On Silence and Massacres.
Raj Kamal Jha is one of the most interesting and risk-embracing of his generation of Indian writers of fiction in English. His report on the mass murders and vast internal displacement of Muslims in the state of Gujarat in the spring of 2002 was brave in the context; a nuked up hyper-Nationalist government led by the same party which ruled in Gujarat at the time, the Nazi-inspired BJP.
When he came down from Delhi -albeit two months later- he ‘joined’ those of us not targeted by the officially sanctioned killers but trapped in extended curfews, in my case for days on the 4th floor of a building in central Baroda. Jha wrote a stunned and peculiarly angular piece for The Indian Express, a cutting from which I’ve scanned and posted. His discoveries as a “riot tourist” [‘riot’ is a common euphemism in India for racist massacres or ethnic cleansing, like ‘conflict’ elsewhere] inspired the novel Fireproof, which I reviewed for The Independent below.
Jha reprimanded his readers [urban, majority-community, new-India class] in the mildest of terms; imagine the surreal boot on the other foot. He was addressing those who quietly allowed this to happen, however, and if you won’t credit him with bravery at least understand the relative unusualness of his addressing a class of readers impatient with older Indian verities like those espoused by Nehru -let alone Gandhi! [both of whom happily allied themselves with the chauvinist Vallabhai Patel, India’s ‘Iron Man’ from Gujarat.]
Elsewhere, the hero of the day was Siddharth Varadarajan who expressed his visceral horror in regular reports for the Times of India, while the heroine was Dionne Bunsha reporting for Frontline magazine, [see her site/blog]. Varadarajan also edited the first and still best book on the massacres; Gujarat; The Making of a Tragedy [Penguin India 2002] [look inside] drawing in part on an excellent issue of Seminar [‘Society Under Siege’ from May 2002 is online but not link-to-able] and has a blog here.
What happened in Gujarat is not a matter of substantive dispute [though it’s ostensible trigger, the fire in a train carriage outside Godhra is, even though extensive investigations concluded that the fire which began within the carriage was a tragic accident], there are plentiful witness reports, accounts, proofs, burnt out buildings and neighbourhoods, bodies, refugees and subsequent changes across the state. What happened persuaded urban Gujaratis in particular to reward the government of the day with two further election victories.
So despite what happened no-one has been held to account: Narendra Modi remains Chief Minister of Gujarat. He is the BJP’s only current ‘star’ and commands a state that is India’s real powerhouse once more. A state that is as ever leading the way in new India, for good and ill, and rehearsing what the coming global power will look like. Modi’s mentor, LK Advani, is also a Gujarati MP and the octogenarian leader of a much humbled BJP. However, India’s national elections are three years or so away -if the present Congress administration lasts out its second term- and everybody loves a ‘winner’.
I witnessed some of what happened in Gujarat; I saw armed policemen in uniform holding one end of a street that was being systematically ‘cleansed’ for the second time in 24 hours by a group of 25-30 neatly dressed men, vehicles used to block the various roads and escapes routes and set on fire, as remaining stores, shacks, gadis/trolleys and possession of the neighbourhood Muslims were being dragged out onto the road within sight and smell of the same uniformed accomplices and set on fire.
I witnessed it from inside Bhupen Khakhar’s car as we were trapped by these same men in a near-deserted Manjalpura, Baroda, during a one-day bandh or shut-down. They weren’t after us at that time [though BK’s paintings and sexuality had been the focus of their maddened hatred] and we managed to escape through a series of already laid road blocks and away from the scene before the neighbourhood mosque was burnt down with three men trapped inside it. I was close enough to look hard into their faces as they indulged their fantasies and it’s a sight I’ll never be able to forget.
Then I witnessed the silence, the smoke stacks and discomfort at my front-row presence on the few faces I glimpsed in the coming week locked away [anger, too, once the curfew relaxed]. A silence indistinguishable from the way that such a massacre is possible in India, because what the black milk rising from the eery quiet of Baroda beyond my window proved was that this was long coming and represented something that didn’t need words.
Gujarat’s “mass massacres” only needed silence; official permission, wider complicity, neatly printed official records of who lived where, who exactly owned what and enabling nods … ram ram…
NB Incidentally, I don’t relish criticising India from afar; my view is simply that Modi should face justice in his own country. However, Indian justice is staggeringly slow and precedent suggests that even if it catches up with Modi before he dies it won’t have any bite. Indeed, it is as likely that he might be the next PM or PM-maker. Things do change however; the case is very much live at this very moment [see here for example].
I support universal jurisdiction; if Modi wants to travel he should be willing to face trial wherever he lands, just like Pinochet and forces’ sweetheart Tsipi Livni and gang. Meanwhile, though, he rule’s India’s most interesting state and is free to roam a subcontinent of bottomless marvels. I remind you that Modi’s BJP forged alliances with the US and Israel when in power: sometimes it’s necessary to tell the truth whatever the distance…
Fireproof, by Raj Kamal Jha
The perpetrators of Gujarat’s holocaust escape unscathed – as they did in life
By Guy Mannes-Abbott
Wednesday, 11 April 2007
Raj Kamal Jha’s third novel is based on the “mass massacres” that began on 28 February 2002 in the Indian state of Gujarat. Jha visited a smouldering Ahmedabad in May 2002, and wrote a taboo-breaking article for The Indian Express.
He found Gujarat’s old capital with 80,000 Muslim refugees, a thousand dead and many thousands of homes and businesses burnt. This “remarkable restraint” was applauded by Gujarat’s Chief Minister after the “grave provocation” of an unexplained fire on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, in which 59 people died.
I read Jha’s article gratefully in the disturbing quiet following Gujarat’s pogroms. I had witnessed armed police smiling as clean-shaven men sent their neighbours’ livelihoods – and later their lives – skyward in blackening towers. Five years later, Fireproof disrupts another silence: just 10 convictions have resulted from 4,252 cases filed with police.
Fireproof focuses on three killings, elaborating on the article with statements from dead characters, a playlet, footnotes and talking street-fixtures. Jha’s narrator, Jay, is awaiting the birth of a child in Ahmedabad. The hospitals choke with charred bodies as the city burns; a malformed baby, which Jay believes is his own, forces him to confront events and himself. As the truth looms, the sky rains bodies, and he loses all bearings.
Fireproof is written in Jha’s signature style; elliptical fragments accumulate sense while incidental things and words are mined for effect. This worked well in his debut The Blue Bedspread, rooted in a modernist Bengali literature. But Fireproof’s problem is dramatised in the word “betrayal”, used by a credible Indian critic. The betrayal is twofold. Jha’s novel obtains substance by revisiting the notorious rape and murder of a pregnant woman. He pays witness to this horror in accomplished passages before losing its import in a gratuitously distended novel.
He also betrays himself, as acts of ethnic cleansing by Nazi-inspired Hindus become human tragedies. Jha folds responsibility for events into individual excess and the power of “the mob”: the banality of evil minus the Nuremberg trials. He has lost sight of any original outrage.
The story in Fireproof began in Islamophobia and led to Gujarat’s ovens. Its perpetrators were not “hangers-on”, but “confident and educated”: I saw this myself. In Jha’s novel, these men and their allies emerge fireproof – as in life.