Prof. T K Thomas

Prof. T K Thomas

I have been living in Delhi for the last almost four decades and what happened in the national capital last week [23rd to 25th February] is the second instance of major riots. The first was following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 31st October, 1984 which saw the massacre of thousands of innocent Sikhs- there crime- the security personnel who shot the PM were Sikhs. Why were the innocent Sikhs who were subjected to arson, looting, lynching and set on fire along with their homes and business establishments by the mobs? What I saw and gathered were too gruesome and shocking and haunted me for days to come.

So it was de ja vu when groups clashed for three days from last Sunday, [23rd February] in North-East Delhi. Graphic details of the mindless violence were seen by television viewers all over the country. So, I don’t want to repeat them here. Nor would I like to blame anyone in the context of mutual accusation by dominant, opposing forces of the political spectrum. We have seen a wide spectrum of a not so impartial or balanced media covering the events which had not helped the situation to be impacted positively. Instead they added fuel to the existing explosive situation. Politicians of all hues contributed with their share of hate speech and uncompromising attitudes. Unlike the 1984 riots which was a pogrom and thousands belonging to one community perished, in the present riots around fifty who were killed and over three hundred injured belonged to two major communities. Again, in the 1984 massacre the whole of Delhi and many other parts of India were affected. But what we witnessed in the present unfortunate flare up of the communal riots were confined to a particular geographical area- North-East Delhi which has considerable populations of both the communities.

Fingers were pointed at the leader of a particular political party whose incendiary speech was the immediate trigger for the catastrophic riots. Questions are now being raised whether the riots were pre planned. Were goons on either side kept ready to letting loose a reign of terror with the Delhi Police remaining mute spectators? There are also accusations of the then police chief not being alert and proactive and connived with the powers that be. One wouldn’t like to judge anyone in the absence of any convincing evidence. Perhaps, the exact causes for what happened would remain unsolved mysteries.

The only thing I venture to say is that there was damage on either side and dozens of people lost their precious lives and scores of people especially women and children lost their bread-winners- uncertain futures staring at them. The media have published the names of the victims thus identifying their communities. I don’t consider it appropriate to give a ‘score card’ of the victims on either side based on these identities. To me and to a large number of others they were all INDIANS, children of one Bharat Mata, a term which is supposed to symbolize nationalism.

The term “Bharat Mata’ and the slogan, “Bharat Mata ki Jai” were integral parts of our freedom movement as unifying ‘mantras’. There are many theories on the origin of the term. It is believed that the term owes its origin to a Bengali play of 1873 by Kiran Chandra Bandyopadhyay with the title Bharat Mata. Another theory of its origin points at a work painted by Abanindranath Tagore with the same name in 1905. People also highlight mythological origins. Whatever that may be “Bharat Mata” as mentioned above was used in slogans by our freedom fighters. I distinctly remember how as a little boy I was part of the celebrations in far away Kottayam in the erstwhile Travancore state, now part of Kerala on our first Independence Day in 1947 shouting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”. It is also worth mentioning that the first episode of Shyam Benegal’s much acclaimed Doordarshan serial ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’ based on Jawahar Lal Nehru’s book ‘Discovery of India’ opens with a scene where Nehru coming to a village on a bullock cart asking a cheering audience the question, “Who is Bharat Mata?” Well, I have no hesitation in reiterating that people who died in the recent Delhi tragedy were children of “Bharat Mata”!

I asked many people as to who they considered the victors in the Delhi riots. While most people considered the question as preposterous, others gave answers according to their perceptions. But I feel that the real victors were the members of both the communities in North –East Delhi who bore the brunt of the riots and their show of a spirit of unity and mutual camaraderie. Some of the reports of such spirit promise a better future of harmony and non violent reconciliation. Here are some such real stories starting with a PTI report about B - Block colony in one of Hindu dominated Bhajanpura in Yamuna Vihar of North-East Delhi which has a Muslim area of Ghonda and also Sikhs. Volunteers from the three communities joined together to ward off rioters harming anyone. They restricted the number of people guarding the area and desisted from using long sticks. They say, crowds will attract crowds and same is the case with long sticks.

There was this heart- warming instance by Reuters of a young Hindu couple Savitri Prasad and Gulshan celebrating their wedding in a narrow alley in one of the worst affected Chand Bagh, a Muslim majority area of North-East Delhi. The bride was weeping earlier thinking that the ceremony would be cancelled as rioters had a field day there indulging in pitch battles and vandalism last Monday and to Tuesday. But their Muslim neighbours stood guard and the ceremony went unhindered!

India Today carried stories of ‘sanity and hope’ amidst encircling gloom of ‘rioters running amok.’ “A Muslim man huddled two of his Hindu friends in his small hut to protect them from frenzy Muslim mob outside.” There was another interesting quote of a person from Gali Number -2 of Chand Bagh area whose identity is not revealed. “We live in peace and harmony. Situation has never been like this. Temple and mosque are for everyone here….”

Such stories reveal that ordinary people in Delhi and elsewhere in the country are concerned about eking out their living and want peace and tranquility. Gandhi ji had laid down his life for his mission and dream of a prosperous, nonviolent and peaceful India. One of his earnest hopes and focus during the freedom movement was communal unity and he worked and fasted for it. It is indeed sad that the Delhi riots last week coincided with even as the nation is observing the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Can we as a nation meaningfully celebrate the life of the Saint of Sabarmati in the wake of the riots?

The United Nations had declared 2nd October, the Mahatma’s birth day as International Day of Nonviolence in 2007 “to disseminate the message of non-violence including through education and public awareness”. In its resolution passed on 15th June 2007 the UN General Assembly had reaffirmed that, “the universal relevance of the principle of non-violence” and desired that, “to secure a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence”. Is it not disturbing that Gandhiji’s own motherland, demonstrated last week to the whole world exactly the opposite of nonviolence in Delhi?

The nation as a whole needs to take seriously what the Secretary General of the United Nations Mr. Guterres observed last Thursday following the mayhem in Delhi. His spokeperson Mr. Dujarric said, “The Secretary General has been following the situation in India and ….concerning the violence closely and is saddened by the reports of deaths we’ve seen over the past few days in New Delhi and again reiterate, as he‘s done in other places, his calls for maximum restraint and calls for violence to be avoided.“

In conclusion here is a WhatsApp message forwarded to me by a dear friend. It is by a doctor at the morgue who questions the futility of communal violence in which an overwhelming majority of those who died were not involved or even remotely connected; hapless victims of mindless violence! Here is the full text of the message :-

“Which God won? I don’t know. Do you? Delhi 2020

Here in the chilly air of the morgue where the sharp smell of formaldehyde cuts through the odour of blood and buzz of an overworked air conditioner drowns out the howls from without….they are finally equal. On cold concrete slabs they lie….men of similar age, who prayed to dissimilar Gods in life, lie equal in death. Shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, it doesn’t matter now. Sliced and sewn up after death, they lie in perfect harmony, unseeing eyes behind lifeless lids stare at the futility of it all, amidst the wails of the living. Which God won? I don’t know. Do you?”