Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Battling hate and fear
Civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad has been battling majority and minority communalism for several years now.
By Shevlin Sebastian
During the 1992-93 riots at Mumbai, Teesta Setalvad, who was working a journalist, along with a few others ran an unofficial police control room. “We were getting distress calls till 4 a.m.,” she says. “The callers would say, ‘This place is burning, or that place is burning,’ but when we informed the cops they would not respond. That was how biased they were.”
When the unrest ended Teesta wanted to do several follow-up articles but as memories of the riots faded, the editors provided less and less space for her stories.
“I felt I should use my journalistic skills to combat all this hate and anger,” she says. So, in August 1993, she, along with her husband, Javed Anand, started a journal, ‘Communalism Combat’ (www.sabrang.com).
“The aim of the magazine is to promote dialogue,” says Teesta. “In a multi-religious pluralistic society there is going to be disagreement. But how do you settle it?” she says. “Instead of violence we should have discussions.”
The magazine also wanted to expose the machinations of communal politics. “We are against majority and minority communalism,” says Teesta. “It is two sides of the same coin.”
And both threaten Indian democracy. “If you have a Bal Thackeray or a Narendra Modi who indulge in hate speeches, then there will be minority leaders like Syed Abdullah Bukhari (the former Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid) or Abu Asim Azmi (Samajwadi party leader) who will do the same thing,” says Teesta.
Because of this freedom to spew hate, communalism has infected the whole county. “The Sangh Parivar is very organised and systematic,” she says. “It has plenty of resources.”
The sad thing, Teesta says, is that right through the history of mankind a vicious ideology always spreads faster than something good. “People get excited when others are targeted,” she says. “The Parivar people say, ‘Hai, those Muslims have so many wives’. There is a sexual angle to it, and they use it to demean the other side.”
She says the tactics are similar to the one used by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels during Hitler’s rule in Germany. “We need to understand that an in-built bias against Muslims already exists within people,” she says. “Hence when Muslims are attacked, there is a quick acceptance.”
This not only happens with ordinary people but also with the custodians of law and order.
“In Maharashtra, 30 per cent of the police force is biased,” says Teesta. “The rest go along with the herd.” However, she says, the constabulary is less prejudiced than the officers.
Teesta says this pattern is reflected in society also. “The poorer sections are less communal,” she says. “During the 1992-93 riots at Mumbai, at cocktail parties people were justifying the riots by saying that the Muslims deserved to be taught a lesson.”
The Muslims were also taught a bloody lesson during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Six years later Gujarat has the peace of the graveyard. “There is a lot of flourishing economic development at one level, I don’t want to deny that,” she says. “But the Muslim community has been told how to behave.”
Teesta talks about the shrewdness of chief minister Narendra Modi. When the Nano car project came to Gujarat every television picture of Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata with Modi had Muslims, with their distinctive white topis, standing in front.
“Modi is consciously projecting an image he is a friend of the Muslims so that he can isolate people like us who are fighting for their cause,” she says.
So what is the mood inside the Muslim community after a state-sponsored genocide and years of hate propaganda, riots and bomb blasts?
“There is a deep feeling of alienation and fear,” says Teesta. She says Muslins feel estranged because of state discrimination in terms of jobs and other opportunities.
Then they experience police brutality first-hand. When riots or bomb blasts take place the maximum pick-ups are from Muslim areas. “This has been going on for 20 years,” says Teesta. “Now, because of the bomb blasts, there is an increase in extra-judicial killings, and that has created a lot of fear.”
Teesta talked about all this when she came to Kochi recently at the invitation of the Forum for Faith and Fraternity.
Says V.A. Mohammed Ashraf, joint secretary of the forum: “We are against all forms of communalism and terrorism. That is why we invited Teesta, an acclaimed campaigner against communalism.”
At the Maharaja’s College hall, the audience, which has a smattering of women, claps enthusiastically as Teesta says, “I have not read much of the Scriptures but I know the Constitution of India and it is as good a guide for any Indian to follow.”
Says businessman Ibrahim Kutty: “In her speech she voiced the feelings of a neutral person. She is a person without any prejudice.” Says I.K. Jayadev, lecturer in Islamic History at Maharaja’s College: “She came across as a person of deep humanism. Her speech was very truthful.”
And it is this truthfulness that is ruffling a lot of feathers, especially those of the extreme right. “I receive threats several times a week, either through e-mails, SMS or phone calls,” says the 2007 Padma Shri awardee. “Most of the time it is filthy sexual abuse. The problem with a fascist mind-set is that they don’t want to talk about the issues. Instead, they will only launch deeply personal attacks.”
(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)