“Every other day we would go into a home with grieving people who have lost hope. It is inspiring that in spite of the violence they have seen, they are willing to speak up and fight for justice.”
Ending the Karwan-e-Mohabbat at Gandhiji’s birthplace, Porbandar, was a fitting tribute to the man who inspired activist Harsh Mander to embark on an audacious journey of atonement and reparation for minorities murdered because they happened to be Dalit, Muslim or Christian. Being in Porbandar, visiting Gandhi’s birthplace was an immensely moving experience. And a fitting finale for the karwan.
I was a child in Kolkata when I first witnessed the results of hatred and communal mob violence.
I’ve always hated crowds. But the actual image of burning bastis receded from my mind till I heard stories of the 1984 mob murders of Sikhs. Somehow more shocking, almost unbelievable, as this was not the ‘normal’ Hindu-Muslim enmity.
The most enduring, life changing impact for me, though, came in Gujarat 2002 when, with a women’s team, I witnessed and recorded stories of women who’d seen their entire families violently murdered, often burnt alive, their women raped and violated in gruesome, unbelievably, cruel sexual attacks. Their personal trauma was put together in a document called ‘The Survivors Speak‘. We realised that this was not ‘merely another riot’. It had been carefully planned. Brave Gujarat cadre police officers, risking their jobs and lives, came out to give testimony to the fact that they had been told to turn a blind eye in order to let Hindu mobs take revenge for Godhra. In fact the Justice Banerjee Commission later concluded the fire probably began inside the ill-fated Godhra train, as pilgrims often carried small stoves to cook their own food.
Regular news reports of the manufactured spread of hatred have increased alarmingly within the last few years. The karwan reported that where the Sangh Parivar rules, as in Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh, an atmosphere of enabling and encouraging the lynching of Muslims and Dalits prevails. A youth brigade has been formed, whose active mission is allegedly to teach the minorities their place in India. Mander says:
There is fear everywhere. One broken old Muslim man in UP said, ‘I have accepted that I have to endure this treatment.’ They have become second class citizens. Living on sufferance. Depending on the majority community to merely tolerate them if they keep their heads low and remain silent. They do not expect justice. The police often connive with the perpetrators. Apart from not giving the murdered mens’ post mortem reports, or arresting the criminals who lynched them, police allegedly, often file criminal cases against the victims’ family members, accusing them of being Naxalites or cow-killers.
Justice for most of these families is almost a joke.
The karwan’s purpose was to go to these broken people and offer them solace, and apologise on behalf of all Indians, for the gruesome, horrendous crimes perpetrated on them. Muslims and Dalits wept when told ‘we come here because we care. To offer solace, sympathy and solidarity. To say we are ashamed of what has been done to you. But almost more importantly to offer legal aid, so that perpetrators can be nailed and cases filed by empathetic, competent lawyers.’
I interviewed activist John Dayal. Gandhi Jayanti 2017 was his 70th birthday.
“What inspired you to come on this arduous bus journey, injecting yourself with insulin three times a day, checking sugar levels? Was it worth it?,” I asked.
“It was definitely worth every bit of this yatra. I was born on Gandhi Jayanti, that’s of course, merely coincidental. Most of us, of my generation, have grappled with Gandhi’s philosophy all our lives. Why was he killed? Catholics like me, felt secure in Gandhi’s secular India. Now we are frightened at the current atmosphere of hatred against minorities. Gandhi’s finest moment was when he managed single handedly, unarmed, to call a halt to the madness and mayhem, the frenetic Hindu Muslim killing post Independence. To the victims of the murdering and their families, it was every bit as searing as it was to the survivors of the Holocaust. Entire families were annihilated in a few moments of frenzied madness, an avalanche of hate.
When news of Gandhi’s murder reached Delhi, Nehru said ‘the light has gone out’. Now, the idea of India that Gandhi died for, is being killed slowly.
Talking to the bereaved, it’s almost numbing to listen to their grief. The most important part, for me, is that this has been a turning point in the lives of the young people in this group. I feel it has changed every one of them. I hope this is so.”
Dayal’s hopes are not far off the mark.
Also read: Love and Loss in the Time of Lynching
I then spoke to young Nikhil Roshan. His mother is a Hindu from Kerala, his father a Muslim. “What inspired you to spend most of a month on this yatra?,” I ask.
“I came as a photo journalist and documenter. I was inspired by Harsh Mander. He’s one of the most fearless, uncompromising journalists I know. I wanted to get a sense of what makes him keep going. But I can say without any qualms, I consider myself a fellow traveller now. I am concerned about the fate of India, as I’m a product of a mixed marriage. My parents have always looked for ‘safe’ localities to live in, within cosmopolitan, secular neighbourhoods. Now that we have a party in power which challenges the very idea of a secular India, I feel it’s necessary to join up with forces that seek to protect the principles of the constitution.
The impact has been phenomenal. Every other day we would go into a home with grieving people who have lost hope. It is inspiring that in spite of the violence they have personally seen, they are willing to speak up and fight for justice. Our first aim was to seek forgiveness from folk whose sons, fathers, husbands had been murdered. To show empathy. You are not alone. Your grief is not forgotten.
But the most important part was solidarity through action. Supporting them with lawyers, legal aid.
Getting post mortem reports. Using the RTI to get information being denied to them.
The third and most ambitious part, is to form ‘aman insaniyaat‘ or peace groups. An ombudsman or lokpal in every community who can immediately extinguish the flames of communal hatred when it flares up and broker peace.
I believe, in a secular country, the majority has the moral responsibility to protect the minority especially in a country like India where it is enshrined in the Constitution.
Look at the numbers and percentages of those lynched. The leaders of the Hindutva brigade feel they finally have the upper hand, a leader who can give them their rightful place. I’m not making distinctions. A Hindu who is grieving is as deeply hurt as a Muslim or Dalit. But with 86% being Muslim deaths, we have a responsibility to protect the minorities. There is a licentiousness in the air now, by which the mobs can lynch with impunity. But a society which allows this is not a civilised society,” Roshan replied.
This is not the idea of India that Gandhi fought and died for.
Also read: Story Map: Documenting Lynchings in India
The karwan ended on a beautiful note of hope, organised in Porbandar by Shabnam Hashmi who has dedicated her life to fighting communalism and working for justice and harmony. Young local Gujaratis from around Porbandar sang and danced for peace. Poets recited moving pieces, straight from the heart. There was plenty of inspirational song and dance, a few rousing speeches. Two young men from Delhi played their hearts out.
It ended with a candlelit vigil, on a note of hope.
A remarkable, courageous declaration – fight for the idea of India.
I salute the team that embarked on this audacious idea of hope and love in a time of hate. And kudos to Mander who made it happen, on a wing and a prayer. People who felt hopeless in the face of hatred responded instantly. Thousands crowd funded, contributed their skills of writing, film making, composing and taking part in the karwan.
Mander said, “There is an evil that stalks our beloved land.”
But I do believe that this karwan for peace, love and justice gives all of us who care, hope, that the India Gandhi lived, fought and died for will survive.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara is an activist who writes on social issues.