March 8, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

Till Retaliation Do Us Part

September 11, 2001: Some deluded, hate-obsessed Muslims turn four jets into weapons of mass murder, massacring some 4,000 Americans.

February 27, 2002: Some other deluded, hate-obsessed Muslims turn a railway coach into a human oven, roasting alive some 60 Indians.

What's the difference between these two crimes? The scale of the killing, you think - 4,000 vs 60? But we all know somewhere inside that the numbers themselves make little difference: in their deadly essence, these were equally revolting, equally barbarous crimes. Nothing can justify either of them.

However, something does set the two apart: that ugly word "retaliation" -- what happened after the crimes.

The USA, profoundly outraged by the WTC/Pentagon attacks, saw a handful of hate crimes over the next few days: a Sikh and a Pakistani killed, attacks on and arrests of people who looked vaguely like Arabs or Muslims, that sort of thing. Reprehensible, but quickly denounced by the press, religious leaders, politicians all the way up to the President -- and therefore restricted to just that handful.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, smack in the middle of coping with the greatest tragedy in his city's history, announced publicly that "retaliatory" attacks would not be tolerated, that his already stretched police force would protect Arab and Muslim establishments in the city. President Bush made a widely publicised visit to a mosque, met American Sikhs to assuage their fears, and also warned that "retaliatory" attacks would not be tolerated. That they disgraced America.

In that traumatic time, despite the enormous hurt, what happened in America made a simple point: "retaliation" against an entire religion for the crime of a few was indefensible, was no less a crime itself.

India, profoundly outraged by the Godhra massacre, saw an eruption of hatred and killing over the next few days. As I write this, nearly 500 people have been killed in Gujarat solely because they were Muslim. Families roasted in their homes, groups surrounded on the road and slaughtered, cars set on fire with their occupants inside. One report told of killers who actually bound the doors of a Sumo before striking their matches, so those inside would not be able to get out. As if locking and burning a crowded railway coach wasn't nauseating enough for the rest of us to swallow. This is the bestiality to which we have sunk.

But this is "retaliation", so it's all right. It must be tolerated.

Therefore, the news is full of the unwillingness of the police to stop the killers, the unwillingness of the administration to act firmly and swiftly to protect lives. No less exalted an official than the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, justifies the logic of "retaliation" by saying: "Fifty million people have become aggressive and there was a reaction [to the Godhra massacre]" (, February 28). Elsewhere, he notes: "The people of Gujarat have observed great restraint in the wake of grave provocation" (The Times of India, March 2). Not only is the slaughter of hundreds of Indians to be termed "restraint" in Modi's topsy-turvy view of the world, he drops the hardly subtle hint that the provocation justified the "retaliation".

And of course, we are yet to see any commitment, like Giuliani's, from Modi or his lieutenants to protect Muslims. Yet to see any gesture, like Bush's, from Vajpayee, Advani, Modi -- any of them -- that will send the message that "retaliation" shames India and will be swiftly punished.

In this horrible time, what happened in Gujarat made a simple point: "retaliation" against an entire faith for the crime of a few was not only justified, but something to be expected, even encouraged.

That's the difference between September 11 and February 27. I know it and it curdles my insides.

Of course, this is far from the first time we Indians have heard this logic of "retaliation".

Because Muslim criminals burned a Hindu family to death in Jogeshwari during the Bombay riots of 1992-93, the Shiv Sena's Madhukar Sarpotdar told the Srikrishna Commission, the Shiv Sena -- self-anointed protector of Hinduism, after all -- was justified in slaughtering Muslims across the city.

When a big tree falls, said Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, the earth must tremble: just so did he explain away the massacre of 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi after Sikh guards assassinated his mother that year. The bomb blasts in Bombay in March 1993 happened, we have all come to think, in "retaliation" for the riots three months earlier. (Some even believe that the riots were "retaliation" for the bombs, no matter that that involves a reversal of time itself.)

If there were attacks on Christians in Gujarat, said Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999, we had better begin a national debate on conversions -- thus insinuating that conversions justified the "retaliatory" attacks.

And so on.

And I wonder, where is this murderous logic taking us? How far will it go?

Dara Singh and friends locked Graham Staines and sons in a car and roasted them alive. Would it therefore be all right for Christians across India to slaughter Hindus? "Asylum" owners routinely chain mentally ill patients to their beds; when a fire swept through one such "asylum" in Ervadi, Tamil Nadu, last August, they were burned to a crisp in their chains. Must patients now begin beheading hospital administrators all over the country? Upper-caste gangs in Bihar murder lower-caste villagers every now and then. Should lower castes across India begin massacring upper castes wherever they find them?

Without a shadow of doubt, no to all three. Nor can I imagine Chief Minister Modi saying, like he did after Godhra, that "the Christians of India have observed great restraint in the wake of grave provocation [in the Staines case]". Nor is he likely to tell us that "four hundred million people have become aggressive and there was a reaction [to the Bihar massacres]."

My point is, these hypothetical "retaliations" for the Staines murder, the Ervadi tragedy and the Bihar caste carnage are too absurd to even contemplate. Wouldn't you agree? Then how did the ghastly crime in Godhra spark such venomous killing across Gujarat? Worse, how is that "retaliation" considered acceptable, even by some of you who write to me?

I am hardly trying to say that Hindus, and Indians in general, should not be incensed by the Godhra crime. They are so, and must be so. Just as Americans were after September 11. But moving from that anger to slaughtering people who share the faith of the criminals, to explaining away that slaughter as an entirely understandable reaction, is a very large step indeed. It is that step that Giuliani and Bush, by personal pronouncement and example, deliberately prevented their country from taking. It is that step that Modi and our other leaders watched and thus encouraged Gujarat to take.

And when we take it, as we have for years, we willingly descend into the grim anarchy of these last few days in Gujarat. Anarchy that we have seen too often. Anarchy that remains uncomfortably close to the surface in too many parts of India. We take that step, and we unerringly shed Indian blood, and far more of it than our so-called enemies can ever hope to do.

This time, it was the blood of 500 Indians. Seventeen years ago in Delhi, it was 3,000 Indians dead. A decade ago in Bombay, it was well over a thousand Indians dead. Half a century ago in Punjab and Bengal, a million Indians dead. Given the way an agitation for a temple is hurtling along, given the concerted refusal to budge an inch from entrenched positions, given -- most of all -- the willing acceptance of the idea of "retaliation": with all that, this blood-drenched, corpse-spattered history is nowhere near playing itself out.

One day it will touch you. And me. Whom will we retaliate against then?

Dilip D'Souza

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