By Ayesha Khan
Friday, August 29, 2008
Perhaps it is the times we live in. Tragedies now engender anniversary celebrations. There’s a new social class of vocal, visible victims. And publicly parading pain is the new thing. So in Gujarat on August 26, a month after the Ahmedabad blasts, there were functions, official and NGO-sponsored. One of the latter variety was organised by the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) in Quresh Hall, Ahmedabad. There, 2002 riot victims met 2008 terror victims.
What was the idea? Fostering secular bonding? Who can argue against that? But one can and must point out that life, and life in Gujarat, is not Amar, Akbar, Anthony. Manmohan Desai had the three brothers of different faiths united via an impossible conjunction of medicine and maa — siblings simultaneously donating blood to their mother, tubes running from their arms to their mother’s. Such ideas of the heroic potential of inter-faith bonding seemed quite apt when the organisers of the Quresh Hall meeting said that the attempt was to “bridge the gap” and “get them talking to each other in empathy, with sympathy”. “Our grief is same, our pain is same, our tragedies are similar, even if our faiths are different.”
Read the subtext. Riot victims of 2002 are Muslims who were victims of the state, the system and the majority Hindus. Victims of the Ahmedabad bombs in 2008 are Hindus, the perpetrators are Muslims. So, Muslims are victims, Hindus are victims, the bad guys may be different, but we all stand united — in fear, in tragedy. In Gujarat, it seems only fear and tragedy can secure the bonds.
Gujarat, let’s say it again, is becoming a strange place. The strange response to its brand of politics is now not only from society, but also from even civil society groups. Gujarat is perhaps the only Indian state to have the intriguing distinction of a memorial planned for riot victims — as CJP plans one in Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Society, the site of one of the most gruesome riots in 2002, where ex-MP Ehsan Jafri died. So we are to have a Gulberg Museum of Resistance. The sponsors didn’t ask anyone, didn’t ask me, for example, whether I want this. Whether as a Muslim or a Hindu, or Gujarai or Indian, whatever one’s identity is, such a memorial only brings deep discomfort.
This museum is not my culture, not my language. This is supposedly to be a museum that will be a reminder of human frailties and depravity. But will it soothe, will it heal? No, it will just help the wounds to fester. Gujarat has more than its fair share of slogans, hoardings, anniversaries and memorial functions. They are all over, in all shades and nuances. And they all bring discomfiture — they don’t help.
Bollywood secularism is not the answer to Gujarat’s political and social divides. This is missed even and especially by those who write reams on post-riot Gujarat. Six years later, there’s no escaping this narrative. I, like all of us, have layered identities. I am a journalist. I am Gujarati. I am a woman. I am a Muslim. But well-meaning groups wait for a month to pass after the Ahmedabad bombs day and start reminding me, lest I forget, that I am also to remember the riots, and the importance of being a victim. Why the presumption that this is what I want? Why the presumption that this is what anyone wants? If tragedies mean most in the personal dimension, then individuals should be allowed to deal with it.
So what victim-meets-victim programmes do is make me angry — because I am yet again labelled as the victim. I resent the reminder of victimhood being foisted on me. Apparently, in Gujarat, you can’t escape being a victim if you have once been identified as one. Victimhood takes different forms, searches for different contexts, waits for many anniversaries — but it’s always there. This is bizarre and made more so by the fact that there seems to be no recognition that all this coming together is not happening organically but because, in effect, different groups are being told they all have reasons to be afraid.
The state once wanted to decide for me in Gujarat where I stood in the scheme of things. Now, civil society groups also want to do that. That the motives might be different makes little difference. I don’t want the state or civil society groups to decide for me. I want the space and the time to decide for myself.
This is not an exceptionally demanding request. This is not a request that should surprise either politicians or civil society groups. This is not even a request that really needs to be made. Then why am I making it? And many in Gujarat feel this way.
We have to say this aloud because willy-nilly we have been playing a role decided for us. That role was something terrible when the state’s politics took that horrible turn. When civil society responded to that, and respond it had to, the role changed, the script changed, the people deciding the role changed, the motives were obviously infinitely better — but it was still a role I, and we, were expected to play.
I say this years after the riots, years during which I have felt constricted.
All that Gujarat wants is a space that the rest of India gives — to Indians irrespective of their faith and/or ideology. The state failed Gujarat on this. Will civil society groups let us down too?
Let me be. Just let me be.
Source: Inidan Expres, New Delhi