|MANAGED SOCIETY Manipulating nationalism|
It was the night of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. I came home late from my office, troubled by the first news of retribution against the Sikhs. In Delhi their shops had been ransacked and just outside my own office in Calcutta a Sikh taxi-driver had been beaten up and his taxi set on fire.
In front of my house an old Moslem beggar-woman squatted at the edge of the road. As I stopped my car and got out to open the gates she slanted her half-blind eyes towards me and lifted her begging-bowl, rasping out some violent words in her gutteral Urdu.
When I dropped a coin in her bowl she raised her stick in acknowledgement and then settled down again, still mumbling her curses, propped up against the crumbling wall.
I drove the car in quickly, wondering if my visitor had arrived. I was afraid that the mob might have tracked him down already.
Instead he walked down the steps casually to meet me, smartly dressed as ever - not a speck of dust on his expensive shoes, nor a mark on his stylish western trousers and blazing white shirt, but he had done nothing to disguise his bright pink turban, nor the long Punjabi beard, or the steel band on his wrist.
‘So you are safe, Baljit,’ I said.
He smiled. ‘It is a bad night for Sikhs.’
I tried to smile in return but failed.
‘Do you know what that old woman is saying?’ he asked. ‘I have been listening to her all afternoon from the privacy of your room. Sometimes I talked to her through the window. It makes quite an interesting story.’
‘Let’s go inside.’
I looked around carefully and fastened the gate. Calcutta seemed to be quiet - unusually so, perhaps.
‘Can you imagine it? She was quite well-off once,’ he said, sitting down in one of the bamboo chairs. He had already helped himself to a drink - he was very westernised.
‘Her husband was a trader in those gold-braided saris that are made at Benares. The weavers are nearly all Moslems so they liked dealing with him but the market is tightly controlled by the Hindu Banias who have been there for hundreds of years, so they were looking for their chance to fight back.
‘One year there was some trouble during the Id procession, when the Moslems end their long Ramadan fast. They kill plenty of goats but a rumour went round that they had killed a cow. Immediately the Hindu mob went on the rampage. But not indiscriminately. They came straight to Hussein’s house - that was her husband’s name - and dragged him out into the street.’
He paused for a moment watching the door.
‘Of course they had been told what to do by the Banias. They killed him and threw his body into the gutter. Then they went inside for the women.
‘Afterwards the Moslems refused to help her. They said she was defiled. She had no money, and so there was no choice but to go on the streets.’
‘Why did they do nothing to help her? It was not her fault,’ I asked.
‘In most of our communities it is the same. A woman who has been raped no longer has a home. There was no-one to complain to...’
He looked up at me, studying my face to see how much I really cared.
‘She is mad now, and all she can do is shout for Allah to avenge her against the world.’
He picked up his glass of beer.
‘Cheers.’ he said slowly, looking at the pale yellow bubbles.
‘This fighting between communities makes all of us worse,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘It strengthens all the worst elements. There are many Moslems who would like to see such cruel rules changed but as long as Islam itself is under threat they will not dare to say anything. If they criticised the leadership it would be taken as an attack on Islam itself. They would be called disloyal, infidels, traitors. The old leaders are secure so long as they can say that there is an enemy.
‘Politicians do just the same. Anyone who challenges the Congress Party in India is an agent of the CIA or a spy for Pakistan. It suits both sides. President Zia in Pakistan tells his people that they are threatened by India, so it is in the national interest to suppress the opposition. Mrs Gandhi does the same thing. Some people even say that Zia and Mrs Gandhi had a secret agreement with each other to keep up the tension especially at election times.
‘In the last few elections she used the Pakistani threat a great deal but more recently she became worried about the South, where she was losing support rapidly. People there are not too bothered about Pakistan but there is a long hostility towards Sri Lanka. So what does she do? She allows Sri Lankan rebel groups to train in India. Naturally the tension mounts. There are communal riots and Mrs Gandhi says that Indian people are threatened. India itself is threatened, and India, of course, is India. Unfortunately she did not live to reap the result of her newest stratagem.’
‘I can understand what you mean, I said. ‘After our Falklands War people who voted against Mrs Thatcher had a feeling that somehow they were being unpatriotic.’
‘In India we call it the threat of the Foreign Hand. Anything that goes wrong is because of the Foreign Hand. It helps people stop looking for the real causes of their problems. I suppose you could say that wars are fuelled by politicians and communal riots by businessmen, but it comes to the same thing in the end. Religious feeling, nationalism, it is all manipulated for profit.’
He smiled at the neatness of the thought, leaning back in his chair. There was a loud noise outside like a gunshot. Suddenly he sat up straight ,bringing his eyes close to mine.
‘There is a rumour in Delhi tonight that a train full of dead Hindus had arrived from the Punjab.’
I watched his face grow pale. But before he could recover the lights suddenly went out.
The ceiling fans whirred to a halt and a deathly silence spread about the room. A table crashed to the ground as I groped my way to the window. Outside it was quiet. Here and there candles glimmered in the windows of the flats down the road.
‘Only a power-cut,’ I heard him say.
From far away I heard a high-pitched whine. A scream? Or just the wheels of a distant tram, or a piece of machinery out of gear? I groped along the window-sill for a box of matches.
‘Calcutta has nothing to thank Mrs Gandhi for,’ said Baljit, breaking the silence. ‘She makes it clear enough that there will be no money for the state unless they vote for her in the elections. But the politicians here say she discriminates against Bengalis - and so anyone who votes for her is voting against their own culture. People don’t know what to think
The match flared up, burning my fingers and I dropped it onto the polished red tiles. With my bare feet I dared not tread it out so it burnt a round black mark onto the floor. The next match was more successful and the candle sputtered into life, casting a lurid glow on Baljit’s sweating face and the black beard tied neatly in its invisible net. I had a feeling that we were very short of time, and that he wanted to say something before it was too late.
‘For a long time the merchants of Burrabazaar have been looking for a way to smash the Sikhs. We control all the truck and taxi businesses and have moved in to a lot of the other trade. Now is their chance. A couple of Sikhs killed Mrs Gandhi, so all Sikhs are traitors. Burn their shops and houses, trucks and lorries - it is a noble patriotic cause. The police will be paid off. The Government will be slow to act. The politicians will stir up trouble. Tonight they
have the city in their hands.’
‘Surely the politicians will try to stop the violence? What is in it for them?’
‘We are few in numbers and so there are votes to be gained from those who think they can take our wealth.’
‘How do you know?’
‘We have people everywhere - in the army, the telephones, the Government itself. We are one of the strongest communities in India and yet we can still be attacked. Think what it is like for the poor, the Harijans, the small Moslem traders like Hussein. They are just wiped out without a thought.’
There was a noise outside. Someone rattling the gate. Baljit leant forward over the table, pressing his hands together earnestly.
‘None of this is really communal. I don’t have any grudge against the Hindu or the Moslem unless someone tells me that they are defiling my temple or raping my wife. It’s like it was in your First World War. Everyone thought it was all a battle for Freedom and Independence. The men who joined up thought they were being patriotic. But what did their Governments care about the Freedom of India and the African colonies? The war was not fought on the issue of whether they should be free but over who should rule them. On Christmas Day the soldiers met in No-man’s-land and shook each other’s hands. They looked behind them to see who was driving them on, but there was nothing there, only snow.’
The gate rattled again, more violently, and voices called out in the night. Baljit was silent at last, his head slumped down on his chest.
Taking a torch I went outside, crossing the gravel cautiously. The bars of the gate were blocked by a throng on people.
‘Is there a Punjabi here?’ one of them asked.
‘No,’ I said.
‘The beggar-woman says that there is someone here.’
‘How can she say that? She does not know.’
The men grinned at me through the bars.
One of them turned away to talk to the woman. For a moment her eye glinted up at mine as she mumbled a reply.
‘She says there is someone inside!’ shouted the leader, brandishing a long knife. The gates shuddered under their pressure. The lock would not hold for more than a few moments - once I had pushed it open myself when I had lost the key. I wondered if Baljit was still sitting in his chair slumped over the single feeble candle
The beggar woman started shouting again.
‘She says the one inside is God,’ said one of the youths. ‘She is mad. A mad Moslem!’
For another moment their mood was still uncertain. They might still have rushed inside and looted the place with nationalistic fervour but they were uncertain who I was, a white man with a big car, and so instead they turned away up the streets, laughing to each other and waving their sticks good-humouredly at the darkened windows.
As they disappeared the lights came on again in the street. I blinked at the beggar-woman propped up against the wall, lifting her hand as if to call back the last of the youths as they vanished in search of other victims.
I did not know what she really meant, but anyway who could blame her? Certainly not me in my big house, sporting the wealth that makes men greedy.
The next day Calcutta was quiet and Baljit returned to his home. I suppose I could say that I had saved his life. But somehow the evening left me feeling uneasy - as if it was I who had done something wrong.
Did the gap between rich and poor make all this inevitable? I looked at the wire top wall and iron gate and wondered how long they would last.