September 15, 2003

GLASS HOUSES, AND ALL THAT:

Heart of darkness: As a young backpacker Luke Harding found India charming and eccentric. Fifteen years later he returned as the Guardian's correspondent. Now, after finishing his time there, he recalls how one terrible incident of secular violence in Gujarat brought his love affair with the country to an end (Luke Harding, September 15, 2003, The Guardian)

I can identify the moment I fell out of love with India quite precisely. It happened at the end of last February. Riots had just broken out in the western state of Gujarat, after a group of Muslims attacked a train full of Hindu pilgrims, killing 59 of them. In Gujarat's main city, Ahmedabad, trouble was brewing. Hindu mobs had begun taking revenge on their Muslim neighbours - there were stories of murder, looting and arson. Arriving in Ahmedabad from Delhi, I found it impossible to hire a car or driver: nobody wanted to drive into the riots.

But the trouble was not difficult to find: smoke billowed from above Ahmedabad's old city; and I set off towards it on foot. There were rumours that a mob had hacked to death Ahsan Jafri - a distinguished Indian former MP, and a Muslim - whose Muslim housing estate was surrounded by a sea of Hindu houses. A team from Reuters gave me a lift. Driving through streets full of burned-out shops and broken glass we arrived half an hour later outside his compound, surrounded by thousands of people. Jafri had been dead for several hours, it emerged. A Hindu mob had tipped kerosene through his front door; a few hours later they had dragged him out into the street, chopped off his fingers, and set him on fire. They also set light to several other members of his family, including two small boys. There wasn't much left of Jafri's Gulbarg Housing Society by the time we got there: at the bottom of his stairs I discovered a pyre of human remains - hair and the tiny blackened arm of a child, its fist clenched.

Two police officers in khaki told us the situation was dangerous, and that we should leave; they seemed resigned or indifferent to the horror around them, an emotion I had encountered before during what would turn out to be more than three years of reporting on India for the Guardian. Later that afternoon, in the suburb of Naroda Patiya, we watched as a Hindu crowd armed with machetes and iron bars attacked their Muslim neighbours on the other side of the street. All of the shops on the Muslim side of the road were ablaze; smoke blotted out the sky; gas cylinders exploded and boomed; we were, it seemed, in some part of hell. "We are being killed. Please get us out," one Muslim resident, Dishu Banashek, told me. "They are firing at us. Several of our women have been raped. You must help."

When we asked a senior policeman to intervene he merely smirked. "Don't worry, madam. Everything will be done," he told a colleague from the Times mendaciously. We left. It was too dangerous to stay.

The causes of the rioting - India's worst communal violence for a decade - became clearer the next morning, when I returned to Naroda Patiya - now a ruin of abandoned homes and smouldering rickshaws. Virtually all of the Muslims had fled: I found only a solitary survivor, Narinder Bhai, standing by the charred interior of his home. "Everything is finished," he said, showing off his ruined fridge. "Many people have been killed here. My wife and children have disappeared."

Just round the corner, down an alley, I spotted a neat bungalow that had apparently escaped the chaos. It was only on closer inspection that I saw its owner: the charred and mutilated remains of a Muslim woman had been laid out in the front garden and framed by a charpoy. Round the back I found an address book - which identified the woman as Mrs Rochomal; next to it, the Nokia phone she had used in a doomed attempt to summon help. Her son's washing was hanging on the line, in the morning sunshine; inside there was a neat kitchen and black-and-white family photos. Mrs Rochomal's flip-flops were still by the front door, next to a swing-seat.

Five minutes later, her mobile phone rang. I didn't answer it. Her body was less than 60 metres away from the local police station. The police had not, it was obvious, bothered to rescue her: they had, I was forced to conclude, been complicit in her death.


Mr. Harding better be careful where he travels in Europe. India is a little further down the fascist road because almost 15% of its population is Muslim, but the Le Pen victory occurred in a France that has less than 10% and Pim Fortuyn in a Netherlands with less than 5%. As the numbers rise, as Europe becomes increasingly dependent on a young Muslim workforce to fund the Welfare State for aging natives, and as those Muslims begin to demand political power, Europe is quite likely to see exactly the same kind of violence and the continuing rise of the politics of hate.

MORE:
-India's Muslim Time Bomb: The Hindu nationalist leaders who are responsible for the recent public massacres of Muslims and the destruction of mosques are unwittingly aiding Al Qaeda. (PANKAJ MISHRA, 9/15/03, NY Times)

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 15, 2003 8:42 AM
Comments

Didn't their US correspondent just write a similar colemn and wasn't his problem with us that we didn't just accept immolation?

Posted by: David Cohen at September 15, 2003 9:52 AM

Orrin, I think your analysis is quite beside the point: India has plenty of young Hindus, the demographic situation has little to do with it.

Indian police are government bureaucrats with jobs for life, regardless of performance. They are afraid of criminals and rarely put themselves into any sort of physical danger. This is why murders are rarely solved in India and rarely prevented; it is why upper middle class persons wall their houses and employ bodyguards. Even when senior government officials were being robbed and murdered in an elite neighborhood of New Delhi, the police did nothing.

So the critical question is: in the US, as we see in the military and the NY police and fire departments and in the citizens who subdued Richard Reid, many citizens, perhaps most, are willing to risk their own lives to help protect others from violence. In India, that's not the case; in Sweden, too, as Mark Steyn pointed out after the Lindh stabbing, it's not the case. People in those countries are more selfish (or pragmatic).

The difference is that to a great extent, we believe in Jesus's mandamus ("This is my last command, to love one another as I have loved you; and there is no greater love than this, to give up one's life for one's friends") while Indians don't. And the question is, without a widespread willingness to sacrifice one's self for others, can civilization survive, or be created in the first place?

Posted by: pj at September 15, 2003 10:01 AM

pj:

There weren't many whites sacrificing themselves to stop lynchings. No one sacrificed so much as their career to stop the Japanese-American internment. Racial/ethnic hatreds make cowards of us all.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 10:16 AM

"... one terrible incident of secular violence ..."

Was that supposed to be "sectarian?"

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 15, 2003 11:15 AM

I'll grant much of your point; heaven knows Americans are as tempted toward evil as anyone else. But nevertheless, I stand by my assertion that civilization depends on a willingness to sacrifice for others as well as respect their rights, and that most of India's problems derive from the fact that this willingness is much weaker there than here. Given that people are willing to countenance violence against others and that they see no one -- police or citizenry -- willing to stand in their way when they do, it's easy enough for demagogues to whip up mobs over real or imagined grievances.

Posted by: pj at September 15, 2003 12:05 PM

With 430 million deities (and still climbing, I suspect), the Hindu religion has no compelling center, no raison d'etre, and no coherence. No wonder violence is passively accepted (except that from Muslims). There is a dark underbelly to India that few Westerners understand, until they visit for awhile. Plus, 150 million nervous Muslims makes for a volatile mix.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 15, 2003 2:52 PM

Speak for yourself, Orrin. As I've described before, my grandfather -- very white -- risked his life, and sacrificed his family life for more than a year to stop lynching. It worked, too.

This nitwit, though, loved India until he saw some violence himself. I guess he doesn't count violence he hasn't seen personally.

About a million were murdered at Partition, and it was mutual.

Hindus are murderous people. They freely murder other Hindus. The daily torchings of Untouchables are not done by Muslims.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 15, 2003 3:16 PM

Harry:

Exceptions prove rules.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 6:29 PM
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