It was a phone call from National Human Rights Commission one afternoon in March 2002. “Would your organization be interested in providing trauma counselling and therapy to children and adolescents in Gujarat affected by the riots?” they asked. At that time, our organization was working on a project on victimology providing trauma care and support to the children in Delhi affected by heinous crimes.
Grief is not an emotion in itself but consists of sequence of stages beginning from denial to forgiveness after undergoing a deep loss. “The Commission feels that considering your work in this area, your team would be able to bring healing to many victims,” they noted.
This article is not about the work we did in Gujarat, in the camps, in homes, but tries to understand why most narratives bypass the role of the mob who torched the train.
Grief is a universal phenomenon, one that has no geographical boundaries. Its features are the same everywhere and transcends boundaries of religion and nationality. Grief work is a field where one has to work with keeping personal beliefs away only seeing the grieving individual in front with only the value for the truth. The face of the unknown person, trying to come to terms with the worst hour of his life is one’s chief concern, never his background.
Several years ago, during a lecture in Germany, I had asked in response to a question on violence, what would have happened in Germany if a train bogey full of German women and children were torched alive at a station by Turks? After a hushed silence, one of the participants said, “First of all no one would even dream of that. It will be very difficult to think that such a thing can happen here. But if it does, it will be difficult to control the emotions and the violence that would follow.” I had asked a similar question in USA what would have happened if a train full of White women and children were torched by Blacks or Hispanics? “It will become a nightmare,” one of the Whites in the audience had replied.
So why does the pogrom where a lynching and murderous mob who tried to kill the pilgrims of a bogey finds almost no mention in the narratives of Gujarat riots and if so only in passing, never the cause of it?
“The grief of Gujarati people after the torching of the train, what are you talking about?” One of the White journalists had asked me, puzzled when I had tried to mention it as a causative factor in the violence that ensued. Like most of his ilk, it is difficult for him or others to understand that Black men, men of color and societies can feel rage, when a pogrom, act of mass violence is carried out against them. A legacy hard to let go or understand for many whose forefathers and institutions taught that the societies of color were not supposed to be angry, whereas they themselves created two world wars and bombed the world everywhere.
How could a murderous mob carry out a pogrom of burning alive fifty nine people and get away, one wonders. Is that because journalists of the world, mostly White, will not see it as a story when it is the grief of society of color whose people can be butchered, attacked and killed and who are expected to be silent. A narrative based on the victim as the perpetrator is built, paraded and put before the world as truth. The focus is taken away from the real perpetrators and they are allowed to hide their role.
The literature, the print media of the enslaved rarely contains any narrative of rage, but only of guilt and self-blame. This is what colonialism has done to the psyche of the enslaved as the victim is unable to point a finger at the perpetrator and accuse him of the crime. The perpetrator knowing the characteristic of the victim, drives home the point that he alone is the perpetrator and responsible for the carnage. The narrative becomes where the victim is held responsible by the friend of the perpetrator who also acts as the jury, in this case the BBC and the journalistic fraternity. The narrative of Gujarat violence bears a striking resemblance to the above where the original perpetrator, the murderous mob is nowhere in print or news. They haven’t been talked about in debates, their motives never analyzed. It is as if on the victim lies the entire burden of guilt.
In almost every pogrom, the perpetrator tries to hide and portray the victim as responsible aided by powerful allies. It is time that Indians understand that this strategy has been played ad infinitum on them, keeping us forever guilty and ashamed.
The BBC documentary has chosen not to give any account of the pogrom how it all started by a murderous mob who had planned and tried to annihilate a group of innocent pilgrims. It doesn’t tell what it may have been for the terrified women and children who screamed for escape asking to be let out but found no mercy and were burnt alive. It doesn’t spare a line about the motives of the mob who came prepared and organized and carried out an act of monstrous proportion and discover the reasons behind it. Would the BBC ever have a conscience to think what it was like for the pilgrims surrounded and threatened with painful and slow death? Not having done that takes the perpetrator out of the narrative, putting him as someone who didn’t cause it. A very Nazi way of putting every responsibility on Jews, even their own killing. Will a documentary ever be made on that narrative?
The violence in Gujarat where such a murderous mob gathered at one spot, ready to lynch, torch the pilgrims may be said to be one of the biggest one of its kind, next only in ferocity to the living memory to thousands of Sikhs who were butchered on the streets of Delhi. One wonders why the BBC didn’t make something on that naming and associating it with Rajiv Gandhi?
All violence denigrates human dignity and respect and is never justified. Yet a distinction needs to be made between violence unleashed by the perpetrator and the violence shown by the victim in retaliation. The violence of the abuser and the abused can never the same and equated. While the former tries to subjugate and annihilate, the latter is a retaliation to the former, the inability of the victim to succumb to injustice.
What is the most important lesson we learnt from our work on the violence in Gujarat. I would say it is that violence has a color, a name and a copyright. That it is a colonial legacy left to us that we haven’t been able to throw off as yet. I hope that sooner than later the present debate will take us a step further towards that goal.
Healing and closure to the Gujarat riots is long overdue and is a need for a nation to heal itself. A narrative that takes into account truthfully the role of everyone from beginning to end is the only path towards that recovery.
Rajat Mitra is a Psychologist, Speaker and Author of ‘The Infidel Next Door’