In 2004, not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United Nations held a seminar at its headquarters in New York City titled, ‘Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding.’
The event brought together scholars, writers, and religious leaders from around the world, and I was fortunate to secure an invitation because of the foreign policy work I was doing at the time in Washington DC. I traveled to the seminar with a group of friends, most of them Arab or South Asian, and they were all eager to meet the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who boldly stood up to the US led invasion of Iraq the previous year.
But I was more excited about the possibility of meeting someone else that day: Shashi Tharoor, the then Under Secretary General of the UN, who served as the seminar’s moderator.
Some of my friends did not know much about Tharoor, so I filled them in: he obtained his PhD at the age of 20 and he has written two dozen books, I told them. It was before smart phones were common which meant you couldn’t just reach into your pocket and call out another person’s embellishments. Suffice to say, I had a few details wrong. He completed his PhD at 22, not 20, and he hadn’t, at least not yet, written two dozen books. But my point, broadly speaking, was understood: Tharoor was 48 and had already reached a level in his policy and writing career that most people would take lifetimes to match. And he did this all while being proudly and unreservedly Indian.
That last bit mattered to me. It still does.
In those days, in the years after 9/11, to be a Muslim, South Asian, Arab, or Iranian in America was to be pummelled by commentators and scholars, almost all of them white, who insisted that they knew our story, our history, and our pain better than we did ourselves. In What Went Wrong, for example, the Princeton historian Bernard Lewis did little to hide his disdain for Muslims. He was rewarded for his Orientalism with impressive book sales, as well as a position advising the George W. Bush administration.
Here then was Tharoor: young, eloquent, erudite, and, it must be said, well-coiffed, pushing back against the voices of empire like Lewis. Only Tharoor wasn’t asking for pity or for hegemonic voices to be kinder. He was insisting, rightly so, that the subjects of empire also have a voice; that we too can exist in multiple shades, identities, and histories.
When Tharoor began speaking, I was awe-struck. I had never seen someone as comfortable talking about Shakespeare as, say, structural adjustment policies. As a young boy growing up in California, I had fallen in love with literature and politics, and I couldn’t decide which career to pursue. Tharoor taught me I didn’t have to choose; I could do both.
“Every one of us has many identities,” Tharoor told us that day. “Sometimes religion obliges us to deny the truth about our own complexity by obliterating the multiplicity inherent in our identities.”
It’s an outlook Tharoor has admirably held on to until today. He often likes to say that if America is a melting pot, India is a thaali where, “Each dish tastes different… so they combine together to give you a satisfying meal.” I am not sure if all Indians would agree with that rosy assessment, but I nonetheless admire that ecumenical spirit, especially as more and more people in India want to narrow the idea of who can fit in on its plate.
I often miss the young Indian diplomat I saw speak passionately and courageously against Islamophobia all those years ago at the UN. I suspect many of us do. The problem, though, is that I think Tharoor might be the only one who doesn’t.
In an interview with Barkha Dutt last week, Tharoor trivialised the importance of a BBC documentary that highlights the plight of Muslims in India, saying, “If India has moved on from this tragedy (i.e. the Gujarat pogrom), why should a foreign channel open old wounds?” He also added that “This (i.e. 2002) is an event that happened 21 years ago, which people, including Muslims, feel we should put behind and move on.”
When many pointed out his contradiction of urging people to remember what the British government did in 1919 – but not what the Gujarat government did in 2002 – he responded rather defensively on Twitter, saying, “I did not do that. I’ve repeatedly made it clear that I believe the wounds of Gujarat have not fully healed, but that given that the Supreme Court has issued a final ruling, we gain little from debating this issue when so many urgent contemporary matters need to be addressed.”
Tharoor backpedaled soon after, but he did not, at least to my knowledge, apologise.
Perhaps he thinks there is no reason to apologise which, well, would be ironic, because one of his arguments against the British is that they have failed to account for their own responsibility in causing hurt. In an interview with Reuters, in 2016, to promote his book An Era of Darkness: The British in India, he said, “The British to a large extent are unaware there is anything to apologise for.”
For Muslims in India, especially Gujarati Muslims, being told to “move on” might be one of the most painful things to hear. I will never forget the first time a Hindu berated me for “not moving on.” It was April 2002, and I was working in a relief camp in Ahmedabad that housed several thousand displaced Muslims.
Muslims were trying to resume their lives, but Hindus kept preventing them from doing so. When Muslim parents tried to take their children back to school, for example, they were beaten up by Hindu parents, and in one instance, even other children, as Hindu teachers stood by, doing nothing.
These stories took a toll on my body, so much so that my physician in Ahmedabad, a Hindu, wanted to admit me to the hospital and put me on an IV drip because of all the weight I had lost.
“I think you are having these stomach problems because of the non-veg food you are eating,” he told me.
I tried to explain to him that that was not the case; I was vomiting because of the things I saw and heard in the relief camps.
“Well,” he said, glibly, “you should move on. My family and I have. I can’t see why you cannot.”
He then went on to ask me for travel recommendations for beach vacations in the US.
For he and so many other Hindus in Gujarat, life resumed to normal not long after the Godhra train fire. I know this because I lived with a Hindu host family in an all-Hindu neighbourhood of Ahmedabad during the violence. On some days, I would watch police target Muslims in the relief camps, only to return home at night to Hindu families who couldn’t quite understand why I never joined them at the movies.
I cannot blame my physician – or Tharoor – for not knowing everything Muslims endured that year. What I can fault them for is their lack of humility in considering that some might have a different relationship to history and to memory than they do.
I realise, of course, that Tharoor has an impressive track record going back decades of speaking against communalism. And I know he continues, admirably so, to speak up against Hindu nationalism today. But like so many of my ‘upper’ caste Hindu friends, be they in India or in the diaspora, he wants to monopolise the space to deem what is worthy of being remembered and how long it should be remembered for.
Tharoor is not alone here. In 2007, Barkha Dutt, who reported bravely from Gujarat in 2002, also wagged her finger at Muslims for remembering the violence, saying, “For there to be any dramatic change in Gujarat, the paradigm of public debate just has to move away from the riots of 2002. To ensure the future of Gujarat, we can no longer remain prisoners of the past.”
What Dutt, Tharoor, and so many others fail to understand is that Gujarati Muslims do not keep talking about 2002 because we are trapped in the past. We talk about it because the violence has not ended. And we talk about it because we love India and we want, desperately so, to feel welcome in India again.
I have, in the past few days, received a handful of WhatsApp messages from Gujarati Muslims about the BBC documentary. But I have received far more about Tharoor. The reason, I suspect, is that we are tired of our friends and allies – almost all of them Hindu – disappointing and abandoning us.
I would love to watch Tharoor try to tell a Muslim family in Ahmedabad, whose business was burned down in 2002, whose life savings went up in flames, who in the years after the violence, were forced to move next to a mountain of trash because Hindus denied them land everywhere else in the city, that the aftermath of the 2002 pogrom is not, in his words, “an urgent contemporary matter.”
For that Muslim family in Ahmedabad, still reeling from the pogrom all these years later, memory is a form of beauty, a form of resistance, a form of justice, and a form of love. Memory allows them to reach back into the past to recall a time in which India, and so many of its Hindus, were not like this. Memory is a way for them to hug their child or grandchild and say, “Life was once better and will inshallah one day be better again.”
The tragic thing is that Tharoor was not always like this, or at least that is what I tell myself.
The proof, I would argue, is in his novel Riot, published in 2001. I recently re-read it and while I now find it to be overly schematic with stilted dialogue – and flat female characters – I admire his overall project. The plot revolves around an American social worker named Priscilla Hart who is killed in the communal frenzy that erupts in the aftermath of the Babri masjid demolition.
The book is told from multiple points of view, including a Hindu nationalist, Ram Charan Gupta, and a Muslim historian, Mohammad Sarwar.
There is even a character – a stand-in for Tharoor, I suspect – of an aspiring poet and writer named Lakshman who wishes to re-imagine the possibilities of what a novel on communal violence in India can achieve.
It is no spoiler to say that at the end of the book, we do not learn who killed Hart.
Tharoor’s purpose, I gather, is to demonstrate that while the truth is sometimes elusive, and sometimes contradictory, it is almost always plural and just slightly outside of our reach.
But we cannot ascertain these truths, the novel argues, when we declare, much like Tharoor did last week, that the search is over, that the very debate and conversation has no merit and is now closed.
Zahir Janmohamed is a visiting assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College.
Note: Shashi Tharoor responded to the above piece. You can read his response here.