Memorial to a Genocide: Memory as Resistance

Many more public memorials to the dead are required. These may serve as constant reminders to us, heirs to a century of massacres, and spinners of dreams for a better world 

Mukul Mangalik 

I feel honoured to have been asked to speak on this solemn and rare occasion, the Jamia moment, as it were, in the historic initiative underway at the behest of the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), to create a public memorial to the dead, murdered, brutalised and dispossessed children, women and men from Gujarat 2002, a memorial equally to the dogged fighters for justice from that time on.

I feel doubly honoured to be speaking at an event inaugurated by Prof Romila Thapar. She taught me at JNU during the 1970s. Her example continues to inform my own teaching while her academic rigour and passion for history, her willingness to stand up and be counted, to speak her mind with lucidity and grace on issues that matter and the values that she holds dear, continue to inspire many of us, especially in trying times.

I would like to begin by reading out a passage from an article I had written after a group of students from Delhi University and I returned from Gujarat in May 2002.

“No matter how much we may already know about the systematic savaging of the lives of Muslim citizens in Gujarat, it is when you step into the theatres of destruction, into the worlds of victims and survivors, most with nothing but their lives left to protect, the sun screaming murder, no water to drink, flies and the stench of urine and shit all around, it is then the hugeness of the tragedy that Narendra Modi, the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal have wrought in Gujarat, blows a hole in the solar plexus and hell into your being.”

I chose to read out these lines today to remind ourselves of the barbarism that engulfed Gujarat in 2002, the full horror and implications of which may never have come home to many students and me but for our close encounters with people and places in Gujarat during the fateful summer of that year. This tragedy must never be forgotten. It must be remembered and understood for it to never happen again, for justice to be done and for the living to breathe in freedom and peace.

I understood instinctively for the first time why Theodor Adorno, in 1949, might have felt compelled to reflect on whether there could be poetry after Auschwitz. As time passed, however, almost unnoticed by me, a poem made its way into, became part of, and sharply impacted my memories of Gujarat. ‘Nanhi Pujaran’ written by Majaz way back in 1936, had nothing to do with Gujarat 2002, but, to me, perhaps because it spoke of such innocence and vulnerable beauty, it has ended up getting intertwined with its macabre, threatening opposite, rendering my memories of 2002 more unbearable and Gujarat even more impossible to forget. The ways of remembering, and through the act of remembering, resisting, are many. I can no longer read ‘Nanhi Pujaran’ without thinking of the killing fields of Gujarat and vice versa, and this invariably brings a lump to my throat.

 I understood instinctively for the first time why Adorno, in 1949, might have felt compelled to reflect on whether there could be poetry after Auschwitz

The mass murder of Muslims in Gujarat was bad enough in itself. It was bone-chilling that this happened in an orgy and celebration of bloodletting, and dangerous like hell for having been equally an assault on secularism, democracy and modern republican citizenship, for having been, as Thomas Mann wrote on March 27, 1933, two months after Hitler had become German Chancellor, “against everything nobler, better, decent, against freedom, truth and justice”. 

Gujarat did not happen — it bears repeating ad nauseum — because Hindus and Muslims were living side by side and this was never meant to be. It happened because religion was successfully used to construct an exclusivist nationalism that we, in South Asia, refer to as communalism and which readily lends itself to the politics of hate, murder and authoritarianism. This could not have come to pass without the deadly totalising role of the Sangh Parivar. Nor could it have happened without the unforgivable criminal complicity of the State. Above all, however, it would be well to remember — and this is what makes Gujarat 2002 fascistic and extraordinarily terrifying — that the targeted mass killing of Muslims happened due to, and amid widespread popular acclaim and participation, manipulated maybe, but mass communal enthusiasm nonetheless.

‘Nanhi Pujaran’ by Majaz in 1936 had nothing to do with Gujarat 2002, but, to me, perhaps because it spoke of such innocence and vulnerable beauty, it has ended up getting intertwined with its macabre, threatening opposite… 

Add to this the enormous spread and historical depth of communal and related forms of narrow identity politics, each feeding into the other in majority and minority incarnations on a world scale, not to mention the practice of other kinds of murderous politics and wars waged in the name of either development and nation or even revolution, and the mind boggles.

Many more public memorials to the dead of the kind being created in Gujarat are required. These may serve as constant reminders to us, heirs to a century of massacres, and spinners of dreams for a better world, that we need to pay urgent attention to creating public cultures, political cultures that value universal rights and liberties and affirm human life in the everyday. This could become perhaps our best hope that popular passions and movements in times of anxiety and desperation do not easily give up on freedom and democracy, do not fall prey to a politics of killing and getting killed, of martyrdom and the glorification of violence either for the sake of national/community unity and purity or for whatever else; and swing instead towards creating a political practice with real promise for a fairer, freer future.

Let me end by saying that I can’t even begin to express the extent of my appreciation for the Memorial to a Genocide: Gulberg, Gujarat 2002-12, because I am overwhelmed at the mere thought of the sorrow and courage, thought, hard work, imagination and commitment that must be going into breathing life into this. My appreciation is the deeper because I know for myself that much as I wish to do the things that most need to be done, much of the time I wander through life reciting random lines from poems like Majaz’s ‘Awara’:

Ae game dil kya karoon, ae vahshate dil kya karoon…

Mukul Mangalik is Associate Professor, Department of History, Ramjas College, University of Delhi.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2012