In Truth, Dark Times

on Monday, October 6, 2008

Tarun Tejpal

DICTATORSHIP WALKS in through the front door, often without a preamble, one sunlit morning. Fascism almost never rings the bell. It slips in through the backdoor, climbs in over window-sills, pads up the basement, locates a rotten rafter to make its covert entry. Dictatorship is showy. It lodges itself in the living room, confident it commands the house. Fascism is sneaky. It quietly settles into every room, knowing it runs the house. Dictatorships can be overthrown by the people. Fascism is the people.

Of course we must not be alarmist. We are a great democracy. Look at our Constitution. Look at our Parliament. Look at our free and fair elections — well, okay, prolific elections. Look at our free and fair media — well, okay, prolific media. Look at our free and fair judiciary — well, okay, our judiciary. Let us not try and list the police and the bureaucracy: we have a consensus of unhappiness about them. In a great democracy — well, okay, a great democracy in the making — these are minor flaws. No doubt, evolution will make us perfect.

This catalogue of virtues is only enumerated by those of us who live inside India’s charmed circle. To whose privileged lives the soaring idea of democracy can provide a glittering embroidery. It’s the banquet hall view of the state — cosy with good food and fine conversation. And it is articulated only by those of us who have somehow managed to grab a seat at the table, even if it is a low one. It’s useful to remember, every ruling class from Caesar to Stalin has believed it was doing right by its people.

Today to read the Indian state through the banquet hall is to read a crocodile through a handbag. Only those who confront the beast know its true nature. A thousand handbags cannot tell you how mercilessly the jaws of a crocodile clamp. But all around the country there are numberless Christians, Muslims, displaced tribals, turfed-out farmers, brutalised dalits, disputing citizens, who can give you a clear idea of its brutal force. Each of their accounts tears the heart out of the idea of India.

Experience is a gift for anyone. Especially for journalists. Seven years ago some of us at TEHELKA were accorded a special opportunity by the Indian state. For blowing a sharp whistle we were dragged into the entrails of the beast. How fearsome its innards were — with not a hint of the beauty of the handbag! Among the many intimate journeys we were taken on was a special starring role in a commission of inquiry. This is a special trick of the beast — an invite to a lengthy palaver at the end of which, when no one is looking, the guest is eaten. For 19 months we participated, along with more than 15 lawyers including some of India’s finest, in a burlesque of lies and immorality against us. It was a rare education. We were forever cured of the banquet hall view of the state

IN GUJARAT last week, a commission of inquiry has just eaten up its guests. Justice Nanavati, mandated to inquire into the Godhra tragedy and its violent aftermath, has delivered an astonishing verdict. Flying in the face of all evidence, he has perilously declared that the bogey burning was the result of a local Muslim conspiracy. At the best of times such a conclusion would have called for caution. To do so in a time of ratcheting communal tensions, with all the facts suggesting otherwise, is nothing short of disastrous.

The truth of Godhra is awful, but it’s not a conspiracy. All the evidence indicates that neither the state nor the local Muslims played any premeditated role in the horrific assault on the train. Once the dastardly event was over, a sinister attempt began to give it a political colour. In the pages that follow, a six-month-long TEHELKA investigation reveals how the establishment and the police broke every rule in the book to manufacture a conspiracy theory. Nanavati was meant to snooker the state’s unlawful conduct. Instead he has endorsed it!

The chances are he will get away with it. As it is universally, India’s secure classes have a charitable view of the system they run. Breathless with carving out the pie, they have little time for distant niceties. In a country of a billion people, a few hundred Muslims mouldering in jail can arouse only so much concern. Citizens move on slogans not on details. Politicians and policemen bank on that.Terrorism is a headline; individual innocence is a nuance. And anyway all those Muslim names sound the same after a while. As do the tribal. And the dalit.

Fascism keeps padding in into our rooms on animal feet. We know the answers. Enforce the law. Ensure justice. Follow the Constitution. The beast knows them too. Only too well. It knows these are the very leash by which it should be bound. But the stake anchoring the leash — public will: as represented by media, intelligentsia, civil society — has come loose. It has badly splintered, lost its sense of anchorage, and it believes the beast will maraud elsewhere and never round on it. The fables of the world are full of such foolishness.

Once, a few good men had a good idea. The idea of India. It resulted in the most magical political experiment of the 20th century. It allowed a complex, ancient, trampled civilisation an enviable entry into modernity. The experiment is still on. In truth, there are dark days — increasingly too many — when it seems to be sliding towards failure. In their roster of virtues, the original visionaries had a gift that made their grand experiments possible. Like the finest literary writers they had the gift of empathy. The ability to intimately imagine the life of another. It took them to a place beyond caste, community, and religion. It made the idea of India possible. It is a gift we need to rediscover again, at every level. To imagine once again the life of one man, one woman. One people.

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