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 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.


Rethinking Religious Divides

By  Richard M. Eaton

University of Arizona

At a time when the world is plagued by rising bigotry against Muslims around the world from Donald Trump to home grown versions of the same in India, Richard Eaton is like Godzilla. A giant in his own right, he is a historian whose reasoned and thorough writing tears into the existing firmament with unstoppable and compelling force. At a time when the Hindu right wing in India argued that Muslim rulers knocked down many thousand Hindu temples, Eaton decided to count so that we’d really know once and for all, what did actually happen. The answer was a mere eighty over a period of six hundred  years. And most of these were struggles for power and not religious bigotry, the way it is mistakenly described today. He also explains how Aurangzeb – the last of the great Mughal rulers, often painted as a temple destroyer, actually built more temples than his predecessors. If there is a question about medieval South Asian history, all you need to do to really get a nuanced and accurate answer is to `Richard Eaton’ it. When you read the acerbic wit in his piece below, you’ll see why.  

Notwithstanding the considerable body of scholarship on South Asian history that has appeared over the past several decades, we still live with the image of a monolithic and alien Islam colliding with an equally monolithic Hinduism, construed as indigenous, and from the eleventh century on, politically suppressed.   Such a cardboard-cutout caricature survives in much of India’s tabloid media, as well as in textbooks informed by a revivalist, aggressively political strand of Hinduism, or “Hindutva”. Though useful for stoking primordial identities or mobilizing support for political agendas, this caricature thrives on a pervasive ignorance of South Asia’s past. Removing such ignorance is precisely the endeavor to which academic institutions, and scholarship more generally, are properly committed.

It is astonishing, then, to find such a distorted image of South Asian religions appearing in a four-page “reflection” by Professor Gerald James Larson at the front of the previous issue of the Journal of Asian Studies, where it is framed as a brief introduction to “Idols in the Archive,” an elegant memoir-inflected essay by Manan Ahmed Asif. Here Larson thrice invokes an oil-and-water relationship between Hinduism and Islam. Ever since the Partition of British India in 1947, he writes, South Asians have realized “that Hindu religious sensibilities could not coexist with Muslim sensibilities in a modern, democratic polity” and that “Hinduism and Islam have now emerged as distinct cultural traditions”.   Although the last quote’s phrasing might suggest that Larson sees this religious apartheid as a post-1947 phenomenon, elsewhere on these pages he flatly declares that “Hindu and Muslim religious sensibilities are the antithesis of one another.”

Several issues here are methodological. First, across the human sciences scholarship depends on presenting facts, drawing inferences from these facts, and, especially when presenting views that venture into disputed territory, offering both facts and inferences to the public for evaluation. In introductory essays, such as Larson’s, a full scholarly apparatus is not to be expected, but given the way that some of his claims go against the grain of much recent academic work, citations to more than simply his own 1995 book, India’s Agony of Religion, would have been appreciated.[1]

Second, historians, especially, are accustomed to thinking empirically – that is, gathering evidence and building arguments “from the ground up,” but Larson seems to have formed his opinions on South Asian religions by reasoning downwards from normative principles. For him, it appears from this piece, South Asian religions can be understood as if they were dishes prepared according to recipes in a cookbook authored by some unidentified Master Chef. Thus the recipe for Islam, as presented in the piece, consists of one God, a master text, a master historical narrative, a master community, a credo (“orthodoxy”), and the sacred space of Mecca. The Hindu religion, by contrast, consists of many or no deities, many texts, many narratives, an absence of a credo, and a plurality of normatively hierarchical mini-communities.   Without even getting to the question of whether Larson has his recipes right, the problem for the historian or the anthropologist – both of them trained to keep their noses to the ground and not in a cookbook – is that people don’t always follow normative recipes, often preferring to concoct their own religious traditions. Or, they might disagree over which recipe is “right”. Indeed, they might not even be aware of the existence of a recipe, or in any event of a single one that applies exclusively to themselves, a condition that fairly describes the greater part of South Asia’s population before the eighteenth century. Larson appears to be anachronistically back-projecting onto several millennia of South Asian history his own modernist understanding of religion in general, as well as of specific religious traditions.

Where might the author have acquired such notions? India’s Agony over Religion, which tends to pose issues in terms of sharp dichotomies and divides, reveals a curious notion of India’s religious history. For its author, South Asia seems over time to have witnessed a sequence of distinct, fully-formed, and self-contained religious traditions that were simply added on to earlier such traditions, rather like the separate layers of sedimentary strata successively deposited on an ocean floor. Understanding India’s history thus becomes an exercise in religious archaeology, a project of excavating and exposing such cultural layers. For Larson, India’s earliest and deepest layers were the “Indus Valley” and the “Indic (Hindu-Buddhist-Jain),” both construed as indigenous and authentically South Asian.   By contrast, he understands India’s subsequent layers, the “Indo-Islamic” and “Indo-Anglian,” as alien and fundamentally unassimilable. Indeed, from the late tenth century on, he writes, “intrusions” by Muslims “became serious threats to the independence of the subcontinent” (pp. 53, 103).

If we follow Larson and construe Islam as a “threat” to South Asia’s post-tenth century “independence” – whatever such a formulation might mean– we enter a bizarre and disturbing corner of Indian historiography. Indeed, we seem to have reached a terrain inhabited by the late Samuel Huntington, who sketched out his theory of a “clash of civilizations” in a 1992 lecture before the American Enterprise Institute, soon thereafter published in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article. Since this article appeared just two years before India’s Agony over Religion, one might suspect a direct influence, or perhaps there was something in the zeitgeist or the water in the mid-1990s causing people to think along parallel lines. In any event, Huntington imagined the earth’s surface as akin to a large jig-saw puzzle, with each of its pieces corresponding to one, and only one, distinct “civilization”. No fuzzy boundaries, no overlapping; one belonged to either one civilization or another. His color-coded map of the planet juxtaposed a saffron-colored India with a green-colored Bangladesh to the east and green-colored Pakistan and Middle East to the west.

As a political scientist, Huntington was of course referring to his own times, the late twentieth century. But Larson, with his notion of Islam’s “threat” to India’s late medieval “independence,” seems to have projected Huntington’s static clash-of-civilizations model backwards to the tenth century, construing an alien Islam as intruding on an indigenous Hinduism.   Such a move, however, prevents him from considering how religious traditions emerge, disappear, or evolve over time, how they adapt to different cultural environments, freely assimilating some bits and pieces of those environments, but not others. It also begs the question of how Islam, or any religion, could have diffused beyond its point of origin. With such a static model, one could hardly explain the diffusion of Buddhism into East Asia, of Christianity into northern Europe, of Islam into the East Indies, or indeed, of Hinduism within India.   Reflecting on Larson’s assertion that “Hindu and Muslim religious sensibilities are the antithesis of one another,” one might fairly wonder how South Asia became the demographic center of the Muslim world, outnumbering the Muslim population of the entire Middle East.

The good news is that a great deal of scholarly work—scholarship of which Larson may be unaware or at least by which he seems not to have been influenced—has been done on such questions. During the 1980s and 1990s, even before Huntington propounded his “clash” theory, scholars had grown skeptical of the notion of bounded civilizational entities. From one side, postmodernist schools of thought challenged the idea of all fixed and stable identities, whether political, religious, or civilizational, highlighting “decentredness” and “contingency” rather than “centredness” or “authenticity.”[2] From another, scholars of late medieval and early modern India studied phenomena such as the naturalization of Perso-Arabic vocabulary in Indian languages, the incorporation of Indian superhuman beings in Islamic cosmologies, or the patronage, by “Muslim” courts, of Hindu literati writing in Sanskrit or Indian vernaculars.[3]

We know that both British colonial and Indian/Pakistani nationalist scholarship tended to divide India’s past into two tidy columns — one Hindu, one Muslim – with texts, architecture, art, kings, courts, language, etc. crammed into one or the other of these two procrustean beds.   But as the late Aditya Behl has shown, this sort of binary thinking made it impossible to classify phenomena such as the earliest genre of Hindi literature, the premakhyans (lit. “love-stories”), which appeared in the eastern Gangetic Plain between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries .[4]   Composed originally in the Persian script by Sufis who narrated the seeker’s mystical quest for union with Allah, this literary genre used characters who were ostensibly “Hindu” in name and cultural/religious practice, situating them in a landscape saturated with Indian deities, mythology, flora and fauna. Such texts vividly reflect the remarkable fluidity of religious sensibilities in premodern India.   Yet early twentieth century nationalist writers, constrained by the Hindu-Muslim binary mindset of their times, engaged in long and fruitless debates as to where to pigeon-hole this literature, and even whether or not it was truly “Indian.” Larson’s reflections notwithstanding, recent South Asian scholarship has moved far beyond those days.

[1] Gerald Larson, India’s Agony of Religion (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995).

[2] See Arif Dirlik, “The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism,” Critical Inquiry 20 (Winter, 1994), 348-56; Simon During, “Postmodernism or Postcolonialism? Landfall 39 (1985), 366-80; Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992), 95-105, and chap. 8; Anne McClintock, “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term `Postcolonial’,” Social Text 31-32 (1992), 84-98.

[3] For examples, see the articles in David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence, eds., Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000). See also Asim Roy, The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983); Cynthia Talbot, “Inscribing the Other, Inscribing the Self: Hindu‑Muslim Identities in Pre‑Colonial India,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 37/4 (October 1995), 92‑722.; Tony K. Stewart, “In Search of Equivalence: Conceiving Muslim-Hindu Encounter through Translation Theory,” History of Religions 40, no. 3 (Feb., 2001), 260-87;Romila Thapar, Somanatha: the Many Voices of a History (New York: Verso, 2005); Finbarr B. Flood, Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009); Allison Busch, Poetry of Kings: the Classical Hindi Literature of Mughal India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); O’Hanlon, Rosalind and David Washbrook, Religious Cultures of Early Modern India: New Perspectives (New Delhi: Routledge, 2011); Aditya Behl, Love’s Subtle Magic: an Indian Islamic Literary Tradition, 1379-1545 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[4] Behl, Love’s Subtle Magic.