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The false gods of secular India

By Kanchan Gupta
March 10, 2005 14:22 IST
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It is the Congress that has engineered most of the riots... Rajiv Gandhi failed to protect Harijans and MuslimsÂ… Geographical boundaries of the country were jeopardised by the Congress and Rajiv Gandhi...'

On reading such harsh accusation, such pitiless pillorying of the Congress and its supreme leader, the last direct descendent of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to sit on the masnad of Delhi, the image that comes to mind is that of an irascible foot soldier of the BJP or a malevolent journalist doing what foot soldiers and malevolent journalists do best: shoot from the hip.

Think again, but it is unlikely that you will be able to guess the identity of the person who tore into the Congress so mercilessly while participating in a debate on the 'Situation in the Country' in the Lok Sabha on December 29, 1989. The immediate backdrop to this debate was the series of communal riots in Congress-ruled Bihar -- Hazaribagh, Darbhanga, and the horrendous bloodletting in Bhagalpur during the twilight days of Rajiv Gandhi's government in the autumn of that year.

The official death count in Bhagalpur was 1,891, with thousands scarred for the rest of their lives. In Logain village, an entire Muslim mohalla was wiped out: the bodies of 120 Muslim men, women and children were dumped in a shallow pond; when the stench became unbearable, the rotting corpses were fished out, buried in a field and planted over with cauliflower saplings.

In Chanderi, another Muslim mohalla, 61 people were massacred. Mallika, a 14-year-old girl, tried to flee the mob that had killed her parents and relatives. She stumbled and fell; the mob chopped off her legs and left her to bleed to death in a hyacinth covered pond. An army officer found her the next day, drawn by her pitiful sobs, and Mallika survived to live a traumatic life.

But we digress. From December 18 to 29, the newly elected Lok Sabha, with Prime Minister V P Singh and the Janata Dal occupying the Treasury benches and Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress sitting in the Opposition benches, witnessed a spirited debate over the customary address by the President. Either by design or by default, the President had failed to mention the riots in Bhagalpur.

Congress MPs seized on this omission to berate the government, alleging that the riots were not mentioned to spare embarrassment to its ally, the BJP, which was accused of fomenting the violence in Bhagalpur and elsewhere. As the debate became increasingly accusatory and the tone and tenor of the attack on the BJP sharpened, the Janata Dal MP from Chapra waded in to battle the Congress.

Responding to the allegation that BJP and VHP activists had provoked the violence, he said, 'I would like to tell you that there are two groups of Muslims in Bhagalpur, i e, Ansaris and Sallans, who had started riots in the city. A bomb was thrown on the SP (of) Bhagalpur and 11 police personnel were injured. They had thrown that bomb on the occasion of Ram Shila Pujan but these people have not been yet rounded up.'

That MP was Lalu Prasad Yadav, now minister for Railways in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government and an ardent supporter of 'Madam Soniaji.' Such is his admiration for Sonia Gandhi, that even after losing his rule through conjugal proxy over Bihar thanks to Congress' dalliance with his arch enemy Ram Vilas Paswan, he was the first to jump to her defence in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday when George Fernandes became particularly vituperative.

Will the Lalu raj end?

But we digress again. On December 29, 1989, Lalu Prasad Yadav was relentless in his assault on the Congress, more so on Rajiv Gandhi, and took vicarious pleasure by slyly mentioning Sonia Gandhi by name now and then, in total disregard of House rules. 'It is the Congress party which (has) engineered most of the riots, particularly in Bihar,' he thundered to the thumping of tables. 'We shall expose their role in inciting communal riots,' he promised on behalf of the government.

Listing the failures of the previous regime, he said, 'Rajiv Gandhi failed to fulfil the promises which he made in regard to the development, unity and security of the country and protection of the Harijans and Muslims. This resulted in creating a gloomy situation in the country...' And, hence, the people voted for change.

'Change had become necessary because the responsibility of protecting the geographical boundaries of the country (sic)... was jeopardised by the Congress and Rajiv Gandhi,' Lalu Prasad Yadav explained, adding with a rhetorical flourish, 'If we fail to safeguard the unity, integrity and the principle of secularism of our country, we cannot save the country from disintegration...'

And then came the full assault. 'Satyendra Narain Sinha became chief minister of Bihar, he failed to quell the riots in Hazaribagh... the procession of Ram Navami had passed off peacefully in front of the Jama Masjid of Hazaribagh. No Muslim had opposed the procession,' Lalu Prasad Yadav said, recalling the sequence of event, 'Ram shila procession and Ram Navami procession passed off from there, but neither there was any riot nor anybody raised provocative slogans on that day. But later on an incident took place in Hazaribagh which triggered off disturbances in the entire state.'

So who or what was to blame? Read on. 'Rajiv Gandhi, accompanied by his wife Sonia Gandhi, went to participate in the Vaishali festival. They had put on bulletproof vests... Shri Rajiv Gandhi told Sonia Gandhi that he himself would drive the jeep to see the celebrations,' Lalu Prasad Yadav explained with dramatic flourish, before coming to the consequences of that drive from Patna to Vaishali by the former prime minister and his wife.

'An announcement was made in regard to their security... Full security force was required all along the 60 km route from Patna to the place of celebrations. Wireless message was sent to the DM of Hazaribagh, wireless message was sent to the collector also to send all the forces to Vaishali as Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi were coming to attend the celebrations,' he recounted, 'Forces were picked up from Hazaribagh and sent to Vaishali. After three days riots took place between Hindus and Muslims. But no security forces were there to control the situation.'

And what about Darbhanga? 'They (the Congress) have spared no effort to put Bhagalpur, BJP, RSS and Janata Dal to disrepute,' Lalu Prasad Yadav said, charging the Congress, whose MPs were by then on their feet, with criminal subterfuge, 'One thousand workers belonging to the Congress Party were called to Bahera (an assembly constituency in Darbhanga) by Maithili Brahmins (a snide reference to Jagannath Mishra and what was then the Congress' core constituency in Bihar) and were asked to wear caps bearing slogans "Garv say kaho hum Hindu hain" and "Radhe Shyam Baba ki Jai".'

After a pause, he added with a condescending flourish, 'You try to understand the actual position in Bhagalpur... Shiv Chander Jha, who was the speaker, was deadly against Bhagwat Jha Azad (another Congress leader). It was due to them and a few of their men that these riots... (interruptions)... they were behind these riots.'

Trying to unravel Puzzle Lalu

Researching communal violence in India, as I have been doing these past six months, can be a dreary and depressing experience. But it also has its illuminating moments. Reading the records of the debate in the Lok Sabha on December 29, 1989, was one such moment when the true face of secular politics in India leapt out with venomous fangs exposed.

I could go on about how the prosecution, directly controlled by the government of Bihar, a family enterprise of Lalu Prasad Yadav and his wife Rabri Devi for the last 15 years, has miserably failed to bring the guilty men of Bhagalpur to justice. How nearly two-thirds of the 700 cases filed after the riots in Bhagalpur were never pursued in the special courts that were set up. How files have simply disappeared. How the Lalu-Rabri regime has exerted for 15 years to exonerate the guilty because they were Yadavs. And how activist champions of secularism have conveniently ignored the fact that only 16 people have been sent to jail till now for the death of more than a thousand men, women and children.

All this, and much more, will not dissuade those who worship false gods of secularism.

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Kanchan Gupta