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Ahmedabad's "Bharat Mata": a memory, a hope
By Ashoke Chatterjee

While Thekedars of religion on the other side of the border are burrowing underground, on this side, they are out in the winter sun, having a field day..

Republic Day 2002 was the first in this new era of a global war on terrorism. Security without precedent in New Delhi's history protected the festivities of January 26 from the infamy of September 11, December 13, January 22 --- milestones on a bloodstained road to safety. Terrorism across borders finds universal condemnation, at least in rhetoric. Terrorism within borders defies consensus, its threat open to interpretation. Freedom fighter or foreign thug? Fundamentalist or extortionist? The righteous anger of the dispossessed or the madness of villains? Whatever else he may not have achieved in his January 12 address, President Pervez Musharraf has had the courage (or the reckless foolishness, depending upon which way you see things in Pakistan) to declare war on his definition of the enemy within: those he described as trying "to monopolise and propagate their own brand of religion", these "thekedars" of faith who know nothing "other than disruption and sowing seeds of hatred". Well said. While wishing good luck to the General, one might wonder if anyone in New Delhi might have noticed an Indian resonance in his plight, or in his warning against self-appointed guardians of true faith.

Thekedars on that side of a tense border are reported to be burrowing underground. On this side, they are out in the winter sun, having a field day. While jawans risk their lives to defend the secular ideal in Kashmir, a saffron brigade is marching on the capital to demand on January 26 that India's history be rewritten not just in textbooks but on the ground, and in the language of conflict. I am reminded of another attempt to tear the nation's fabric, on another Republic Day, the first in a new millennium.

January 26, 2000. Families are setting out for the holiday in the southern corner of Ahmedabad. Here they encounter a hastily erected 'shrine', around which 'volunteers' are gathered to persuade citizens to perform an unusual act of worship. The goddess enshrined is Bharat Mata, replete with lion and trishul. Columns of loudspeakers address the traffic, demanding that homage must be paid to Bharat Mata, for whom hundreds have died at Kargil. None would be allowed to pass without performing this sacred act of duty.

The setting is Paldi, one of the few areas of Ahmedabad where Hindus and Muslims still co-exist, even if they do not mix. Separation here is maintained through invisible boundaries of protocol and tension. Ever since a painted rath passed this way on its journey from a temple in Somnath to a mosque in Ayodhya, graffiti on the walls of Paldi has enjoined some to persevere until the Lord is accommodated, and others to depart across the border to territory reserved for them five decades ago. In this incendiary landscape, passengers are now dragged off buses and vehicles, with special attention to those who are clearly of a 'minority' persuasion. As their entreaties not be forced into pujas and tilak grow louder, so too do the loudspeakers. "In this land where so many have given their lives for Bharat Mata, there are some unwilling to bow before her on this sacred day. Some will not accept her blessing. How can Bharat Mata be free and great so long as there are those who will deny their mother?" There was more to come: "Now you can tell who is an Indian, who is a patriot. Republic Day is a day of worship. Accept your tilak, protect our motherland from those who care nothing for her".

My home at that time was a short distance from the market crossroads at which this 'temple' to Bharat Mata had been hastily constructed, adjoining a new construction. For several hours, all traffic had been halted. The combination of blaring of horns and orations with the growing shouts of the crowd, were making unbearable what was supposed to be a relaxed afternoon after a morning of flag hoisting and entertainment on the campus where I lived. Strolling out to ascertain the cause of the ruckus, I found myself walking into a powder keg ready to explode. Traffic had been halted all around one of Ahmedabad's busiest crossings, drivers threatened, passengers forced to dismount and pay homage (only after a fresh tika could journeys be resumed). Beards, burqas or lace caps attracted particular 'persuasion'. The traffic police had disappeared. Still not fully comprehending the danger around me, I demanded an explanation from two immaculately turned out 'volunteers', telling them that disrupting traffic in this manner was illegal, and forcing anyone to worship was immoral. "Is it illegal to pay homage to our mother? Is it immoral to remember the martyrs?" followed by questions of my name and provenance. When I refused to provide an identity, a camera on my shoulder was snatched away and I was pulled by my kurta into a corner for interrogation. A merchant across the street, recognizing me as his regular customer, yelled out my name and ran across to my rescue. The fists clenching at my garments relaxed. I was asked if my name was indeed Ashokebhai. My merchant saviour yanked me away, while another volunteer accompanied me into the shop. I was assured that my camera would be returned from confiscation if I promised to leave at once. It was 'outsiders' like me, I was told, who were the cause of many problems. 

After being escorted back into my compound, I called contacts in the press to relate these events. I asked if such deadly ceremonies were being conducted elsewhere in the city. None had been reported, I was told, but earlier there had been instances of enforced 'Bharat Mata' worship that had cost a few lives in a neighbouring state. I was lucky not to have joined the statistics. A few weeks later, a bomb ripped through the new building adjoining which the Bharat Mata shrine had been constructed. It was to warn a Muslim family that had crossed the invisible line and bought an apartment there.

In the two years since that Republic Day, the world has been transformed, even as the dimensions of that transformation remain troublingly unclear. We have it on high authority that September 11 and its aftermath should help us to shed the baggage of history. Some months ago, a Prime Minister risked his political career by taking a bus to Lahore. The other day, a President risked his career, and possibly his life, by ordering the thekedars off Islamabad's highway to the future. Now both have to look over their shoulders at the defenders of true faith, some sabotaging history at Ayodhya and in textbooks, others carrying Korans and Kalashnikovs. Both men might be unfit or unwilling to make history. Or both might be heroes awaiting history's call. A thought, if not a promise, on this Republic Day.

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