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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 44 New Delhi October 24, 2015

Tribute to R.M. Pal

Saturday 24 October 2015

Dr R.M. Pal, a well-known educationist and human rights activist, is no more. He breathed his last in Thane, where he was staying with his wife for the last several years, on October 13, 2015 at the age of 88. (He was born in Comilla in East Bengal, later East Pakistan and now Bangladesh, on July 17, 1927.)

Dr Pal, who was for sometime the Principal, Rajdhani College, University of Delhi, was the President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberty, Delhi a few years ago and also edited the PUCL Bulletin and the Radical Humanist. 

His daughter, Sangeeta Mall, has sent the following note on her father for publication in this journal: 

“At eighteen Raimohan Pal left his home in Comilla in East Bengal. It was always East Bengal for him, never the later abomination of East Pakistan or Bangladesh. Partition was an abomination and he never forgave those he held responsible for it. He left home but never forgot it, or the reason why he had to leave it. It was because of us, he lamented. We, the Hindus, never learnt to treat our Muslim neighbours with respect, never let go of our caste hatreds to live with them as their equals. His school headmaster favoured him over his equally brilliant Muslim friend. How could a country that lived with this prejudice day in and day out ever be happy?

“He had no time for happiness. He had no time for anything except anger, anger that his beloved land could never outlive its dreadful heritage of caste and communal strife. His was a one-man crusade, to end inequality and foster peace by upholding the human rights of every single individual he met. It wasn’t a matter of principle so much as personal. Everything was personal. The cobbler’s right to get his son into the right school, the teacher’s right to be appointed to a vacant post reserved for the Scheduled Castes, the maid’s right to obtain alimony from her absconding husband, the hospital wardboy’s right to a promotion in spite of being from the minority community. They all came to him because he invited them. But mostly they came to him unbidden, knowing that they would never be turned away, not if there was anything he could do to turn a hostile system in their favour. He hated untouchability, raising its cruel legacy at every possible forum, attacking every apologist for it, uncaring of their stature. 

“As a youth, his anger and rebellion found direction under the mentorship of M.N. Roy, and he absorbed Roy’s philosophy and then used it to channelise his own ambition. He wanted to fight the system, not the bureaucratic system of red tape and blue pencils, but the infinitely more dangerous system of entrenched caste and communal conflict that was uniquely Indian. He was a proud Radical Humanist. He became a declared atheist when he saw a refugee from East Pakistan, an old, poor and infirm woman, walking towards India and praying to God. No God could sanction such oppression and therefore there was no God. Radical Humanism gave him an intellectual framework for his views and he stuck to it till the end, reading and re-reading M.N. Roy’s works to reinforce his own view of life. 

“Activism was in his blood. Not for him the cool confines of lecture halls. He wanted to be out there, where all the action was. It was only natural to join the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, initially to protest against the Emergency and then to fight for civil liberties, in Punjab, in Kashmir, voicing his views, even if they were unpopular, everywhere, in the Saturday Group in Delhi, in the CISF Training Academy in Mount Abu, within seminars of the Indian Renaissance Institute. And yet he was a popular man. He was proud to be as popular with the oppressed and dispossessed as with his friends, most of whom withstood his assault on their ways and customs because, in spite of everything, he stood by them when it mattered. 

“Two stints as editor, first of the PUCL Bulletin and then of the Radical Humanist, gave him the much needed platform to air his views and air them he did. Whether it was the establishment’s treatment of the only Dalit President of this country, or the hypocrisy of the Hindu Right-wing after the Babri Masjid destruction, he was not above naming names in his editorials. 

“Young people flocked to him for advice. He was one of the very few teachers who took his role of guru seriously. He taught English Literature in Delhi University but that didn’t limit the scope of his advice. Genuine empathy and imagination powered his counselling, making it relevant for the receiver. If you had a spark, he turned it into a fire, belief in the individual his biggest contribution. His twenty-year-old musician grandson was as much a beneficiary of his wisdom as his graduate students. 

“Of late, he had been researching more and more into the anatomy of India’s partition. He had left his home seven decades ago but never forgotten it. Amongst his many unfulfilled wishes was his desire to see his birthplace once more. He knew that it, too, had become a victim of the hatred that people in the subcontinent have borne towards one another for centuries but that didn’t stop him for wishing for a better, a changed world.“

Prof Pal was deeply disturbed by the Gujarat pogrom of Muslims in 2002 and highly concerned over the victory of the BJP, led by Narendra Modi, our current PM, and his close associate, Amit Shah, the present head of the ruling party, at the Centre. He shared Mainstream‘s unambiguous opinion that following the 2014 Lok Sabha elections India had come under the sway of unvarnished fascism which was gradually baring its fangs. 

As a token of our tribute to his abiding memory, we are reproducing here the article that Dr Pal wrote for Mainstream after the Gujarat genocide. It appeared in this journal’s March 16, 2002 issue. Its relevance in these times of despair and anguish cannot be overestimated.

Communal Virus will Destroy the Country: Searing Cries of Agony in Gujarat

by R.M. Pal

I may be forgiven for quoting from what I wrote, under the heading “Human Rights Trodden Under Foot”, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid:

If there is one thing which has been made clear by Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 is that those who cherish political freedom and civil liberties have been made irrelevant, at least for the time being, by political reaction and social/religious barbarism. There has been violation of all stan-dards of morality, justice and freedom; everything has been done in the name of faith—divine sanctions. Acts of barbarism and violence have been committed and justified in the name of faith thus placing premium on ignorance and making the masses easy of exploitation. Religious sentiment has come very handy. The perpetrators of violence in Ayodhya have sought to prove, indeed they have succeeded in doing so, that manmade laws have no validity. They (the Hindutvavadis) have waged war upon all that is fine and valuable in human culture. What we have witnessed in Ayodhya is an appeal to violence, to emotion, to passion. And this kind of appeal inevitably leads to cruelty, madness, and gangs-terism.

The massacres in Gujarat starting from February 27—and continuing at the time of writing this (March 3, 2002)—are a reaffirmation of the above: appeal to violence, to emotion, to passion leading to cruelty, madness, and gangsterism. People like this writer have been made irrelevant, even though we, I have always believed with good reason, are in a majority. The reason why our voice is not heard/felt is because the sane elements, the majority, are silent in that they are not organised, are not united. What prevents, for example, the sane and rational elements, all the political formations which profess to be secular and do not subscribe to anti-minorityism, from giving a call—to hold huge public meetings across the country and to come down heavily on cruelty, madness and gangs-terism?

I suggest our liberals do not have the courage. Otherwise, how could they digest what a “secular liberal”—he calls himself so—an opinion-maker, an editor of one of the largest circulated English dailies, and that too a supporter of the Congress party, said (in a signed article), namely, that the “secular establishment” has ignored the brutal and cruel attack on kar sevaks (who returned from Ayodhya) at Godhra station in Gujarat on February 27. This “gentleman” is angry that while we condemn majority communalism, we do not take note of minority communalism that resulted in the killings at Godhra. (An opinion-maker like him ought to know that in all countries it is majority communalism that breeds minority communalism.) He is also angry that in all civilised societies minorities are treated with consideration and that they deserve protection. He asserts that this kind of attitude is “counter-productive” and must be condemned. This kind of attitude will lead Hindus to believe, this “gentleman” further asserts, that “their suffering is of no consequence and will be tempted to see the building of a building at Ayodhya as an expression of Hindu pride in the face of secular indifference”. (No wonder the Hindutvavadis have found in him their own ideologue, dear to their heart—in all debates and discussions they fly the article). What is most insulting is that the author claims to be a secular person. No civilised and thoughtful person would like to get mixed up with such “secular” persons. You don’t need any mad gangster to destroy this country nor do you need any enemy from outside the country—liberal editors and opinion-makers like him have succeeded in creating a climate of dissension and divisiveness—sure enough to destroy a country. I am surprised that the “liberal” press has not thought it fit to censor him. If thoughtful people in the press are worth their salt people like him must be made to quit this noble profession. He is an insult to the profession. Let him be in the business of showmanship. [Is he not the same person who used his “press freedom” to attack the Chairperson of the Press Council of India (a retired Supreme Court Judge) because the verdict given by the Council had gone against the editor?]

Let us recapitulate the facts. The kar sevaks are attacked a short distance away from Godhra station. Fiftyseven of them are burnt alive. All thoughtful sections of our people immediately reacted to this cruel and inhuman killing by condemning the massacre. Human rights organi-sations like the People’s Union for Civil Liberties condemned the incident. (This writer, the President of the Delhi PUCL, issued a statement condeming the massacre. Whatever the provocation, the killings stand condemned, we said and urged the Union Government to take all steps to see that the communal conflagration does not spread, and that kar sevaks are not allowed to go to Ayodhya. We urged the government to set up a high-level judicial commission so that the miscreants could be brought to book and punished. We also called upon the people remain peaceful.) Muslim organisations throughout the country have condemned the killings at Godhra as “barbaric and brutal”. And yet the editor referred to above insinuates that “secular establishments resort to blaming the victims”. He, plain and simple, has made an appeal to violence, to emotion, to passion with a view to committing acts of cruelty, madness, and gangsterism.

The horrendous outrage at Godhra gave rise to massacres and killings of Muslims in a number of cities including Ahmedabad. Since the February 27 evening and February 28 morning the killings have gone on unabated and till March 3 at the time of writing this the death toll is over 500.

The BJP-RSS rulers of Gujarat have not even regretted that over 500 people have been brutally killed in different parts of Gujarat—mobs continue to be on a killing spree in villages—many of them burnt alive. The refrain of the rulers, including Chief Minister Narendra Modi, is that these killings are a natural outcome of the killings at Godhra. Narendra Modi—he is also a well-known RSS leader—instead of reassuring the people of Gujarat that he is responsible for their safety and security, maintains by way of justification that what is happening is that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”. “The five crore people of Gujarat have shown remarkable restraint under grave provocation,” Modi says with great satisfaction. Incidentally, it is now known that he did not cooperate with the Army in bringing the riots under control. What has happened in Gujarat is reminscent of the tragic happenings in Delhi in 1984—the authorities’ refusal to call the Army at the appropriate time. The editor, to whom I have referred above, is not concerned with this aspect of the tragic happenings. His soul cries out only for the kar sevaks—that the country may disinte-grate because of them and because of communal disharmony and killings, is not his concern.

Let me quote a few headlines in some national dailies (of March 3) to indicate the seriousness of the situation: 29 burned to death in Mehsana massacres; Riot toll nears 300; No let-up in Gujarat violence; Gujarat looks like a ghost State; No tall man around, only struggle for power; Blame it on Newton’s law: Modi; Riot after riot, police play a negative role; Gujarat : Liberal but never secular; Lunacy Abounds—Police lose morale and courage (an editorial); Delay in Army deployment made the difference; Mayhem in presence of an inert police and so on.

Let us go back a little. After the attack on the Sabarmati Express train some distance away from the Godhra station on February 27, the VHP gave a call for a bandh. The President of the Gujarat BJP announced his support to the bandh—thus directing the BJP Government not to take any action against the bandh. On February 28 Muslims in Ahmedabad and other cities came under attack; and the police turned their face. It is because of this—police inaction and complicity under instructions from their political bosses—that many people like the former Congress MP, Ahsan Jaffri, were burnt alive in the presence of the police force. Let us hear his wife:

My husband called the Police Commissioner, his party President Amarsingh Chaudhary and scores of leaders. For almost three hours he continued to make frantic phone calls, pleading for help. At one time he even cried on the phone to save so many lives. But no one, not a single leader, not one policeman came to our rescue. When I came down (from the upper floor) it was all over. I could not believe my eyes. I could not find my husband’s body. My neighbours were unrecognisable too. The police are not helping us nor am I allowed to go home to look for his body. I think I will go mad.

Hundreds and thousands of such cries of agony from both Muslims and Hindus are heard every day—can there be anything more searing than such cries? We have seen images of agony on the TV screen—heartrending accounts and cries for help. Is it because of this that the Gujarat Govern-ment has banned the transmission of Star News in Gujarat? The Star News, especially its correspondent Rajdeep Sardesai, must be con-gragulated for bringing to us, to all sensitive people, reports and agonising visuals. He has contributed immensely towards bringing back sanity—we may remember the colour TV’s contri-bution to bring an end to the Vietnam War, under pressure from American citizens, especially parents and wives of the US soldiers.

Let us make a confession: we, Indians, have every reason to be ashamed of ourselves. If we cannot eliminate the cancerous virus of commu-nalism, we have no right to be called civilised. Also, let us remember that this virus, if not eliminated, will break the country.

(Mainstream, March 16, 2002)