Reconciliation is a heavy word. It encompasses within itself the promise of acceptance, amity and more importantly, to delve into a troubled past to unearth knowledge of how to exist with opposing ideas. In a country that prefers a wilful sense of amnesia, it is a word which is both rare as well as difficult to present as an accepted currency of life. Reconciliation also takes for granted another vital aspect – the acceptance of truth, however harsh it might be.
The concept of truth in our country is a dangerous thing as it includes multitudes of points of view which are reference points of identities forever in the process of becoming ‘Indian’. We are uncomfortable being called Indians as our sense of allegiance to the country is a distant fourth after religion, language and then topography. Yet, Harsh Mander, Natasha Badhwar and John Dayal, through the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, embark upon a journey which is an attempt at reconciliation of not only fractured sense of identities, but rather a fractured country that lies in tatters awaiting intervention.
Lynching, hate crime, encounter killings, communal deaths are no longer trigger words in India – they have become as commonplace as the next ‘jumla’ that the ruling power drops down our throat. This desensitisation is something that Mander addresses in the introduction of this monumental journey into the heart of the country. He calls his caravan a journey of solidarity through a ‘wounded’ country, looking to reaffirm what he believes as ‘insaaniyat’ and communities of peace and acceptance.
Mander doesn’t soften the blow of the heinous crimes. The cover of the book is a collage of half-formed photos of the families of the lynch victims juxtaposed cruelly and violently together, their helplessness staring right at you. As you turn to the first page, there is a line drawing of the Hapur lynching victim sitting with a dazed expression looking for answers which he would never have. While the introduction gives snippets of the horror that one is to encounter in the pages to follow, it also gives the audience the time required to decide whether they have the courage in them to follow this journey as it not only exposes the cruelty of the perpetrators, but more importantly, makes the reader aware of the role their tacit silence played in such acts. If one does make a leap to face one’s accountability in this, it then opens a Pandora’s box that is India today.
The book is divided into four interconnected parts – the Journey as documented in diary updates of Harsh Mander; Reflections which are longer essays by some of the eminent travellers in the caravan; the Karwan Travellers which are short introductions of all the travellers and their experiences of being part of the Karwan in brief, and finally a long essay by Mander titled ‘Two Fathers’ – a story of what reconciliation should aim to look like for the Karwan through the two disconnected yet similar stories of Yashpal Saxena, the father of Ankit Saxena who was killed by his Muslim girlfriend’s family in Delhi and that of Maulana Imdadul Rashidi, the imam of the Noorani Mosque in Asansol, West Bengal, whose youngest son was killed by a hate mob.
‘A profound absence of remorse’
Beginning the narrative is a frenzied tour through the breadth of the country, starting from the small town of Nangaon in Assam, tracing the story of lynching of two cousins based on rumours, traversing into the heartland of cow politics in Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat, into the hotbed of Hindutva killings in coastal Karnataka and finally halting, for the time being, at Porbandar on October 2, 2017.
Most of the killings presented in this part follow the same points of enactment: spreading of rumour, groups of upper caste/gau rakshaks/vigilantes arriving within minutes to the place heavily armed, the victim usually from the religious or caste minority (Muslim, Christian, Dalit) beaten inches to their death, the police either arriving late or playing along with the perpetrators by refusing to admit FIRs or worse, filing counter FIRs against the victims, the eternal wait for the families of the victims for a justice that might never come to them.
The stories pile upon each other, much like the dead bodies – disfigured, grotesque and questioning the reader. Two stories in this stood out for me –both of them interestingly happening in Rajasthan. As the Karwan forayed into Rajasthan, Mander paid a visit to the nondescript roadside on the highway which witnessed the lynching and death of Pehlu Khan, the 55-year-old cattle trader. Mander’s idea of paying homage with a fistful of flowers received much resistance from the locals as well as the local police.
Mander writes, “The determined opposition by stone-throwing mobs to our tribute to a man felled by hate violence underlined a profound absence of remorse, and a sustained communal hatred. We are still bemused by the magnitude of the stir that two fistfuls of marigold flowers created”. This incident is followed by the raining of flowers that the Karwan experienced when they visited Ajmer Sharif just a few days later, where people joined the Karwan singing and sloganeering, chanting ‘Aman, aman, aman’. These two opposite and disparate experiences – both experienced within the same longitude and latitude.
Core goals of the Karwan
Natasha Badhwar starts off the second section with a meditation on the core goals of the Karwan, a journey to ‘atone, restore and seek healing’. Badhwar embarks on this journey, as she says, for her children, to work towards restoring the imbalance which threatens to dissolve the country into chaos – a journey which she believes is the duty of every citizen of this country. Each of the essays in this section delve into diverse areas of concern which more often than not get hidden and buried under all the statistics and the spectacle of the crimes.
John Dayal’s piece on the theological and philosophical underpinnings of both the hatred which results in these crimes as well as the lack of remorse or understanding or protest from the people is a piece that needs to be read multiple times simply for the questions that it raises.
Sanjukta Basu’s essay on ‘Women – the Invisible Victims of Lynching’ is one of the standout pieces in this book as it probes into areas which complicates our simplistic understanding of lynchings, encounter deaths and goes into the inner sanctums of the lives which are invisibly destroyed every time there is yet another story of someone being lynched.
‘Karwan Travellers’ introduces the readers to the different people who undertook this journey of the conscience. The Karwan travellers are a mixed bag of people – priests, students, artists, activists, scientists, professors, lawyers, parents – each coming from completely different ages, backgrounds, religions and views of life with a desire to witness and learn. Each of them face their own prejudices, limitations and ideas, changing as the Karwan traversed through the country. From beginning the journey with what one of the travellers is told by a friend as ‘distress tourism’, bringing in the ‘what about-ery’ that seems to be the most common threat question to any idea of change, to realising the importance of bearing witness, the Karwan and its travellers boldly call out the state and its ancillaries of being accomplices in nurturing this hate as well as shielding it from any legal recuperations.
The Karwan is an unfinished journey – it is also a frustrating one. The stories are hurried, much like the headlines that gave no space for the reader to feel the actual anguish of these incidents. While the book does not give any happy endings or even a glimpse of any solutions to the problems that it highlights, it does leave the reader disturbed at her own privilege and cocoon of unaffectedness.
There are of course more technical problems with the book which as a reviewer and as a student of literature becomes a part of our job to point out. And as I wrote this review, I started off with that, as if this was just any other book I was meant to review. But then a small incident made me realise that reviewing this book like any other would be a mistake. I work in one of the oldest bookstores in Kolkata and one of the perks of it is that I get to read most books fresh off the oven. The first thing that made me pick Reconciliation up from the shelves was that unlike all the other new releases, this one just had two copies.
When questioned, my merchandiser said they just got two copies as they did not expect it to sell, to which I had scoffed as this seemed like such an interesting read. I finished reading the book over a week and when I went to the store after two weeks post that, that one single copy still lay there without any takers. This is when I realised the extent of our apathy towards the situation of our times. We change channels when the lynchings come up, we skip the minuscule articles in the newspapers reporting them and we refuse to pick up books which talk about these uncomfortable truths.
So, even though the reviewer in me wants to point out the problems with the book, the conscience in me tells me differently. This is a book not to be read for its high literary value or its exceptional research – it does not have either. It just needs to be read: it needs to be read because we need to face our own failure as citizens of this country, to accept the truth of hatred that we skim in our everyday conversations and politely refer to as “us” and “them”; it is a call out to the millions of Indians who are busy buying the rhetoric of hate under the garb of being ‘patriotic citizens’ of this country. It needs to be read because everything around you will tell you not to read it – because reconciliation and such things don’t win vote banks or elections. And 2019 is just around the corner.
Aatreyee Ghosh finished her doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University and has been working as a creative manager for Oxford Bookstore and its festival, Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival. She will be joining as a research fellow for a project on the Dutch East India Company at the International Institute of Asian Studies this October.