AIJAZ ZAKA SYED
He does not make men like Harsh Mander too often. They are what Jesus Christ would describe as “the salt of the earth”. Every time one’s belief in India’s fabled tolerance and magnanimity as a nation comes under strain a tad bit, one finds it restored because of noble, selfless and generous spirits like him. There is hope for the great democracy as long as it is home to people like him. May his tribe grow.
The ghosts of Ayodhya
Mander used to be part of India’s elite civil service and had been posted as district magistrate, or district collector as the position is known in some parts of the country, in Gujarat when all hell broke loose on February 27, 2002.
The relentless, deliberate dance of death and communal frenzy that he witnessed during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom in what has come to be known as one of India’s bloodiest riots claiming more than 2,00 lives, most of them Muslims, changed Mander forever.
He quit his job, dedicating himself instead to communal peace and harmony. Besides founding Aman Biradari, which works for the rehabilitation of victims of religious violence, he has been associated with a number of humanitarian causes. In between he manages to write path-breaking books such as ‘Fear and Forgiveness, The Aftermath of Massacre’ chronicling the Gujarat 2002 tragedy, write newspaper columns and even take up teaching assignments around the world.
A child of parents who were uprooted by post-Partition violence, Mander brings rare sensitivity and understanding to his writings, always looking for hope and humanity amid despair, and bravely and repeatedly raising his voice against the gathering threats to the idea of an inclusive, plural India.
In his latest column in the Hindustan Times, Mander takes note of the Hindutva groups’ latest attempts to revive the issue of Ram temple all over again, recalling how the Right has repeatedly and successfully exploited the name of Lord Ram to grow from a fringe group into the mainstream of Indian politics.
The former civil servant points out how “emerging from political shadows, the RSS searched for a fresh symbol to recruit a new generation to its majoritarian convictions. They found a powerful emblem in a low-key, long-festering dispute around the mosque built by Babar in 1528.”
Lal Krishna Advani, leader of the BJP, which had shrunk to a small rump of two MPs in parliament in the 1980s, masterfully resurrected this dispute and transformed it into a muscular national movement.
How that movement captured power at the centre subsequently under the “moderate and reasonable” leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, paving the way for the brute majority that Narendra Modi – the man who incidentally ruled Gujarat in 2002 – enjoys today is part of recent history.
Mander rightly views the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 as a watershed in the nation’s history, perhaps as defining as the Partition of the country:
“For Indians not born in those years, the full significance of that moment is often lost. What the marauders assaulted was not a crumbling mosque but the secular promise of the constitution – the pledge that this would be a country in which none are children of a lesser god. Disputes, if any, would be dealt by an equal and fair application of law to all persons. That traumatic moment altered the course of India’s contemporary history, marking a belligerent victory of the politics of hatred and division in the ongoing struggle by Hindu nationalists against the secular idea of India.”
It is a profound tragedy that those responsible for wilfully demolishing the mosque in full view of the world and irreversibly damaging the secular fabric and image of the country have gone unpunished for their crimes against the people of India and against humanity. Not only that, they have actually been rewarded with power and high offices in the land.
Unfortunately, a significant majority of the population – every second Indian alive today was not even born in that defining harrowing moment, as Mander reasons – remains blissfully unaware of the recent history and how power was captured by repeatedly and shamelessly exploiting religious sentiments and by undermining the country’s constitutional foundations.
This dangerous ignorance of history leaves them vulnerable to future deceptions and manipulations by politicians.
Not only are all those responsible for the Ayodhya shame brazenly unrepentant, they are still looking to squeeze the last drop of political mileage in the name of Ram, ahead of the crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls next year.
Of course, Ashok Singhal, the grim face of the Ayodhya temple movement for decades, may be dead and gone. But apparently there is still some life left in what many of us would think was a dead horse. So the Vishwa Hindu Parishad continues to rush stones and bricks from across the country for the Ram temple, suitably notching up communal tensions by several degrees ahead of the UP elections.
And Subramanian Swamy, a top functionary of the ruling BJP – someone who lives in a posh, government bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi with Z Plus security – announces at a seminar about Ram Janmabhoomi (the birthplace of Ram) at the Delhi University that the construction of the temple would start by the end of the year.
Where does Prime Minister Modi stand in all this? If his agenda remains development-for-all, as he never tires of telling his vast audiences at home and abroad, then why are his comrades in arms such as Dr Swamy, VHP leader Praveen Togadia and above all his guru and patron, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, hell bent on wrecking it?
You do not have to be Adam Smith to know that peace and political stability are the first prerequisites of economic progress and development. You cannot ‘make in India’ anything, let alone dream of leading the world as the next great power, if politicians stand and stare as some of their friends and allies are busy unmaking India in the name of religion and temple and mosque.
My generation of Indians witnessed the full horror of the Ayodhya catastrophe and the nation-wide carnage and chaos that followed. Thousands died. Thousands more were permanently scarred. We saw the country swept into a tempest of, in the words of Mander, “engineered division and social hatred, symbolized by the mass movement to destroy the mosque.”
The generation that came after us, the fourth generation of Indians as Mander calls them –most of them below the age of 25 – was mercifully spared. It remains untouched by the insanity and bitterness of the 1990s and therefore, one likes to believe, is more reasonable and balanced in its outlook.
Besides, the world has moved on. So has India. Building a grand temple at the exact spot where the 16th century Mughal mosque once stood in the ancient town that is home to hundreds if not thousands of such temples does not top the overriding concerns and pressing priorities of the new generation of Indians. They are more concerned about peace, security, finding a rewarding job, taking care of their loved ones and living well.
Many of them may have voted for Prime Minister Modi and his party in the 2014 polls. But it wasn’t his masculine Hindutva, the talk of teaching Pakistan a lesson or the glad tidings about a new Ram temple but the promise of a new India and above all the reassuring talk of ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’ that won him the day.
PM Modi and the BJP have to decide if they would like India to march forward with confidence to the 21st century or crawl back, eyes wide shut, to the Middle Ages, or better still, to the pre-historic times of ‘Akhand Bharat’. If they do not make the right choice, the new generation of Indians will make it for them.