Saturday, July 5, 2008

Torchbearers Of Hate

Book Review
by Patwant Singh 3/11/2002
In the context of Hindu-Muslim riots, a short but significant Hindi novel, Curfew in the City, by Vibhuti Narain Rai, published in 1988, provides valuable insights. In normal circumstances it might have gone unnoticed, but for the fact that Vibhuti Rai was - and still is - a serving police officer of integrity and strong convictions who as Senior Superintendent of Police in Allahabad in 1980, had handled communal rioting there. The experience made him embark on his novel whose story - covering just three days - is centered on a Muslim family in an Allahabad caught up in the frenzy of a Hindu-Muslim riot. Another reason why Curfew attracted attention was that since its theme covers more than those three days, the book - as C. M. Naim explains in his Foreword - earned a fatwa from Shri Ashok Singhal, the Secretary-General of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Not surprisingly, he had not even bothered to read the book, for he advised Mr. Rai to resign from the government service before publishing his book.

What is more, because an Allahabad journalist wanted to make a feature film based on Curfew in the City, Singhal threatened to burn down any cinema house that would dare to show the proposed film. Considering the large-scale arson in Gujarat over the last several days, not just of properties but of men, women and children as well, Mr. Singhal and his followers are no pushovers when it comes to torching properties and people. So the producer with remarkable prescience dropped the film project.

The English translation of the book was published in 1998 which I read, before meeting Rai. By that time he had spent a year studying the role of the police during communal riots, with special emphasis on the rampant communalism in the subcontinent, and its ugliest manifestation, the communal riot. I found his analysis and assessments informed and incisive, and was impressed by the fact that the National Police Academy had given him a fellowship and funded his research. This goes to prove that the communal virus has neither affected all Indians, nor everyone of a particular community. Have the remarkable findings of his study been used in a handbook for the police to prevent tragedies such as Gujarat’s from occurring? Given the degree to which the authorities suborned arson and mass murder there, it could also be one way of making it more difficult for politicians to prevent the police from carrying out its responsibilities.

Of particular interest are Rai’s clarifications on who suffers most in Hindu-Muslim riots. In his Afterword on the anatomy of the "most terrible riot" in Ahmedabad in 1969, he points out that: "According to the figures presented by the State government to the Inquiry Commission headed by Justice Jagmohan Reddy, 6742 houses or shops were burned down in that riot; out of them, only 671 belonged to the Hindus, the rest 6,071 belonged to the Muslims. The total value of the property destroyed in the riot came to Rs. 4,23,24,068: out of it the value of the property that belonged to the Hindus was Rs. 75,85,845 while the value of the property that belonged to the Muslims was Rs. 3,47,38,224. Of the 512 fatalities, 24 were Hindus, 413 were Muslims, while the remaining 75 could not be identified." He also says, "there was probably not a single riot where the percentage of the Muslim casualties to the total were less than seventy", and adds
that "in the many riots all over the country subsequent to the destruction of the mosque that percentage has in fact been above ninety." The question worth asking here is : if the terrible riot of 1969 took such a deadly toll, how is that an even worse riot was allowed to take place in the same city 33 years later?

On the psychology of the majority community Rai feels that "without fully changing it, it wouldn’t be possible to stop communal riots. Right-thinking members of the majority community will have to acknowledge that repeatedly the victims of their aggression are the members of the minority community; that the minorities have as much right to this land as they have and that during periods of communal tension, the job of the police and the army is not to take the side of the majority community but to provide protection to the minorities". He is equally straightforward and even-handed in analyzing the shortfalls of the Muslim community.

No comments: