Communalism, most Indians will agree, is manufactured – mostly by politicians. It’s the Onam celebration week and a new phenomenon has been developing. While Onam is essentially a Hindu celebration, it has been embraced with great gusto by Kerala’s Muslims and Christians alike. There has recently been an outpouring of bonhomie and good cheer, which was not the case a few decades ago when the average Christian or Muslim family would have viewed it as a purely Hindu festival. Now, all Keralites appear to have put their religious identities aside and have made Onam theirs. They’ve transcended earlier identities and barriers for this particular day. How then, and why, does hatred sneak in?
As Keralites celebrated Onam, Karwan-e-Mohabbat – a peace yatra – began in faraway Assam with the goal of urging fellow Indians to proactively fight the cancerous communalism enveloping our country. The brain child of former IAS officer, writer and activist Harsh Mander, this peace-building movement has attracted and caught the attention of ordinary women and men who worry about what lies ahead for future generations. Most people want to make the country safe for their children and grandchildren. Karwan-e-Mohabbat invites the people of India to participate in the movement and to forge links of love and not hate.
While riots have been a terrible part of our history, the new spate of hate crimes and increasing incidents of lynching with impunity imply that lawlessness and vigilante action is the new normal. Karwan-e-Mohabbat began on September 4 with a group of people meeting, condoling with and offering support to two young mothers, Halima Khatoon and Rumeena, in Assam’s Nagaon. Mander, along with activists John Dayal and Ram Puniyani, lead the yatra.
Riyazuddin and Abdul Hanif, explained Mander, were the oldest sons of these two women. The teenage boys – about 17 and 18 – had dropped out of school to support their families and on their day off, while the two set out on a fishing expedition, a man suddenly screamed, “These fellows are cattle thieves”.
Within minutes, a mob assembled and began assaulting the boys, who were kicked and tortured. Even while the two begged for mercy, none was shown and they were beaten to death. “Their ears were cut off, eyes gouged out, bones broken, smashed to a pulp. The sheer brutality of the attack is numbing,” said Mander.
The two dazed mothers received their sons’ bodies thus. Two carefree, laughing teenage boys left home promising their mothers a fish feast. They returned as corpses.
The families now live in constant fear as the perpetrators were soon released on bail. But the real culprits, the leaders of the mob, went scot-free.
It’s a recurring pattern that’s all too familiar. A searing film titled What The Fields Remember takes us to the scene of the Nellie Massacre, also in Assam. In 1983, around 2,000 people were butchered. In a blood-curdling account, a survivor, Abdul Khayer, talks about that terrible day when he lost his wife, his two sons, only daughter and his parents. Thirty-two relatives from his extended family were also murdered. His baby son’s head was split open by a man wielding a sickle. As in most other cases, there was no justice for the victims.
It takes me back to Gujarat 2002, to our report, the ‘Survivors Speak‘ and to an interview that still haunts me. A Muslim woman recounted how the entire village fled for their lives in terror as the blood thirsty mob approached. Not everyone managed to escape. “They caught my daughter,” she wept. “She was just 16. Completely unworldly and innocent. My daughter was like a bud not yet opened. So sweet, so tender. They gangraped her. I could hear her terrified screams. I died many deaths that night. I could not go to her, from our hiding place, or the entire village would have been killed that night.”
The objective of Karwan-e-Mohabbat, explains Mander, is to spread peace and to stop the hate. The group will go to places where venal atrocities and lynchings have been committed. From Nagaon, the group will proceed to Gauhati where student leaders will speak about how to go about spreading trust and goodwill. They will then go to other venues, where hate is being spewed.
From Assam, the yatra will move to Jharkhand where after living amicably together for centuries, adivasis are being divided into Christian and Sarna clusters. The yatra will then move on to Karnataka, western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The group will meet families of individuals who have been lynched or attacked. One of the stops is Una in Gujarat, where Dalit youths were viciously beaten for skinning dead cows, a task which they have been forcibly condemned to perform by virtue of their caste. The movement will culminate in Porbandar, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace, on October 2. The activists will also set up local aman or peace groups that will commit to supporting the affected families and promoting peace in the community. Karwan-e-Mohabbat hopes to put in place an infrastructure to promote peace, love and goodwill.
Karwan-e-Mohabbat was able to constitute the first Aman Insaniyat Citizen Council in the Nagaon district. They hope that collectively, local groups will be able to create these councils in every district, to fight hate and violence against minorities, Dalits, adivasis and women, and all others.
Later, at an afternoon meeting in Gauhati, student leaders from different universities spoke of their vision for a new India free from hate and exploitation.
Dayal, a peace activist and writer, said, “I have been visiting lynched victims around Delhi. And my mind has been occupied with how to take this peace work forward. So I immediately responded to Harsh’s idea. I was also involved in initiating the ‘Not in my Name’ marches.”
Mander has also made an appeal to all Indians, “We must stop the violence, the lynchings and the hate,” he pleads. It’s a call to the conscience of majority India to stand by the minorities and the most vulnerable. In the second phase, Karwan-e-Mohabbat will weave its way through the 1984 Sikh widows’ colony at Tilak Vihar in Delhi. Here too, justice has been denied for over 30 years. This phase of the yatra will culminate at Mhow, B.R. Ambedkar’s birthplace.
The third phase goes to Kandhamal in Odisha where adivasi Christians were butchered and then Tsundur, in Andhra Pradesh, the site of a Dalit massacre. It will end at Porbandar underlining Gandhiji‘s struggle for Hindu-Muslim unity at the height of the Partition riots.
Gandhiji famously led the first peaceful protests for justice and human rights, starting with the now iconic Salt March. He inspired Martin Luther King to march to Washington DC to advocate for the civil rights of African Americans. More recently, thousands of people across Britain protested the poll tax and the Iraq war. Anti-Trump protestors have done likewise decrying of the discrimination against Muslims.
All over the country, myriad groups are valiantly innovating movements to promote peace and to stop the hate. Mander has urged all Indians to reclaim the India we knew and loved. “It’s a call of conscience to India’s majority,” he says in a statement.
We cannot afford to ignore what’s happening in our country. We cannot any longer feign ignorance. It is imperative, that all Indians lend their active support to these initiatives to prevent the nation from descending into Kosovo or Rwanda-like chaos. Minorities cannot be killed or wiped out in any ‘Final Solution’ without the entire population being affected and engulfed by violence and terror. It’s not merely a moral imperative. It’s a logical, pragmatic necessity. The time to act is now.
Tagore prayed, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high. Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”. It’s probably the biggest challenge ahead of us, 70 years after independence.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara is an activist who writes on social issues.