Home > 2016 > Upsurge of the Underprivileged / Conscience and Charar-e-Sharief

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 9 New Delhi February 20, 2016

Upsurge of the Underprivileged / Conscience and Charar-e-Sharief

Monday 22 February 2016, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Upsurge of the Underprivileged

Whoever rules Uttar Pradesh gets the passport to Delhi. This has long been the rule during the days of the Congress hegemony. Actually, Uttar Pradesh can claim to have reared as many as seven Prime Ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Charan Singh, Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar. The only exceptions so far have been Morarji Desai and now Narasimha Rao.

What is more significant is that the political set-up in Uttar Pradesh, more than of any other State, sets the fashion for New Delhi. That was why in 1991 when the BJP formed the government in Lucknow, it used to be said that the party was on the road to power at the Centre. Now that the BJP has been dislodged, what is the significance of Mulayam Singh with his Samajwadi Party ruling Uttar Pradesh?

This is a development which has made a qualitative difference in Indian politics. It is not the Mulayam Singh Ministry of 1989-90 as an appendage of the Janata Dal Government at the Centre. This time he has fought and won the elections in alliance with Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan Samaj Party, as an assertion of the so-called Backwards and Dalits in Indian politics.

In one month of the accession of the Mulayam Raj in Uttar Pradesh, the political landscape in India has changed. The Mandal has ceased to be an engima creating revulsion, nor is it taken as a frightening spectre but a fact of life which cannot be wished away. The hate-campaign that was unleashed when V.P. Singh first introduced the measure for the statutory reservation of Central Government jobs for the Backward classes contributed to a large measure in bringing his government down. At that point of time, those who were implacably opposed to the reservation policy held sway. Their holy outrage was silently regarded by the vast masses of the underprivileged —the OBCs and the Dalits—as one more example of the assertion of the status quo by the upper castes in our polity. And to that measure, it stirred their determination to assert on their part.

The hounding out of V.P. Singh from power and the campaign unleashed against him, both personally and politically, turned out to be counter-productive. He himself was no doubt sent to Coventry but his message caught on in an unprecedented sweep. That was precisely the message of the mini-general election of December 1993 when four States of the Hindi belt turned out to be the battlefield between the entrenched upper castes and the aspiring Backward communities together with the Dalits. The crusade against the BJP was not just a manifestation of the combat against anti-Muslim communalism with which that party was branded, but also of upper-caste hegemony with which it was identified in the public mind. Not that the BJP was bereft of OBC support. In fact it scored much better than the Congress in getting OBC votes, but the image of Hindutva as the preserver of the domination of the upper castes proved a liability for the BJP.

As for the Congress, it could not retain its traditional base in UP—neither among the OBCs and the Dalits nor in the Muslim minority—because of its chicken-hearted passivity in the failure to protect the Babri Masjid, while Mulayam Singh earned rich dividends because of his defence of the beleaguered Masjid in 1990. Today if any party is finding itself precariously rootless in UP, it is the Congress. The old signboard alone could not take it far in garnering the votes of the minority community or of the OBCs and the Dalits. Hence its pathetic debacle in UP.

It would be incorrect to dismiss the entire upsurge of the Backwards and the Dalits as only a cantankerous claim for reservation of seats in government jobs. Reservation of jobs is certainly one of the demands of the parties representing the OBCs and the Dalits. But that is only one facet of their struggle. The Bahujan Samaj leader, Kanshi Ram, during his whirlwind all-India tour has stressed the importance of these deprived classes winning power, getting their legitimate right to be part of the governing elite. After all, these communities constitute the overwhelming majority in our democracy. It is but natural that wherever these parties have established themselves they have been able to get the support of the Muslim minority.

A phenomenon of considerable significance is the impact that the advance of the parties of the dispossessed, as represented by the rise of Mulayam Singh and Kanshi Ram, has been able to register on the rest of the political spectrum. It is important to note that the communist movement has been influenced by it. The recent statement of the CPI General Secretary, Indrajit Gupta, acknowledging the urgency of focussing on the urges of the OBCs and the Dalits and the need to promote members of these communities in the leadership of the party has been reportedly challenged by other leaders of the CPI. This by itself indicates the magnitude of the struggle ahead. Even the parties committed to the uplift of the underdog are not unanimous in promoting the members of these communities to their party’s leadership. There is no doubt that this problem will come up in other parties of the Left, including the CPM.

In the Janata Dal, the problem could not be sorted out because of the heterogenous nature of its composition. To a large measure this is the reason for the dismemberment of the party. It is not without significance that in Bihar, which is the stable stronghold of the Janata Dal today, the Ministry is run by a leadership which is totally committed to the Mandal programme. Between Laloo Prasad and Mulayam Singh, the OBCs and the Dalits run the entire length of the Ganga from Meerut to Mokamah and beyond.

The stir over the renaming of the Marathwada University after Dr Ambedkar gives an important insight into the dimension of the new upsurge. The fact that all parties including the BJP supported that move shows that the leaders of all these parties have correctly read the signs of the times. The Shiv Sena’s protest against it ended in a fiasco. In fact it would never have come up had Bal Thackeray not been the beneficiary of a kidglove treatment from the Maharashtra Government.

An aspect of this upsurge now being commented upon by its friendly critics is that the OBCs and the Dalits can hardly be expected to maintain a cosy coexistence for long. The Yadavs and the other powerful OBCs do not have much in common with the Dalits and their class interests are bound to clash. No doubt there is truth in that observation, but that is no reason why one should underplay the significance of the present upsurge. Nobody has any illusion that the dispossessed millions will have only one battle to wage for their salvation. Many more battles ahead need not deter from the significance of the one now being fought out.

Looking back, one understands why V.P. Singh in his inaugural speech after taking over as the Prime Minister of India remembered the name of Dr Lohia alongwith that of Mahatma Gandhi.

(Mainstream, January 29, 1994)

Conscience and Charar-e-Sharief

One month to date after the destruction of the shrine and mosque at Charar-e-Sharief, a team of journalists reached the township. As one looked round the ghastly devastation of rows of burnt houses with their walls standing as mute witnesses to the crime, spontaneously it came to one’s lips: if you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

As one slowly climbed the stone slabs at the threshold of the complex, one could almost sense that on those stones have fallen for six hundred years thousands upon thousands of footsteps of devotees, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh, who came to pray at the shrine of Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani—Nund Rishi to Hindus and Sikhs. The saint was honoured as Alam-Dari Kashmir, and was called “Param Guru” in the hallowed days of harmony among communities that lived in the Kashmir Valley.

With the hapless crowd of those rendered homeless by the fire that destroyed the Kasba and finally the shrine itself, one could not help breaking down by the agony all round—the agony of the hundreds rendered destitute through no fault of their own, as also the agony that has engulfed the whole of this picturesque Valley. Throughout the one-hour drive back to Srinagar, one could not help pondering over the searing misfortune that has befallen upon the entire State of Jammu and Kashmir and for which the entire nation is responsible. That guilt can’t be covered up by finding alibis in Pakistan or elsewhere.

From the beginning of the period of Ramzan, the Army had cordoned off the Charar-e-Sharief and held the cordon for sixtyfive long days from March 7. Nearly three quarters of the local population quit the township as it was brought within the firing line from both sides. On May 8, many of the houses were set on fire. Three days later, in the night of May 10/May 11, as the time for celebration on the morrow was about to begin, horror struck the people that the sacred shrine of six hundred years was put to flames.

That was the moment for tears such as angels weep. For with that act of vandalism, the very ethos of our Republic was violated, as the shrine of Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani, Nund Rishi symbolised what this great subcontinent had stood out for in History—the symbol of brotherhood and harmony.

Who was the culprit whose hand committed this act of unholy profanity? The official version given in special briefing was that Must Gul, the Afghan chief of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, and his gang were taking shelter at the shrine; that they set fire to the Kasba on May 8 and two days later, torched the shrine and escaped. An ideological gloss was sought to be put on it by adding that Must Gul had entered the shrine with his boots on and assaulted the head priest there, and thereby wanted to destroy the symbol of Kashmiriyat and assert the primacy of Islamic fundamentalism. The Army had put pickets round the township to keep a watch and could not move in when the houses were set on fire because of the firing by Must Gul’s men, and so by the time it could make the breakthrough, the shrine had been turned to ashes and Must Gul and his men escaped.

This version is totally contradicted by the entire populace of the township and a large number of people outside, who all hold the Army responsible for it. According to the residents of Charar-e-Sharief, the Army laid siege to the township two months earlier, right at the onset of the fasting month of Ramzan. And they asked the people to move out. Fearing that there would be an armed clash between the Army and the militants, most of the residents moved out of the siege and took shelter in nearby places, some even coming to Srinagar. Then on May 8, the Army did a clean-up operation by setting the empty houses on fire, planning thereby to encircle the militants in and around the shrine and then force them to surrender. And when there was no response to the surrender call, on the night before the festive day of Id, a helicopter dropped incendiaries that burnt down the shrine. Must Gul and his men escaped.

The Army’s refutation of this version of the residents is that it has no night-landing helipad in the neighbourhood. What is intriguing is that during the critical days, there was no publicity by the government about the alleged recording of Must Gul’s speech. When the Army had laid siege to Charar-e-Sharief for 65 days—which was widely publicised—its objective as announced was to save the shrine and catch the militants. On both these counts, it failed. If after laying siege for two months, it could not catch Must Gul, that was by no means a very impressive record, though the Chief of the Army Staff in a subsequent statement pompously declared that there was nothing for the Army to be ashamed about.

It is also worth noting that after the first report of houses having been gutted at Charar reached Srinagar, one of the Opposition leaders, Yasin Malik, rushed there, but was arrested on the way and brought back. The same happened to Shabbir Shah and Abdul Ghani Lone of the Hurriyat Conference. Even the local leaders of the place like G.M. Hubi of the People’s Conference, and Abdul Qayyum, the Janata Dal MLA of Charar, whose house had been gutted, were kept away.

The local people showed us empty mortar shells and empty cases of other ammunitions with Indian makings picked up at the spot. Another journalist reported that a mortar shell and a khaki coloured small parachute with Indian Ordnance markings had been recovered from the spot. And General Rao, the Governor’s remark was that “the Army could have fired flares and smoke bombs to cover its advance into the township”. Could not some of them hit the mosque and the shrine which were of wooden structure and combustible? A strange blanket of silence has been maintained by the authorities on this score.

It is difficult to understand how the government does not realise that there are hardly any takers for the official version of the destruction of the Charar. A leading figure in the Congress told this writer that he felt that the Army was responsible for the destruction of the shrine. As for Must Gul, he was known to have been in the Valley for the post four years, and the authorities are not unaware of it.

What was heart-rending was the total apathy and mismanagement in relief and rehabilitation work at Charar-e-Sharief. The journalists’ team had gone there with government clearance and stayed at the spot for more than two hours. Hundreds thronged there to tell us of their woes, most of them had received little of relief and less of rehabilitation help, despite all the publicity about relief and rehabilitation from the Prime Minister downward. The Imam of the shrine himself was deprived of any such relief, though he is without a roof over his head. No tents could be seen, not even any temporary shades. People are living in the open: soon the scorching sun will be followed by rains and then the winter snows. The authorities at Srinagar denied the charge of paucity of relief and rehabilitation and insisted on having a relief officer there, though he was invisible to us during our stay there.

The tragedy of Charar-e-Sharief is a matter of national shame. This is no hyperbole but the measured utterance of a senior officer holding very important responsibilities. It is the height of folly and dishonesty on the part of the government not to have initiated a highest-level investigation into the entire happening. One can understand why the government should be fighting shy of such an enquiry as many other dirty skeletons might come tumbling out of its cupboard. For the affairs of Kashmir in the last few years, when revealed, may turn out to be the most horrendous scandal of our times. If the government fails to wake up, it is the bounden duty for conscience-stricken citizens of the country—there are quite a large number of them—to come forward and set up a people’s tribunal to go into the Charar-e-Sharief calamity. And with it must come from all sections of our people generous donations for the reconstruction of the sacred shrine which was the place of worship not of one community but of all three—Muslim, Hindu and Sikh—a sangam indeed.

Today, Charar-e-Sharief stands as the challenge to our conscience.

(Mainstream, June 17, 1995)