during this “mourning period.” I should not feel I better stay indoors. This is a death, not a conscription.

If I have been appalled by Balasaheb’s political philosophy, found his pointed targeting of South Indians, Biharis and “outsiders” in Mumbai unacceptable, and if I have been revolted by his hate-speeches against Muslims, I should not have to gulp my views for fear of funereal vengeance.

The world’s largest democracy is kind to the world’s best-hidden fascists.

After going through the public mourning of a death, we have moved seamlessly into the public revelling in another. The chorus was common to both.

And execution

The kin of those slain, especially those who were killed fighting the terrorist attack, have reason to feel vindicated. A sense of justice having been done is one thing, gloating over the killer’s hanging belongs to an altogether different register of human reactions.

In an astonishingly objective response, K. Unnikrishnan, father of the gallant Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan who was slain in the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, said Ajmal Amir Kasab’s execution was “a legal necessity,” but added “I don’t rejoice over it.”

I also believe there was an inevitability to the hanging. President Mukherjee had little choice. If he wanted to (and there is no reason for his wanting so to) he could have returned the recommendation to the government for a reconsideration, just once. If it came back with the same recommendation, he would have had to concur. Nothing could have kept Kasab from the gallows once the highest court ruled he must hang and the government, as it could only but have, concurred.

Rejoicing over the hanging is, however, something else.

It is not about the law. It is about decency.

“Decency? To whom?” one can see the admonitory finger jab the air at once, “to mass murderers, terrorists, killers of innocents?”

I would put to them: “I am not talking about the execution, which was determined by the law of the land. I am talking about the gloating over the execution.”

We have seen rejoicings, loud, vulgar, tawdry rejoicings on the streets, with firecrackers exploding, sweets being distributed.

One death had people mourning on the streets, seen mourning, with some forced to mourn. And within the same week, another death had people celebrating, seen celebrating, with some obliged to celebrate.

Fear was a guest at the mourning and the celebration of the two deaths.

We are the world’s largest democracy. Fear is an honoured guest in its congregations, a very VIP.

“Death Be Not Proud” is the title line of Donne’s famous Divine Poem. It puts death down, by pitting it against immortality.

What does one say about the two luxuriatings in death that we have just seen?

Death be not you insolent.

Put not a sullen face on, no, nor a

haughty one.

Look me in the face and say if you

really mourn, truly grieve, for the one

you have taken.

And, yes, tell me if you take one in

love and another in hate.

One in sorrow and another in penalty.

And say, time giving you leave, if you

split a mother’s woe

From the one who the killer bore and

the one who bore the killed.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former Governor of West Bengal.)

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