Swami Agnivesh & Valson Thampu

All through the two days that we have been traveling through the riot-crippled state of Gujarat, listening to the victims, their sympathizers as well as their detractors, a single question haunted us. Why are most of us, barring mostly our bold brethren in the English media, chillingly indifferent to the ongoing tragedy of the Muslims in Gujarat? Our thoughts went back, again and again, to the commendable national solidarity witnessed in the wake of the quake last year. Expressions of concern and commitment, moral and material, surged into Gujarat from all parts of the country and overseas. NGOs, including various religious groups, sects and denominations, virtually vied with each other in providing relief and rehabilitation. From schools to State administrations, everybody dug deep into their pockets and gave their best.

Gujarat today is a tragedy, if anything, worse than it was last year. The killer quake came and went. But this man-made and Modi-managed disaster refuses to die out. It may be Modi's morbid humour that makes him claim that the situation has been brought under control in 72 hours. Into the 6th week, many parts of Ahmedabad and other affected areas are still under curfew, for varying periods of time. People continue to be killed and their homes torched. Nearly a hundred thousand people languish in camps. Palpable mistrust chokes the state.

We found the emotional situation in the relief camps almost at a flash-point. As we entered a camp for the Muslims in Ahmedabad, we were greeted by angry women screaming, "Where were you for more than a month? Why doesn't anyone care that we are starving?" Deep inside the camp, we had women and men cling to us in terror, compulsively narrating their tails of horror, many through their torrential tears. So many among them pleaded that they should not be forced to leave the camp, for fear of being wiped out on their return to what once were their homes. In a harrowing few hours, we were overwhelmed by many an account of unprecedented cruelty, the details of which are too crude and cruel to chronicle. We found Muslim youth extremely restive and we came away worrying for the future.

It is incredibly sad, how the Muslim community is almost wholly abandoned by the rest of the country. And we are worried at the foolishness that makes the rest of us think that it is 'their' problem and not 'our' problem as well. It is this, much more than the outbreak of orchestrated violence against the Muslims that worries us; for it shows that the Sangh Parivar calumny against the Muslim has infected us to an extent that we do not realize. Far too many people seem to have, however unwittingly, internalized the Parivar outlook in respect of the Muslims.

A community abandoned by the rest of the society, discriminated against by the State in blatant ways and targeted week after week by mobs under patronage, will find it too difficult to ward off desperation for long. The prospect of a 150 million strong community acting in desperation is an unthinkable prospect for the future. Surely, it cannot be the best prospect for this country.

It is unlikely that the Gujarat pogrom would have happened but for two reasons. The first is the systematic elimination of the Muslim underworld, especially of Bombay. It is not wholly unlikely that the Bombay serial blasts have had a preventive effect on further atrocities against Muslims since early 1993. For the Constitutional and constituted authority of the land to let down a community so badly is to drive them into the lap of criminal and anti-social elements. Modi's Gujarat threatens to invest the Mafia dons with a new legitimacy and credibility; and that is unspeakably unfortunate. Can we really blame the Muslims of Gujarat if they come to prefer Dawood Ibrahim to Narendra Modi sooner or later?

Secondly, it is doubtful if the kind and scale of pogrom unleashed against the Muslims in Gujarat, Godhra notwithstanding, would have happened but for the US-manipulated global antipathy towards Muslims. The so-called 'war on terrorism' has made Muslim-bashing a popular sport, much like bear-baiting in Elizabethan England or Christian-baiting in Nero's Rome. It is incredible how the global sentiments towards the Muslim community have changed, and so much for the worse, almost overnight.

But there is a lesson in this that we must note. If macro perceptions and sentiments are so vulnerable to manipulation from a distance, it can work to the disadvantage of those who prosper by the current climate of opinion. It would be a colossal foolishness to assume that this manipulated malice will stay the same forever. The direction of this foul wind can be changed any moment, and it might happen sooner than we expect at this point in time. "Those who are married to the present age," as Dean Inge has said, "will become widowers in the next". It is a suicidal mistake to set up the edifice of our society on the shifting foundations of American foreign policy perceptions and priorities. We have an enduring heritage of fellow-feeling, tolerance and unity-in-diversity and it is utterly irresponsible to squander this, being carried away by the new thrill in the air.

We left Gujarat mulling over one of the close shaves our group had in the course of our two-day visit. We were in one of the riot-devastated villages. All on a sudden a group of some 70-80 young men materialized as if from nowhere. They looked carved out of one of the rioting crowds we have seen in the pictures from Gujarat since February 28. They belonged to the age-group of 17- 30 years: none from the upper castes, but all drilled to speak and act in a certain way. They reveled in their right to rule the streets and defy the rule of law. They objected to our peace-march, our messages of love, of religious harmony and of the need for unity. They asked us to get lost. The police officer present merely endorsed their sentiments and instructed us to move out before we got into serious trouble.

This may be music to the ears of their communal dons. But neither they nor the rest of us can afford to be in any illusion about this. To improvise and use certain tools and agents in the power-game is also to awaken in them a lust for power, the scope of which might go far beyond what their ring-leaders reckon today. The unemployed and frustrated youth, mainly from the OBC segment, is being humoured by allowing them to rule the nights and the streets. What excites them is the destructive exercise of power. But is there any guarantee that they would remain perpetually pleased with this limited turf currently allotted to them? History reminds us that the kittens that we nurture to keep the rats out of the parlours of power will grow, in due season, into the tigers of terror springing from the seats of power itself. It may seem expedient to some to turn Gujarat into a political laboratory for the rest of India. But we must be careful, lest the by-products of these experiments turn into the Frankensteins of tomorrow. The rule in history has so far been: "He who takes the sword will perish by it." And there is no reason to believe that Gujarat will prove an exception.