Reconciliation: Karwan e Mohabbat’s journey of solidarity through a wounded India, Edited by Harsh Mander, Natasha Badhwar & John Dayal; Westland, Rs.339; 192 pp
This volume is a rushed attempt at investigating the lynchings, hate crimes and rise of cow vigilantes that have stormed the media in India over the past few years. It details the violence that has surged against Muslims, Dalits and other lower castes.
This book is the outcome of the Karwan E Mohabbat (‘Caravan of Love’) journeys that human rights activist and social worker Harsh Mander and others initiated in 2018, to lend a compassionate ear to the victims of hate crimes. Many elements combine to make this volume a searing indictment of the Indian state, and perhaps the idea of India itself.
As an organised response to State apathy and indifference, Mander and others gathered to cover the regions, cases and families worst affected by lynchings and riots. These journeys were crowd funded. In many of them, Mander and others face hostility from the Hindu majority. At one location, Mewat in Haryana, their bus is stoned. At the burial site of Pehlu Khan, Mander attempts to place marigolds but is barred by the local police initially, and finally allowed to do so after much struggle.
The first part of the book records the plight of the populace in areas worst hit by hate violence and hate crimes — Nellie in Assam, rural Odisha, Tilak Vihar in Delhi — signposts of sectarian and caste conflict of contemporary Indian history. It is the expressed intention of the editors of the book to place the context of the recent violence in a broader framework of anarchy and bloodletting in a so-called secular democracy. Viewed from the perspective of the weakest and poorest citizens, Indian democracy seems a travesty.
The third part of the book collates the experience of individual travellers. Journalist-activist John Dayal writes about his experiences while covering anti-Christian Adivasi violence in Odisha and Telangana. His chapter sheds light on the police-vigilantes nexus that is at the heart of the majoritarian closing of ranks in India. Here, the Indian State comes across as anti-people and the embodiment of Public Enemy #1. But by the time one gets to Dayal’s essay the reader is already horrified by terrible details of violence.
Journalist Priya Ramani and academic Sanjukta Basu, describe the pain of the families of victims they encounter. There is much exploration of suffering, healing and attendant helplessness. Some participants highlight the gendered experiences of victims. In many cases, men are at the forefront of the aman sabhas (peace meetings), while women remain in the background.
The most powerful essay in the book, all of four pages, is by Nidhi Suresh, a 22-year-old journalist who is unable to fully grasp the complex context of the caravan’s journey and chooses to be the ‘wallflower’ of the karwan. There is a moment she describes about identifying a woman, a victim’s kin, who sees her and knows her life will change for she will be told something she will have no response to and no words of reply.
Suresh’s personalisation of that moment makes for stirring reading, where the lines between reporter and the subject are blurred and sympathies switched. Her essay is also the clearest piece of dissent about the karwan in the book. She questions whether it helps in the healing process of the afflicted by being invasive: Shouldn’t the victims need more active listening by karwan members? Suresh questions her own and the karwan’s gaze, while shedding a tear or two. On the negative side, many essays tend to repeat information already provided. Moreover, Mander gets attention over and over again. Yet, the depth of the book tides over these minor flaws.
An insightful essay by academic Prabhir Vishnu Poruthiyil of IIT, Tiruchirapally, powerfully and validly compares the silence of corporate India over communal and sectarian violence contrasting it with the strident criticism of corporate America about Donald Trump’s shenanigans and malfeasance.
Mander ends the book with some hope placing on record the tragedies and humanitarianism of Maulana Imdadullah Rashidi, the imam of Asansol, West Bengal who lost his son in sectarian rioting, and the Saxenas of Delhi whose son was murdered for falling in love with a Muslim girl. The father of the victim, Yashpal Saxena refuses to ‘communalise’ the matter of his son’s death.
These are the few silver linings of a book that is grey with grief and red with blood. Is it the death-knell of the illusions we have about India: arguably the greatest human tragedy mankind has ever known?
Rahul Jayaram (The Book Review, April)