Monday, August 17, 2015

Towards a Secular South Asia

Teesta Setalvad

Identity Politics has a way of dividing men, women, ideas, cultures and societies. So when we kill and maim in the name of a faith, when communalism dominates our political worldview, there is a real danger of every reaction, every initiative being looked at in the name of faith. Nothing could be more short-sighted or dangerous.
Over the past ten days, one more milestone in the struggle for justice for the Survivors of 2002 was marked when a former Ahmedabad city court judge  Himanshu Trivedi recounted, publicly the anti-Muslim sentiment expressed by lawyers and judges after the 2002 communal violence, and why he supported our actions. In 2011, he had got in touch with me privately but last week he went public through a facebook post in my support.
In a phone interview with media outlets like, Citizen.In and the Wire, Trivedi, now living in Auckland, New Zealand, revealed details about his experiences during and after the communal violence that shook his faith in the justice system: he not only witnessed police complicity in the attack on Muslims, but also saw lawyers and judges display extremely prejudiced opinions.“I have been saying all of this for ten years, but there were no listeners earlier,” said Trivedi, who is happy that his attempt to reach out to Setalvad has drawn attention to his story and the issue of compromised justice in the case of the Gujarat riots. “I have supported Teesta because I believe in supporting anyone working for humanity.”
Trivedi was  a judge who resigned from Ahmedabad’s City Civil and Sessions Court in 2003 and now lives in New Zealand. In the recent interviews he has elaborated on the state of affairs there. “The state of Gujarat wanted us (the judges and the judiciary of Gujarat) to be acting against the minority community (albeit with no written orders but definitely communicated in loud and clear messages to us)”.
One of Trivedi’s reasons for quitting the judiciary, he says, was because he was “sworn to the Constitution of India” and could not in good faith participate in these actions. Trivedi was a colleague of Jyotsna Yagnik, the special court judge who in 2012 convicted Gujarati minister Maya Kodnani and Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi for violence during the riots. Since then, she has received several threatening letters and menacing phone calls. Trivedi describes Yagnik as a “wonderful human being” who believed in always being “legal and righteous”.
I saw the police hand out inflammable material’ he has said in these recent explosive interviews. “The riots of 2002 began on February 28, one day after the Godhra train burning incident that killed 59 people. On the morning of the riots, Trivedi’s family heard some noises from the street outside their building. He went with his young daughter to the balcony and witnessed a mob of around 40 people attacking a small dhobi shop run by a Muslim.
“It was the only shop targeted in our area, and the crowd first looted it," said Trivedi. "Then I saw a police jeep approach and officers in uniform distributed inflammable material to the crowd. Then the shop was burnt.” He felt helpless, but didn’t figure out the implications of what he saw till a couple of weeks later, when one of his friends came to visit him.
“My friend and I were sitting on my terrace, talking about the riots and how society was suffering, when he suddenly started crying,” said Trivedi. “Everyone knew that I had always been politically unaffiliated, but that day my friend told me for the first time that he was the president of VHP chapter in a suburb of Ahmedabad.” Trivedi’s friend – whom he did not wish to name – said that on the day of the riots, he was part of crowd that torched a Muslim-run restaurant opposite the High Court judges’ bungalows area. “He told me that they knew it was run by Muslims because three months before the violence, lists were distributed detailing who works where and who lives where,” said Trivedi.
Trivedi’s is a fascinating, wrenching tale.  An observation that my dear friend and lawyer, Mihir Desai made when he read the interview was, “One thing that bugs the Regime about this struggle for justice is that people like Trivedi, you, Teesta and I, Mihir are Gujaratis!”. While this observation is bang on and true, it brought home the fact, again to me, how all of us begin to see issues and struggles through the prism of identity.
In next door Bangladesh, days after Trivedi’s revelations, following the murders of Rajeeb Haider, Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahmna, and Ananta Bijoy Das, just a few days back, , the Mukto-Mona writer, blogger, and activist Niloy Neel has been hacked to death. He wrote in Mutko-Mona as well as in Istishon, and Facebook under the name of “Niloy Neel” (twitter: #NiloyNeel). In addition to writing, Niloy Neel was involved in various social justice movements and was the founder of the Bangladesh Science and Rationalists Association.
Ansar Al Islam, the Bangladesh branch of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) has claimed responsibility for murdering Niloy Neel in his own home, in front of his family, because of his writing. The fundamentalists continue in their tradition of responding to the pen with machetes; the government of Bangladesh continues to supply the fundamentalists with all that is necessary to keep their machetes honed. One by one the enlightened, the freethinking writers, and activists of Bangladesh, are being brutally murdered. Their only crime is taking a stand against injustice, and superstitions prevalent in society. A machete may kill, in a cowardly manner, a human being of flesh and bone; it cannot kill their ideology. Our fight will continue. With all our strength we will continue to speak our minds, our dreams. For as long as there is even a single member of the freethinking community alive; for as long as a single sentence written by freethinking writers survives.
Who spoke out against this killing here in ‘secular’ India? I first got the news from dear comrade in arms Shamsul Islam, who despite his name may not even be considered Muslim enough due to his firm principled stands on issues of faith and reason. Few other organisations in India, Hindu or Muslim or Others, all of whom, draw their survival from identity politics have raised their voices against this brutal attack.
What happens in India today has an implication for the entire sub-continent, for South Asia. Which is why the ideological moorings of the current regime spell danger for a peaceful, democratic and secular South Asia? But if we, similarly see hideous and dangerous tendencies growing in Bangladesh, Sri lank, Myanmaar or Pakistan, can we afford to be silent?
To our own peril.