August 30, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

Doing The Atrophy

Upset at the death of a party leader who had been badly hurt in a car accident, a gang of Shiv Sena members burns cars, beats up and nearly kills journalists. They vandalize the hospital, yes, the hospital, where he died. Question: Are these hospital-vandalizers a threat to national security? In Delhi earlier this year, several powerful men were filmed taking money and demanding sex -- even having the sex they demanded -- for putting through defence deals. Question: Are these sex-demanders a threat to national security?

I don't know. But a young Canadian woman I met last year on the banks of an Indian river, a woman who sang and chanted slogans with several hundred villagers of the area, who spent several months living among ordinary Indians because she was concerned about their future and wanted to learn about their hopes and fears -- now that young woman, she's certainly a threat to national security. She was told as much at the airport in New Delhi one day last July. She landed there that day, but was immediately deported back to Canada.

Long live national security. I feel safer already. I feel safer knowing that men who ransack hospitals are running around free and untouched, while a twenty-something Canadian woman is prevented from even entering the country.

Ali Sauer believes in the Narmada Bachao Andolan and in what it is fighting for. Last year, she followed her beliefs halfway around the world: she came to join the Narmada Bachao Andolan's monsoon satyagraha in little villages strung along the banks of the swollen river. Tall, long-haired and cheerful, her steady enthusiasm and spirit were infectious. When I met her in Jalsindhi, she was in a cotton kurta, swaying gently to the drums the villagers beat, to their songs that washed around us. In Domkhedi early the next morning, she joined in as several dozen of us watched the sun rise, singing softly: Kya Ram hai, kya Rahim hai ... vikas ki sahi soch ho, is mein hi Ram Rahim ho. (My far less eloquent translation: 'Thoughts about real progress: that's where Ram and Rahim truly are').

I mention all these details not to paint some precious picture of an India-besotted belle traipsing through the hills and dales of rural India in be-flowered bellbottoms. I mention them to make the point that a person less likely than Ali Sauer to do harm to India would be hard to imagine. Yet that must just be my imagination atrophying away, because my venerable government, in its wisdom, has determined that Ali is indeed a threat to us all. Its airport officials, she reports, "led me through the airport under intense security and put me on a plane that was just leaving for Muscat." The episode, she goes on, "was heartbreaking, terrifying [and] made me feel utterly powerless."

Then again, at just about the same time Ali was flung out of India, the very same government was preparing to officially welcome a man it spent most of two years blaming for the deaths of 500 Indian soldiers. That it repeatedly referred to as our country's implacable enemy. Yes, only days after Ali Sauer was turned away at India's door, Pervez Musharraf walked through that same door -- that same airport in Delhi -- and into India.

Which, let me say quickly, is exactly as it should have been. But I can't help wondering if the question occurred to Ali: they call me a threat to national security, but they roll out the wall-to-wall for this man they themselves say inflicted war on India?

And then there's the mob in Thane. When a man called Anand Dighe died in the Singhania hospital there last weekend, the crowd that had gathered "spontaneously" expressed their "grief." Some grief. They destroyed the ground floor of the hospital. They looted and burned a Raymonds showroom nearby, then burned a godown opposite. They stole the petrol from several ambulances, overturned them and set them on fire. They smashed over 30 cars in the hospital compound, and three buses outside. They assaulted several journalists; two from the television programme Aaj Tak escaped death only by falling to the ground and feigning it. They chased nurses and patients all over the building, trying to batter down the doors they hid fearfully behind. One patient who had to run for his life was suffering from renal failure and had actually been in the bed adjacent to Dighe in the ICU. "I had given up hope," his son told Mid-Day. "I thought I would lose my father."

To escape the mayhem, several patients were shifted to other hospitals. Given that the men in the mob claim reverence for a giant of Indian history, it must have struck the patients as gut-wrenchingly ironic that one of those hospitals is named 'Chhatrapati Shivaji.'

By any definition, all this carnage threatened several Indian lives. I cannot imagine a more fitting example of a threat to national security than men who destroy hospitals -- not even enemies do that during wars -- and chase feeble patients from their beds in the ICU. But, of course, that's just my imagination doing the atrophy again. For apparently the party they belonged to -- for whom the Thane episode is just the most recent of many -- is considered guardian enough of this thing called national security that it is actually part of our government.

And I wonder again if the thought occurred to Ali Sauer: when such men form the government, why, naturally that government will pronounce me a threat to national security.

If you turn it over in your mind, you will find lots of thoughts that might have occurred to Ali. The dudes who lower their pants before they will sign defence deals, but whose punishment must wait for an inquiry and then, maybe, a court case -- meaning it must wait forever. The woman who now reigns once more over Tamil Nadu, but who is famed for innumerable corruption cases that are no closer to completion than when they started. The strongmen of Delhi whose names crop up in inquiry after inquiry into the 1984 massacre of Sikhs, but who have escaped justice for 17 years now; who live, in fact and ironically, under a tight "security" that the victims' families pay for. The men whose chariot rides and repugnant editorials fueled murderous riots in our biggest city, but who are now, respectively, our country's home minister and our country's finest self-proclaimed patriot. (And patriarch of hospital-vandals too).

Despite the misery they have caused in their own ways to thousands upon thousands of Indians, none of these people must be considered a threat to our national security. Oh no. How can they be? Far from being threats, they actually go on to govern us. To make and administer our laws.

But a tall young lady from Canada? Deport her at once.

Ali wanted to join this monsoon's NBA satyagraha on the banks of the Narmada. I hardly mean to draw comparisons that she herself would laugh off. Still, I do remember other men and women from across the seas who, inspired by India and Indians, came here to join a much earlier satyagraha. C F Andrews, Miraben and Verrier Elwin are only three. Foreigners all, they became exemplary Indians, and I don't mean that in the narrow sense of citizenship. Nor, certainly, do I mean that in the sense of smashing hospitals as a horde of very exemplary Indians did in Thane.

No, if understanding India counts for anything, if learning and caring about Indians counts for anything, if working shoulder-to-shoulder with Indians for the freedom of this country counts for anything -- by those measures, Andrews, Miraben and Elwin were Indians to inspire us all. Not even the British -- whose very rule over India they deplored -- called them threats to our national security.

And if we tolerate the events in Thane while we deport Ali Sauer, it seems to me we choke the life out of all that those Indians fought for.

Dilip D'Souza

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