Of Massacres And Democracies: Think Manila, Rethink Ayodhya

Deaths are always tragic, far more so when they fall upon unsuspecting victims in the most violent ways for no fault of theirs. Even worse, are the deaths which come in the form of pogroms - organised, packaged and delivered on communities by the powers that be.

Things get even worse when we can see such tragedies coming. As in the tension that is looming large over India, in the form of the tensions over upcoming verdict on the Ayodhya dispute. Talk of Ayodhya and it raises gory, bloody memories, literally. Any time, every time. It exposes all our incapacities as a people including the false civilisational claims we have attributed to ourselves. It further, exposes our inability to learn any lessons from the tragedies that have befallen us because of these failures of our own. It also exposes our ignorance of the fact that how other communities, some of them at least, deal with such calamities. Ignorance cannot make us learn anything is a point that need not be even mentioned.

The recent Hostage crisis in Manila culminating in the death of 8 people from Hong Kong is one such moment of poignant grief and a grim reminder of the extent to which the world is a dangerous place to live in. But it is also a valiant example of the triumph of humanity, of civilisation and of the very essence of democratic societies. If only we could learn a few lessons from it!

The enormity of the tragedy lies in exposing the utmost scorn for life by those who are primarily responsible for protecting it and all their pretensions that come with it. While exposing the complete failure of state institutions in Philippines, the massacre evoked strong reactions ranging from utter disgust to unrestrained resentment. A few of them were full of hatred towards not only the perpetrator of the horrible crime and the Philippines government, but also towards the ordinary Filipinos living in Hong Kong.
What followed these hate calls, though, was a mesmerising lesson in how to act responsibly and, more importantly, humanely in the face of a tragedy. It is a lesson which can put us, with all our claims of a five thousand year old civilisation that has successfully evolved into the biggest democracy of the world, to shame.

After all, we have had countless massacres of our own. And quite many, though not all, of them emanating out of Ayodhya, the mother of all disputes. We have failed ourselves as a nation terribly, provided of course, if we are a nation and not a collection of some disjoint castes, creeds, communities and of religions.

Be it the state supported pogrom of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, the 1993 riots in Bombay when the police looked the other way, the state orchestrated pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, or state engineered violence against Christians in Orissa in 2008; there are too many of them to count. Further, all of them have an uncanny similarity; all of them tell the horrible tales of brutalising the victims not only as individuals but as a community. All of them are replete with tales narrating the new inventions in unleashing violence with a purpose, of not only killing but also humiliating the victims, leaving a permanent scar on their psyches.

That the political leadership of the country has been complicit in these pogroms is a fact we have known all along, haven’t we? Right from the earth- shakes- when- a- big- tree- falls statements to action- reaction theories put forward by the political leaders. All of them have betrayed their real communal self, disguised in a secular facade, leaving a legacy of lies and deceit - A legacy so well known that it ceases even to shock, leave aside any questions of hurting.

The real blame for letting all these pogroms, however, lies with the citizenry. Where was the citizenry when all these massacres were happening? Had all the law-abiding, good Samaritans gone into hiding when murderous mobs were butchering innocent Sikhs on the streets of Delhi in 1984? How could a small fringe of Gujarat population, belonging to a right-wing Hindu fanatic group get away with all the murders and rapes? Was it possible for a small fringe, again, to kill so many Christians in Odisha (formerly Orissa) with impunity? Undoubtedly, the perpetrators could do all this because the citizenry decided to be indifferent. All this supported and legitimised the violence and let it take an ugly turn.

And all this started with the silence of the most unbearable kinds. We, as the citizens decided to keep mum at the very first instance when the fundamentalists started to bring their nasty ideas into the public domain. We shrugged these ideas away as the insanities of a lunatic fringe instead of taking them head on and dealing with them. In the process, we happily forgot the fact that everything, good or bad, begins with an idea.

Contrast this with the response of the Hong Kong people, the government and the citizenry alike. They did not take a moment in coming down heavily on those preachers of hate. They challenged them right away while also emphasising the dangers of misconstruing the victims as perpetrators and failing to differentiate between the state and citizenry.

In one of the very first interventions on the issue, Jackie Chan, the most popular film star of the city, called for peace while assuring the Filipinos that the Hong Kong people do not hate. When was the last time we saw our own superstars calling for peace in the midst of a tragedy. However, we can, definitely, remember them joining hands with the perpetrators of such crimes and becoming brand ambassadors for their states!

The second thing the Hong Kong people did was bringing out the real situation within the Philippines out in open, building a bridge made out of empathy in the process.
They pointed out, rightly, that Filipinos, in fact, are the worst victims of the total collapse of governance and rule of law in their country. Maguindanao massacre in the town of Ampatuan in Maguindanao province, described as "supreme act of inhumanity that is a blight on our nation” by the then President Arroyo, demonstrates the exceptional collapse of state institutions in the Philippines. In the massacre which took place on November 23, 2009, a convoy of six vehicles going to file a certificate of candidacy in the forthcoming Maguindanao gubernatorial election, for Esmael Mangudadatu, vice mayor of Buluan town was stopped by 100 armed men belonging to the mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr., son of the incumbent Maguindanao governor. All members of the convoy were later executed and buried, along with their vehicles, in mass graves dug days before the massacre.

The massacre left at least 57 people dead including at least 27 local journalists, making it the single largest killing of journalists. The victims included 2 lawyers and many others not related to the candidate. Several women among the dead were allegedly raped before the murder and almost all of them shot in the genitals. Despite this unprecedented scale of barbarity and tall promises of bringing the culprits to justice, nothing much has happened in the case.

Can one really resent the wretched citizens of such a lawless land, was the question they, then put to their fellow citizens. They answered the question as well by pointing out that it was a land where, leave aside the common citizenry, even the politicians and journalists were not safe. They reminded every Hong Konger that Filipinos were, in fact, the sufferers of countless massacres, kidnappings, tortures and all other possible denials of basic human rights and dignities, every human being ought to have as inalienable rights.

Understandably, the perception of the situation changed in no time. These acts of citizenry ensured that far from deserving any wrath, Filipinos, being survivors of such injustices, actually got the sympathy and compassion of the local community.

The government too, meanwhile, was not sitting idle. Immediately following the first news of the hostage crisis reached Hong Kong, almost all department of local government swung into action, the police being the most prominent. The chief of the city’s police ensured increased presence of police in public places while reassuring the 130 thousand-strong Filipino community of all support. Contrast this with the inglorious legacy of the police force in India, where it has been established that no riot can run for more than twenty four hours, without the connivance of the police.

Just to add a point, the citizenry in Hong Kong did it all for ‘others’, a people who did not belong to them. Compare this with what we have done to our own people, massacre after massacre. It would force us to hang our heads in shame. It could, on the contrary, also spur us on to make a fresh start - A start to ensure that we evolve as a community and not as a disjointed sum of components divided long the faultlines of caste, community, religion or whatever other categories which could be exploited to turn us into barbarians on the prowl. It is time for us to realize that grief is a word which does not know divisions. Grief cannot be ‘ours’ or ‘theirs’. It is just grief, plain and simple and we are one in these times of excruciating agony.

Till then, we have no right to call ourselves citizens, and this country a democracy. We can start afresh this time. We can ensure that we start becoming a nation.

First published in Counter Currents. Can be accessed at