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Stir crazy

I wrote this piece a while ago for a newspaper that wanted articles on “hostel life.” They never expected something like this and eventually didn’t publish it.

I just dug it out recently when I needed samples of my past writing to bolster my c.v.

In the aftermath of the Godhra massacre and the resulting riots across Gujarat, a curfew was imposed in the cities of Baroda and Ahmedabad. At the M.S. University of Baroda, it meant that the students living in the vast hostel complexes had to remain cooped up, three to a room and couldn’t even venture beyond the hostel campus gates.

The inevitable had to happen. As the saying goes, a lie can run halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on, rumours sparked across the thirteen boys’ hostels, “mobs 5000-strong are marching to attack the hostels!” “students are being killed elsewhere in the city” “the family living across the street is plotting the torching of the hostel” and so on. Groups of students in a frenzy splintered much of the furniture in the hostel common room to make clubs. Bricks, sticks, stones and even a couple of drums(!) were stockpiled. Far from “mobs” coming to attack us, it appeared that we would form a mob and go on the offense. At nights, some students, from behind the safety of the campus gates and in the cloak of darkness would taunt the policemen stationed outside the gates. And when the policemen reached their breaking point, they opened the gate and drove in, dressed in full riot gear, lashing out with lathis and spewing abuses… not a pleasant memory at all.

The second night of the curfew, is the one that remains painfully burned in my memory. For whatever reason, the policemen in their jeep were not stationed outside the hostel gates. Students, once again from behind the safety of the gates and the walls, began stoning and torching the vehicles of a Parsi family that lived across the street as well as the carts of a couple of vendors just outside the hostel. Those same vendors that provided us with breakfast and tea every morning now bore the pent up aggression, ire or frustration of students.I woke up the next morning to find “Jai Shri Ram” chalked all over the hostel walls. Down the corridor from my room lived a Muslim medical student. He had left the hostel after he was “warned” that he was not safe there. I still remember him as a quiet, studious chap. I remember his room. While we all had posters of movies stars or musicians on our walls, he had a large poster of the Kaaba, a map of India and the Indian tricolour. On that morning which apparently some people thought was a victory of Ram, I peeked into his room, the poster of the Kaaba was ripped to shreds. In its place was “Jai Shri Ram.”

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Someone on flickr uploaded this picture:

It’s a mosaic image of all the soldiers that have died in Iraq (some faces are repeated since the mosaic dimensions are larger than the number of those killed.)

I followed the link through to the original blog post it came from.

Reading the comments on that post made me wonder about the extremes, right and left. Some of the points the right made seemed to make sense. But there were also a generous helping of the maddening kind that refused to listen to your point or that just plain annoyed you with their stubborn rhetoric and bluster.

It saddens me to see otherwise intelligent people being so polarised over such issues. America is not alone, over the last few years, intolerance and the conservative right have grown in India. For all you know, this year a fundamentalist Hindu party will win a majority in the Indian Parliament (Yes it’s election year in India too). This party, the BJP, has ruled India for the last 5 years or thereabouts but have been kept moderate in their actions by the fact that they did not have a clear majority and so had to appease minor and more liberal parties (who could help the opposition party vote them out with a no confidence motion.)

I may be paranoid, but I fear the day that the BJP is allowed to implement it’s religious right policies as governance in India. I have seen it first hand in the state of Gujarat (which is ruled by the BJP) when I lived there for two years. For months, communal riots were the norm. I have seen cars being torched, property destroyed, and yes, people killed. The horror stories that I encountered in the media from those months still make me shake with fear and anger.

One single mad act by a group of Muslims led to months of carnage by Hindus egged on indirectly by the inaction of the Govt. or in some cases by more direct ‘help.’ Even today, a complete investigation into the actual event that sparked things off and the subsequent rioting, looting and killing has not produced anything of consequence.

But I digress from the point I wanted to make with this post. Why do people follow ideaologies blindly? Many of those killing today, whether they’re Al Qaeda, VHP, Hamas, or any of a number of groups do so in the name of religion. And yet, every one of those religions usually has a respect for human life as one of its tenets. (Of course, fundamentalist Hindu websites and rightwing Christian websites will point out verses from the Q’uran that encourage/condone violence or repressive behaviour, but I could pull out equivalent verses from the Bible and any of a number of Hindu religious texts.) So what makes (or made) the IRA go out and bomb Protestants? What makes the various Imams and Maulanas in mosques in Iran, Iraq and in India spew venom against any non-Muslim? Why do the various spokespeople for the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal thunder about the glory of a purely Hindu India? Why do Americans rally against the removal of “under God” from their Pledge of Allegiance or against evolution being taught in a science class?

Are we all so insecure? Do we have to retreat insularily into our own ‘safe’ cultures when the least threat raises its head? Why is xenophobia or a fear of that which is different so common in the world today?

I don’t have any of those answers. They are difficult questions. But maybe we need to think about the answers?

I’ve rambled again, I tend to write as I think and I guess it might be hard for people to follow this train of thought, but I assume some have, so I’d appreciate comments on this post please!