THE OTHER HALF: Memories of violence

Kalpana Sharma


“People do not forget the past wrongs, especially when there has been no attempt to ensure justice.”


This election might be more peaceful than past elections although it is too early to tell after just the first round. But an important thread that runs through it is the role of memory of past wrongs and the violent history of some political parties that refuses to be erased.


The withdrawal of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar by the Congress Party as candidates for the Lok Sabha is only one illustration of how people do not forget or forgive that easily, especially when there is no closure, no reassurance that a genuine attempt has been made to bring justice. The Sikhs have not forgotten 1984 even if the rest of the country has. This is now clear.


Justice denied: The Muslims in Gujarat have also not forgotten 2002 because the perpetrators of those horrific acts of violence are still at large. Some of them have also won elections. There is no remorse, no genuine attempt to ensure justice. This might not impact the election results in that State this time, or perhaps even the next time. But in the long run, the Bharatiya Janata Party will be held accountable just as the Congress Party has been forced to face the cost of attempting to erase history. People are not likely to forget, or forgive, the BJP’s flaunting of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its chief campaigner in this election even if its manifesto speaks of development and security. The images of Gujarat 2002 live on in the memories of more than just the people who were directly affected by the violence.


Orissa 2008 is another example of political violence that will linger on and come to haunt its perpetrators. The victims of the terrible violence in Kandhamal just six months ago, Orissa’s Christians, are still living in camps. Most of them have lost all their identity papers, including their voters’ identity cards. According to newspaper reports, not only are they afraid to leave the camps but they are also afraid of voting because they fear that their choice will be known to those who tortured them, people who hold the reins of power. Their only choice is not to vote at all. One of the residents of a camp told a journalist, “Unless the booths are set up right here, it is not possible to vote. We will not step out on polling day as we expect further violence after the polls as the polarisation has been complete”. (Hindustan Times, April 13, 2008)


The BJP’s candidate from the site of the worst violence, G. Udayagiri, is Manoj Pradhan who was directly implicated in last year’s violent attacks on Christians. And its Lok Sabha candidate is a former policeman, Ashok Sahu who is now the State President of the Hindu Jagaran Samukhya, a group that makes no apologies for the attacks on helpless Christian communities. He was recently quoted as saying, “What happened in Kandhamal is no reason to be ashamed about, at least not for me. Today Kandhamal symbolises Hindu culture.”


Divisive politics: The BJP’s support of people like Manoj Pradhan and Ashok Sahu, and not to forget Varun Gandhi, reminds us yet again that its true ideology remains unrepentantly majoritarian, communal and divisive. Elections are the best time to test what percentage of the Indian population really believes what Ashok Sahu has stated, that the massacre of innocents in Kandhamal symbolises Hindu culture.


A timely reminder of the lingering memory of violence in the lives of people who have lived through it is the thought-provoking film by Nandita Das, “Firaaq”. The film has been released at an important time, for, it illustrates what happens to ordinary people, their relationships and their lives when communal violence seeps into every crack and crevice of a society. No one is untouched. Victims of violence discover that all relationships, including the closest ones, become vitiated by suspicion and fear. Those on the other side of the divide either live with the guilt of not having done anything, or with the fear that their role in the violence will be discovered. And even those who believe in the strong syncretic traditions of Indian music and art are forced to face the ugly reality that the delicate threads that have held different communities together for centuries cannot survive such vicious communal violence.


Double-edged: What I personally found particularly interesting was how the director brings Hindu bigot, who is tortured by her inability to help a Muslim woman in distress, faces violence in her own home as does the wife of a Muslim who has lost everything because his community was targeted by Hindu mobs. Neither woman knows the other. They are on opposite sides of the communal divide. Yet their experience of violence, within and outside the home, places them virtually on the same side.


A film like “Firaaq” reminds us during an election that many complex factors dictate people’s choices and actions. As Indians get used to the idea of elections where their vote can actually lead to a change, it is becoming increasingly difficult to predict outcomes. What makes election 2009 especially interesting is the fact that people are now beginning to understand the value of their vote. They also know that one election is not the end of their ability to make a choice.


A young scholar doing her Ph.D. research in Madhya Pradesh narrated to me her experience of talking to a very poor woman in the town where she is working. This woman compared her vote to a single grain in a fistful of grain. Even one grain, she pointed out, could shift the scales.


(The writer:


(The Hindu, April 19, 2009)

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