This is a guest post by SHARAD MATHUR
In the summer of 1999, practising our family tradition, we were availing a government LTC that my father was entitled to, being a senior central government officer. Since we could travel by air, we decided to take a trip to Darjeeling, while halting at Allahabad, Varanasi, Lucknow, and Calcutta for some sight-seeing. Those were the days when flying was an experience for most Indians; yet the emotional memory of this trip did not record much of the excitement induced by flying, but took vivid account of disappointment – with a chance conversation and of missing another.
It was on our flight from Lucknow to Calcutta, I was sitting with my younger brother while my parents were sitting together in a row behind us. I was on the window seat and was too occupied with the process of luggage sliding inside the plane, to notice two gentlemen who came and sat next to my parents and my brother respectively. My gawking was however interrupted by my father excitedly introducing me to one Devi Singh ji, who I was told happened to be Personal Assistant to Shri Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Being a big BJP enthusiast, partly because of their mesmerizingly bright coloured flags, I looked up to this BJP heavyweight and was elated to meet his personal assistant. My excitement was doubled when Devi Singh ji introduced us to a gentleman sitting next to my brother, on the aisle seat, as Modi ji who was accompanying Bhairon Singh ji to the Bihar convention of BJP. However, this excitement remained short lived.
I had read about Modi ji a lot in the print media. He was, almost, a well-known BJP leader from Bihar and was perceived by many as a ray of hope for Laloo’s goon-infested Bihar. Moreover, he came across as a man of simple living in his khadi kurta and with mild demeanour. Admiringly, I told him how I want him to beat Laloo to chief ministerial race in Bihar. That left him little perplexed and a little embarrassed. I was a teenager and was getting better at sensing people’s discomfort. I knew how my one way communication affects people. So, I took a pause to allow an opportunity for him to speak. Ironically, when he finally spoke, I was left embarrassed.
It took him some effort to say “I am not Sushil Modi and I am not from Bihar. I am Narendra Modi and I am from the BJP unit in Gujarat”. As I mentioned earlier, it was my turn to be embarrassed now. This embarrassment, however, soon turned into disappointment. I wanted him to be Sushil Modi, who was a leader, unlike this regular party worker. I was now growing jealous of my parents who were sitting next to Devi Singh ji who was PA to Bhairon Singh ji. It was really a shame that I was sitting next to some nobody from Gujarat while my parents were lucky enough to be talking to the PA of Bhairon Singh ji. For the rest of the journey I did not talk to Narendra Modi and keenly overheard the conversation my parents were having with Devi Singh ji. Failing to interject, I sulked.
Finally when the flight landed in Calcutta, I was eager to touch Bhairon Singh ji’s feet and have a word or two with him. However that chance was robbed by my own mother who engaged him in conversation until the airhostess’ requests to alight the flight grew firmer. I set foot on Calcutta’s soil with the disappointment of not being able to have a conversation with Bharion Singh ji.
In the next assembly elections, yet again, I enjoyed the chants of “Rajasthan ka ek hi Singh, Bhairon Singh Bhairon Singh!” On the other hand, Narendra Modi and the conversation with him soon slipped out of my conscious memory; till 2002.
In the February of 2002, I was a college-going lad in a young, confident society showing great promise to be christened Youngistan in a Pepsi ad of 2008. Post economic reforms boom was beginning to be frequently noticed in tier-II and tier-III cities of India. Tailor made dull coloured shirts were giving way to brightly coloured body hugging ready-to-wear shirts. Blonde streaks were starting to appear in the hair of young men and women. Faster and bigger bikes had come in vogue while Hero Honda cd-100 no longer commanded the respect it used to. Now obsolete, cyber-cafés with a pool table became the coolest hangout places.
In line with such social realities: my wardrobe was filled with brightly coloured t-shirts, my long hair had blonde streaks in them, my yahoo profile had ‘bike aficionado’ written in all caps, and my days had a large chunk of them being spent in a popular cyber café. Life was great and then came February 27 when a group of men, women, and children were charred to death, allegedly by a Muslim mob, in a train compartment.
I was disgusted, angry, and in line with public opinion wanted justice for the dead. This anger and disgust was similar to the anger and disgust I felt in the aftermath of many incidences, before and hence – terror attacks, riots, and other incidents in general where innocents die. Therefore, next day morning, it was gone.
I woke up, took a shower, wore a green polo shirt with torn jeans, put on my favourite red sneakers, and vroomed out on my bike towards the cyber café I used to frequent. Before leaving, I remember mother telling me about a Bharat Bandh that was announced. I did not pay much heed. It was nothing out of the ordinary – the bandh. I remembered 1990s curfews; my brother was born despite them. It was familiar turf – most shops were shut, children were playing cricket on the streets, and cows were ruminating away to glory in the middle of otherwise busy roads. However, at a distance of hundred meters, outside the cyber café, it all changed.
I saw a group of angry men with saffron bandanas burning tyres. Saffron bandanas and burning of tyres was not new to me but the anger in their eyes was. I was shocked but not scared, yet. There was no reason to be scared. It was my city with my people in saffron bandanas. I did not need to be scared, until what happened next.
Since there was no reason to be scared, I continued riding towards the building that housed said cyber café. I was about to park my bike outside the café, when someone growled, “aa gaya pakado saale ko”. I did not understand. I momentarily froze but instincts took over soon. I vroomed out of there in no time and did not hit the brakes till I reached home.
I discussed this incidence with only few people amongst my family and friends for it was embarrassing to tell a tale about a time when I ran with my tail between my legs. Most explanations from these chosen few attempted at rationalizing what happened. Many hovered around the fact that the particular cyber café in question was frequented by many Muslim youth. In one particular case, it was brought to my attention that only a Muslim would want to breach the bandh to visit a cyber café, after the carnage of Hindu pilgrims!
In coming days I heard about many such incidents, much more horrendous incidents from Gujarat. Innocent families were burnt alive, hapless women were raped and murdered, children were slaughtered mercilessly while the police and politicians approved, sometimes instigated, these crimes against humanity. Many were naming Modi as the patron of this violence against Muslims; some were vilifying him and others were glorifying him.
The Narendra Modi from 1999 came back in my conscious memory and he left my mind split about all this.
Before the Diwali of 2006, I was travelling from Mumbai to back home in Rajasthan. If you’ve lived in India, you would know that availing reserved seats during Diwali days is near impossible. I was thus travelling in the general compartment. Interestingly in that general compartment, at every big station, a gang of coolies got in, forcibly made some people, whose appearance squealed about their poverty and physical weakness, get up, allotted their seats to people they brought in with them, and decamped with their fee for the services provided. This was a shock to me, but a bigger shock was around the corner when our train would enter Gujarat. It had been over four years since Gujarat riots and normalcy was restored in Gujarat. Newspapers were already telling us that wounds are beginning to heal and Gujarati Muslims are moving on. In line with this rhetoric, everything seemed normal all along the way until our train stopped at a station where it normally does not.
The train had made an unscheduled halt at this station to make way for another train. It is a regular practice in India. While our train was standing there for almost two hours, I saw a crowd building up exponentially. It was there for a special train to Haridwar that was scheduled to arrive any moment. The station was ‘decorated’ with saffron flags and banners. In a sea of heads wrapped in saffron bandanas, at a very close distance from me, I saw some skull caps and hijabs huddled together.
It was a Muslim family: mostly women, a few men, and many children. Men were in all white garbs with skull caps while most women were not in the veil. They appeared reasonably comfortable squatting on the platform blocking my exit. Their eyes, however, betrayed a hue of fear that grew darker by the minute.
While the saffron crowd was expanding all over the station, density of people around this family grew disproportionately. With the numbers of saffron bandanas around them increasing, space the family was occupying kept on shrinking. Suddenly some octogenarians started bellowing slogans: “Narendra Modi Zindabaad”! “Jai Shri Ram”! amongst many others in Gujarati. Saffron bandanas joined in. While these slogans sound harmless now but with each roar from this group, I could virtually feel the hearts of that family sinking. One wrong move, one push or shove, one protest and it could have been 2002 all over again fror them. I am not sure if the memories of 2002 came back to that family, but it surely came back to me. “Narendra Modi Zindabaad” reverberated in my head till the train left this station leaving that family behind.
I was left why were these people, especially the octogenarians, inspiring terror in hearts of innocent souls using the name of maryada purushottama Rama whose legends inspire hope in millions every day? I was left wondering if the Narendra Modi from these zindabad cries was the same guy with mild demeanour in khadi kurta from 1999.
Today I believe that Narendra Modi is a very able administrator and has a charismatic appeal. While in Guajarat for long assignments, I have first-hand experienced progress that has happened in Gujarat under Narendra Modi’s tenure. His charismatic persona has attracted vast number of people to be his ardent followers; or so it appears to me. However, as the cries for Narendra Modi for the top Delhi job grow louder every passing day, I cannot shake off the images of 2002 and 2006 from my head. He no longer remains the simple Narendra Modi with mild demeanour from 1999. Not to me.