Book Review: A Chronicle Of A Journey Of Solidarity Through A Wounded India
In village after village, Reconciliation uncovers the brutal truth of who we are, who we have become, or perhaps who we always were.
When a man named Usman Ansari in Giridih in Jharkhand is stripped, thrashed and set on fire because a cow is found dead, mysteriously missing its head and a leg. When his son can lose his mind, two others can be reduced to beggary because they have lost their livelihood and he has to be in hiding. And yet all people can describe it as is “an unfortunate accident”.
When a group of people who want to place flowers at the point where an ageing Muslim trader Pehlu Khan, is lynched, are threatened with violence and met with protesters who throw stones.
When an Adivasi farmer Kodarbhai is picked up by the police and thrashed in public in Sabarkantha in Gujarat, leaving behind a widow and eleven children. “Our lives are worth less than a cow,” his widow now says, “our life is no better than that of a dog.”
Reconciliation: Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey of Solidarity Through a Wounded India (Rs 399, Context, Westland), edited by Harsh Mander, Natasha Badhwar and John Dayal chronicles the journey of a group of volunteers across eight states, telling the story of the new Hate State. In village after village, state after state, Karwan e Mohabbat listened to those who were attacked because they belonged to the ‘wrong’ caste, ‘wrong’ religion or ‘wrong’ community. Those whose suffering acquired a prefix, identifiable by religion, as if it is possible for pain to choose where it lands. Places where compassion was viewed with suspicion and hatred venerated as a positive attribute. Where hysteria was a natural ally and fear an intimate friend. Where rage was the default setting and peace a user-rejected programme. Where love was lost and loathing everywhere.
In village after village, Reconciliation uncovers the brutal truth of who we are, who we have become, or perhaps who we always were. The veneer of civilisation stands torn, our ugly insides on display, showing a people desensitised and dehumanised. Reconciliation is not easy reading, but it is mandatory as it explores the contours of this new geography. As Harsh Mander writes in the introduction: “Our greatest battle is with bystanders–we and those we know. We need to interrogate ourselves about the reasons for our silences, for our failures to speak out and intervene, We need to burden our conscience intolerably. We need our conscience to ache.”
And ache it does. How cannot it not, when Ram Puniyani listens to the story of cousins Riyazuddin Ali and Abu Hanifa who left their homes early one morning in Nagaon in Assam only to be branded cow thieves and lynched by a mob. When their families receive their bodies, they bear knife wounds on their faces, their eyes are gouged out, and their ears cut off. When Puniyani meets Riyazuddin’s father, he can only ask helplessly: “Where did so much hate come from?” The tragedy is neither Puniyani nor India has an answer.
In Jharkhand, Mariam Khatoon, widow of Alimuddin Ansari who was lynched by a mob which filmed the ghastly act, echoes the bewilderment. She is composed even in her heartbreak, determined to get justice. But even in this, she thinks not merely of herself but of the collective: “I want those who lynched my husband to be punished, not for revenge, but to ensure that no one has to go through what my children and I have suffered.” That is love, the very opposite of the philosophy that kills, maims, mutilates. It does not think in isolation, only of itself, but of the collective. After me is not the deluge but the dam, the stemming of the tide of trauma, an end to the relentless, simmering anger.
In Kandhla, Uttar Pradesh, the volunteers meet Rajputs who vandalised a Dalit basti, angered by a statue of BR Ambedkar erected on the campus of the Ravi Das temple. The police stand by for five hours, doing nothing to restrain the attackers. The Dalits respond as they know best, departing a faith that can cause so much acrimony, and embrace Buddhism.
Everywhere the Karwan goes, there are grieving parents who talk of sabr (endurance), quietly determined wives who insist their husbands will be avenged, old men who just want to know how their sons died, young Meo Muslim men who speak of feeling like strangers in their homelands.
If the reporting fills us with horror and sadness, it is with good reason. Disgust is a powerful emotion, a galvanising sentiment. It spurs one to change one’s circumstances, to alter one’s fate. Reconciliation is a powerful book not only because it documents the dangerous path India is taking but because it forces us to start thinking.
And it helps us by showing us how right-minded citizens can make their voices heard in this cacophony of terror. There is Natasha Badhwar, writer, married to Mirza Afzal Beg, firmly upholding the truth of India–that the story of her bi-religious family is the story of the nation. She travels with her three children, her effort to be a good mother as important to her as her duty to be a good citizen. “Just like the family, the country also demands its due from its citizens. Fascist tendencies emerge again and again as the balance of power becomes lopsided.”
There is Priya Ramani unravelling the mystery of why nobody killed Pehlu Khan in Alwar, Rajasthan, underlining the ridiculous defence of the police with her particular brand of angry sarcasm. “When we wear this uniform, we don’t distinguish between Hindus and Muslims,’ says a senior officer even as his men file cases against the family of the victim.
Reconciliation also tries to understand the targeting of poor and vulnerable Dalits and Muslims as an instrument of state policy, of socio-economic dominance, breaking the back of communities traditionally dominant in the meat and hides part of the cattle industry. As scholar and activist Navsharan Singh writes, “policymaking itself has become a political act that pursues a larger plan and increased the vulnerability of certain sections,” citing the 2017 notification by the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change which made it illegal for farmer and animal traders to sell cattle for slaughter in animal markets. She points out it is part of building a larger consensus for the Hindutva agenda and its economic agenda through a cultural imposition. “Trying to create a homogenous nation through the pulverisation of the Other is a fascist project,” he notes.
If this book doesn’t inspire you to live better, love better, vote wisely, think smart, then I don’t know what will. It reminds us of Mahatma Gandhi’s last battle, his epic 40 day fast in Calcutta, which made it possible to think of Muslims living in freek de India as equal citizens free of fear and persecution. Movement building is painstaking, notes Navsharan Singh. Yes. But. It. Must. Be. Done.
The Author is a senior journalist.
‘Reconciliation: Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey of Solidarity Through a Wounded India’ is now available available in stores and on Amazon.