A face in the crowd

NOT so long ago, newspapers across India carried a horrifyingly unforgettable image — that of an anguished face. A man pleading with his hands folded, his eyes brimming with tears of unconcealed fear. A man caught in the madhouse of violence that Gujarat had become. Left with nowhere to run and faced with a murderous mob baying for blood, he did the only thing he could — begged, implored, wept.

Newspapers and magazines told us that his name was Qutabuddin Nasruddin Ansari of Ahmedabad. Of course, the detail distracts. Ansari is everyman. He is not a Muslim. He is not a Hindu, He is a victim. He is also much more than a victim.

This chilling image, captured brilliantly by a photographer in the heat of the moment, drew astonished gasps from readers in cities and towns that were far removed from a bleeding Gujarat. A readership dulled into senselessness from seeing headline after headline, proclaim one cruelty after another. A readership numbed into indifference from reading about murder and rape and arson. That photograph, somehow, touched a chord. Why? What did they see, that moved them so much? What was different about this one image?

In the man's pleading eyes, readers saw not just the skill of the photographer — the tear-filled eyes mirroring the flames that were burning before him. They saw much more than a photograph. They did not see just a Muslim or a Hindu. They did not even see a Gujarati or an Indian. They saw a human being. A man begging for his life. A man utterly at the mercy of other men. A man forced to worship rioteers — as he would a God.

Who were these murderers? They were ordinary folk, until yesterday, going to the grocer to buy salt and sugar for their wives. They were men going to the market down the road to buy kite-strings for their sons. They were men who got up each morning and went to work to earn their living, rubbing shoulders with men, much like Ansari. Laughing, joking, cursing their mundane existence into a living, breathing thing.

What changed them? What transformed them into cold-blooded killers, driven enough to make a man grovel for mercy. For surely, in challenging him with knives and swords, and forcing tears from his eyes, they stripped the man of his dignity — as a human being. Whom did they see after all? They saw a Hindu, who deserved to be punished. They saw a Muslim, who had to pay for the riotous behaviour of other Muslims. They saw, in him, an enemy, who, if he was not snuffed out, would overwhelm them sooner or later.

What are they avenging? What number of murders is "enough" to make up for the death of a little girl? What number of rapes of helpless women and children is "sufficient" justice to answer for the rape of a daughter or wife? What numbers will "settle the score", once and for all? Is there such a number? If so, who decides when the killing will stop? Where are all the braves? Where are they? For the street is full of cowards, rushing about with empty scabbards, looking into windows for sleeping children to slaughter. Where are the men who stand to attention when the national anthem is sung? Where are the defenders of humanity?

Our answer lies in a simple truth. Only the truly human, can defend the human. Only the truly beautiful can recognise beauty. Sadly, a few have transformed the many into sub-humans or mutants who have lost the ability to recognise what is noble and good. They are no longer human — only crude versions of what passes for human!

These are the same people who create and sustain the use of seemingly harmless phrases such as eve-teasing, female infanticide, dowry-death. They rob the reality of violence — in any form or degree — of its horror. They reduce evil to a "social menace" to be discussed and debated endlessly. Seminars have this wonderful tendency to gloss over the depth of pain and suffering felt by individuals. Their statistics have a habit of converting separate cries of agony into one wail of humanity that is lost in the din of accusations and counter-accusations. These cries become a label. An "attribute" in a database. A "trend" in a government report. An "issue" in a panel discussion.

The hapless school girl who is groped in a crowded bus, experiences the horror of violence to its fullest. The attack on her body and on her dignity is total. It is not less merely because she was "only elbowed"! It is not less merely because the attacker was a young, "immature" college boy! Her pain and suffering — often in silence — is no less because of any of these unrelated clauses. Yet, her predicament is encapsulated in the rather flippant phrase, eve-teasing. Much like the phrase dowry-death which quite innocuously implies a level of culpability, a correlation that suggests that those who do not meet dowry demands will (ought to?) die.

Gujarat, therefore, is a symbol of this battle. A battle between hypocrites, struggling for supremacy. Struggling for the attention of a country whose conscience has been lulled into passivity.

On the one hand is the communal gang. A breed that defies not just the "one" religion or a "group" of religions, but all religion and all spirituality. A breed that is anti-God and anti-mankind. Inhuman in every sense of the term. Indeed their wickedness is disgusting precisely because it is clothed in the garb of pure intention. It is clothed in speeches and postures defending a "true" religion, a "true" God.

Religious fundamentalists will have you believe that it is religion that unites. If religion did indeed unite, why would Protestant fight Catholic? Why would Shia battle Suni? Or Saivite squabble with Vaishnavite? Some of the world's most bitter and long-drawn battles have been fought, not between two religions, but between two sects of the same religion! Or between two castes who share a religion!

On the other hand, is the secular group, who will have you believe in the bonafide traditions of their indignation. They voice their protest and howl loudly against communal forces. They scream their "secular" credentials from the rooftops. They claim to be far more broad-minded than their bigoted counterparts — in bureaucracy, in the political establishment, in the media. But their actions are no different. They divide and rule, even in their own circles — by class, by gender, by religion, by caste, by language, by State.

Thus do we expose ourselves for the hypocrites we are. We destroy the very thing that is destined to save us. We enslave ourselves with the very thing that is meant to set us free.

The cure for communalism is not secularism. It is much more than that. Secularism does not end up healing wounds; it only applies an illusory balm. A balm that disappears well before the shrill cries of "victory over evil" have died out. For the evil still remains. It is hidden under the "holier-than-thou" fa�ade that the secular groups carry with them to righteous platforms. In some sense, communal gangs are easier to confront because, unlike "secular" groups, they do not attempt to hide their narrow-mindedness. Or worse, parade it as broad-mindedness!

Is it too late? Not really. Not yet. For, as long as little children do not stop to think whether their playmates are Dalits, or Hindus, or Muslims or Christians, or Gujaratis, we have hope. As long as people are respected because they are human (not because they are "minorities"!) we have hope. As long as courageous people like Gladys Staines stay back in India to continue the good work of martyrs like Graham Staines, we have hope. As long as we see Hindu families helping Muslims and Muslim families comforting Hindus in a ravaged Gujarat, we have hope. As long as victims — of any violence, riot or not — are seen as humans, we have hope.

Our love for humanity is most profoundly expressed not in the way we love the multitude, but in the way we love the single human being. And our words mean nothing if they are not followed up with purposeful action. When we act with conviction and genuine concern, our words have that much more force and power. We reach a point where speeches, sermons and silent marches are either minimal or no longer necessary. For our deeds become extensions of ourselves. And what we are in darkness, we will be in daylight. What we whisper in corridors, we will shout from the rooftops. What we defend in private conversation, we will defend in the public domain. The causes we fight for among friends will be the causes we fight for before enemies.

Mahatma Gandhi, that great Indian from Gujarat, speaks eloquently to the violence in our hearts and in our minds. He built his Indian identity with bricks that made him human first. He dismissed claims to an Indian identity that were, at root, inhuman or animalistic. His fight against oppression was not directed at "foreign" adversaries alone. He was against inhumanity in all its forms; even a peculiarly Indian inhumanity that had religious groups exchanging lorry-loads of decapitated bodies in a senseless saga of vengeance. Or caste groups spewing venom at each other.

How do we act? We act by teaching ourselves and our children that the divisive labels that we are given by our forefathers to brand our neighbours with, are not necessarily the ones we need to preserve! And our neighbours are not just the countries alongside our borders. Our neighbours are those in other States, those in other cities, those in other homes, those in our own home. The enemy is not another religion, another caste. The enemy is not some rioter, some unemployed and misdirected youth brandishing a knife. The enemy is us!

It is our own prejudice that spreads the disease. Therefore, our bigotry is never "ours" alone in the first place. Hatred is never a private whim. The single stone thrown in hatred never remains alone. It is invariably joined by a thousand other stones pelted in blind fury, until the rioter forgets why he is throwing his stone, or why he is raiding a home at midnight. The girl he is dragging by her hair out on to the street — he does not even know her name — how come he hates her so much? The old man he is clubbing to death — he has never seen him before — how come this burning anger?

It is the violence in our minds that flows out on to the streets. It is the indifference in our hearts that ignites the fire. It is the intolerance in us that drives the mob mad with fury. For no amount of "inflammatory" speeches can incite violence if we choose not to be provoked. A spark remains a spark and dies out soon enough if there is nothing inside us to be provoked.

Let us never forget Ansari. Let his tears speak to us. For he pleads today. Not just with the mob. He pleads with us. He pleads with you. With me. What do we tell him? How do we respond?

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