Almost everyone who has heard about the Gujarat riots of 2002 has seen the ‘iconic’ photo of the man with his hands folded. His face shrunken with fear, his eyes half watery and half looking away, as if reflecting on the brutality that fellow human beings can be capable of. The photo was taken on this day, nineteen years ago, at a locality in Amdavad.
The emotions here are primal. This is a powerful image of a human being quivering with fear. The photo raises all sorts of questions. About our humanity, about our society and the role of media in making it. And above all, questions about how we perceive victimhood. Now, there are some questions about this photograph itself; how it was taken and how the photographer managed such a perfect shot apparently in the middle of raging violence. But we will not go into the relatively small minded questions. We will focus on the big ones.
Let’s face it. In modern societies, there is a lot of power in which group gets to be the victim. We abhor the use of violence by one group to subjugate another. As such, the only way for one group of people to gain an upper hand on another is by presenting themselves as victims. Even China goes around telling the world that they are victims of India is trying to grab their land! How absurd is that?
But what does this tell you? As perverse as it may sound, it proves that in the modern world, victimhood is a very precious commodity. Everyone wants to claim it for themselves. Once you can claim victimhood, you automatically receive a number of privileges. It becomes a moral license to have your way in almost any argument.
This is what makes the media so powerful. With its reports, images and videos, the media decides which group can claim how much victimhood. This is why we need to ask about the photos from Gujarat 2002 that were never taken. Why were they never taken? Untold stories lead to forgotten victimhood. And when one group is unable to reclaim its victimhood, other groups who have proof of their victimhood are able to impose their will on them.
No, this does not mean any particular individual wants to be a victim. Who would want to have their house attacked or get burned alive by a mob? I am talking about what happens in practice. The suffering of individuals is appropriated by a larger group which then uses it to push narratives favorable to them. At one level, this is immoral, almost like one person snatching what belongs to another. At another level, it is important too. Unless groups maintain the memory of collective victimhood, how do they ensure something like that never happens again?
There is one particular controversy about Gujarat 2002 that I never understood. There is an allegation that the Gujarat government brought the charred bodies from the Godhra carnage to Amdavad and displayed them. Indian liberals accuse then CM Modi of doing this to inflame communal passions. The state government denies that such a ‘display’ even happened.
My question is this. Why is this even treated as an “allegation”? Why is it so important to liberals that nobody should even see the charred bodies from Godhra? Each of them used to be a living breathing human being before they were turned into a charred body. Why don’t they get to tell the world, at least in death, about how they suffered? Why should we be denied one last image of what happened to them?
The answer is obvious. The media wanted to bury the victimhood of one side by turning their suffering into statistics. Fifty nine people were burned alive inside that S-6 compartment. As long as there were no faces, no names and no dead bodies, it was easy for the media to wipe them out.
Not just to wipe them out, but to actually demonize them. Somebody said that the kar sevaks had harassed a woman. Somebody said that they had refused to pay for tea. How much does a cup of tea cost, by the way? Two rupees? Five rupees? Now imagine what kind of person would make excuses for burning 59 people alive by saying that somebody did not pay for tea. Could a cup of tea be worth 59 human lives?
And yet. those who made such arguments faced no public censure of any sort. Most of them lead socially respectable lives today and almost all are still in the business of ‘secularism.’
How did this become possible? Because we never got to see the names and faces of the victims. We only ever got a fleeting glimpse of their dead bodies. Their lives were never captured, whether in photographs or in news reports, for us to remember. Do you know the name of a single person who perished in that S-6 compartment? I am guessing you cannot. Meanwhile, Indian liberals still complain about the urban legend that someone, somewhere might have seen their dead bodies before these unfortunate people were lost forever.
They insist that Hindus can never be victims. They insist on hating kar sevaks as a class. And in order to achieve this, they insist that no record of their victimhood should remain anywhere. Even if someone saw their dead bodies, that was a crime too. Because if anyone heard that Hindus could be victims, then Hindus would have the moral authority to push their own narratives. They cannot tolerate that.
Each one of us here will be gone some day. As individuals, very few of us will make a lasting impact. For most, our group identity will be our only footprint that stays with the world long after we are gone. So when we lose the memory of collective suffering, our group is left powerless. When our stories fade, we cease to exist. And that is what they have always wanted.