Edit/Op-Ed

The day when late Syed Shahabuddin cried for Moradabad

Syed Shahabuddin

New Delhi: Former IFS and MP Syed Shahabuddin passed away at the age of 82 on Saturday, March 4th at a hospital in Noida after a prolonged illness. He was a prominent Indian Muslim leader known for his involvement in the Shah Bano case and his opposition to the Demolition of Babri Masjid.

Syed Shahabuddin wrote an interesting article, in November, 1980 over his visit to Moradabad.The article was then published in the weekly Sunday, and was edited by M.J. Akbar.

BeyondHeadlines re-produces the article ‘Let me cry for Moradabad’ here verbatim for our audience interest.

Let me cry for Moradabad

By Syed Shahabuddin

I have just returned from a second visit to Moradabad; just over a month after the tragedy on Id…. I feel lost and helpless. Have hearts turned into stones?  How can man be so insensitive to pain, to suffering, to a human tragedy of this extraordinary dimension? You see fear and terror writ large on the faces of the people; you notice suspicion and distrust; they open out their hearts and then ask you not to take notice, not to do anything about it, least they face more beatings, more repression, more breaking of bones—- maybe death! You see rows of people in a hospital ward, each with a broken limb, broken by the police, deliberately, calculated, coldly, each telling more or less the same story of police breaking into a house, arresting people, beating them up, throwing them into prison on false, trumped-up charges.

You hear of PAC looting shops and homes; you hear of PAC participating in an orgy of destruction; you hear of persons taken away and traceless; you hear of men and women who have turned mad with grief, of babies crying out for their missing fathers. You hear, till your senses refuse to take any more. And yet, since the authorities are against “them” they do not matter. And you know that it could be you, your children, your relations, your home, your shop, your place of worship, your mohalla- no matter who you are; what your status is, what your ideology is….

And there is so little you can do; yes you can speak to the local authorities, to the Home Minister, to the Prime Minister; write to them. So what? Are they omniscient, omnipotent? How can they stem this tide of hate? How can they clear the air of this pollution? How can they take the bug out of the system?

In the darkness that has descended upon this unhappy city, I see no light in this encircling gloom, no hope of redemption. I feel as if the milk of human kindness has ceased to flow and the wells of human compassion have run dry. But have they?

The Jamshedpur tragedy of 1979, whose high point was the macabre roasting alive of a busload of women and children marked by a wave of sympathy for the victims, by objective and in-depth analyses by the media by generous public response to relief operations. There was sanity, compassion, hope in the public response- as if the blood had not been let in vain. The Moradabad tragedy, in many ways a watershed in the history of communal violence, symptomatic and symbolic of complete alienation between the police and the Muslim community, has failed to stir the hearts of the nation, to generate any such wave of sympathy.

There is an eerie silence over the moral landscape, as if conscience has gone to sleep, as if the victims are not our flesh and blood, as if the bond of common nationhood has broken down.

Look at how the country reacted to the killing of the Chopra children. Look at how our jurists and intellectuals protested at the drowning of the known criminal Sundar. Look at how we reacted to the Baghpat incident. And then look at Moradabad.

Today, but for a few discordant voices- it is silence all around, acceptance of atrocities… The politician is silent; this is understandable; he has his constituency to look after The Gandhi Peace Foundation is also silent; The Citizens for Democracy are silent, the Sarvodaya crowd is silent; VinobaBhhave is silent, the civil liberty wallahs are silent; the intellectuals, the academicians, the jurists are silent; the students and the youth are silent. The believers in spiritualism, the fighters for human rights in Kampuchea and the liberation of Afghanistan are silent. There is no sense of outrage, no air of protest, no cry of repugnance, no rejection of brutality- why? Would Gandhi and JP have remained silent?

From the word go, the media presented a distorted picture- our great free pres initially played into the hands of the local police and magistracy, the normal source of information in such situations. But how could the police and the magistracy tell the truth when are a party and by all indications, the guilty party. You can’t ask hem to incriminate themselves and not to fabricate lies, not to try to cover up their crime. Hence the barrage of concocted rumours competently broadcast by the mass media. Later, more lies, to sustain the original lie. The sin was compounded a thousand-fold- churned out day in and day out, intensifying the image sought to be projected, strengthening it, giving it a lip of its own, a momentum which takes it out with the world beyond.

Yes, the propaganda was cleverly orchestrated, diabolically planned, but you must ask why it was lapped up by our discerning public, our elitist opinion makers. That is the important question.

Because the seeds fell on a fertile ground and overnight sprouted into crop of certitude. The people behind the stories, the “objective” analysis the “factual” reports, the “unbiased” comments, were inclined to believe it, because there is an undercurrent of suspicion, distrust, even hatred and contempt for the Muslim- the end product of our history, our education and our politics.

Even the voices speaking up against the police atrocity are shy, half-hearted, apologetic. “We all know how terrible the police is but what can we do about him; we have to tolerate him.” “The Muslim may indeed be a foreign agents but we ourselves are responsible for what he is. “ “He is a fanatic by birth and by faith; violence is his second nature Arab money has gone to his head, a little chastening would have done him no harm, but the killing was not really necessary.” “Tut, tut, we are not a violent people, why can’t we change him by moral force?”

The image that has been projected is that the Muslim, unless he contained and firmly handled and unless his nefarious conspiracies and designs are defeated, is just about to take over the country, with fire and sword, through simultaneous uprising in several parts of the country, with the help of Pakistani arms, Arab money and CIA agents. China must indeed be thankful that it is not brought in. The public has come to believe not only that the Muslims of Moradabad had attacked the police at the Idgah and the police fired to save their lives, but that throughout Muslims have continued to snipe at the police from rooftops; that there shall be no peace until they are totally disarmed. The general public instinctively believes that “miscreants” means “Muslims”; that if firearms have been seized, they must be from Muslim hands; that if arms dumps have been discovered, they must be in Muslim homes; that if Muslims have been arrested, they must have done some wrong; that it their bones are broken, they must have begun the violence.

A responsible newspaper comes out with a screaming headline: “Moradabad has more arms than UK” and everybody believes it. And the national press merrily publishes stories of 163 PAC jawans killed in Moradabad; of 400 Home Guards missing in Aligarh, of the Moradabad kotwali razed to the ground by Muslim mobs; of Pakistani agents arrested and interrogated. Organiser, the RSS mouthpiece, gives a name to the Muslims- “armed rebels.” No one protests. Girilal Jain, the respected doyen of Indian journalism, weaves a whole theory of the hidden hand around one single “fact”- which turns out to be a lie- and scores of letters applaud his objectivity and his great service to the nation in weaving this plot.

And what was that “fact?That a shot was fired at the police from inside the Idgah. Let us examine how absurd this lie is- so absurd indeed that no one even mentions it now.

  • No one heard a shot
  • No one saw a Muslim carry a firearm
  • No spent cartridge was found in the Idgah.
  • No fireman was left behind in the stampede.
  • No house in front of the Idgah has a bullet mark.
  • No policeman received a bullet or a pellet injury.
  • And why should the group which had planned to attack the police choose the Idgah and the Id day? And why should it begin its operations, so chivalrously, with brickbats?

You must ask what was the purpose of this conspiracy.You are told, to pressurise Mrs Gandhi on Afghanistan, on Assam, on Kashmir, to weaken and destabilise the country; to slow down its progress. And you nod your head in wise agreement.

That the BJP joins in this songs and dance about the “foreign hand” and “deep conspiracy” is no wonder. After all, they are the self-appointed knights- errant of “nationalism” But in Moradabad, about every Hindu I met believes it. There is perfect polarisation’ there are no Congressities, no Jawaharities. Truly was I told by a respected citizen, a Hindu: “It is not the RSS but the RSS philosophy which is in the forefront.”

But the fact is that out of 144 officially killed, 121 are Muslims; at least 75 percent of the injured, of the 1600 arrested, of the beaten up, are Muslims; nearly all shops looted, all houses searched or looted are Muslims.’ And the arms. In four weeks, the police have seized only 200 firearms. In four weeks, the police have seized only 200 firearms, mostly unlicensed, and only four of them are of foreign makes! And yet the Muslims in Moradabad is on the warpath!

In a democratic society, peaceful protest against injustice is not only a right, it is duty. Spontaneous protest took place throughout the country on the following Friday, 15 August; in a few places, they got out of hand and resulted in confrontation with the police and of course in massive reprisals. But can some isolated instances establish a pattern or design? Can it prove a nationwide conspiracy to attack the police?

By talking of conspiracies, so long as you do not name the parties to the conspiracy, you can keep everyone happy because everyone can identify it with his bête noire. The Muslim is happy that the government means the RSS; the Hindu is happy that the Muslim League is meant. The secularist is happy that the RSS-Jamaat-e-Islami linkage has been finally unearthed; the communist is happy hat the CIA has been caught red-handed. And the government, our omnipotent sarkar which cannot make its writ run even in Delhi, promises to crush the conspirators and this strikes a responsive chord and the nation bursts into applause.

Of course, the government must keep everyone guessing and every one reasonably happy. You may whisper in private about the atrocities of the PAC, but condemn it, disarm it; no, how can you? They would rise in revolt. It does not matter if the ultimate result is the widening of the emotional gap, a setback to national integration. But who cares?

The bogies we raise divert national attention from the task of economic development, from diagnosing failures and taking remedial action. It generates an air of complacency and self-satisfaction, while 33 years after independence, 60 percent of or people continue to live below the poverty line, like a sub-human speeches, devoid of dignity and hope.

Have the people become immune to violence, insensitive to human, tragedy, neutral in the face of atrocities and massacre? It is not only that they begin to think that the Muslims of Moradabad. Aligarh and Allahabad are getting what they deserve and we need waste no tears over them. But with repeated exposure, they become callous, apathetic spectators who accept injustice and tolerate inhumanity, in this land which produced Buddha and Gandhi. Or maybe Gandhi alone understood us and tried to liberate us from ourselves. Perhaps we are a violent people, a hardened people, having lived through centuries of violence.

The real question is not how to save the Muslim community but how to save the nation from the undercurrent of hatred and violence which is consuming all our finer sensibilities. The real question is not what to do about Moradabad but how to save the country from this apathy to violence which will one day break it into pieces as surely as night flows the day.

Aren’t we human beings before we are anything else? If there is any spark of humanity left in us, let us pool those little sparks to guide us through this moral wasteland. If we are still capable of tears, let us pool the tears we are yet to shed and then we shall see the tragedy in all its dimensions.

A police force should never lose its temper; or become vindictive, it should be objective in its assessment in moments of crisis and firm and controlled in its responses, measured in the use if its power. But what do you say to a man with a gun when he favours a murderer, a looter, an arsonist. When lust and violence grip his being, he can never be your defender, the protector of your life and honour and property. What do you do with him?

What is Mrs Gandhi up to? Has she lost grip, her will or is she playing deliberately to the gallery of Hindu chauvinism? She is an astute politician and she knows which gallery to play to at which time. She is ruthless and amoral in her choice. She knows that when all else fails, when her government bogs down under the weight of its incompetence, when she defaults on delivery of the goods she has promised, she can divert attention and harsh criticism only by touching hidden subliminal chords in the dark recesses of the Indian soul. “What better than a combination of the enemy knocking at the door and the fifth column operating within; so you have the deliberate policy of fomenting tension with the neighbours- this was foreseen- and now you have the ‘rebellious’ Muslim, a God-send indeed! Together they provide a beautiful and effective scenario for staying in power.

Mrs Gandhiwears many masks. The historian may well find it difficult to recognise or delineate her real face. Even the contemporaries have to ask at times. “Will the real Mrs Gandhi step out?” Her forte is crisis management. She has polished brinkmanship into a fine art. Power is to her an end in itself and for power she will sup with the devil and, if necessary, don a saffron garb. A month after Moradabad, ask who has benefitted most? Moradabad has dominated the headline for weeks- displacing economic crises, price rise, scarcity, breakdown of law and order, internal rivalries within the ruling party, the do-nothingness of administration, all forgotten or relegated to obscurity. Even Assam does not make headlines. What happened to the Gujarat agitation no one seems to remember. Mrs Gandhi has managed to wring the last drop of political juice from this tragedy.

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