Losing Ground

By Revati Laul


Not all elections are equal. But the difference between the Bihar assembly election and U.P. and on this day, between Gujarat and Himachal is this. Some elections are the nerve centre of our body politic. And sitting in the heart of that nerve centre in Gujarat, I ask myself; what is the job of a political reporter? If I look at the way in which people are increasingly disdainful of `the media’ and `exit polls,’ I would say the answer is this: it is a barren and hollow place to be if it meant sticking a mike in the face of a BJP or Congress party spokesperson to extract one homilie after another. “We’ve won although we’ve lost,” or “We may have lost ground but we’ve won.” Because in all the hype and hyperbole, the real story never gets asked. What does all of this mean for the people? That as I see it is the job of every political reporter to answer. Feet in mud, noses in vada pav stalls and the sweat and the blood of the people.

Here is what the report from the trenches looks like. The one you won’t hear about on TV or read in the more arithmetic of politics type of writing. The palpable fear in the eyes of a tribal farmer who works seasonally at a construction site a hundred kilometres away. Who let go of two days of daily wages plus spent on bus fare and food to get to his village and vote. This is a man who earns 250 rupees in a day and cannot spend more than 20 or 30 of that so he can bring the rest back home and live off it in the next season. “Why have you spent about 2,000 bucks just to vote when you have no money for food and live in a tarpaulin tent on the road?” I asked him. Fear was the reluctant but honest reply. “Fear of what,” I persisted. “The fear of having your name struck off the ration card and BPL card and the panchayat coming to your home and threatening you if you don’t comply.” As he finished speaking, the other men – all tribals; standing with him nodded in agreement. 22 years of the BJP has driven that point home. It is a well-oiled machine, which does not mean that it delivers on any of its election promises. It means one thing only. It delivers fear with regularity and precision.


Far away from the tribal districts in Northern and Eastern Gujarat, an autorickshaw driver in Ahmedabad city brought home a few more truths. His gold earrings glistened in the midday winter sun as he spoke his mind. “These earrings,” I wanted to know where they were from. The aesthetics are always important. “Palanpur,” he declared proudly. And added – “Aadha tola sona” which is what they weighed. And finally, the price. “17,000 rupees,” he added without my asking. It wasn’t hard to guess he was a BJP supporter. Part of the aspirational middle class that believed the party delivered the one thing they wanted, in order to feel secure. The total and complete emasculation of Muslims in the state. The driver turned to me to explain. “Madam, Modi is like a dacoit.” He’s burned big holes in our pockets. We are in penury and now we’re going to pay even more when the bullet train he’s planned actually starts to take off.” This was some serious bile coming out. The auto-rickshaw driver drew a straight line between what he believed was a 88,000 crore loan that Modi inked with the Japanese Prime Minister to build a bullet train in the state; with an eventual drain of wealth. Was it the effect of demonetization and GST at work here? Did it mean that Modi’s popularity was on the wane? Yes and no. The vitriol against him has been spewing in the streets of Gujarat for a year or more, then disappearing like sludge into drains.

But it goes along with another factor that has yet again displayed itself in the current Gujarat election. Hindutva. Ever since the demolition of the Babri Masjid 25 years ago, the well-oiled machinery of the Hindu right has instilled the fear of the other in the minds of every aspirational, gold-earring wearing Gujarati. The auto-driver summed it up. “Madam, Modi is a daku. But he is doing one thing that is making us vote for him again and again. He is keeping the Muslims in their place.”

What does the verdict of a 100 and more seats say about the people who voted in favour, then? That thirty years of indoctrination by the Hindu right will take more than a few campaign speeches and visiting of temples by Rahul Gandhi to come unstuck. And that the fear of The Muslim as The Other hasn’t changed too much from the last election in 2012. In tribal villages I visited, as people gathered around tiny fires the night before they voted; they made one thing amply clear. “Hindustan is for Hindus.” Repeated over and over. And what has this Hindu-favouring regime done for the tribals, I asked. Much raucous laughter followed, making it clear that this election was mainly about a twin fear playing out in people’s minds. The fear of going against the BJP and the fear of the Muslim.

As the results started to trickle in, there was another kind of fear that rent the air. What if this is a close contest? What if the BJP loses? Will their supporters take to the streets and burn buses? Effigies? People? In private spaces in living rooms, where some watched the results on TV, there was a little bit of relief when the last votes were counted. It was over. There was no reason for right wing vigilantes to resort to violence. The party they support has won.

In the face of such extraordinary fear and such little hope from the opposition, it would be easy to forget the real heroes of this election. And indeed, they seem to have been quickly forgotten. The people who turned up in thousands, knowing that going against the grain and voting for the Congress may have their names struck from ration cards. Or grants put on hold. But who went out and voted for the Congress anyway. Not because they believed in the party or the speeches or Rahul Gandhi. But because they preferred to put their votes in a void, just to shake things up a little. It was enough dissent of enough people with no faith in the alternative or hope of their coming to power; for it to amount to over 70 seats falling off the ruling party’s grid. Considering the atmosphere in which this dissent was voiced, that was quite a resounding voice of dismissal. Dismissal of the BJP’s PR and that of the Congress. And of us media-wallahs that perhaps need to be reminded that we too are losing ground. The 70 seats worth of voters that went against the regime defied all the odds in their utter rejection of everything except their right to say, frankly my dears, we couldn’t give a damn.


Revati Laul is a journalist based in Delhi. She tweets at @revatilaul


Fear and Loathing in Ahmedabad

P  A  R  T       T   H  R  E  E

As I write this, I am wondering if I am living out some macabre version of the American drama series – `The House of Cards.’ I’ve spent the last week fighting an order made out by the head of the Sabarmati jail in Gujarat which released a convicted felon Suresh Richard Jadeja from prison for an annual two week leave. I fought hard, saying this man broke his promise to the jail authorities the last two times he was on leave, by raping his wife, then attacking me. That should qualify for the prison authorities thinking very hard before granting him leave again. I wrote to the local police, to the Inspector General of Prisons, but it changed nothing. Then on Friday, after both those options failed, I decided it may be best to take my petition to the Gujarat High court. Only, I needed someone well versed with criminal law who would also agree to draft the petition and argue it in court for free. I have no money.


I was recommended the very well known High court lawyer H L Sayeed. He agreed to meet me and I met him in his plush office in the New York Tower in Ahmedabad. He heard me out and agreed to take the case.  “Mr Rahul Sharma will fight your case, brief him, I’ve called him. He works with me,” said Mr Sayeed, smiling from behind his desk.

Rahul Sharma has made a transition from a senior police officer to practicing lawyer but he is better known for his bold, unafraid investigations into two key 2002 Gujarat riot cases. He is meant to have looked into and got the mobile phone records of police officers which seemed to implicate them and several political leaders in playing a role in instigating the lynch mobs in Gujarat.  Would my case, trying to petition for a 2002 riots convict be something that would be in a familiar zone? Would it make the courts automatically make my case seem like it was about 2002 when actually it is more about a dangerous man violating his parole? These were some of the thoughts that ran through my head when a thin, balding man entered Mr Sayeed’s room, and Mr Sayeed introduced us.

“Revati, this is Rahul Sharma.”

I told him what I was there for and we went to Rahul’s cabin. He took detailed notes and asked me if I had a copy of the papers of the criminal charges filed against Suresh by his wife. I did.

We spent hours going over them and the sequence of events. I had made it clear that the case needed to be presented before the High court soonest. That Suresh being out on the loose meant his wife and I were both in danger. Especially since the jail authorities had not sent the order to the local police. So the local police had no orders to keep a vigilant eye on him. I had this from the police in writing. A letter they sent in reply to my questions, signed December 2nd. “We have not received any written order saying that Suresh is out on a furlough.” Signed by the police inspector for the police station from the area Suresh lives.

This was a coup I thought.  How will the court react when they see what the jail authorities have done? Isn’t this a major argument in favour of the list of lapses that make Suresh’s leave dangerous? No accountability by the local police? Yes, Rahul Sharma nodded. It did.

But he also very calmly and rationally explained to me how the system works. “Law is about balancing the interests of the accused or the convict with that of the victim. Both have rights,” he reminded me. “It cannot be argued that for the remaining 26 years of Suresh’s jail sentence, that he won’t get any leave. That would be unconstitutional.”

I agreed. “I am not making out that kind of case, Sir,” I said, very impressed with his quite, reasoned statement. “I would simply like to ask the court to make the conditions under which he is granted leave again very, very tight. For instance, the jail authorities must send prior notice to his wife and me, as people he has attacked while on leave from jail, so we can get protection from the local police. There must be a restraining order so he cannot enter parts of the city we live in or frequent. The conditions under which he is granted leave cannot be routine since he has shown that he doesn’t care about fulfilling the basic promise he signs onto when he gets leave. And the jail authorities must be made to explain in writing how they neglected to inform the local police of Suresh’s release.”

“That’s fair,” Rahul said. He would draft an application by Monday, have Mr Sayeed go over it and we would file the same day.

I left the New York tower building that evening a little lighter, in the knowledge that this battle would now reach a point of culmination. And then on Sunday, Rahul Sharma started to sound a bit distant. “Mr Sayeed is out of town on Monday. He will be back late evening and I want him to go over the papers once, before we take it to court. So we can’t file on Monday.”

“Tuesday then, right?” I said, sounding a little worried.

“Let Mr Sayeed read my draft and then we will take it from there.”

On Tuesday, Rahul didn’t answer my calls. Neither did Mr Sayeed. By the afternoon I was frantic. Days were going by and now just five days of Suresh’s leave were left. Would the court admit a petition to cancel his leave so late in the day? We needed to press on. Not just for now, but so that the rules get much tighter in the future. And lapses in information passing from the jail to the police do not recur.

On Tuesday afternoon I finally got a call from someone who is a common friend to Mr Sayeed and me.

“Hello Revati, Mr Sayeed asked me to tell you that he and Rahul Sharma are already embroiled in cases from 2002 and cannot take yours on.”

I gulped hard. The last few words pierced through me like fresh stab wounds. I went numb. And then i got very, very angry. White hot anger and disappointment that left me with absolutely nothing to say. We had been working on the draft from Friday to Tuesday. Now there were only five days left until Suresh’s leave expired. And I would have to start from scratch. I would have to look for another criminal lawyer who believed in my petition and was willing to argue it for free. That would take a day to find and then another day to make her or him go over all the documents and write a new draft. That would potentially take us to Friday and then by Monday Suresh’s leave ends.

It was late afternoon and the time of year when it gets very pleasant. Winter is just around the corner. But my face was burning hot. I decided I had to drop this fight. Never mind about feeling more secure. For now, this delay by people who paint themselves as the vanguards of the law and of judicial accountability and good governance and the good fight had dropped me. This is what it can feel like to be fighting the system with no money. Some fights you have to just drop. For now.

The war via words carries on. That is a battle I know and it what I do best. The courts and the police, well that is something I have to wait for another day, to fight.


Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film maker, currently based out of Gujarat; where she is working on a book on the perpetrators of the 2002 riots. She is the creator of this site. She tweets @revatilaul




Fear and Loathing in Ahmedabad

By Revati Laul

Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film maker, currently based out of Gujarat; where she is working on a book on the perpetrators of the 2002 riots. She is the creator of this blog. She tweets @revatilaul

P  A  R  T       O  N   E

If I told you that given a choice between the people and a convicted rapist, the courts have chosen to protect the rapist, you’d say I am making it up. I wish this time that the truth weren’t so bizarre. Because it also directly impacts my personal safety.  But I will come directly to the point.

On the 28th of February, 2002, a man called Suresh Richard was part of a bloodthirsty mob in the Naroda Patiya area of the city of Ahmedabad. He killed quite a few people that day, raped women and helped tear out the foetus of an unborn child from its pregnant mother and then raped and killed her. He was eventually convicted for these crimes in 2012 and put away in prison where he is now serving a 31 year jail sentence. But prisoners get two weeks or even a month out of jail in the year, to spend time with family, attend to urgent and pressing matters. Even convicts like Suresh are entitled to this parole time. Sort of the jail equivalent of summer holidays from school. But in his case, he has to apply for parole and the High Court of Gujarat has to review the case and decide whether it is safe enough to let him out. Once they decide that it is, they send a court order to the police station in the area, so that the police can keep an extra vigil, just in case.

The `just in case’ bit is important here, because Suresh is a man who wears his violence proudly, on his sleeve. He bragged about his crimes of 2002 to a journalist who he believed was a fellow mobster. And said to him, unaware that this was being recorded; “I raped Muslim women in 2002 till they were pulverized to pickle.”

The court may still think that even such a man has the right to visit his family and look after pressing matters once in a while. So in July 2015, they gave him parole. Suresh used that time to rape his wife. Or so his wife said to a court. He tied her hands behind her back, forced himself on her and stubbed out cigarette butts on her hand. She has filed for sexual abuse, violence and also for divorce.  Taking a serious view of the matter of how he conducted himself on parole, the court turned his request down the next time he applied. This was in October 2015. But then in January 2016, Suresh applied for parole again. This time he told the court, his daughter had gone missing, he needed two weeks to look for her.  It was granted. During that time, I, a journalist who is writing about Suresh and people like him; decided to try and meet him and see if he would agree to talk to me. He lurched forward,  hit me across the face till my eye began to bleed. Then pulled me and dragged me to the nearby wall, pinned me against it, removed an entire clump of hair from its follicle, kicked and beat me repeatedly. I didn’t think I would get out alive. But luckily, his son felt sorry for me and got together with two or three of the hundred bystanders and they peeled him off me. I ran. And filed my own case in court.  Suresh’s parole was abruptly cancelled and he was marched back to prison. The head of the Special Operations Group in the police, B C Solanki held a press conference in which he said that the people of Ahmedabad and of Gujarat should not feel unsafe. Suresh’s parole is cancelled and he will not be granted it again. The system works and this was a minor glitch.

And from then on, requests by Suresh for parole were cancelled. Until the 29th of November. Last night. I was out to dinner when Suresh’s ex wife told me that he was out on parole again. He had dialed her brother’s number and asked to meet.  That’s just fantastic. A man who  raped his wife gets out on parole and sends her into a panic, because he can.  How did the court grant him parole? I needed to know. But every court reporter and police person I called had no information on this. Not the Additional Commissioners of police who had once been in charge of my assault case. Nor the commissioner who had been in charge of that area. “No court order has been sent to the police station where Suresh lives, so we don’t know if he is out on parole.”

Finally, I got through to the police inspector in charge of the Sardarnagar police station, the area where Suresh lives. “Can you please just send a constable to his house and tell me if he is indeed out on parole?” I pleaded. I needed to make arrangements.  For myself and also to inform his ex wife. The last time he was out on parole, the day I was assaulted; I had to live like a fugitive. In an undisclosed location, until the police confirmed to me that his parole was cancelled. At least I always have the option of fleeing Ahmedabad if I need to. What about his ex wife? Who protects her the next time he is out?

“Look, if I need to pack my bags and run again, I need to know okay, so just send someone to his house, will you?” I said to the cop.

He was a good cop. He sent someone. And called me a few minutes later. “Yes ma’am. He is out on parole. My constable is there with him just now and he is in his house. He is out for fourteen days.”

And now comes the even  funnier part of my story. I continued. “When did he get out, how many of those fourteen days are gone and how many left?” I asked.

“That I don’t know ma’am because there is no paper work. The High court has not sent us its parole order. So we have no idea that he was out or who passed the order or when.”

So a man who first bragged about raping and killing women in 2002 gets out on parole. He uses that parole to rape his wife. Then he gets out on parole again and attacks a journalist. Then he is out again and this time the court doesn’t even send word to the cops. The cops only find out that Suresh is out on his bi-annual vacation, because the two women he victimized on previous holidays from jail told them so.

And with this, I come back to where I began. Who do our courts protect? That is the question. The people or the convict? You want answers? Go ask the judges. But first, you need to find out who the judge was. So far, there is no paperwork. Good luck, y’all. I am packing my bags. And so is his ex wife. No address of course.


P  A  R  T       T  W  O

“Did you sleep last night?” said Suresh’s wife to me as we sat at the lawyer’s desk in Ahmedabad.

“No,” I said. “Did you?”

“No,” she said. But she needn’t have spoken. Her owl eyes said it all already.

“I had a nightmare,” she continued. “I was standing at a chai shop in the street where I live and suddenly, I see Suresh standing next to me with his face covered. I was wondering why he had covered his face when he pulled out a knife and stabbed me in the stomach.”

This is what fear is like for Suresh’s wife, living with the knowledge that the man who attacked and raped her while out on parole last year, is now out again. This time at the special discretion of the Inspector General of Prisons of Sabarmati jail in Ahmedabad, Mr Jebaliya. Suresh `Richard’ Jadeja is convicted for 31 years for heinous crimes committed during the 2002 Gujarat riots. He is in jail for raping and killing Muslim women and children in an anti-Muslim pogrom that took place that year. His wife knows what it was like to live with such a man and to stake her life on running away from him after he raped her whilst out from jail on his parole in 2015. When she reported this to the police and filed for rape, domestic violence and divorce, Suresh’s subsequent paroles were cancelled. No time out from jail for this man, a judge ruled. Until January 2016, when Suresh’s daughter went missing and the previous parole violation was ignored. Parole granted. This time I, the journalist writing a book about the perpetrators of 2002, went to meet him and was attacked for it. Parole violation no 2. And so the rest of Suresh’s parole was cancelled. Statements were made all over again about how the people of Ahmedabad must not worry for their safety. The dangerous parole violating criminal will not be out again.

But now, Suresh’s wife’s nightmare was a reality. He had been granted his annual leave, given to convicts routinely, once a year. It’s called a furlough. And it’s granted by the top person in charge of the prison. In this case, Mr Jebaliya.

Suresh’s wife and I wrote out our pleas  to the police stations where we live asking for his furlough to be cancelled. We got the police stations in our respective areas to sign this and our lawyer to preface it with a legal note. And we took this to the office of the Deputy General of Police who is also the head of the Sabarmati Central Jail, T S Bisht. When we walked into Mr Bisht’s office, he was watching TV.

“Yes, what is it?” he asked, turning towards us.

“Sir, do read this petition please.”

“What is it, tell me?” he shot back.

“It’s an appeal to have Suresh Richard’s furlough cancelled because the previous two times he was out from jail he attacked me and raped his wife. We fear for our lives since he is now out again.”

“Why have you come here, you should go to your local police stations and file an appeal,” he said.

“We did do that already Sir and that document is attached here to this petition, which is why I ask you to read it Sir,” I replied, a little irritated by his focus on procedure and complete lack of concern for our safety.

“I didn’t write the furlough, the I.G. Mr Jebaliya did. It’s not my job to look into this, go to him,” he replied, irritated that I was irritated.

We went to the next room, Mr Jebaliya’s office. His secretary said that `sahib’ is out of station in the district of Amreli in South Gujarat, 240 kilometres away; and will only be back tomorrow.

Of course Mr Bisht who sent us there know this. Back we went to his office.

“Sir, Mr Jebaliya is out of town…”

“So contact him when he returns,” was his curt reply.

“Sir, with each passing day, we are more fearful. It’s a question of our safety. Our lives are in danger. Please understand the urgency of this case. And the furlough is granted by this office, so it from here that it can be cancelled,” I pleaded,  it seemed, in vain.

“I cannot do anything. You have to go to the I.G.”

Mr Bisht was in charge directly of the Sabarmati Central jail and is entirely in charge when the I.G. is away. So why would he send us out with total lack of regard for our safety, I was thinking to myself.

And it made my blood boil.

“Sir, if this was your family’s safety at stake, you wouldn’t be saying wait till the I.G. returns…” I said to him, my anger clearly audible now.

“I can’t do anything,” he said, turning his face back to the TV.

Suresh’s wife and I stormed out of Mr Bisht’s office deeply frustrated and helpless. We asked for  a copy of the furlough. It’s an interesting document. It says  – the conditions for granting the furlough are:

The convict must abide by the law, must now meet with unlawful or criminal people or keep bad company, must live in the specified address…that being Chharanagar, that comes under the supervision of the Sardarnagar police station, must check in with the Sardarnagar police once a day, must not leave the confines of the city of Ahmedabad…etc.  Standard format.

I can totally picture a two time parole violator signing this and saying – Yes, I will do exactly as you say. The trouble is, the police station still has no written order so they have not started to ask Suresh to check in once a day. This, despite the fact that he is now out on the loose for an entire week.

The furlough was approved on the 24th of October by the I.G. for a period of two months. In that two month window, Suresh is granted a 14 day leave from jail, which he can avail of any time in that 2 month period. The start date of the 14 day leave is the day he pays a surety of 3000 rupees. That date was not mentioned on the copy of the furlough so we were still in the dark about his exact period of leave.

But even more worrying than that was the question in front of Suresh’s wife and me – who do we turn to next? I decided to call the I.G., never mind if he was out of town. This was important. I left a message on his phone and he called back.

“Sir, my name is Revati Laul, I was attacked by Suresh Richard in January this year when was out on parole and he also attacked and raped his wife on his previous parole…we are scared for our lives and have appealed to your office today to have his furlough cancelled. Can we meet you about this tomorrow, Sir?” I asked.

“I have to see…when I am back, what other appointments I have and then I can let you know in the next 2-3 days,” was the reply.

“Sir it’s a question of our safety. Our lives are in danger. Can we please meet you as soon as possible Sir?” I repeated.

“Why don’t you put all of this in writing?” he said.

“I already did that Sir,” I replied, realizing nothing was going to come of this.

“You’ve given it in writing na, so I will look into it.”

“Sir just one more thing,” I said.

“Why has your office not intimated the local police station of Suresh’s leave?”

“I will look into it,” was his reply.

“Sir, how is the police station supposed to calculate 14 days of leave if they don’t have anything in writing and how do I calculate how much more time he is out and about?” I asked, bewildered at the apathy on the other side of the phone.

“I will look into it.”

Was I actually hearing what I did or was this a movie I was watching about a robotic Nazi officer in charge of a prison camp in Auchwitz…where everything was run on procedure and clerical precision and there was no human factor at all.

No. This was not a film about a Jewish concentration camp. This was about a responsible police officer, head of the Sabarmati jail. Routine is paramount. If a convict is entitled to leave, he gets it. If someone complains that this routine leave puts their life at risk, let them make applications everywhere. It will be filed away. Stamp received and replied to. In writing. Someday.

Our next and only  recourse is the court. Wish us luck.


The View From Ground Zero With Sri-Lanka’s Vanquished Tamils

By Revati Laul

First published in Tehelka magazine on 27th April 2013, re-printed with the permission of the publication

There is a risk reporters run when we step into the zone where hate crimes have been committed. We could end up over-emphasizing the plight of the victims and not presenting layers that may exits on the other side. However, there are circumstances in which one side may be completely suppressed. It’s voice silenced by defeat, fear and a continuing structural genocide that lives on long after the ostensible `war’ is over. This is what I found when I entered Sri Lanka’s ground zero. Four years after the war was over and the Tamil terrorists with suicide squads made up of thirteen year old children, was defeated by the Sri Lankan government and Lonely Planet listed the country as the Number One tourist destination, I found myself telling the story of the side that was no longer being heard. The Tamils. I am re-printing it here because I believe that on a website that is attempting to look at genocides and hate crimes wherever they have occurred, the predicament of the Tamils has a universal resonance. 


There was a time when this was espoused with brutal violence by the dreaded LTTE. The Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam. That violence has been leached out now to be replaced by a kind of limitless — and perhaps more potent — despair. There are reasons why the idea of a separate Tamil nation refuses to die. The chilling story of the LTTE and its lethal suicide bombers is well-known. The horrific retaliatory killing of its cadres and thousands of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan Army towards the end of the war is also now an emerging story. But this is a report on the silent war that continues till this day against the Tamils, an insidious and systematic violence they call a “structural genocide”.

There are two overriding images that greet you when you drive from the peacock-blue-themed Bandaranaike International Airport into Colombo city. Giant cutouts of president Mahinda Rajapaksa, beaming, arms outstretched to bless the people; and statues of Buddha. For tourists, who are pouring in swelling numbers into Sri Lanka, the 30-year civil war was definitively finished in 2009. Sri Lanka is back to being an idyllic island of peace; the LTTE has been exterminated. There is, in fact, a shiny triumphalism in the air to match the new Buddhist statues smiling at the people from every street corner. However, at the other end, far away from Colombo, the army is still out on every street.

Four years after the civil war ended, the Vanni — a small forested stretch of land in the north, held by the LTTE till their chief – V Prabhakaran was killed by the army in 2009 — is nothing but a slice of scarred earth. A smooth post-war spruced-up highway from Jaffna town speeds to the four districts in the Vanni: Mannar, Mullaitivu,Vavuniya and Kilinochchi. The military presence here rises sharply. Uniformed men, covered waist-high in plastic sheets, are clearing landmines on either side of the road. Red skull and crossbow signs everywhere ask you to be careful. The silence of the Tamils is deafening as you reach the last mile of the war — a village called Mullivaikal in Mullaitivu. In 2009, as the LTTE was pushed back by an advancing Sri Lankan Army, 3 lakh Tamils collected in this village to escape the mortar shells and bullets raining from the sky.

This is the village where Channel 4 videos show Sri Lankan soldiers stomping on the naked breasts of a dead LTTE woman; where carcasses were piled in heaps as Tamil civilians were caught in the crossfire of the Sri Lankan Army and a dwindling but still combative LTTE guerrilla force. Journalists are still not welcome in these parts; we are there masquerading as tourists. Although the heaped bodies are now gone, the hollowed-out sand bunkers where people ducked the bullets and mortars are still there. The torn remains of what was once a purple sari. The plastic remains of a TV set. An open suitcase. Even a bunch of white plastic roses. And in the midst of these torn-out buildings, pockmarked with bullet holes, the odd family, trying to live in the land of the dead. It is impossible to speak with them. As we step out of our van, we are ordered out of the area by two men in military uniform. They follow us on their bike for some distance. Nearby, a ship that was once carrying 2,000 tonnes of paddy, lies rusted on a beach. The date of its capture by the Sri Lankan Army is painted on its body in Sinhala to drive home the point. It’s now a tourist spot for a busload of visiting Buddhist monks in bright orange robes.

With the war over, things have gone back to usual. Contrary to Rajapaksa’s famed 13th amendment, promising autonomy to the provincial councils in the north for the Tamils, this means a return to State policies from the 1950s that systematically and deliberately excluded them from cultivable farmland and prime fishing waters. The exclusion that sparked the Tamil resistance and war in the first place is back with a bang. In Mullaitivu, a few streets away from the rubble, 53 year old Thurairasa Ravikaran — once the head of the district fishermen’s union — points proudly at his chocolate-and-yellow-tiled house. Before the eruption of hostilities, the north was so good for fishing he had built his entire brick house for LKR 400000; earned from the catch of just two prawn seasons. But those days are long gone. The Sri Lankan government, he said, had snatched the sea from the Tamils. This phenomenon has manifested itself in waves.

The first trigger came in 1983 with the anti-Tamil riots called Black July. The fishermen of his village had to leave overnight because of the violence. The exodus led to 300 Sinhalese fishing families moving into the area. According to Sri Lankan law, fishing permits are only given to permanent residents. But the rules were overlooked for the Sinhala fishermen. These fishermen used large trawlers with high-voltage search methods that Ravikaran claims are illegal to employ in the shallow waters of the north. This turned the fishing economy on its head. The Sinhalese fishermen with their big trawlers scooped out all the fish, leaving practically nothing for the Tamil fishermen. It reduced their income from an average of LKR 5,000 a day to LKR 500. The LTTE domination of the area provided some reprieve. But now, according to Ravikaran, the area domination by Sinhalese fishermen has begun again. “Coming back here is like living in a cemetery,” he says. “Our livelihood is completely destroyed.”

It seems this phenomenon is repeating in fishing villages across the region. As journalists are not officially welcome, it is impossible to independently verify Ravikaran’s claims. Ground Views, a Colombo-based civil society group, however, published a report in March 2012 that said, “the fishing industry, one of the main sources of livelihood of a large number of people in the Jaffna peninsula, was severely affected by 30 years of ethnic civil war.” According to this report, before the war, Jaffna was the largest fishing production district in Sri Lanka. prior to 1983, it contributed about 48,000 metric tonnes per year, one fourth of total national production. By the end of the third Eelam war, this was reduced to 3-5 percent. The report goes on to say, “Severe restrictions have been placed on members of the Tamil fishing communities, resulting in a drastic impact on their means of livelihood…” Disturbingly, it adds, “several Sinhala fishermen in the area have received direct permission to fish in this area from the Ministry of Defence.”

Trincomalee in the east, a long and beautiful stretch of coastline once held by the LTTE, is now back on the tourist map after it was recaptured by the army in 2006. But Trincomalee is overrun with soldiers at every street corner. Every passenger on every incoming bus to the north and east is checked by the military. Every time you board a bus, you have to write your contact numbers, purpose of visit and passport details. A report in the Economic and Political Weekly on 14 July 2012 claimed the ratio of army to civilians in these parts is as high as 1:5. If that’s true, it’s at least four times more than the troops on ground in Afghanistan where a war is still on. Sri Lankan Army spokesperson Brigadier Ruwan Wannigasooriya calls the figures preposterous. According to him, not more than 6,000 personnel are deployed in Trincomalee. For instance, the reason they check each bus, he says, is “in case former LTTE cadre are carrying weapons on them.”

In Thennavanmarapuady, an ancient Tamil village in Trincomalee, the underlying reasons for the seemingly irreparable hostility between Tamils and Sinhalese becomes even more apparent. the village traces its antecedents to the 9th century, when a Pandian king conquered the area. the Pandian dynasty ruled large parts of Tamil territory in ancient India and northern Sri Lanka. In the 1980s, this land became the theatre of conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. Its people, therefore, fled to a camp in Mullaitivu in the north. From here too, they moved many times; some fled to India. After the civil war ended in 2009, these farmers wanted to return to their homes and the 1,200 acres of paddy fields they had left two decades earlier.

After many difficult rounds of negotiation with the local government, families began to get permits to come back in batches. But they returned to find their land overrun by the army. Nearly 150 families are back in the area now but they live in temporary camps built by the UNHRC in 2011. Instead of 1,200 acres, they are now collectively left with a mere 150 acres to cultivate. An additional 150 acres is now occupied by Sinhalese farmers. Complaints to the police have led nowhere. the head of the society they have formed has written directly to president Rajapaksa as well as every bureaucrat in between, to no avail. A farming community that, at the time of fleeing their land in 1984, made the equivalent of LKR 50,000 a month now earns not more than LKR 2,000, which for a war-inflated economy is barely subsistence level.

In another camp in the east — local guides did not wish it to be identified — a frail 53 year old woman stepped out of her mud hut to greet us. She dashed her daughter off to get us a sweet red drink from a store nearby as her eyes slowly shifted to a faraway place. She now lives entirely in the past. every waking moment is spent thinking of the home they fled in 2006; the two cows she had to sell, named Neeum or water and Neeruppu or fire. “Even if I don’t get back my farmland, I will live with that. All I want, even if it’s just a small hut, is to get back to my homeland,” she said wistfully.

At yet another camp in the north, a fisherman’s eyes brimmed over. Living in a camp for more than 22 years is no life, he said. In the 1990s, he left the camp to live in Vanni, the LTTE heartland, where he felt protected and thought the Tamils would have a future. Now, at the age of 60, with that dream getting more and more blurred, he confessed, “I think I should just end it all now and walk into the sea.”

The refusal to be named or identified is commonplace among the Tamils. their fear is palpable. The Sinhala-Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka makes up 75 percent of the population; the Tamil minority — 32 lakh people — make for 11 percent. According to the government, most Tamils dislocated by decades of civil war — and the last devastating push by the Sri Lankan Army — have been resettled. But an NGO working with displaced people explains what “resettled” really means. Farmers who once had one acre plots are “resettled” on pint-sized slices of land measuring 0.125 acres. “It’s part of a State-sponsored design to resettle Tamils at below subsistence levels so they can never regroup and fight,” the NGO explains.

Reliable figures for the thousands of people displaced by war and still living in camps are hard to come by. Tamils here say, like everything else, the flow of information is tightly controlled by the government and scripted to suit the story they want the world to hear. the scale of displacement and dispossession, therefore, can only be hazarded from reports like this one, based on patchwork anecdotes from the ground. The real scale may be missing, but the architecture is clear. Tamil MP Gajendra Ponnambalam describes why the north and the east became the land of the Tamil Eelam; why Tamils in Sri Lanka almost universally supported the idea of a separate nation. his own family history makes for a telling account.

Gajendra’s grandfather, G.G Ponnambalam, was an Oxford-educated lawyer and a liberal who, till the 1950s, believed in the idea of a syncretic nation where Tamils and Sinhalese could co-exist. he founded the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. By 1976, however, he had begun to back the idea of a separate nation for the Tamils. things had begun to curdle as far back as 1956 with the Sinhala only Act. this re-placed English with Sinhala as the State language, to the exclusion of Tamil. This was further exacerbated by tussles over land, fishing rights and proportion of government jobs. In the 1970s, when it became officially mandatory for Tamil students to get 15 marks more than Sinhalese to qualify for university, the ground was laid for the rise of the LTTE. Gajendra’s grandfather eventually lived his last days abroad, broken by the idea of a Lankan nation whose identity was solely Sinhala and Buddhist.

Gajendra’s father, Kumar Ponnambalam or G.G Junior as he was known, was educated at Cambridge. he became a lawyer and took on the State for its anti-Tamil stance. He paid for that by being assassinated in 2000. Gajendra — the third generation lawyer to be educated in England — finally returned to Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. he feels Prabhakaran, despite the many mistakes he made, was the most effective leader the Tamils ever had. The time for political reconciliation with the Sri Lankan government is long over, he says. In 2010, he broke away from the Tamil National Alliance — an umbrella body of Tamil parties over this issue. “When you face such blatant oppression, you end up focussing fundamentally on what you need to do to keep your identity alive,” he said.

Despite the contemporary devastations the Tamils have faced, the tragic story of chauvinism and racial domination in Sri Lanka is not one-sided. In keeping with the imperial games it played elsewhere, while Sri Lanka was a part of the British empire, the British clearly favoured and nurtured the Tamils over the Sinhalese. this meant the Tamils ended up better-educated, often returning with degrees from abroad; they had a greater share of the few plum jobs in the colonial civil services; they bought the biggest properties in Colombo.

Rajiva Wijesinha, whose Liberal party is an integral part of the Sri Lankan government, articulates this alternative side of the history of Sri Lankan discontent. the discriminatory politics that began in the 1950s with the Sinhala only Act, he says, was really an attempt by the Sri Lankan government to unshackle the country from its colonial past. this is why English was replaced by Sinhala as the official language. “It’s unfortunate that this eventually took on the colour of majoritarianism in the years that followed.” It was corrected, he pointed out, in 1987, when Tamil was included as an official language. But by then, of course, the LTTE had already emerged as a guerilla force to assuage the anger of the Tamils.

Back in the north and east, this historical perspective offers no comforts. Sureka (name changed), 31, sits in a quiet backyard overlooking the sea. her bright yellow frock with its frills and silver buckle contrasted painfully with her adult face and puffy eyes. “I don’t want to live anymore,” she said. “But if I kill myself, people will think I’m ending it all because I have been raped by the CID or the army and I don’t want that to be the story people carry around after me. So I’m in limbo. I can’t live and I can’t die.”

Sureka was once a regular young girl in a village in the east, but the war between the LTTE and the army caught up with her. It killed her mother, leaving her orphaned. She had no siblings; her father had died a few years earlier. Soon after, soldiers began to turn up at her house regularly to torment her. they poured boiling water on her head once and hit her on the back with sticks. It’s what drove her to join the LTTE in 2000. Prabhakaran was someone she looked up to like an elder brother, she says. For the nine years she was in the LTTE, she was happy. then in 2009, the war was over. She was back to living alone, but now in a land where the State and army was even more hostile, especially with former members of the LTTE.

A week before we met her, an unknown Sinhalese man had entered Sureka’s home in the dead of night. She shouted and fought and called the police. they took three hours to come and refused to register a complaint. Since she was a former LTTE member, she was just a troublemaker, they allegedly told her. She wonders each night if the man will return.

We met our next contact ducking in a paddy field to avoid his being seen by the rest of his village, potential informers or the army, Easwaran (name changed) displayed his right wrist with two round blotches of raw skin. Evidence, he said, of electrodes inserted to torture him after the war. Like Sureka, Easwaran was orphaned in the 1990s when his parents were killed by the Sri Lankan Army. his father, an electrician, had dared to refuse to work for free for the soldiers. they paid him back by entering his house some days later and killing him and his wife. Easwaran was eight when he saw this happen. he and his two siblings screamed for help but fear had paralysed the neighbours into silence. he joined the LTTE to avenge his parents’ death, he says.

When the LTTE was pushed back from Trincomalee, Easwaran’s past caught up with him and he was arrested. the night-mares from the time he was tortured still continue. “All I wanted is a safe place for Tamils to live,” he now says, fear spreading across his face. he once had three acres; but now he has been living in a refugee camp for the past eight years.

For still others like Vengadesh (name changed), the horror has visited him many times over. He had provided logistics sup-port to the LTTE in the early 1990s. he was picked up by the Sri Lankan Army for this and sent to the infamous Fourth Floor, their version of Abu Ghraib. According to Vengadesh, his head was immersed in petrol fumes; he was strung upside down and suspended from just his two thumbs. he was released eight months later. he married, had children and began what he thought was a regular middle-class life. But when the civil war ended, he was picked up by the military and sent to the Fourth Floor again. The torture, however, has not taken the idea of the Tamil nation out of him. even as he spoke with us, he smiled as he looked back on what he calls his “contribution to the Tamil cause”. he would do it again, he says. For now though, he lives with the constant fear that torture may revisit him any time.

Looking at these stories of torture as merely a humanitarian crisis, however, is to miss the big picture. It makes activist-lawyer K Guruparan very angry. “A simple human rights discourse doesn’t help,” he explains. It merely forces people to weigh one set of atrocities against another — those by the Sri Lankan Army in 2009 against those carried out over the past 30 years by the LTTE, which had one of the deadliest guerrilla armies and suicide squads in contemporary history. “Without the history of Tamil oppression and the ongoing structural genocide, the story of the Tamils has almost no meaning,” says Guruparan. “You have to look at the long-standing process of disenfranchisement from which the LTTE emerged.”

The language of terror paints absolutist pictures that remove the possibility of con-text and history. Despite the barbaric scale of Tamil civilian killings — 40,000 in the last six months of the army push in 2009 is the official estimate — it allows the Sinhalese majority to revere president Rajapaksa. It also allows international actors like the UNHRC, the US and Indian governments to take ambivalent positions on what happened. Consider the UN’s pussyfooting on the war, for instance. In March 2011, a report from the UN Secretary General’s office said: “Between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lankan Army advanced its campaign into the Vanni where the army used large-scale and widespread shelling, causing a large numbers of civilian deaths.” the report further spelled out how the army had shelled no-fire zones, UN hubs and hospitals and internally-displaced Tamils.

Two years later, however, on 19 March this year, when the UNHRC drafted a resolution on Sri Lanka, it seemed to have developed amnesia about this report. The resolution was gentle in its censure of the government for what happened in 2009 and even praised it for the work done since — “welcoming and acknowledging the progress made by the government of Sri Lanka in rebuilding infrastructure, de-mining, and resettling the majority of internally displaced persons.” It is this refusal to take in the whole narrative that allows Rajapaksa to tell the world all is well now with the Tamils in his country.

In 2011, a document called ‘The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Report’ was published. It was deemed independent but conducted by people appointed by the Sri Lankan government. It listed that the security forces had lost 5,556 personnel between July 2006 and May 2009 and 28,414 were injured. the LTTE, on the other hand, had lost 22,247 of its cadre. It spoke of the “principle of proportionality” and cited instances of war crimes from the Bosnian war to make the point that the blame for atrocities against Tamils in the war was a relative question.

Among all the Sri Lanka’s living dead that this reporter met, perhaps the most difficult to face were those whose families have gone missing since the end of the war. the war over statistics and narratives is even starker when it comes to the missing. For instance, a group of pastors sent a report to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that put the figure of those missing from two districts in the north, where most of the Tamils had converged at the end of the war, at 1,46,679. they said they had used government data to arrive at this number, based on the population count in October 2008 and May 2009.

Not surprisingly, the army spokesperson rubbished the figures. he cited figures compiled by government schoolteachers and village-level officials. this report puts the figures of “those untraceable” across four districts of the north from 2005 to 2009 at 4,156.

Neither statistic comforts Ponamma Kandasamy and her husband. They are searching for their daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, all of whom are missing. Her son-in-law was an LTTE member who, after the war, joined the ranks of thousands of surrendered militants. Since then, they have disappeared into a void; putting Ponamma and her husband’s life permanently on hold.

Around the same time, the husband of Bawani (name changed) also surrendered as a member of the LTTE’s political wing. She has tried everything to trace him and says all she wants from life is to see her husband – a pastor, who is actively working to help Tamils find their missing relatives, says the plight of women like Bawani is particularly bleak.  His effort is to gently break it to them that four years on, they cannot sit by the door waiting endlessly. They have to try and start working and paying attention to their children that are still living. Catholic priests in the north and east are faced with the fact that their church is divided straight down the middle. With Catholic Tamils on one side – the victims. And the Sinhalese Catholics on the other  – who have thrown their weight behind the rest of the Sinhalese – the victors.  Another priest revealed how many of the parish are losing their minds. One family’s story was particularly chilling. The couple saw their two young girls die in army shelling. And a third child – their boy — lose both his arms. While the daughters lay dead and the son’s arms were bleeding, the father went mad. He just kept running round and round in circles, unable to deal with the situation. The boy has since then been sent to India to have two prosthetic arms fitted and is currently undergoing training in computers.

Priests have stepped in to help victims walk with fear every day. They take different routes while travelling, delete call history from their cell phones and despite that, receive regular calls and threats from the Central Intelligence Department.The Tamil media is equally under threat. At the crack of dawn on 3 April, Aramugham Ponaraja, the office manager at Udayan newspaper in Kilinochchi, was getting ready to distribute the first batch of newspapers when six masked goons attacked him 17 times with cricket stumps. Tamil MP Sivagnanam Sritharan’s office was attacked just a few days before that by similarly masked goons. Under normal circumstances, the string of attacks may have been completely unconnected. In the times Tamils live in now, all attacks point only to one place — Sinhalese mobs asserting power over the vanquished.

Liberal party leader Wijesinha says one must not read too much into the activities of the fringe mobs. “The majority of the Sinhalese want a political solution to the Tamil problem,” he insists. “However, there are some bad elements within the government that are causing trouble.” It’s the kind of perspective that almost deletes the history of Tamil oppression leading up to the LTTE. It’s the view that paints them as an aberration, as if terror suddenly arrived in the 1980s out of nowhere. However, every single Tamil we met has exactly the opposite story to tell. If you were a Tamil in Sri Lanka and lived through the 1980s and ’90s, they say, you were either in the LTTE or a supporter.

The collective memory of injustice is what made Suvendran (name changed) join the LTTE in 1991. He is now missing one leg from laying grenades. After surrendering, he is left with nothing to say or feel. Just like him, his comrade had no particular trigger for joining the LTTE or for that matter for leaving it. It’s just what Tamils did in the 1990s. He also has an injured leg. The north is full of people with missing limbs and no will to live. Thivagar (name changed) was just 15 when he joined the LTTE. It was an atmosphere charged with the possibility of a new beginning for Tamil youth. That’s when he fell in love with a fellow comrade. “We had to meet clandestinely since men and women lived in separate camps. It was a typical romance where we snatched five minutes to share an ice-cream together,” he recalled. Like many LTTE romances, it didn’t last. Thivagar left the LTTE in 2005 but his lover stayed on with them. After the war, he has a regular middle-class job, but has to be silent about much of what he saw and experienced. As a surrendered LTTE cadre, he has to constantly watch his step and live in fear.

The final days of the war are firmly embedded in ghoulish detail in the minds of fleeing Tamils — tigers and others. Indrakumar (name changed) was in the LTTE’s publicity division and continued reporting right until the end, even while he and his family were on the run. In one such attack in August 2007, 13 schoolchildren were killed and many others injured. there were no vehicles to take them to hospitals. Indrakumar remembers lifting two bleeding kids onto his bike to take them to the nearest hospital 16 km away. he was riding as fast as he could when he saw the head of one of the kids roll off. Neither survived. As this reporter drove through stretches of former war country with former LTTE members in tow, the horrors were relived. Thivagar’s face went white when at one point we were chased away by the army. He was silent for a long time and then remarked absently: “the government has wiped out all evidence of the atrocities.”

Indrakumar had one final nightmare to share. He was running from one area of attack to relative safety and then when that became the new theatre of war, he fled again with his wife and child. And then his nine-month-old baby died. It was 9 April, the day of the Tamil New Year. The boy had severe pneumonia. No medicine was available, which Indrakumar claimed was part of the Sri Lankan government’s strategy to flush out the LTTE. The UN report in 2011 described similar situations, but this reporter had no way of independently verifying this claim. Either way, what is indisputable is that Indrakumar’s son died. At this point he and his wife contemplated suicide. That’s when they arrived at the camp populated with 3 lakh Tamils.Suddenly they were in a sea of horrors. Everyone had lost a child or two. It brought a macabre sense of brotherhood and made Indrakumar and his wife stay alive.

Not everyone in Tamil country was equally smitten by Prabhakaran and the LTTE. Especially not people like Thiruneelakandan Saroja in Kilinochchi. Under the dim light of a lantern in a tiny hut, Saroja spoke bitterly of how her 22-year-old son was forcibly taken by the LTTE as cadre. He is now missing. “We live with our mouths shut,” she said in anger. Silenced by the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE and the loss of her son. But even her individual anger is subsumed by the larger sea of collective Tamil anguish. She added paradoxically that despite everything, she supported the cause of a separate Tamil nation. It’s a sea inside that with all its repression and terror the State has been unable to obliterate.

Soon after the war, President Rajapaksa had declared to the Tamils that he would forge a political reconciliation by providing administrative autonomy to the provincial councils in the north. The news was celebrated in India and announced by all political parties as sign that India had put pressure on Sri Lanka to arrive at a political settlement for the Tamils. Two years later, Rajapaksa publicly went back on his word. While addressing the people on Independence Day (4 February 2013), he took back that promise, saying that Sri Lanka was a nation with “no racial or religious differences” and therefore there was no need for greater autonomy in the Tamil majority provinces. The speech was delivered in former LTTE-held Trincomalee and the semantics of it were all too clear. The Tamils are a people without a nation, much like the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Tamil activists and MPs say there is reason for the rest of the world and India, in particular, to sit up and pay attention. Activists like Guruparan point out that the Tamil predicament is shared by many ethnic groups across the world. Whose only hope has survived in the support generated from the Tamil diaspora. The Tamil diaspora is large, well-funded and spread across Europe, North America and Australia. Much of the lobbying and publicity for the cause and help for displaced Tamils come from these quarters. They are now saying their long-term vision is to be able to put pressure on the international community to force Sri Lanka to carve out territory for the Tamils that is administered internationally. Like how East Timor separated out of Indonesia in 2002, after the intervention of the UN, to become Timor Leste. The intervention was the result of incessant  lobbying by the East Timorese and a truth and reconciliation commission. The territory was administered by the UN from 1999 until 2012, when it was finally handed over to an independent government. The Tamils are  now trying to get their version of the truth out. And given the history of violence and broken promises, most say, reconciliation is not an option.

They say their window of hope for now is twofold: India and the US — two countries that should be scared at the increasing proximity of the Sri  Lankan government with China and Pakistan. Does India want the strong presence of Pakistan and China less than 5 km away from its southern coast, they ask. And they hope that the US will have similar fears and decide to back their cause. For now, that is their only recourse. Former Tamil MP Ponnambalam puts it simply: “I think it’s dangerous for us to think about what is possible. If we start thinking about that, it only means assimilation. We must stop talking Tamil, we must give up our religion. We must be Sinhalese and Buddhist.”

Over and above the geopolitics and domestic Tamil politics that directly affects India, the Sri Lankan Tamils’ story raises a disturbing question. Can the desperate and continuing plight of a people be explained away by  terrorism alone? For now, more than 22 lakh tamils within Sri Lanka and an estimated 10 lakh in the diaspora, are asking this universally perplexing question. As their story also serves as a warning to other displaced people without a nation — while the world and the UN plays a double game, your idea of nationhood could be the next to disappear. But even in the aftermath of the terror and genocide, the Tamil idea of nationhood has not disappeared. If India does not want another cycle of violence at its doorstep, it cannot afford to be indifferent to the voices of the Lankan Tamils.


The Invisible Scar of That Riot

By Sonali Ghosh

Sonali Ghosh is a film maker and writer with a well regarded career as Producer in advertising film and television. Working in film for over a decade and a half, her observer eye is now honed to a craft of great beauty and empathy which is in evidence in the way she writes here of a woman who was scarred by the anti-Sikh genocide in Delhi in 1984. 

There are many things about the Chirag Delhi crossing that have changed in the last thirty years, since `84. As a schoolgirl, crossing Chirag Delhi on my school bus every day, I recall how green, broad and wide the crossing used to be. There was no flyover then, no clogged BRT (bus rapid transit) lanes snaking along and eventually pouring out into today’s bustling traffic jams. In those days, waiting at the Savitri end of that traffic light, one could easily do a three hundred and sixty degree survey of the entire four-way crossing from the window seat of a school bus. Starting with the big, newly built three-storey bungalow in one prominent right corner, diagonally across the road, to the straight road leading to Vasant Vihar and beyond. Further left, was an unruly looking road to Saket (which didn’t really exist then) better known as the road to Sheikh Sarai. To the right and left – on both sides of the road towards my school – were the dreary DDA (Delhi Development Authority) flats that were beginning to dot vast tracts of South Delhi by then. In between these four roads at the crossing were thick clusters of trees that thickened further in as they forged their way to become Delhi’s ‘green belts’ to cut across major roads and crossings of South Delhi. Pan over to the smooth stretch disappearing towards Moolchand and Central Delhi and one’s gaze drifted back to that big sprawling house that marked one corner of the traffic light and suddenly, just like that, the house wasn’t there at all. What remained was a blackened hollow, a dark shell of what used to be a house.

Ever since the appearance of that visible scar at the Chirag Delhi signal, I recall the view of the rest of the traffic light being obliterated for me, but for that shell of a house. My eleven year-old self was less curious and more intrigued. How was it possible? An entire house, a brand new bungalow, becoming a transparent shell with no windows and black soot lined walls in just the span of a week when school had been shut and I had been cooped up at home straining to hear distant shouting, seeing plumes of smoke rising from market places all way up to Paras Cinema in Nehru Place, from the vantage point of the roof of our house in CR Park.

When school reopened I was back on the bus crossing the Chirag Delhi signal that remained unchanged but for that mysteriously hollowed out house and the equally mysterious appearance, at the same time, of a somewhat ragged and disheveled looking middle-aged woman. Visible from the bus, her head covered in a deep crimson dupatta as it bobbed up and down whenever she knelt into and out of cramped car windows, or staggered between cars or, dodged straying two-wheelers and speeding D.T.C (Delhi Transport Corporation) buses.

I didn’t really pay attention to this woman in her crimson colored dupatta until I was older and by then driving past the Chirag Delhi signal in my father’s Fiat that I used to drive to college on my own. By then, contact became more direct and one to one. Being part of a crowd of children in a noisy school bus is many layers removed from dealing directly with a person on the street. But this time I could see her leathery face up front with its deepening lines and manifold creases, her frayed dupatta now no longer any color at all, her unseeing eyes that glazed over a vacant look, the cheeks miming a broad smile that never met her eyes but which she wore to try to get your attention. When we finally spoke it was a brief exchange prompted by an equally small transaction. I had given her ten rupees and she took it smilingly, wordlessly. I asked her if she lived nearby and shook her head in the negative indicating a firm “No”! As I moved from first year to my third year in college, I saw her every week. By then I learnt that she was Sikh and someone ‘displaced’ by the `84 riots.

Sikh woman 5

Over the next few years without exchanging names or pleasantries, our connection stretched beyond this basic exchange. She was growing older and more frail- in her fifties by now. Sometimes she would disappear for days and reappear with a young Sikh boy at her side who would be carrying a bunch of agarbattis or incense sticks in his hand along with a bag I assumed, also full of agarbattis. So now it was thirty rupees for the packet of agarbattis and the ten rupees if I wanted to give it to her. The young man was her son. He was fair, tall and had sharp features. Unlike his mother, he never made prolonged eye contact or any kind of conversation. He would emerge from the fumes of cars nearby and fix me with a gut-piercing gaze, thrusting a few packets of strong smelling agarbattis into the car. Within minutes, no movement or response from me would mean the retracting of the same cloyingly perfumed agarbattis back out the window, as his lean frame would disappear. Once I tried small talk like I did with his mother and was met with another piercing stare as he hoarsely shouted “Agarbattiiiiiiii” and without a moment’s pause, yanked his hand out of my car window and marched off thrusting it into the next car.

The boy was still a boy, in his late teens, about my age, but his face looked much older. Like his mother, his expression conveyed that he wasn’t fully there either. Later I learnt that he had gone mad. He would have raving fits, screaming in that hoarse voice of his, right in the middle of that traffic signal. What he said was like his eye contact – stinging, brief, and incomprehensible to the passersby. When shooed away from the Chirag Delhi crossing, he would turn up further down the same road at the Panchsila Park signal where he would hop around between cars and do a repeat performance of what he did at the Chirag light until he was shunted further out to the next one.

As the years rolled on, I graduated college and completed my post-grad. Not surprisingly the roads to both institutions went via the Chirag Delhi crossing which had been unofficially rechristened the Chirag Delhi Flyover by then. The woman was still a constant fixture at the traffic light. Money still passed through our hands. Sometimes a few hundred for a spot cash down payment to obtain a fresh stock of agarbattis, at other times a hundred odd just because she looked particularly worn out. On one rainy day, gripped by anger seeing her straying at the signal I forced her to get inside the car. I was convinced that depositing her at the Greater Kailash Part II Gurdwara would be an end to her constant sauntering at a pretty dangerous traffic light with its speeding cars and trucks. But no! The next day she was back at her usual spot, her head bobbing in and out of cars, her canvas bag of agarbattis intact. “I can’t stay in the Gurdwara, beta,” she said, looking away wistfully in the direction of oncoming traffic slowing down at the light. A few months down the line I had an idea. Why not take her home. If not my home where there wasn’t much work, she could stay with a family in the neighborhood who had children she could perhaps look after. We drove to my colony in silence. Upon entering my home I went to the kitchen to heat some lunch for her. I returned with what was the lunch made for us that day – dal, chawal, sabzi and some kakdi. She ate her full and asked for a glass of water. I asked if she would like to rest a bit before taking her to one of the houses nearby– “No, beta! I better be on my way,” she said, handing me the glass back as she wiped her mouth with her dupatta and left.

After I moved out of Delhi to live and work in Bombay, I would see her on my way from the airport to my parent’s house or on the way to the airport while leaving for another few months. On one of my trips I learnt that she had lost her son. He had somehow saved up enough to buy an old bicycle that he now rode around the main road. One day, after picking up new stock of agarbatti that was bundled and strapped to the back of his bicycle he was run over by a speeding truck that was on the wrong side of the road. This piece of news was conveyed to me by my father, who learnt of this on his way home from work himself. By now, the woman had stopped speaking altogether. She would stop at the car and I wasn’t sure if she recognized me at all. Her face would light up if I gave her some money but small talk or any other kind of exchange wasn’t welcome.

It was after this that she stopped selling agarbattis altogether. Our encounters at what was now “Chirag Delhi Flyover signal” were becoming more and more rare. I had been living away from Delhi for over a decade now and my trips were too short to pay much attention to the traffic light and its cluster of beggars and bizarre toy sellers – ranging from weird animals that spit stuff at you to ones with racing neon lights blinking inside, a sign of the times, a sign that even toys were to be noisy, in your face, spooky distractions now, and not just playthings. The traffic light itself had changed altogether. A sub culture had spawned below the flyover – thriving in the alleyways with their goods and piles of bestseller books that appeared miraculously at the car window as traffic snarled all around. There was no view of anything around the signal anymore – barely any trees, not even the ones leading up to the ‘green-belt’ that must have shrunk deeper into the recesses of what looked like tiny manicured gardens maintained by the Forest department. The D.D.A. (Delhi development authority) flats on either side of the road were unrecognizable, no longer shabby but pretentious facades, each designed to look like a private bungalow, a distinct sign that the increasingly wealthy middle class that had gone from modestly well-off to practically rich in the post liberalization era. The burnt bungalow with its soot-lined windows and hollow rooms lit up right through due to the absence of doors and windows was now back to being a sprawling big house from my childhood days though. These changes – from the new house to dark hollow, from shabby middle class flats to opulent glass façade DDA apartments – have punctuated the narrative of our change from pre-millennium to post millennium India. But these are the visible changes, visible only to the observer’s eye. The invisible change was not for show, unseen even to the observant. For here, the more visible it is, the more it is to remain unseen like that beggar on the street or those vacant-eyed people who sell agarbattis and neon colored toys or the woman acquaintance of my youth.

Sikh woman 3

Recently for reasons both beyond and within my control, I opted to move back to Delhi. My parents had gone from old, aging, gray to now well and truly gone. Not prepared to let go of what was left of our home in Delhi, I decided to move back to try and see to what vestiges of the past could I cling on now. Over the course of these last three decades between 1984 and 2014, much had changed in not just the city but the neighborhoods all
around, including the new government that came to power this May “in the world’s biggest election process held in the world’s largest democracy…”

Friends, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances had moved house, moved cities, changed jobs. Old houses had been torn down and new apartments in glass, tile and design had come up. In markets, rows of houses had let their ground floors out to shopkeepers but most were dust covered and their glass facades unlit and empty. Barring a few close friends I was hard put to find too many remnants from the past, human or otherwise. As I drove around in my father’s car, I slowed down at the Chirag Delhi flyover traffic light and to my surprise, spotted the woman, grayer than ever, more disheveled, still making her way in between cars. As she came up to mine, I poked my head out in relief to see this reassuring presence from the traffic light again after so long. She did not really recognize me as she smiled unblinkingly. There was the customary smile, those glazed eyes – the irises foggy and milky white – could she even see me?

I suppose I hit a note when she heard my voice. “Bahut dino baad, beta?” – “After so many days child?” she smiled benignly, as she leaned her frame on the car window for support. But it was me who was seeing her with new eyes now even though she couldn’t see me. “What is your name?” I asked her gently, hoping she wouldn’t notice that in all these years I hadn’t bothered to find out.

Sikh woman 4

Harjeet Kaur at “home”  at the Chirag Delhi traffic light, under the flyover

It was true, she said, she had arrived as a regular at the Chirag Delhi traffic signal right after the riots in Delhi ended in November ’84. She and her husband, Naren Singh, their four children, lived in Govindpuri. He plied a taxi in the Ajmeri Gate area but a serious back problem had made him bedridden for a long spell. When the riots began, people in the neighborhood knew about his condition and informed on them. He was pulled out of the house and beaten with a tire iron and a burning tire slung around his neck. The son who had later died in the road accident, Gurcharan, never recovered from what he had seen. With four children to feed and no skills, Harjeet Kaur found refuge at the traffic light and some money by selling agarbattis or sometimes, money given to her by people in cars who often took that route and came to know of her as a regular there. I ask her if she feels hate towards the very neighbors who informed on them, the neighborhood where she still lives with the rest of her children and their children, her grandchildren. After Gurcharan, she lost one son to drug abuse and another to TB. The one who still lives there wants nothing to do with her and has built himself a floor above her where he lives with his family but does not provide for her. “This is my place, this signal. That is not my home, it is where I go to sleep and meet my family,” she says smiling resignedly, her milky irises floating unseeingly in those old, rheumy eyes. I ask her if she has made friends at the signal – “Oh yes, many. There are fellow Sikh brothers who bring me some rations off and on. Then there are people who come and give me some cash once in a while. This way, I can make a few hundred rupees a day here at my “place”. If I go to the Gurdwara, I won’t be able to provide for my family and take home even this much. The Gurdwara will look after only me.”

It’s late, summer rain splashes down and we are sitting inside my car. Harjeet Kaur is restless, keen to get on with the business of her day. It is close to lunch-time and now that she is in her seventies, she needs to walk back to her place in Govindpuri to sleep an hour or two before she returns to the traffic light for the evening rush hour to make her collections here. I want to know why she doesn’t sell agarbattis any more. “I don’t earn enough for a deposit to buy the stock. Besides, I cannot see anymore, what will I sell?” Says the woman who is as ageless as she is a nobody. A woman who has long given up the pretense of selling agarbattis or garish children’s toys or any other such typically outlandish item that people reduced to living their lives out on the street have to take up arms with. A woman who could well be wearing the same blood spattered clothes from when the riots took away the one and only earning family member and upended her life onto this traffic signal. What does the state see Harjeet Kaur as today, thirty years after the 1984 riots I wonder? Is she the ubiquitous beggar, a mendicant, who approaches old familiar or new unknown faces daily? People know her, recognize that familiar face. Long gone are the pitiful requests to please buy her thirty rupees apiece agarbattis or drop her off to the next crossing so that she can catch up with her son there. Today her one and only appeal to those driving past or waiting for the light to turn green is to just give her some money. She does not want help or a job. She does not want old clothes or food or even left overs from your doggy bag. She has no use for your leftovers or your token throwaways at a traffic light. She is not begging at all actually, for she is not a beggar at all. She is what a homeless, nameless riot victim is, an unhealed scar that is as visible as it is invisible to our unseeing eyes just as she, herself, is unseeing.


Looked at from a broader perspective, the many hundreds- running into the thousands- victims of riots, genocide, violence or displacement are all in the same ghost boat; stranded between nation and nationality, between this shore and that, between what we regard as the line that separates the good from bad. Their past obliterated, their present out of reach, such people gradually detach themselves from the embrace of family and community (because none exist) -whether class or caste based- and the long arm of civil
society to creatures worse off than strays living their life on the street. For the state, such people are not only the non tax paying, non performing minority – in a sense disabled majority – but also people without any moorings or a sense of belonging to anything – to be tagged dangerous criminal or just a mass of unaccounted for energy whenever the state wants or needs them – guns for hire at the riot maybe. If of no other use to the state, the state then dissociates from them altogether, absently and perhaps all too casually, brushing aside the vicious and riotous tragedy engineered by itself, crudely calling them the beggars that they are not.


The Body On The Road

Sondeep Shankar

CAN USE 1984 riots pic Sondeep Shankar.jpg



One of India’s finest photo-journalists, Sondeep Shankar has authored nearly a dozen books and been there, done that in his nearly four decade career, including a few near death experiences in the course of his work.  He was one of the first to cover the rise of militancy amongst Sikhs in Punjab in the 1980s under Bhindranwale. Here, he  talks about what you see and what you leave out when confronted with extreme violence like he was in the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. He spoke with Revati Laul who compiled the excerpts here.


I took this picture during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in Delhi. I was coming back from Nand Nagari in East Delhi, where a major killing took place. On the highway, I saw this body burning and people driving past. It was the middle of the afternoon. I stopped and took some pictures.

You have to be sensitive of course in taking a picture like this.  This picture for instance, really doesn’t show any gore. At the same time, you can make out there’s a human being burning and there’s a way in which people passing by are looking at it. That is the story being told here. I would never have taken a picture of just the body. That would just be ugly. You don’t have to shock people with your picture. I don’t think that’s ethical either.

There is an un-written code embedded in your psyche when you are faced with a situation of violence. Don’t be gruesome and don’t play with blood. I remember some pictures of the Bombay train blasts. Some photographers prided themselves in shooting gory pictures. Red blood against a blue wall. It’s senseless and you’re actually getting carried away by the colour and not the human dilemma or  suffering. At the end of the day, photography is an art. So you have to use your sensibilities.

1984 is still ever-present in my head because it was so dangerous to be shooting pictures then. In fact that is the one and only time when I had to shave my beard for fear of being mistaken for a Sikh.

The kind of violence in that time was basically lumpen elements spilling out in the street with no one to control them. On the whole, I think people are civilized to a certain extent. But the kind of violence I saw in South Delhi in places like Vasant Vihar makes it very hard to tell just who is civilized and who isn’t. And it’s not a class thing. Of course, it’s the deprived who eventually take over. But it starts out with the neighbour fighting the neighbour because they know who’s who.

Today, when people talk of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in the same breath as the 2002 anti-Muslim violence, I would say there is one difference between the two. The violence in 1984 went on for four or five days. And then it was controlled. Whereas in 2002, it carried on for months and months. I went to Ahmedabad in Gujarat in 2002, on the very first day of those riots. And I came back because I nearly got lynched in the Naroda Patiya area of Ahmedabad. All my equipment was gone. It happened because I think I got carried away. I didn’t use my judgement fully. There was a group of people who took me in. They led me in and then they turned on me and attacked me. These were Hindus from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (the World Hindu Organization) whom I had met two days ago in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. They saw me in Gujarat and they recognized me and I trusted them for exactly that reason. So I didn’t realize what they were trying to do. That’s the thing about these situations. You can’t trust anybody. You just have to take the necessary precautions and shoot. I lost that there.

Of the scariest moments I’ve encountered in taking pictures of extreme violence, there are two instances from Punjab. One was in a place called Kandukheda on the border between Punjab and Haryana. This was after 1984. It was I think in the year 1985. I had just got married. The Akali Dal was in power in Punjab and this area was to vote on whether it wanted to stay in Punjab or be part of the state of Haryana. It was situated at that time in Punjab, so the Punjab police was out in full force. And they didn’t want me and the reporter to go into the village. We insisted on going in, so the police bashed the hell out of us. Then they took us about thirty or forty kilometres away in their police van. And all along the way they kept saying – “Inke tangein tod do inko canal me phenk do”  – “we’ll break their legs and throw them into the canal.” So we were really scared. But then we got dropped off some place and we went to a police station. In those days there were of course no mobile phones and our taxis were stuck elsewhere and they didn’t know where we were. But luckily what happened was that Amarinder Singh (a very prominent Congress leader in Punjab at the time who since then became Chief Minister) had reached that spot and he had heard about what had happened to us. When he heard our names, he came there himself and got us out of there because he knew us.

The second close brush with death I had was in the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This is before its desecration in 1984, but at the height of the Sikh militancy. So it was infested with people with guns. But there was this guy who was sitting very peacefully in the midst of all of this and reading his copy of the Sikh holy book – the Guru Granth Sahib. He was a very good looking Sikh. I took two or three pictures of him using a wide angle lens with the Golden Temple in the background. When he saw that and he got up and caught hold of me. He was actually a dreaded terrorist. So he caught hold of me and said, “That’s it. You’ve taken my picture, now you have to be killed. You cannot go anywhere with this picture.” By now his people had gathered around as well. So I said to him – “Listen. You can do whatever you want to but first let’s go and meet Sant Bhindranwale.” They took me to Bhindranwale, their leader, thinking he’d be on their side. But Bhindranwale was on my side because he knew me. It’s a quick calculation I had to make at the time. He’d known me for a long time. I was one of the first to be covering him. So he told his men – “Inhe chadd do,”  – “let him go.” So you never know in some of these situations, where the help comes from!

Newsrooms in those days were much more liberal than they are today. If you took a good picture, it would get a good display. That was assured. In those days I was working for the Anand Bazar Patrika group and we had great editors like M J Akbar and Aveek Sarkar who liked to give pictures a good display.

The difference between those days and now is  – for one, the styles have changed. Today people tend to think before they shoot. In those days we shot before thinking. You just don’t do that kind of journalism now.

The Man With No Family

Hans Aanki

CAN USE Tilo's story pic

Hans Aanki is an award winning journalist and documentary film maker who describes the trauma and necessity of filming victims of mass violence and his own predicament in these situations. He spoke with Revati Laul and the best excerpts of that conversation are strung together here.

The man in this photo – Abdul Majid is one of the surviving members of a family that was almost entirely wiped out in the anti-Muslim riots of Gujarat, 2002. Whilst his wife and most of his children were killed, one son who stayed with him survived, as did a daughter was married elsewhere. So when the mob attacked their house, Abdul and his son witnessed everything. They saw their family members, including several small children – one of whom was four years old; raped publicly in broad daylight and then burned. He was also attacked with a sabre. But he lay low because he thought he was going to die. His son was also knocked unconscious and set ablaze but he survived.

When I went in to shoot this documentary, from which this still image is extracted; it was a normal town for me. Quite clean in fact, compared with other shanties I’ve been to. Abdul Majid was running a business there and looked pretty upbeat. But as soon as we put to him questions, his eyes would glaze over  and he was looking at nothing. I felt that with every question we asked him, he was re-living his trauma.

His public persona was that of the strong man who survived. We met him during the Eid festival. It was a time of celebration. So he made a huge effort to have the biggest goat and go from house to house, sharing the meat with the community. He really went all out to prove that he was a strong member of the community. For his surviving children he needed to display that he was a strong father. And then, there was the complete opposite part of his identity that was revealed to us when we separated him from the others and sat him down to talk. And he could really reflect on his emotional state. Here he became a completely different person. He shrunk. He had become smaller. Every part of his body communicated to us the fact that he didn’t want to talk about his predicament. But he went ahead with the interview because we spent a lot of time with him, building a relationship of trust. We told him that he was completely in charge. That we would not show anything that he didn’t want. We made him view some of the footage and asked him if it was okay.

Sure, there are moments when you tell yourself that you don’t want to continue this interview. I have a fantastic imagination and that went awry when he just touched upon a couple of subjects. It was the way he spoke. He just about hinted at things and then let the sentence peter out. He spoke in half sentences. The rest was upto us and the translator to fill with our own imagination. Cruel images of how a child gets raped or somebody gets set ablaze who is still alive. In these instances, you realize very quickly that it doesn’t really matter where on the planet you are. When the person has reached his limit, you just do not push further. But equally, when you’re filming someone’s narrative of pain as we were doing, the stronger camera in this case is the camera that stays. Not the camera that further intrudes or the camera that artificially takes itself back. Zooming in is like jumping in the person’s face and zooming out is like leaving a crying child alone in a park.

Of course, you’re constantly asking yourself  – am I overstepping the bounds. There is always this dilemma in such a shoot but then you also ask yourself  what the higher good is here. If the messaging is coming out and if it can be delivered to more people than would normally be reached. And we all want a strong film because a strong film will have strong reactions. Every film ahs an informational aim and an emotional aim. And if both of them meet and interlock, then you are succeeding with telling your story.

When we speak of mass violence, it springs in different places from many different and varied experiences. I’m from a European background with a very violent history. But when it comes to comparisons that are often made between Nazi Germany and the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, structurally, I see huge parallels between what happened in India and the Nazi mobs that attacked Jews. In both cases, the pogroms were politically motivated and the police was withdrawn. In Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels said very clearly – ‘Let the anger of the German people vent.’ And I think that was repeated here. So this is a parallel that I would draw.

Speaking of Germany, the small town where I’m from had a concentration camp. Buchenwald. Geographically it was situated right at the top of a hill. So you could see it from the valley of the town. Which meant that nobody could say – we don’t know what happened there. Since that time in the 1930s, so many interesting changes have happened to my home town. When I was 12, the Berlin Wall came down. East and West Germany became one. So I had history lessons in an Eastern bloc country first – the socialist version of events. After the wall came down, I also got the western democratic version of that topic. In the East, survivors of the Holocaust took a solemn oath – there should never be a war that is born of the German soil ever again. So the last school trip that every child from schools in the area took before graduating was based on this concept. They did not go to the beach. They did not go to the mountains. They went to the Buchenwald concentration camp. To see a horror show of a museum including a lampshade made out of tattooed human skin. The intention was to shock. So the message was hammered in hard to these young people, now going out into the world – `this is your guilt.’  Every single time I am there my heart rate just goes down. The last time I was there it had snowed. So there was no sound at all. The only thing you could hear was your inner voice and your own heart beat.

What makes me very happy is that we now have youth that is the third generation from that time and they can integrate this experience with their world. They are so far away from what happened that they can now say to people that visit – `okay, we come from this town that has these beautiful elements, but it also has THAT. And if you come to this town, you should see both.’

There is good and evil fighting in all of us, constantly.