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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 13, March 22, 2014

Where Are The Emile Zolas of Our Times?: On Minority Rights and State Violence

Sunday 23 March 2014, by Subhash Gatade

Each one has his reasons: for one, art is a flight; for another, a means of conquering. But one can flee into a hermitage, into madness, into death. One can conquer by arms. Why does it have to be writing, why does one have to manage his escapes and conquests by writing? Because, behind the various aims of the authors, there is a deeper and more immediate choice which is common to all of us.
What is Literature? Jean Paul Sartre

It is difficult to start when you are among an august gathering of masters and students of a subject you are not much aware of and are asked to say something to them. Today I find myself in that unenviable situation.

Let me admit here that when I received the information of the seminar I was really very excited to learn that scholars of literature would be focusing themselves on human rights, an issue which demands urgent attention from every thinking and concerned human being. But when the question of joining the debate arose, I was really in two minds. In fact, I was a bit reluctant to come here for two simple reasons.

Firstly, being a Left activist for the larger part of my social life, I have been more accustomed to address public meetings on specific issues or share my ideas on a particular theme among activist circles. There have not been very many occasions when I had the opportunity to come to such gatherings.

The second reason was very personal. The moment my daughter came to know of this invite she advised me to be extra careful with my English pronunciation.

So with due apologies to you all in advance —who might have a harrowing time listening to my English for the next couple of minutes—here I begin.


Quite sometime ago I came across the information of an unusual book, Writer’s Police, written by Bruno Fulgini, an employee at the French Parliament, whose job was to scan old files at the office of the Paris Police. What he found interesting in the two hundred-year-old police files that beyond criminals and political figures, there were files on writers and artists as well. In fact, this book provides details of the way in which great writers of the late 18th century, who were living in Paris at that time, were kept under surveillance by the then rulers of France.

It was clear to these protectors of internal security of a tottering regime that the renowned literati then, might be writing fiction, but their sharp focus on the hypocrisy of the aristocrats or the livelihood issues of the ordinary people was adding to the growing turmoil in the country. They knew very well that they might be writing fiction for the masses but it was turning out to be a sharp political edge that hit the right target and was becoming a catalyst for change. History bears witness to the fact that all those meticulous efforts put in by the police to curtail the free flow of ideas proved futile and how the French Revolution of those times emerged as a beacon of hope for the thinking people across the world.

Or take the case of the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly, an anti-slavery novel by the American author, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published in 1852, the novel “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War”. Details of the popularity of the book can be gauged from the fact that it was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of that century, after the Bible.

Looking back we gather that the strength of the novel lies in its ability to illustrate slavery’s effect on families, and to help readers empathise with enslaved characters. Writing in the 1950s, poet Langston Hughes called the book a “moral battle cry for freedom”. According to legend, Abraham Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 by saying: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

To be very frank, I have never been a student of literature but I am really amazed by the power literature can wield over people, prom-pting Lenin, the leader of the first Socialist Revolution, to call Leo Tolstoy the ‘Mirror of Russia’s Revolution’ or Premchand, a doyen of Urdu-Hindi literature, still being revered by writers and revolutionists alike more than 75 years after his death.

And when I read these details and try to comprehend literature’s immense capacity to ‘look into the future’ I sincerely hope and wish that it is high time that it reassumes that role in these dark times.


Yes, these are really dark times, especially if we are ready to look beyond the neon signs and the glitter and all the talk of economic growth one witnesses around us. Growing pauperisation and marginalisation of a majority of the people coupled with the oppression of communities because of their specific identities is a fact which cannot be glossed over now. Minorities of various kinds—ethnic, racial, religious etc.—are really having a tough time the world over. Aided and abetted by the people in power in very many ways, they are being forced to eke out a living in difficult circumstances.

Coming to this part of South Asia, the situation looks really grim. The upsurge/emergence of majoritarianism is evident everywhere. Not a day passes when one does not hear of attacks under various garbs on victim communities. A notable aspect of the unfolding dynamic is that the victim community here seems to be metamorphosing into the perpetrator community in the neighbouring region.

Not some time ago it would have been difficult to believe that self-proclaimed upholders of Mahatma Buddha’s doctrine would metamorphose into the ‘Bin Ladens of Burma’. Perhaps you might have read a story in the Guardian or a similar story in Time about Wirathu, a Buddhist monk, the chief of a monastery of 2500 monks, whose sermons have instigated fanatic Buddhists to attack Muslim neighbour-hoods. The plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Mynamar being subjected to untold misery by the majoritarian Buddhists is for everyone to see.

Cross the borders of Mynamar, reach Bangla-desh and one witnesses a different scenario. Here the Chakmas—mainly Buddhists, Hindus and Ahmadiyas, a sect among Muslims—seem to be on the receiving end of the Islamic zealots. A few months back Human Rights Watch had published details of its report about the violence undertaken by fanatic Islamists against Hindus—which included burning of their houses or attacking their business establishments—in the aftermath of the War Crimes Tribunal‘s verdicts against a few senior leaders of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. Although the people in power here as well as the judiciary and a large section of the masses have consistently opposed their machinations, there is a danger that with the coming elections for the Parliament the situation may turn for the worse.

Neighbouring Pakistan represents a case where growing Islamisation of the polity has led us to a situation that not only Christians and Hindus and Ahmadiyas but Shia Muslims also seem to under increasing attack, with no solution seeming to be in sight. There used to be a time when Islam, as practised in Pakistan, revered its Sufi legacy but it has given way to a situation where all such composite traditions are under increasing attack. Renowned Pakistani scholar and human rights activist Pervez Hoodbhoy calls it the ‘Saudisation’ or ‘Wahhabisation’ of Pakistan. There are suicide bombings at Sufi shrines or passenger buses are stopped and Hazara Muslims are singled out and killed. Schools are being bombed because they allow girl students to study. We have all been witness to the use of the law of blasphemy which is employed to target non-Muslims, and the martyrdom of Salman Taseer, the then Governor of Punjab (Pakistan), who had demanded repeal of this anti-human law.

Maldives, an important part of the SAARC process, is also moving on similar lines.

Sri Lanka, which remained in the news for decades because of the Tamil insurgency, is today catching headlines because of the activities of the Sinhala Buddhist extremists who are in connivance with the ruling dispensation there. The infamous BBS (Bodu Bala Sena), floated some time back, has attacked Muslim business establishments, compelled removal of mosques from ‘sacred areas’ and stopped marketing of ‘halal’ meat from shops which Muslims prefer because of religious reasons. Much like Mynamar, here also Buddhist monks seem to be leading this anti-Muslim campaign.

India, which calls itself the biggest democracy in the world, is no exception to this dynamic.


The situation as it exists here today as far as the issue of minority rights is concerned, is qualitatively not very different from our neighbouring countries. Dr Ambedkar’s caution, at the time of adoption of the Constitution more than sixty years back, that with the system of one person one vote we are entering the phase of political democracy but it will be still a big challenge to usher us into the system of one person one value—real social democracy—rings true even today.

The actual situation on the ground vis-à-vis minority rights is visible through many studies and social phenomenon. The first and foremost seems to be the incidence of communal riots. To understand the gravity of the situation, one can have a look at some old figures related to communal conflicts. A ‘study by the Bureau of Police Research and Development, a Union Home Ministry body, says that between 1954 and 1996, almost 16,000 people lost their lives in 21,000 incidents of rioting, while over one lakh were injured. Only a handful have been held accountable.’ (‘Communal Riots’, India Today, July 21, 2003) And we should not forget that these are ‘official’ figures; the actual numbers must be much larger.

One still remembers the anti-Sikh carnage after the assassination of Prime Minister Ms Indira Gandhi when Sikhs came under attack at the national level (1984) and officially more than a thousand were killed in the Capital of the Republic itself by putting burning tyres on their bodies or similar brutal methods. Everybody knows that it was no spontaneous violence, it was an organised, systematic violence which was led by leaders of the then ruling party, namely, the Congress. There have been reports of commissions starting from the first one brought out by the ‘Citizens for Democracy’ which categorically blamed leaders of the Congress party for the carnage.

Would anyone today believe that Delhi, the Capital of the great democracy called India, was witness to the killings of around 1000 innocents merely 29 years ago and today, ten enquiry commissions and three special courts later, only three people have been found guilty of killing the hapless 1000 Sikhs and the actual planners and masterminds of this genocide are still roaming free.

There is no doubt that unless and until we are able to punish the real perpetrators and ringleaders of this violence against Sikhs, it would provide a ‘rationale’ for the Hindu Hriday Samrats of our times, who unashamedly packaged the 2002 violence against minorities in Gujarat in their infamous ‘action-reaction’ thesis.

Every sane person would agree with Tarun Tejpal, the editor of Tehelka, about three particularly disturbing things about Gujarat 2002. ‘The first that the genocidal killings took place in the heart of urban India in an era of saturation of media coverage’, ‘the second that the men who presided over the carnage were soon after elected to power not despite their crimes but because of them’ and ‘the fact that there continues to be no trace of remorse, no sign of penitence for the blood-on-the hands’.

A question naturally arises, whether every sensitive, humane, justice-loving person/ formation on this part of the earth is ready to take this further humiliation with folded hands or is ready to break asunder the carefullly maintained conspiracy of silence. Would it be correct on our part to hold the carnage as an act of a few ‘psychotic killers’, a ‘product of a few crooked minds’ and leave the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliated organisations—who planned and executed it—intact?

Looking at the fact that today the very act of riot-making has reached what Paul R Brass likes to call the ‘institutionalised riot systems’ stage in the country, we should be wary of searching for the element of spontaniety in any riot. One needs to emphasise this again and again because what we witness today is the continuous denial of justice to riot victims claiming ‘spontaneity’ to such mayhems.

Commenting on this aspect, the Supreme Court lawyer, Ms Indira Jaisingh, had raised a pertinent point: ‘Our legal system has failed to answer the question: what is the constitutional and personal responsibility of the head of state for mass killings?’ And she had recommended: ‘Apart from holding all those who committed the acts of killing liable, we also have to hold liable people in positions of power, who not only failed to prevent the killings, but encou-raged by hate speech, justified it as an understandable response.’ (Ref: ‘1984 in the Life of a Nation’, The Indian Express, November 1, 2004)

One is reminded of the whole debate when one finds that it has been more than 30 years since the Nellie massacre occurred and the per-petrators of this violence still remain unpunished. It was on February 18, 1983 when armed mobs attacked and killed more than 1800 Muslims (unofficial claims: 3300) across 14 villages in Assam’s central district of Nagaon in a span of mere six hours. The attackers of this worst case of religious-ethnic cleansing in independent India engaged in such brutal violence on the pretext that the victims were illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The report of an inquiry commission—the Tiwary Commission—which was submitted quarter-of-a-century ago, still lies unattended. And there seems to have unfolded an unwritten consensus between the ruling and the Opposition parties in Assam not to revisit the killings in the said massacre.


There are very many ways in which India is presented and projected to the outside world. For some it happens to be the biggest democracy in the world, while for others it is one of the fastest growing economies of the world, which has now ‘arrived’.

But rarely does anyone talks about its being a ‘land of mass crimes’ where the perpetrators of such crimes have always gone unpunished. None of the opinion-makers talk about the unholy alliance between politicos, mafiosi and the law and order machinery which has emerged down the years where the art of ‘invisibilising mass crimes’ is being perfected. And the targets of such mass crimes are—mainly the religious minorities or people on the lowest rung of the social matrix or the toiling masses of the country.

Would anyone believe that the ‘first’ massacre of fortytwo Dalits—mainly women and children—in independent India at Kizzheva-namani (Tamilnadu, 1969) by the local upper- caste landlords went unpunished with a specious argument on part of the judiciary that ‘ these are upper-caste people and it is impossible to believe that they would have gone walking to the dalit hamlet’.

Even a cursory glance at the 60 plus-year-old history of post-independent India makes it clear that neither the killing of around 42 dalit women and children in Kizzhevanamani (Tamilnadu, 1969) nor the cold-blooded murder of 42 Muslims in Hashimpura (UP, 1986); neither the killling of around 1800 people (majority of them Muslims, (Bombay 1992) nor the massacre of scores of Dalits in Kumher (1993, Rajasthan) have been punished till date. One can just go on giving statistics about similar cold-blooded mass killings which took place in different parts of the country. In fact, in areas like the North-East or Kashmir, draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act are in operation for decades which has given impunity to the security forces, where killings of innocents under fictitious pretext has become a routine matter. One can refer to the recent report of the Santosh Hegde Commission, appointed by the Supreme Court, to look into specific instances of encounter killings in Manipur and what it has to say about them. It is not for nothing that the Ministry of Home Affairs and Manipur Government have joined hands and appealed to the Supreme Court to debunk the report. Very few people would like to admit the fact that Kashmir happens to be the world’s highest mili-tarised zone and thousands of innocents have lost their lives during the last two decades.

It would also enlighten you about the manner in which such mass crimes or crimes against humanity are rationalised or legitimised by the powers that be, where a Prime Minister of a country has no qualms in commenting after massive carnage of the Capital’s Sikh community led by his own party people that “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes”. Or the Chief Minister of a State shamelessly discovers the Newtonian ‘action-reaction’ thesis to cover up crimes of his own Parivar (‘family’) people.

Intellectuals, who are quite enamoured about the tolerance inherent in ‘our great culture’ and the sense of inclusiveness, would rather be shell-shocked to find that how the ordinary, peace-loving people themselves are ready to ‘metamorphose overnight’ into murderers and rapists of their own neighbours on a small pretext. All the orgy of violence and their ‘joyous participation’ in it is then followed by a conspiracy of silence where nobody is ready to speak the truth. Bhagalpur in Bihar, which had become such a site of violence in 1989, where officially over a thousand people had been slain, most of them Muslims, is still remembered for a particular incident. In Logain village, 116 Muslims were massacred, buried in a field and cauliflowers grown over their bodies.

Undoubtedly the biggest violators of minority rights—including their right to exist—are the state and the Right-wing majoritarian organi-sations but don’t they enjoy societal legitimacy?

It is worth noting that in a country which talks of the greatness of the apostle of non-violence, one type of violence is considered not only ‘legitimate’ but is sanctified as well. Violence against Dalits, women and other oppressed sections of the society has received religious sanction from times immemorial and the onset of modernity has not changed the broad picture. India could be said to be the only country where a widow is burnt alive on the dead husband’s pyre. If earlier the new-born daughter was killed in some brutal manner-today parents employ sex selective abortion—thanks to the developments in technology. It is not for nothing that India is the only country in the world where we have 33 million missing women.

Interestingly, imprints of many such customs and hierarchies, which had their genesis in the Hindu religion, is visible in religion as they are practised by others as well. Caste discrimination in Islam, Christianity or Buddhism, which would be unimaginable outside, is very much visible here in the life-worlds of people owing allegiance to these faiths.

The scenario needs to be drastically changed if India wants to emerge as a humane society. It is a challenge before every one of us. If people of the subcontinent resolve that ‘the biggest democracy on the face of the earth’ should not henceforth be remembered as a ‘land of mass crimes’, then it can happen soon.

An important component to make it happen is that all the justice and peace-loving people and formations compel the Indian Government to formulate suitable domestic legislation to comply with international legal norms as far as UN Convention on Genocide is concerned. It need be underlined here that India has signed the said Convention way back in 1959 but there is still absence of a suitable domestic legislation to not only prevent and punish genocide, but also designate a tribunal for the trial of those charged under the same act which has created a strange situation where the ability of the Indian criminal justice system to dispense justice—when it comes to mass crimes—seems to be in grave doubt.

It is worth emphasising that the said Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (in Article 2) defines genocide as:

...any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

One can easily gather that if genuine democracy-loving persons are able to over-whelm the powers that be on this issue, we can easily do away with the stigma of covering up of mass crimes or metamorphosis of riot- organisers or murderers into respectable politi-cians.


We should never lose sight of the fact that communal violence may be the worst mani-festation of the assault on minority rights but multiple layers of discrimination exist. A cursory glance at the findings of the Sachar Committee Report about social, economic and educational condition of the Muslim community—which was presented before Parliament on November 30, 2006—is disturbing, to say the least.

Apart from the Muslim community lagging behind in education and government employ-ment and their continuing deprivations at various levels, it had highlighted two important facts: The status of Indian Muslims is below the conditions of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and the overall percentage of Muslims in the bureaucracy in India is just 2.5 per cent whereas Muslims constitute above 14 per cent of the Indian population. It had also given mul-tiple suggestions to be adopted to ensure equity and equality of opportunities to Indian Muslims in residential, work and educational sectors.

It is disturbing to note that in actual practice nothing is being done. For example, the latest report from the National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) tells us that while there are more cops in India now, the share of Muslims has fallen further. (The Indian Express, August 6, 2013)


Recently you all must have read about the expose by Ashish Khaitan (gulail.com) docu-menting the ‘Secret Files prove what Muslims have suspected all along: the State is knowingly prosecuting the innocent on terror charges’. While it received better coverage in the regional (especially Maharashtra) or Urdu media, the national media rather overlooked what Mr Khaitan has tried to prove by unearthing “.[i]nternal documents from more than half-a- dozen anti-terror agencies that show that the State has been knowingly prosecuting innocent Muslims for terror cases and keeping the evidence of their innocence from the courts”. He has investigated “three terror cases—the 7/11 train blasts, the Pune German Bakery Blast and the 2006 Malegaon Blasts—and found that twentyone Muslims were tortoured, humiliated and sent for trial on the basis of bogus evidence. Later when the incontrovertible evidence emerged of their innocence it was either brushed aside or tailored to mislead the courts.”

One can cite any number of examples from our recent history where members of the minority community were put in jail or charged with complicity in terror acts which were committed by the Hindutva terrorists. May it be the case of the Malegaon 2006 bomb blast or the Mecca Masjid bomb blast or the Samjhauta Express bomb blast—many such acts, which were the handiwork of the RSS activists, were initially blamed on them. It is true that without the connivance of a section of the state machinery with majoritarian elements it would not have been possible to do so.

The investigating agencies suspect involve-ment of Hindutva activists in as many as 16 major explosions across the country. For laypersons, it may appear that such terror attacks organised in different parts of the country is the handiwork of some disgruntled, rogue elements belonging to the RSS, Sanatan Sanstha, Sri Ram Sene, little known Arya Sena or similar organisations who yearn to make India a Hindu Rashtra. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

A careful look at the unfolding dynamic makes it clear that this ‘terror turn’ is a very carefully drafted strategy by the Hindutva formations which had decided to slowly to move from their prime strategy of ‘terror of riot’ to ‘terror of bomb’. They discovered that the older strategy was no longer paying rich dividends at the pan-India level, and the new strategy was more appropriate and more beneficial for the reactionary political project of building fascism.

One can see it as a result of two processes—one national and the other international. The universal condemnation of the Hindutva brigade for aiding and abetting Gujarat carnage 2002 definitely forced the Parivar to revisit the politics of riots. There was growing realisation that engineering communal riots would not pay the desired political dividends but would rather nullify the political gains accrued through communal politics. Another factor which favoured this new modus operandi of the Hindutva brigade pertained to the ‘new common sense’ foisted on the people by the United States post- 9/11. The ‘war against terror’ launched under its aegis had strong overtones of undue targeting of a particular community and its religion, namely, Islam.


There are moments when one finds oneself in a hopeless situation—a situation every peace and justice-loving person in this part of the globe would have confronted with in the year 2002 when all of us had been witness to the Gujarat carnage with due complicity or alleged neutrality of the state functionaries. Thanks to 24X7 TV, it was the first televised riot in independent India.

If India would have signed the genocide convention, the perpetrators of the violence or the people whose alleged complicity made the riot happen could have been put behind bars for their crimes against humanity. All the talk of passage of time and establishment of peace today cannot not blind us to the fact that justice has still not been done there.

Look at the changed times. A gentleman— who, in the eyes of many, made the ‘riot’ happen as the modern-day Nero—has metamorphosed into a ‘Development Man’ today and his old and new band of admirers want to see him as next highest custodian of the country’s destiny. One would not be surprised if the electoral dynamic in this country unfolds itself in such a manner that this gentleman is pushed to the centre-stage of Indian politics. All our efforts, yearnings, aspirations for a more inclusive, more tolerant, more just and more peaceful country as well as society may be given a boot at least for the time being.

Should we prepare ourselves for this even-tuality and surrender ourselves to our ‘destiny’?

Definitely not.

It would mean surrendering the basic principles of democracy at the altar of majoritarianism. We should never forget that democracy connotes two other features in addition to the rule of the majority: protection of the rights of the minority’s ways of life and opinions, and, even more crucially, the legal possibility that the political minority of today can win electoral majority in the future and thus peacefully change the government.

“This is not our way...”

It was in 2001 that Norway witnessed killing of a African-Norwegian teenager, Benjamin Hermansen, by one of those neo-Nazis, the first such killing in the nation’s history. What happened next would be unimaginable to anyone from this part of the globe. The very next day tens of thousands of Norwegians were on the streets of Oslo demanding justice for the teenager and hold your breath, the Prime Minister of the country, Jens Stoltenberg, was leading the procession to send out a powerful message: “This is not our way; we shall not tolerate racial crimes in our society”. In less than a year, a five-judge Bench ruled that the two attackers—Joe ErlingJahr and Ole Nicolai Kvisler—were guilty and sent them to jail for a 15-year term. (Ref: ‘Interpreting Secular Delusions’, Javed Anand, Asian Age, 2nd August 2013)

I was reminded of this incident when Nobel Laureate Dr Amartya Sen recently came under attack from the neo-Nazis here for saying that he would not prefer Modi as the new Prime Minister of India because under his regime minorities would not be safe. Most of us missed out the soul-searching statement of the Nobel Laureate: “I felt that as a member of the majority community it is my duty, not merely my right, to speak up about the concerns of the minority. We often forget that as members of the majority.

The growing hollowing out of democracy before our own eyes should become our concern.

“The key to defend the rights of the minority is we inculcate basic values of democracy and attempt wholeheartedly so that we usher us into a regime where there is clear separation of religion and politics. Secularism of the state and secularisation of the civil society should become our key concern.

“Friends ask me why you insist on the deepening of democracy and strengthening of secularism. The only simple reason is that the moment we lose these polestars the day is not far off when we can follow in the footsteps of our neighbour which decided to have religion as the basis of nationhood and is said to be imploding today under various internal contradictions.”


Where should one look for new resources of hope when one finds oneself surrounded by a maddening crowd who wants Nero as their leader?

Nothing but literature. Literature has always prepared a people to take on the Goliaths, awakened them from their deep slumber to tell them that they are the new Davids.

I would like to end the presentation with an anecdote from French History which is known as the ‘Dreyfus Case’.

It was in the early eighteen nineties when a young Jewish military officer, called Dreyfus, was arrested supposedly for ‘treason’ and was sent to St Helena. Captain Dreyfus was caught while he was playing with his young son in the house. The police people had made such a watertight case against the officer that it seemed that everything was lost.

But, incidentally, the legendary French writer, Emile Zola, came to know about his case and wrote a series of articles in the newspapers (titled ‘J accuse’ meaning ‘I accuse!’) explaining the Jewish officer’s innocence and the way he was framed by the powers that be. He exposed how the people who have fabricated the case against Dreyfus ‘hated jews’. Suddenly the move to release Dreyfus gained such a momentum that within a short time the government was forced to release him.

Is not it high time that with the likes of Dreyfus in jail on fabricated charges of terrorism in this part of the globe or minority communities increasingly under attack, masters and students of literature rise up to the occasion today and yell: ‘J accuse’?

[Text of an invited lecture the author delivered at a seminar on ‘Literature and Human Rights’, organised by the Department of English, Pondicherry University,

Puducherry, August 7-8, 2013]

The author is a writer and social activist; he was publishing a Hindi periodical, Sandhaan, sometime ago.

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