The moment before her soul left her body my daughter asked me, are we also foreigners?” The lingering image in Subasri Krishnan’s film What The Fields Remember is of Sirajuddin Ahmed, a survivor of the 1983 Nellie massacre in Assam, dressed in white, lying back on a battered foldable chair with a wooden frame, his hands linked over his head. A portrait of a man frozen in time, repeatedly reliving the day his wife and four of his five daughters were murdered by a mob.
It was the brutal, 6-hour climax of an anti-foreigner agitation led by the All Assam Students Union that had been playing out for four years. Ahmed’s daughters had also carried placards against “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh on the voter list. Take them off the list, protestors demanded. When Bengali-speaking Muslims decided to go ahead and cast their vote that February, Nellie was the response.
According to the most conservative estimates, more than 2,000 were killed. The Indira Gandhi government handed out Rs5,000 for every family member who died.
Abdul Khayer, the film’s other survivor-protagonist, shakes as he shares a stack of documents that prove his identity as an Indian citizen. “I was born here. I belong here. Despite that, they say the people who died that day were Bangladeshis.” His toddler son was murdered by a man wielding a sickle that cleaved the child’s skull into two as he clung on to his fleeing father’s back. That day, Khayer lost his two sons, his only daughter, his wife, his brother and his parents. Thirty-two people in his extended family died.
Now, 34 years later, human rights activist Harsh Mander wants you to join a sweeping month-long Karawan-e-Mohabbat (KeM, or Caravan of Love), which starts from Nellie on 4 September. He picked Nellie because it’s up there in our ugly record of post-Partition massacres, and he says it’s the only time no one was punished or tried for the mass crime.
KeM, Mander’s response to the rise in hate crimes, will visit families who have lost their loved ones in recent lynchings in Assam, Jharkhand, (possibly) Karnataka, western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat before it culminates in Porbandar, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, on 2 October. The group will also set up aman committees that will commit to supporting the family and promoting peace in the community. Mander has been flooded with letters of solidarity since he shared the idea.
He is especially looking for writers, poets, musicians, artists and others who can chronicle this journey as it unfolds. This week he made an appeal to raise Rs 20 lakh through a crowdfunding website at Bitgiving.com/karawanemohabbat. “We have almost no money so far. I’m letting it unfold as most things in life that have seemed impossible,” he tells me.
He’s on Twitter now, thanks to his friends at the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF). DEF, along with Change.org, Amnesty and Youth Ki Awaaz, will run the social media campaign for the journey. A number of non-governmental organizations have offered to help with the logistics in individual states.
Hate crimes in the name of cow protection have been rising in recent months, prompting Hindustan Times to launch Hate Tracker, a crowd-sourced database of hate crimes since September 2015. A just-out US state department report quoted in The Hindu says, “Authorities frequently did not prosecute members of vigilante ‘cow protectison’ groups who attacked alleged smugglers, consumers, or traders of beef, usually Muslims, despite an increase in attacks compared to previous years.”
Mander says that in a way decentralized lynchings are even scarier than riots because the latter are restricted to a particular geography. “With lynchings, in a sense, everyone is made to feel that violence can happen at any time, any place. It’s a message to an entire community,” he tells me over the phone. “We need to say loud and clear, and not be defensive, that there’s a permissive enabling environment for the acting out of this hate that is being fostered in a variety of ways,” he adds.
Mander thinks it’s important to acknowledge our history of mass-targeted violence so KeM will weave its way through places such as Nellie, the 1984 Sikh widows’ colony at Tilak Vihar in Delhi, Kandhamal (violence against Christians) in Odisha and Tsundur (the site of a Dalit massacre) in Andhra Pradesh. It will also pay tribute to Babasaheb Ambedkar by halting at his birthplace, Mhow.
In 2002, the then serving IAS officer spoke up against the Gujarat riots in a searing Times Of India editorial: “There are no voices like Gandhi’s that we hear today. Only discourses on Newtonian physics, to justify vengeance on innocents. We need to find these voices within our own hearts, we need to believe enough in justice, love, tolerance”. He had been a bureaucrat for 22 years, but resigned shortly after writing this.
The idea of a journey as protest has been executed most famously by Mahatma Gandhi in his Salt March and Martin Luther King in his March on Washington. In recent times, people have come out in large numbers across the world to protest or express solidarity for a variety of causes. Thousands of Americans marched in cities and at airports across their country against President Donald Trump’s ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries earlier this year.
Now Mander is appealing to you to stop looking away. “It’s a call of conscience to India’s majority,” he says in a statement.
“These assaults are characterized by bystanders who actively support the killing, or do nothing to stop it. Pehlu Khan is killed on a busy national highway; in Una, attackers circulate videos of whippings, convinced of their valour and impunity. Akhlaq is lynched by his neighbours. Junaid is stabbed 30 times on a crowded train,” Mander adds, referencing recent murders.
The silence of the bystander worries him even more than the failure of the police or the indifference of the political leadership. “Why are we silent? Why are we not speaking out?” he says over the phone. “We need to struggle with our own sentiments that condone or make us indifferent to the acting out of hate against a specific community.” Mander’s journey is one of atonement and love. Because darkness, he believes, can only be dispelled by light.
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