Gujarat and 3 dastango

It is a tough demand to fight on the side of the truth, to keep repeating it and watch your fate change as you stick to the truth

In the annals of storytelling, a lot has been written about the survivor.Survival is always a story of courage, of vulnerability. Survivors hold on to memories like warm pebbles, squeezing them to feel they are still there, still real.

I remember such moments during the 10th anniversary of the Gulberg massacre in Ahmedabad.
Gulberg was a middle-class Muslim housing society where the Congress MP, Ehsan Jafri, lived. During the riots of 2002, dozens of Muslims flocked to his house for refuge, hoping his power and presence would protect them. Fifty-nine people died that day at Gulberg as the city watched
indifferently.
Ten years later, to commemorate the 10th anniversary, one of my colleagues, a brilliant photographer, set up a wailing wall. It was a simple device, a string of photographs of those dead and missing. That exhibit became a stunning event generating its own rituals.
The survivors would come and stand in tears before the array of faces. Some would rearrange the pictures, as if they were arranging a drawing room sofa or a family photograph. Others would kiss Ehsan Jafri’s photograph, shaking their heads in nostalgia and sadness. Jafri must have been a remarkable man, as a politician not just a loving husband and a doting father.
Sometimes I think there are untold stories even within the act of storytelling. The storyteller as witness might tell someone else’s story but keep silent about himself. It is a tough demand to fight on the side of the truth, to keep repeating it without embellishing it and watch your fate change as you stick to the truth. Life starts to corrode you as colleagues disappear and friends abandon you. People occasionally summon you as an event, treat you like a mnemonic and forget you are a person. The media treats the witness as if they have no inside, no pain. They forget sometimes that truth is a scream which fades into silence, occasionally bursting forth as a whimper in the night.
Yet memory can be harsh, almost indifferent. It might nod at the survivor but it often ignores the whistleblower, the resistor who fought for the truth alongside the survivor. I call these fighters the midwives of truth, the munshis of pain. They repeat the truth so that no bureaucracy can erase it.
Every struggle has had these munshis, these midwives. There was Medha Patkar and Baba Amte during the Narmada struggle, Satinath Sarangi after the Bhopal gas tragedy, Irom Sharmila writing the iconography of protest in Manipur. The Gujarat riots of 2002 have also produced equivalent figures. I can write about three and I am sure they are many more. I want to write about these three as examples of courage, defined so correctly as grace under pressure.
The first is R.B. Sreekumar who retired as director-general of police. An ordinary-looking man who loves books and enjoys Sanskrit, Mr Sreekumar is an odd figure as a hero. I asked him once why he had challenged Narendra Modi. He responded, “Modi is against my Hinduism and the Constitution.”
People do not understand the courage of this man. His wife told me that when he went for a walk in Gandhinagar, bureaucrats, especially IAS officers, would run away. The rituals of avoidance were pathetic. Mr Sreekumar would laugh, conceding sadly that their comic book behaviour might have been their only acknowledgement that truth is embarrassing. A wry view of life soaked in shlokas keeps this man’s vintage courage going.
To stand by a truth is not easy. Society wants to forget violence and wants to hide it like dirt under fancy words like progress and development. To watch it as a Muslim professional who feels progressive must be painful.
Suhel Tirmizi is a successful lawyer practising at the Gujarat high court. He is a Muslim, a professional lawyer, successful to the core, an advocate of the Uniform Civil Code. For Mr Tirmizi, standing up as a lawyer and standing up as a Muslim meant standing up as a human being and an Indian, convinced that one could not be blind to suffering. The dignity the man brings to his task is amazing. He laughingly concedes that he lost over 40 per cent of his old business. Yet he persists. His is a quiet kind of courage that has lived without acknowledgements. Yet there are moments when a hand in the crowd or a small interview becomes a salute to the man.
The third person, Teesta Setalvad, embodies a different kind of courage. She is feisty, treating life as a panja match unruffled by the establishment’s pomposity. She is committed to democracy and law. She comes from a proud genealogy of lawyers but, more critically, her husband Javed Anand understands and sustains her need to keep the truth of Gujarat alive. She will not forget, she will not allow others to forget. Forgetting and indifference are two crimes she cannot forgive. Yet she evokes an exuberant tolerance, impatient about justice but patient about everything else. She cares and cares deeply for the survivors and sees in them a renewed form of citizenship, ready to stand by them by giving everything she has got.
The sadness is we do not know how to honour these people. We are content to think that a small honour is sufficient acknowledgement. We do not understand that courage is a continuous process and that valour is reinvented everyday. It is tiring and courage demands that we fight tiredness and loneliness to stand by what we believe. One wishes society was more generous to such people. All I can do as a writer is to keep their efforts alive as stories.

The writer is a social science nomad

Comments

A fantastically superficial

A fantastically superficial column by a superficial man.

With people like Sri Kumar

With people like Sri Kumar and Teesta as friends, credentials of Mr Shiv Vishvanathan are well established!!

Sir u have failed to mention

Sir u have failed to mention Sanjiv Bhatt who should have featured in your analysis as he symbolises the fight for truth and justice in Gujarat. I am sure his integrity and honesty is beyond reproach, so please mention the reasons for omitting him in your analysis.

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