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A tonga and a peanut vendor

March 26, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

IT’s sad to read Nehru at a time like this. People of reason are being targeted, some killed, others jailed, and the perpetrators are being rewarded as icons of nationalism.

Babu Bajrangi was freed on bail by the supreme court over health issues. He was convicted for life for killing scores of Muslims in Modi-ruled Gujarat 17 years ago, including his televised boast of how he impaled the foetus of a pregnant woman on a sword after ripping open her womb.

On the other hand, a professor from Delhi University, 90 per cent crippled, who can’t even crawl to the toilet without help, has been thrown in a condemned cell for years. His bail was again rejected by the Bombay High Court on Monday. Professor Saibaba is accused of being a Maoist conduit, which he denies. The best of critical minds, including Dalits and Brahmins, have been put behind bars as urban Naxalites plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Modi. They are lucky since other alleged would-be assassins were killed in cold blood. Policemen accused of their murder are being protected by the Gujarat government from prosecution.

It is as though the so-called urban Naxalites, including a woman professor of law who gave up her US citizenship to work among the impoverished, had written the plot in carbon copies seized from under their pillows. Meanwhile, the alleged plotters of the Samjhauta Express bombing — the guru of them having confessed his role to the media — were let off by a special anti-terror court, apparently for want of better evidence.

The best of critical minds have been put behind bars as urban Naxalites plotting to assassinate PM Modi.

The Kashmiris have been the worst sufferers of the Modi regime’s assault on democracy, followed by devastated university campuses and minority institutions. Young Kashmiris were maimed or blinded in droves if not killed or disappeared under this government. But this is where one needs to remember what the Congress did with them. The two parties seem to run a baton race of sorts in inflicting state tyranny on the poorest and the most deprived.

They remind me of a dark story from the old Monkey Bridge in Lucknow, once a desolate place linking the banks of the silent Gomti river.

The story goes that a man travelling to the other side of Gomti on a tonga after arriving at the Lucknow train station on a cold winter night suddenly noticed that the carriage driver had hooves instead of human hands. He almost fainted, but ran with all the energy he could summon to cross the bridge, leaving his luggage behind with the mystery man.

At a distance, he could see the flickering light of a mustard oil lamp, the kind used by roasted peanut vendors on cold nights in Lucknow. The man took heart at the sight of a fellow human, but as he approached the angel of mercy who was shrouded in a thick winter blanket, he began to stutter and cry.

“The tonga driver has hooves,” he whispered to the peanut man.

“Like these?” the mysterious man replied, his red eyes fixed on the frozen face of his terrified quarry.

The peanut vendor too had hooves, or so said Najman Bua, quoting from a passerby she said she knew. It was a ploy to loot passengers, we were told with authority. Regardless of the truth, it fits the BJP and the Congress baton runners nicely. Who was the tonga driver, who the peanut vendor, seems immaterial.

“For the last several weeks ... Jammu and Kashmir has been the setting for an immense crackdown by the Indian central government against the civilian population,” wrote an Indian journalist in the summer of 2010 when P. Chidambaram was home minister in the Manmohan Singh government.

During an anti-Delhi protest, a 17-year-old student, Tufail Ahmad Matoo, was killed by the police, who alleged that he accidentally died when he was struck in the head by a tear-gas canister. A postmortem autopsy revealed that he was killed by a bullet to the head.

“A nine-year-old boy was killed during a police shooting in the Delina area of Baramulla district in Jammu and Kashmir. A few days later, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) killed another young protester, Bilal Ahmad Wani. In the southern Kashmiri district of Anantnag, three teenage boys were also killed by the CRPF. In each of these instances, people had come out to protest injustices at the hands of the CRPF, only to come under fire and then launch into more protests.”

Significantly, while Chidambaram popularised the critical phrase ‘Hindu terrorism’, his name has been circulating as a potential candidate for the top job, with reports that some business captains want to help the Congress on that condition. Here’s what Nehru says about the Congress candidates he would want in the very first general election. “Candidates chosen by us should not only possess integrity, but be known to do so,” he wrote in September 1951 to the party heads of state election bodies.

“The major struggle in India today, in the elections or elsewhere, is between the Congress, as representing a non-communal and secular state, and communal bodies which have an entirely different approach on this issue.” Doesn’t Nehru sound as if he were preparing for the 2019 elections?

And the most prescient observation of all: “These communal bodies often talk in terms of nationalism and sometimes even pretend to stand for social and economic progress. Essentially, however, they represent reaction in every way and they attract to themselves the socially reactionary groups and classes. They are likely to be financed by these classes.”

Nehru is lucky not to be around today, or he would perhaps find himself in the “condemned cell” with Saibaba or arrested as an urban Naxalite, if not something worse. And what if Nehru were to cross the Gomti on a tonga over a desolate bridge on a cold Lucknow night?

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2019