Living in the Trap of the Past

by Pushpa Iyer

These were days of mayhem in Gujarat twelve years ago. From February 27 to March 1, 2002, this northwestern state in India, Gandhi’s home, became a graveyard of the minorities – the Muslims. Massacred, raped, and hounded out of their homes, their charred homes that is, Muslims overnight became third if not fourth class citizens. The perpetrator? The state. Ruled by a narcissistic and ideologically motivated chief minister, Narendra Modi (of the Bharatiya Janata Party – BJP), his vision of a dominant Hindu nationalist identity that denies equal space for minorities has made Gujarat a deeply divided society – politically, socially and economically.

Recently, I listened to the victims (Muslims) of the 2002 violence who were recounting their past (yet again!) for the benefit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt. Their emotions, twelve years on, were still (unsurprisingly) raw. “They forced me on the table and stripped me. I was left with only my blouse on. At that moment I heard my brother-in-law scream and saw his throat being slit,” Saira sobbed as she recounted the events of that fateful day when she lost her brother-in-law, sister-in-law and her son, a promising 24-year-old studying to be a lawyer.  “Modi is a criminal, DSC_0070he is responsible for our sorrow, for our son’s death. I will never forgive him till I die and he will remain answerable to the higher powers when he reaches the other world,” said her husband with tears in his eyes. Rupa Mody broke down repeatedly as she remembered those ill-fated moments when she lost consciousness when a brick hit her on the head and she lost hold on her son, who has been missing since that day.

It was a roomful of people living in their past. Saira and her husband are ghosts of their former selves. They eat only when their grumbling stomachs can no longer be ignored, they cannot enjoy their surviving daughters or grandchildren, and they live adjacent to the graveyard where their son is buried – in fact they look out through their window at their son’s grave many times a day. Rupa’s future involves her son walking back into her life and nothing else.

The struggle for justice – legal justice – has been the primary recourse of human rights activists in the state. For the victim, recounting the past becomes synonymous with the struggle for justice. For the activists, the past as told and remembered by the victims is the only way to explain their strategy of “Justice first, Reconciliation later.” The risk is in the symbiotic relationship that has reached a point where if the victims did not exist, the activists would not, thus making them indirectly victims too. And international attention that can be garnered only as long as the victim images are kept alive makes the entire world community victims of the past too. At the same time one must acknowledge that if it were not for these activists and for the international community, the voice of the victims would never have been heard. No wonder then that the past is a trap, a trap with frosted glass through which the future looks blurred.

This does not mean that the victim needs to stop being a victim or needs to stop remembering. Not the mothers whose sons have gone missing or were killed, not the women who were molested and raped, not the fathers who identified the charred bodies of their sons and not the survivors who are still haunted by horrific images. They do, however, need help to not remain trapped in the past. But, who will help them out of the trap if everyone around them is a victim too? If those around them remain on their own perch of victimhood they begin to facilitate the process for the real victims to remain trapped in their past.

It is necessary therefore, to separate the “real” victims from those who have acquired victim status. Becoming a victim through the victimhood of others is dangerous. It makes one develop a moral superiority; where injury to self is as painful as the injuries to the real victims and where the mantle of victimhood becomes comforting.

Those fighting to free victims from the trap of the past must stop being victims themselves. In remembrance of all the victims of the 2002 violence, here is wishing that memories of the past re-define the future of Gujarat without its people being trapped in those very memories.