During the 1989 communal carnage in Bhagalpur, 65 people in Chanderi village were murdered by their neighbours. Having promised them safe passage, they suddenly fell upon them and hacked them to death. Mallika Begum, then 16, is the sole survivor and witness to the slaughter. The killers sliced off her leg, and thinking she was dead, threw her with the bodies of all her loved ones into a pond, and covered her with weeds. She survived, rescued by an army convoy. Over the years, she withstood repeated threats to her life to bring the killers to justice. Steadfast in her statements before the judges, her testimony ensured that 16 people are today serving a life sentence.
Aman Biradari, a collective devoted to secularism, justice and peace, recently invited women and men who had lived through pogroms that targeted persons because of their religious identity in the last three decades. Survivors were invited from the forgotten massacre of Bengali Muslims in Nellie in Assam in 1983, the Sikh widows of Tilak Vihar, Delhi of 1984, Bhagalpur in 1989 and Gujarat in 2002, and the Christian minorities of Kandhamal, Odisha of 2008.
In their moving dialogues in Delhi and Ahmedabad, they shared their pain, struggles and hopes. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the carnage in Gujarat. The blood-letting and hate unleashed at that time - of women, men and children killed because of their religious faith, abetted by state authorities — continue to raise painful questions about the perilous breaches in our collective defence of secular democracy, and the threats to India’s pluralist legacy. The most important voices to hear and heed were those of the survivors of targeted hate violence, from far corners of this land.
Their stories, recounted with dignity and restraint, showed that the suffering of survivors does not abate or pass, even after decades have elapsed and the rest of us have forgotten and moved on. Time freezes for those who lost their loved ones, were sexually humiliated, or watched their homes and livelihoods destroyed, betrayed and assaulted often by their neighbours. Many spoke as though what they suffered happened just yesterday, not years or decades earlier. Their suffering is a legacy passed across generations. The widows of Tilak Vihar, Delhi talked of sons raised without fathers, now battling drug addiction and the demons in their minds. Young men and women from every site of carnage described how hard it was to grow up without parents, with only memories of their gruesome slaying.
Ruptures persist in the social fabric of communities long after the violence has ended. People in Nellie feel devalued and secluded in a homeland that labels them as foreigners. The Tilak Vihar widows are isolated from their own community in their suffering and struggles. In Gujarat, and even Bhagalpur, survivors continue to live in fear and segregation. In Kandhamal, few victims can return to their villages without trepidation.
Only in Nellie has not a single person even been tried for the 1983 massacre, because the State itself has withdrawn all criminal charges against every person charged with the mass crimes. In every other site of massacre, broken people soldier on for justice against colossal odds. They explained why justice is precious to them. It is not revenge that they seek. If this was what they wanted, there were easier, more direct ways to extract vengeance. Many explained that the fight for justice in courts was their duty to their children, and their country. Unpunished, the hate rioters would be emboldened to repeat the slaughter. It was only if people are punished for their crimes that they will learn never to target innocents.
They talked to us of partisan State authorities who failed to quell the rioting, revenue officials who paid them a pittance as compensation, policemen who refused to record the names and investigate those who led the butchery and arson, and magistrates who allowed their tormentors to walk free with impunity. And yet, even as they spoke of the many ways the people and institutions charged with protecting them and securing justice had let them down, it was extraordinary how each of them insisted that they had not lost faith in India’s secular democracy. They derived solace and hope from the people of other faiths who saved their lives, shared their pain, and helped them in their battles for justice. They believed that however grave are the assaults mounted on secular India, the ancient traditions of people of different faiths living together with peace and respect would endure. They were convinced that the institutions of our democracy would in the end prevail over campaigns of hate and division.
Harsh Mander is a member of the National Advisory Council
The views expressed by the author are personal