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In November 1988, I moved from Bangalore to Delhi to join the Institute of Economic Growth. Among the attractions of the job was that the Institute was located on the campus of Delhi University, where I had spent five gloriously happy years in the 1970s. Aged 16, I had come to the capital from my hometown, Dehradun, where I had grown up in a forested campus rich in bird life and sporting facilities but lacking in intellectual or cultural stimulation.
Delhi University had a social atmosphere far freer than the stuffy boarding school I had previously been to. It had students from all over India (and of other than elite backgrounds). It had decent libraries, and the city to the south had a fabulous music scene. Travelling by bus with my friends to live concerts by great modern masters such as Ali Akbar Khan, Bismillah Khan, Mallikarjun Mansur and Kishori Amonkar—and returning the same way chatting about what we had heard and learned—that was Delhi for me.
Now, after a doctorate in Calcutta and brief stints teaching at Yale University and the Indian Institute of Science, I was back in a place I had so dearly loved. Delhi was the epicentre of intellectual life in the country, and I relished the prospect of attending seminars by, and engaging in debates with, the finest historians and sociologists in the land. There were concerts by the best classical musicians to attend, too.
My wife Sujata was still in Bangalore, winding up her design projects there. While I looked for a barsati for us to rent, I stayed with a friend who was teaching in my old college, St. Stephen’s. I walked every morning to the Institute of Economic Growth, via the Delhi School of Economics. Sometimes I walked in the other direction, over the Ridge to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, where the sociologist Shiv Visvanathan worked. Days after moving to Delhi, I wrote to Sujata of an enjoyable lunch at CSDS with Shiv; ‘furious arguments as usual’.
In another letter I wrote of what ‘really is the attraction of Delhi for me, so many nice and interesting people’. I was meeting regularly with Rukun Advani of the Oxford University Press, discussing possible book projects, and being asked to write for the newspapers as well. ‘I am getting so many opportunities and so much stimulation,’ I wrote, ‘that I have no regrets about moving back to Delhi. But I maintain that we shall move back South after five years unless you love Delhi.’
Sujata moved to Delhi in early 1989. We found ourselves a tiny flat in Chittaranjan Park, then a slightly bigger one in Hauz Khas. She set up her design studio in Kailash Colony, also in South Delhi. She drove there every morning in her Maruti 800. I commuted to the University campus by bus, chatting with students and colleagues all the way there (and back).
n 1988-9, Rajiv Gandhi was in his last year as Prime Minister of India. He was, as a politician, less whimsical and vengeful than his mother, Indira Gandhi, and, as a man, less introspective and intelligent than his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru. He had started promisingly, his youth and his open manner endearing him to a citizenry increasingly cynical about politics and politicians. Early in his term, he had forged agreements that the media termed ‘peace accords’ with rebellious Mizos, Assamese, and Sikhs.
By the time I moved to Delhi, however, the sheen had begun to wear off. In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi genuflected in succession to Muslim bigots and to Hindu fanatics, overturning the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano judgment to please the former, and opening the locks of a disputed shrine in the town of Ayodhya to placate the latter.
These twin acts of appeasement were a shot in the arm of the right-wing, ‘Hindu-First’ Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the 1984 elections, the BJP had got a mere two seats. Now, seizing the chance, they sought to build a popular movement around the site under contention in Ayodhya. Here stood a sixteenth-century mosque, known as the Babri Masjid since it was commissioned by a general of the Mughal emperor Babar. The masjid was believed to be built on the ruins of a Hindu temple commemorating the birthplace of the god Rama.
The BJP was the successor to the old Jana Sangh, a conservative party founded in 1951 to promote what it saw as the ‘Hindu’ interest. A close ally of the Jana Sangh, and now of the BJP, was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, founded in 1925, which had long believed in a Hindu Rashtra, a theocratic state for and run by Hindus. An off-shoot of the RSS was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, whose name denoted a global rather than national ambition—it would bring under one banner not just the Hindus of India, but of the world.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the RSS had hoped to build a countrywide movement around the protection of the cow. That failed but now, decades later, they seized on Rajiv Gandhi’s mistakes to try once again, and with a prospective temple to Rama this time. The BJP was with them, as was the VHP, and so too the new youth wing of the latter called the Bajrang Dal, whose rowdy volunteers wore bandanas with religious insignia and brandished swords. These four groups were known by the collective appellation ‘Sangh Parivar’ since it was the RSS which provided the binding glue, and the ideological orientation as well.
Late in 1988, Rajiv Gandhi’s government hastily decided to ban Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. This was several months before Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on the writer. A prominent Muslim intellectual who opposed the ban, the historian Mushirul Hasan, was forbidden to teach in his university in New Delhi by Islamic radicals, the government silently looking on (perhaps because the radicals were patronised by a Congress minister).
This gave further credence to the Hindu right’s claims that the Indian state was bent on ‘appeasing’ Muslims. The Shah Bano and Rushdie episodes had unleashed a torrent of suppressed resentment about the political and cultural accommodations the Congress government was making, apparently to retain Muslim voters. Radicals on the other side were now even more determined to bring down the mosque in Ayodhya and build a temple that would serve as a testament to the essential Hindu-ness of the Indian nation.
In September 1989, the VHP launched a new programme, which they called ‘Ram Shila Pujan’. In preparation for the day when the mosque would be brought down in Ayodhya, they conducted a series of brick worship ceremonies in villages and towns across the country. The bricks consecrated in these places were to be sent to a central storehouse, to await the day when they would be used in the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya itself.
The brick worship ceremonies were an idea at once brilliant and diabolical. Through them, it was hoped, Hindus everywhere would come to feel a sense of kinship with the temple-building project. However, inevitably, this bonding within would create an opposition to those who, for reasons of religious faith or political ideology, were not so willing to see a temple come up on a site where another, alternate, place of worship already existed.
The Ram Shila pujans quickly polarised opinion in the cities, and social life on the ground. In October 1989, a major riot broke out in and around the town of Bhagalpur, in Bihar. The Ram Shila pujans clashed with the annual Shia observance of Muharram. The celebrants of one and the mourners in the other met in the streets—first with words, then with stones and swords. The violence escalated, and spread to the countryside. The Muslims suffered far more than the Hindus, for they had less men, less money, and less influence over the local administration. The Bhagalpur riots were the worst in living memory—in fact, the worst since the Partition violence of 1947-8. More than a thousand people died, at least two-thirds of them Muslim.
Shortly after the riots broke out, I met, in the Coffee House of the Delhi School of Economics, a friend named C.V. Subbarao. Subba, as he was known, taught economics in a Delhi college, but was better known for being the moving spirit behind the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), the remarkable civil liberties organisation that had, among other things, produced a definitive report on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.
I occasionally went for PUDR meetings, then held every Saturday afternoon in the Triveni Kala Sangam, in the heart of New Delhi, and attended usually by about 12-15 people, speaking in a mixture of English and Hindustani. The discussions were intense but never rancorous, the sense of camaraderie probably aided by the samosas and chai. At a meeting in (as I recall) November 1989, Subbarao said that PUDR was going to send a fact-finding team to report on the Bhagalpur riots. Would I join the team, he asked.
Although my formal disciplinary training was in sociology, I knew from early in my career that I was a lousy field-worker. I was better, far better, at squeezing juice from archival documents than from living human beings. But I admired both Subbarao and the PUDR. So when he asked me to join this fact-finding mission to riot-torn Bihar, I said yes.
It is now more than 30 years since I visited Bhagalpur. I did not take notes on what I saw. But three memories remain. One is of a village of Muslim weavers, in which half the houses had been burnt and all the looms smashed. The savagery of the violence was total and chilling. It was the handiwork of Hindus, my fellow Hindus. An army detachment had camped at the edge of the village, to give it protection. Most of the villagers had fled anyway. A few remained, disconsolately picking up their belongings.
The second memory is of a home of a rich Muslim silk merchant in Bhagalpur town. It had many rooms and a large compound, with a lawn at the back and front, and plenty of litchi trees at the sides. The bungalow housed several dozen refugees, and the compound several hundred others, living in tents. November was now shading into December; for the refugees, a cloth tent over their heads, and a blanket apiece supplied by kindly co-religionists, would have to do to fend off the cold.
In the countryside, the displaced Muslims had taken refuge in schools and colleges run by their co-religionists. I remember a visit to an intermediate college in a village outside Bhagalpur, where we met some educated men helping with relief and rehabilitation. A bearded young man, with skull cap and shining eyes, was both angry and sarcastic, his target the worship of bricks that had caused all the trouble. This is the third thing I remember: this young man telling me: ‘Agli baar kiska puja karenge? Baingan ka? Andon ka?’ What will these fellows pray to next time? To a brinjal? Or a pile of eggs?
mong the new friends I was making in Delhi was Ramchandra ‘Ramu’ Gandhi. Ramu, who was some 20 years older than me, was the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and of C. Rajagopalachari. He took a first degree in physics at St. Stephen’s College, but later turned to philosophy, a subject in which he was to do two doctorates, the first in Delhi, the second at Oxford.
I guess that there must have been times at Oxford when Ramu dressed in a dinner jacket, but when I knew him he looked more or less like a tramp. He combined, as his younger brother Gopal once put it, ‘kurta, pyjama, and jhola at their shabbiest’ with ‘wit, insight, and humour at their finest’. The shabbiness was compounded by a shawl that looked like a blanket, which he draped around himself even at the height of a Delhi summer.
In the late 1980s, the time I came to know Ramu Gandhi, he liked to say that he held ‘the Chair of Philosophy at Nathu Sweets’. The reference was to an eatery in Delhi’s Bengali Market, where his day began, eating a samosa and sipping chai while reading the newspaper. Then he would proceed to the India International Centre, where he would stay until ten at night, thinking, talking, reading, and writing.
As I was befriending Gandhi’s grandson Ramu, the forces of Hindu fundamentalism were on the march. Bhagalpur was merely the most deadly of the riots that took place across northern and western India in the second half of 1989. There were Hindu-Muslim riots in Kota in Rajasthan, in Badaun in Uttar Pradesh, in Ratlam and Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, and in several other places besides.
This religious violence troubled me; and it troubled Ramu Gandhi, whose Hinduism was of course more deep-rooted and from a far more honourable lineage than my own. It was in the first week of January 1990 that he told me he was planning an all-night ‘vigil’ on the 30th, at the very place his paternal grandfather had been assassinated 42 years previously.
Ramu remembered that assassination well; then a boy of 12, his parents had rushed with him to the Delhi home of the industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla, where Gandhi’s body lay. They had stayed up all night, praying that there would not be a further outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence. And we would stay up all night, now, praying that the violence of the past months would subside.
At about 6pm on 30 January 1990, I reached Gandhi Smriti, once known as Birla House. I stayed until six the next morning; in that time, I saw several hundred of Ramu’s friends come and go. The programme began with readings of poetry. As darkness fell, the music took over. There were some moving bhajans in praise of Lord Ram sung by Ghulam Mustafa Khan. Then the sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan—who, like Ramu, had grown up in the Delhi of the 1950s, where he had been a classmate of his brother Gopal at Modern School—played some religious compositions, among them an instrumental version of Gandhi’s favourite bhajan, Vaishnava Janato.
There were other readings and recitals. I have a recollection of Ramu speaking about one of the photographs of Gandhi that hung on the wall. Anyway, shortly before dawn, we were asked to shift out of the building into the lawn. Here an impromptu shamiana had been constructed. After we had sat down, on dhurries laid out on the lawn, Ramu announced that the Dalai Lama would be with us in ten minutes. When the monk came in, the curtains behind the stage opened, to dramatic effect. In front of us sat the Buddhist god-king, clad in deep red robes; behind him, in a straight line with his back, hung an illuminated portrait of Gandhi.
I can recall little of what the Dalai Lama said that night. But I do vividly recall the essence of Ramu’s introduction. He said the Tibetan leader was akin to the Mahatma in his principled adherence to non-violence, in his love of nature, and in his efforts to build bridges between people of different faiths.
The proceedings concluded with a recital by the nadaswaram player Sheik Chinna Moulana. The Sheik had developed an attachment to Lord Ranganatha, the ruling deity of the Srirangam temple, which is associated with the great twelfth century Vaishnava saint, Ramanujacharya. Millions of Hindus had come and visited the temple since. But the most famous resident of Srirangam since Ramanuja was this Muslim musician, Sheik Chinna Moulana.
Only Ramu, and the memory of his grandfather, could have got the Sheik to come all the way to Delhi at a week’s notice. (Like the other musicians who performed that night, he did not charge a fee.) As a tribute to Gandhi, that all-night vigil was inspired. In hamlets and towns across the land, the co-religionists of Ghulam Mustafa Khan and Sheik Chinna Moulana were being charged with being ‘enemies of the nation’, and sometimes as being spies in the pay of another nation. Rampaging mobs went through Muslim localities shouting ‘Pakistan ya Kabristan!’ We offer you the choice of Pakistan or the graveyard.
n the general elections of November-December 1989, Rajiv Gandhi and his Congress party had lost power. The new prime minister was V.P. Singh, an erstwhile Congressman and Union Finance Minister who had quit in protest against the growing corruption in Rajiv Gandhi’s government. In the elections, Singh’s Janata Dal had worked out a seat-sharing arrangement with the Communists on the left and the BJP on the right. This hugely benefited the BJP, whose tally in the Lok Sabha went up from two to 85.
V.P. Singh’s was a minority government, fragile from the start. Knowing that it could not survive without their support, the Sangh Parivar now intensified the campaign for a grand Ram temple built in Ayodhya. In September 1990, the BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani began a rath yatra from the ancient temple town of Somnath, in Gujarat, to Ayodhya. The march sparked a series of bloody riots that ended only when Advani was stopped in Bihar, several days short of his destination.
Meanwhile, my own life was changing. I had left the Institute of Economic Growth for a fellowship at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, an archive where a historian with my interests could spend several lifetimes. Sujata’s design firm had built up its practice in Delhi. We had our first child, a son, who was born in October 1990, while Advani’s rath yatra was on.
In the summer of 1991, Sujata and I moved into the ground floor of a two-storey house in the upmarket neighbourhood of Sunder Nagar. The house was owned by my cousin Dharma Kumar, professor of economic history at the Delhi School of Economics, and her husband, the technocrat Lovraj Kumar. Although she was 30 years older, Dharma and I had always been very close. She was fond of Sujata, too, and since she had no grandchildren of her own, was keen that we come stay with her. We agreed, on condition that we not live for free, but pay the sort of rent we could afford.
In the days when I was a student in Calcutta, Dharma and I would argue furiously on my visits to Delhi. A lifelong liberal, she found the Marxism I had absorbed from my Bengali teachers unrefined and simplistic. By the time we came to be her tenants, I had moved closer to her beliefs. We still had intense discussions, less argumentative yet very illuminating, at least for me.
Dharma opposed intolerance and bigotry on all sides of the political and religious spectrum. She was one of the first to publicly protest against India’s ban on Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The ban, she wrote in TheIndian Express, was ‘a sign of the Government’s weakness. In a secular state blasphemy should not in itself be a cognizable offence; the President of India is not the defender of any nor of all faiths.’
While opposed to minority fundamentalism, Dharma recognised that majority fundamentalism posed a far greater threat to the Indian republic. One of the many insightful remarks she made to me was to say that a sign of Nehru’s greatness was that he recognised that Gandhi was much the greater man. My environmentalist friends made a great deal of the divergence in economic thought between Gandhi and Nehru. But, as Dharma pointed out to me, on matters of social harmony and religious pluralism they were absolutely akin. It was because of Gandhi’s teachings that, as Prime Minister, Nehru worked tirelessly to protect the rights of the minorities. As Dharma reminded me, after Partition both men were determined that, whatever else, India would not become a Hindu Pakistan.
This idea, or ideal, was now under threat. For the Sangh Parivar wanted precisely to construct a Hindu Pakistan. One VHP leader had even asked that Muslims and Christians in India vote in separate electorates, as Hindus and Christians were already doing in Pakistan. In this, and other matters, the Hindu fanatics were consciously or unconsciously mimicking their enemies. For as Dharma pointed out to me, the model of the RSS was the medieval Islamic state, which had elaborated a clear distinction between Muslims, who were accorded as many rights as a subject of a monarchy may be allowed, and Jews and Christians, who were treated as culturally and politically subordinate to the Muslims of the realm.
In these medieval Muslim states, Jews and Christians could practice their respective trades and raise their families in peace, so long as they paid their taxes, and did not in any way confront or challenge the rulers. However, the top jobs in the army, the administration, and the judiciary were denied to them. This, said Dharma, was precisely how the Sangh Parivar wished to treat Muslims in India; they would be allowed to live and labour, rest and procreate, so long as they acknowledged the ideological and political superiority of the Hindu.
At this time, the early 1990s, while the Marxist left had control over intellectual life, in society at large it was the Hindu right that was rapidly gaining ground. Dharma’s liberalism stood in principled opposition both to the dogmatism of the left and to the sectarianism of the right. Living with her and learning from her, I was encouraged to follow her in both respects.
In the general elections of 1991, the Congress had emerged as the largest single party; although it was some 30 seats short of a majority, it was able to form the government. However, in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had, for the first time in its history, formed a government on its own. UP was India’s most populous state; it had a large and vulnerable Muslim minority; and it housed the town of Ayodhya, where the Sangh Parivar wanted their monument to Hindu supremacy built.
Though parading in the guise of religion, this movement was entirely political. Most Hindus, whether from a quasi-secular background like mine or more deeply traditional, would have had their own attachments to particular temples in their part of India.
Growing up in Dehradun, I had heard something about our family temple, Swamimalai near Kumbakonam in the Thanjavur district (my mother therefore went to a northern replica built in South Delhi when she visited the city); about the holy Hindu city of Banaras; about the four great shrines established in the north, south, east, and west of the subcontinent by Adi Shankara in the eighth century. Doing doctoral research in Uttarakhand, I learned something about the sanctity and appeal of Gangotri and Kedarnath, and of temples cherished with particular devotion by villages in their vicinity, such as Tungnath in the upper Alakananda valley and Jageshwar in Kumaon.
While Ayodhya itself did have many locally cherished shrines, before the 1980s the town occupied a distinctly subordinate place in the imagination of Hindus in India and across the world. Banaras, Badrinath, Sringeri, Puri, Dwarka, Kanchipuram, and a dozen other places were far more important in this regard. Now, however, the Sangh Parivar was determined to make this proposed temple in Ayodhya central to the Hindu imagination, as a means of achieving political power and ideological hegemony.
As the controversy over the disputed site in Ayodhya got more intense, as well as more bloody, I had a recurrent dream. Or perhaps I should call it a nightmare. It concerned a Pakistani friend, Tariq Banuri, whom I had got to know when I was at Yale. An engineer turned bureaucrat, Tariq had taken leave from the Pakistan Civil Service to start a PhD in economics at Harvard. It was there that I met him in 1986, at a seminar on development theory. We hit it off immediately. I took the train to Boston to meet him, or he drove down to New Haven to meet us.
In 1989, Tariq Banuri moved back to Pakistan, where he helped set up the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad. Remarkably, he was the first real Muslim friend I had. I had Muslim classmates in school and college, but these were acquaintances rather than friends. This may have been an accident—I liked to think of my parents as totally non-communal—or perhaps it reflected the residues of the past, when even upper class, westernised Hindus in many parts of India did not easily or comfortably form friendships with Muslims.
Anyway, Tariq Banuri was my closest Muslim friend, and he was a Pakistani. As the conflict in Ayodhya intensified in 1991-2, my dreams sometimes dealt with a trip to Pakistan, to attend a seminar convened by the SDPI. The invitation was from Tariq, and my keenness to attend the seminar was as much a product of a desire to see him again as to get to know his country.
As the dream progressed, it grew complicated; with the Pakistani Embassy giving me a truly hard time in getting a visa. The visa finally came, but then, as I went to Palam airport, clutching my ticket and my passport, eager to see Tariq, I was stopped in my dream by Indian immigration and ordered to return home. At this stage I would wake up.
I am not personally inclined or academically equipped to subject this dream to closer analysis. Let me just state the facts. Pakistan had been born out of a conflict between Hindus and Muslims in British India. At the time of which I write, the early 1990s, Hindus were fighting with the Muslims who chose to remain in India. The latter were accused of being agents of Pakistan. I, a secular, anti-Sangh Parivar Hindu, had but one close Muslim friend, and he lived across the border. In these times of conflict I dreamt of going to see him. But in my dreams I never got the chance.
n 6 December 1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished by a crowd of surging kar sevaks, who overwhelmed the understaffed and reluctant police force stationed at the site. The demolition led to more riots across northern and western India, in which, as was now customary, many more Muslims than Hindus perished. Some of the most savage violence was in Bombay, where Muslim neighbourhoods were attacked by cadres of the Shiv Sena, a party even more fanatical in its hatred of Muslims than the BJP. In March 1993, in retaliation, Muslim terrorists aided and funded by Pakistan carried out a series of deadly bomb attacks in Bombay.
Such are the public facts. Let me turn to my private emotions. The demolition of the Babri Masjid sent me into a deep depression. I took to my bed, for days on end. Sujata was also at home, in another room, in the last stages of what had been a difficult pregnancy. A notebook I recently found has three diary entries by me from those all too gloomy days. I reproduce parts of them in what follows.
22nd December 1992:
Three days ago I was depressed enough to issue, from the Teen Murti Library, a copy of Gordon Craig’s massive Oxford Modern History of Germany (1869-1945). I haven’t had the courage to begin reading it yet, but today I had a personal taste of what life under a BJP Government might be like. I had gone for a walk [with my son] in the market, and twice we passed a fat, self-satisfied man passing off as a ‘sadhu’—bearded, in yellow robes, with a mala. Twice he gave us one of those characteristic smiles of the fraud holy man—wanting money—and twice I ignored him.
Later in the evening, I returned alone to the market to buy medicines. While I was in Popular Chemists, the same ‘sadhu’ came in, walked to the end of the shop, and put a tika and apparently received some money from one of the owners (who runs the gas agency part). He then walked up to the cashier (also one of the owners), where I was, and said in a loud voice ‘Jai Sri Ram!’ The cashier returned his greeting by saying: ‘Jo Ram ka Naam lehte hain jail mein hain, jo Allah ka jail ke bahar’ [Those who take the name of Ram are in prison, those who take Allah’s name are out of prison.] I exploded, in my excited way made some snide remarks about the abuse of Ram’s name, etc., and departed to the sounds of a rejoinder by the sadhu and the cashier. No doubt after I left the cashier paid the ‘Ram bhakt’ some extortion money.
After 10 minutes I returned, cooled down, and told the cashier my own name was Ram, and how I felt about all this. A man of about 65, he told me he and his family had suffered during Partition, and what about the Kashmiri Hindus, etc, etc. I told him that nothing justified the widespread killings in the name of Ram, and of what I had seen in Bhagalpur….
10th January 1993, 9 p.m.
This morning, at 11/19 am, our daughter was born… . I returned from the hospital to find Dharma hosting a lunch on the lawn for her Delhi School students. I joined, to immediately commence an argument with some strongly pro-BJP students. They were unaffected by any of our (Dharma’s and my) arguments, resorting to the most extraordinary analogies—‘The reason Pakistan won the World Cup cricket tournament is because of their Islamic nationalism—if only our own cricket team….’ One chap scoffed when I said the BJP’s programme was built on hatred—‘You mean you will build a strong nation on love’, he answered. They were perfectly at ease with the idea of killing/beating/thrashing millions of Muslims, and, of course, ‘teaching Pakistan a lesson’. One subscribed strongly to the BJP’s cargo cult belief that the Non-Resident Indian was the most patriotic of all. All bizarre stuff, and frightening.
But then this shall be for some time—perhaps even a very long time—the stuff of everyday encounters or hearsay. Yesterday Vasudha [Dhagamwar] asked me, on behalf of her friend Maja Daruwala of the Ford Foundation, whether we had any old clothes for the homeless of the riots in Seelampuri (mostly Muslims). She added that Maja had received contributions from her fellow Programme Officers (all white—Maja is herself a Parsi) in the Foundation, but none of the Indian staff would contribute once they heard whom the clothes, etc. were meant for…
I was shaken—and shamed—out of my depression by left-wing friends of my age, who were active in organising protest meetings and signature campaigns; and by my elderly liberal cousin too. Dharma had grown up in Bombay in the last years of the Raj, where she had sometimes attended Gandhi’s prayer meetings on Juhu Beach. Now, seeing his ideals violated in a nation which claimed him as its founder, she set out to publicly defend them. She drafted a statement, which she showed to me. When I suggested the names of potential signatories—intellectuals like ourselves—Dharma gave me a withering look, and said there were enough of our kind protesting anyway. She would get her statement signed by men and women of wider fame and distinction—and have it circulated not from hand-to-hand in mimeographed form, but through a front-page advertisement in a prominent newspaper.
On the next Republic Day, 26 January 1993, the front page of The Times of India carried a statement drafted by Professor Dharma Kumar of the Delhi School of Economics, which she had not herself signed. The statement was printed with white type against a black background. It read:
If you are a Hindu,
Do you believe that the
demolition of the
Babri Masjid restored
enhanced national honour,
If so, consider
the possibility that
the act debased Hindu
the nation across
the world, increased
the tensions between all
communities and so
The statement was endorsed by 19 people. The people Dharma had persuaded to sign included the agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan—one of the architects of India’s Green Revolution—the first female judge of the Delhi High Court, Leila Seth, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, I. G. Patel, the curator, Pupul Jayakar, the former Solicitor General, Ashok Desai, and the former Chief of Army Staff, K. Sundarji.
Notably, the list of civic-minded Indians who signed Dharma’s appeal began with six of the nation’s leading industrialists. These were Bharat Ram, R.P. Goenka, Lalit Thapar, Nanubhai B. Amin, Raj Thiagarajan, and Desh Bandhu Gupta. Their signatures made the statement far more credible for the readers of the paper in which it appeared. It could not now be dismissed as the malignant handiwork of misguided jholawaalas.
My liberal elder cousin helped bring me out of my own slumber. So did my leftist contemporaries. My last diary entry from this time reads:
26th January 1993
Today, some weeks after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, I finally emerged from my state of paralytic depression to affirm my citizenship. All along, my colleagues…have been active in a small but growing anti-communal group of left-secular intellectuals, doing door-to-door and street corner campaigning, issuing pamphlets, joining in organizing demonstrations. All along, I have been unable, and unwilling, to join in—mostly, out of outright depression, and to a limited extent because some of the acts of this new ‘Peoples Movement for Secularism’ I cannot fully identify with (notably the instrumental use of Gandhi, whom most of them have long abhorred but now find convenient to invoke as an exemplar of ‘true’ Hinduism).
But this afternoon I joined a march I was told about by Vasudha Dhagamwar, a Silent March down Rajghat—from Vijay Chowk to India Gate—a quiet, unobtrusive, unostentatious walk down the very route taken by the grand official Republic Day parade in the morning.
The marchers were mostly from the liberal intelligentsia—journalists, artists, academics. Shiv Visvanathan, whom I joined early, remarked that it seemed to him like a period piece from Delhi University of the 1960s. The march was led by a couple of Buddhist priests, who with a gong and chants kept up a steady, soothing sound that set the ideal tone for what was otherwise a silent (i.e. no slogan) affair—as Shiv put it, the Buddhist priests saved the occasion from being a purely secular show. We walked towards India Gate, and as we approached it, Shiv (in his characteristically penetrating way) said they should now (i.e. in the wake of the countryside communal violence) have a ‘Tomb of the Unknown Civilian’. At India Gate, we assembled around the fire, sang the National Anthem, and quietly dispersed.
Modest and very small-scale, it was yet a curiously moving affair, and as we sang Jana Gana Mana I could not hold back the tears. I am glad I went and I hope now to assume, a little more actively, my responsibilities. It was reassuring to be part of a march with people like Rajmohan Gandhi—whose personality, as his build, has a comforting sturdiness about it—and dear old Shiv, who, for all his angularities, I shall always admire as a scholar of fierce independence and complete integrity. But the occasion, personal identities apart, was for all of us a renewed affirmation of our faith in the Republic, in a democratic, humane and secular (i.e. non-communal) India. That is, in the India the ‘Sangh Parivar’ wishes to destroy.
Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include The Unquiet Woods and Rebels against the Raj.