In 2014, when Narendra Modi became the prime minister, many of my friends rejoiced. They were hopeful that he would usher in a new era of economic development, an abundance of jobs, an end to black money, stringency towards corrupt businessmen and politicians, among other fairly amazing things.
One of my dad’s employees distributed sweets to celebrate Modi’s victory. Some of my peers from the debating circles also seemed visibly pleased, even though they weren’t really supporters of the Hindu right. They were glad because the promise of opportunities was glittery and starry. And everyone with any sort of dream to find their place in our huge country, was excited that good days had finally arrived.
I wanted to feel their exuberance. But I couldn’t. Not when I could clearly remember the horrific pictures I had seen on the television in 2002. Not when those pictures had clearly reminded me of another time that I had seen and lived in only through my grandmother’s eyes.
“They were taking young girls away and hurting them so much,” she had said. “My brother’s eye were always haunted after that. We saw so many people die. So many people burnt. I was only ten when they told us we had to leave. And we did. Hiding in bushes and fields, we reached the barracks from where army trucks were departing. I sat with almost 80 other people in that tiny, rickety truck. And we had nothing on us except for the clothes we were wearing. My mother’s jewelry, utensils, things for my dowry, my few toys….everything had to be left behind. I hope someone put them to good use.”
The narration would always begin in a strong voice, and end in a childlike whisper, as if she was reliving the horrors of the partition through her ten-year-old eyes. It did not matter that she was now well above 60, and a very long time had passed since she had been ten.
I saw the toys she had left behind, in the images of a half-burnt doll that had presumably once belonged to a little Muslim girl from one of the many Muslim neighborhoods in Ahmedabad. I saw blurred images of dead people, wondering if my grandma’s relatives had also been thrown carelessly into such heaps. I saw women with their heads covered with shawls, holding wailing babies in their arms as they told their stories of loss and escape. My grandma wore a shawl on her head. Was this how her own mother had looked when she had escaped with my grandma?
The old woman had been unable to let go of these horrors all her life. And even on her death bed, she had remembered the terror of fleeing, and the relief of being allowed into an overcrowded, disease-filled refugee camp this side of the border.
It bothered me that there were people in Gujarat who would be haunted by similar memories for years to come. But I was too young in 2002 to fully understand what this was going to mean eventually.
In 2014, I was forced to revisit 2002. And my heart sank at the thought that this man had been in a position of power when Gujarat had gone up in flames for three full days. He had allowed it to happen. He had indirectly done to Gujarati Muslims, what had been done to my grandma and her family in 1947. And like in the case of the partition, people like my granny were the lucky ones. So many others had been raped, beaten, torn apart with tridents, and burned alive.
But I was called anti-national when I said I did not support his victory for these reasons. And just because I cared, it was decided that I could not possibly be a Hindu.
“Abhi bhi chaar mein se ek ho? Ya kothe par baitha diya hai?” (Are you still one of the four wives ? Or have you already been whored out to others as well?)
This what one man asked me when I told him that the massacre that had been carried out right under Chief Minister Modi’s nose, could not be forgiven. I was aghast. Suddenly, my empathy was being used to insinuate that I was a Muslim prostitute. While that leap of logic made me laugh hysterically, it also made me cry.
Because I could not love my country anymore and still care about what happened to all the people that lived inside it. No, I had to pick who I cared for if I wanted to be proud of myself as an Indian.
And I would have done it. Were it not for the voice of my grandma in my head, always narrating to me the horrors of her childhood that had been roughly taken away from her by similar communal violence.
And that is why I cannot forgive Modi. I cannot forgive a leader who refused to protect the people he had sworn to serve. I cannot forgive a man who has never apologized for what happened under his command for those three dark days. I cannot forgive a prime minister who refuses to acknowledge the sanctity of life that has been the root of Indian philosophy for thousands of years.
I am not a left-liberal, or a Congress supporter, or any of the derogatory things the Hindu right would like to call me. I am a young woman who remembers what her eight-year-old mind saw, and connected with her grandma’s six-decades-old trauma.
Recently I saw a doll in a shop window. It was so adorable. And I wanted to buy it for my youngest sister. But a moment later, I couldn’t bear to look at it again. It looked too much like that partially charred doll I had seen on TV all those years ago. I left the shop without buying anything. And I again wondered about the unknown little girl who had once owned that doll.
I wondered if she had grown up to be someone like my grandma, always thinking about her lost doll among other things. Had she even survived the carnage? Had she been hurt like a woman, despite being a little girl?
And just like that, the suffering of a hundred thousand people crashed into me, like a tsunami of imagined last thoughts, of wandering images depicting cold corpses with dilated pupils.
No. This wasn’t a price I could pay for economic prosperity, Gujarat Model be damned.
You can keep your dreams and aspirations….. I will keep my grief, my guilt, and my empathy. And I will wait for you to someday look into my eyes and hear the words of my grandmother. Maybe then the sheen of the new 2,000 rupee note will seem lackluster to you.
Note: The featured image is an iconic photograph taken during the 2002 Gujarat Riots. I was unable to trace the name of the photographer. This copy of the image was taken from a report on the website of India Today