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From 1984 to Uttarakhand: the politics of death

By Ajaz Ashraf

In the stench arising from the rotting bodies in Uttarakhand is also present the foul odour of the politics of death. As Uttarakhand desperately cremates them, the political class has taken to milking the disaster, robbing the dead of their dignity, and turning the corpses into mere statistical detail to serve their political goals. Indeed, 1984 onwards, the politics of death has come to dominate the saga of Indian democracy.

But first, the saga as it is playing out in Uttarakhand. From the beginning, its Chief Minister, Vijay Bahuguna, has been seeking to suppress the death toll figures, acutely aware as he is of the political price attached to an inordinately high casualty count. His ploy, though, unravelled as Uttarakhand Assembly Speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal claimed the Himalayan tsunami could have killed over 10,000 people.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna. Image courtesy PIB

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna. Image courtesy PIB

Are we then to hail Kunjwal for his remarkable candour, despite it embarrassing his party? Not really, for Uttarakhand is witnessing an intense rivalry between factions owing allegiance to Bahuguna and Union cabinet Minister Harish Rawat, arguably the most popular Congress leader in the state. Following last year’s election, Rawat had believed Congress President Sonia Gandhi would designate him as chief minister. After all, in 2002, he had been persuaded to step aside in favour of ND Tiwari, whose long administrative experience was touted as what the Congress needed to bolster its base in the fledgling state.

But Sonia’s Congress delivered a shocker to Rawat as only it can: Bahuguna, a political lightweight, was anointed chief minister, goading Rawat into raising the flag of rebellion. Ultimately, a compromise was negotiated – Kunjwal, a Rawat camp follower, was made the speaker and the rebel leader was promised a Cabinet rank, which was bestowed on him late last year.

The imposing of consensus did not deter the factions from sniping at each other. Kunjwal openly mocked Bahuguna’s idea of holding one assembly session every year in Gairsain, in Chamoli district, for the purpose of which a foundation stone to construct an assembly building was laid in January. Then last month, Kunjwal described Uttarakhand as the most venal of all states. From this perspective, the death toll Kunjwal has cited is yet another sharp spear flung at Bahuguna, underscoring the inability of political leaders to sweep aside their rivalry to alleviate the plight of people.

A competitive politics of death is also being played out between the Congress and the BJP.  To begin with, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi sought to build his persona of a ‘doer’ by parachuting into the state. The BJP spin doctors pitched in, providing astonishing figures of the number of people he rescued. As the story unravelled, as all spins eventually do, they have been tying themselves in a tangle through flimsy denials. The Congress derisively dubbed Modi as Rambo.

Union Minister Manish Tiwari has used the Twitter to pillory BJP leader Sushma Swaraj for not visiting Uttarakhand, forgetting that Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde had requested politicians to desist from touring the state as relief and evacuation operation was underway. It was, again, the hope of gaining from the politics of death that inspired Rahul Gandhi to ignore Shinde’s plea and belatedly bustle around the state littered with corpses. In a potshot aimed at Modi, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has claimed his team rescued 1,819 pilgrims "without any discrimination". Did the battered state of Uttarakhand require these political battles?

But then, beginning 1984, death as a symbol has been repeatedly invoked for electoral purposes. For instance, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the macabre anti-Sikh riots were harnessed to the Congress electoral machinery. Then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi sought to justify the 1984 riots thus: "When a big tree falls, the earth shakes." Leaders accused of leading mobs were assigned the election ticket. More pertinently, the Congress tried to engender a sympathy wave through advertisements which quoted from her last speech before her death: "I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it."

In 1991, following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress tried to play politics over his dead body. If it failed, it was because the Congress had weakened considerably, and the OBCs, feeling empowered because of the implementation of the Mandal report, weren’t willing to be distracted from their quest of power.

Nevertheless, the deaths of Indira and Rajiv still constitute the rhetoric of the Congress. Early this year, at the time of being appointed the party vice-president, Rahul Gandhi spoke of his torment at the unbearable loss of his grandmother. Obviously, his sentiments can’t be denied or made light of. Yet the compulsions of the politics of death made Rahul skip any references to the turmoil the Sikh children experienced in 1984.

Perhaps the most spectacular enactment of the politics of death was during the weeks of the Kargil war. To begin with, the Congress attempted to score brownie points, quite in the manner the BJP has been contesting the death toll in Uttarakhand. Congress workers in Delhi then went around in a procession with  a deflated, overturned plastic replica of a miniature bus, symbolising prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s journey to Lahore. You had to be a duffer to miss the implied meaning – that Vajpayee’s peace initiative had emboldened the Pakistanis to occupy the commanding Kargil heights.

Yet, as the national mood turned sombre over Kargil, the Congress did a U-turn, and offered support to the Vajpyaee government to drive out the Pakistanis from Indian territory. But this was also because the BJP had started to deploy the infinitely more powerful symbol of the dead bodies of soldiers for political ends. The coffins from Kargil were displayed for public viewing, and taken out for cremation or burial in procession, with visuals of relatives weeping inconsolably beamed on TV networks.

In a paper, Heroes and Martyrs: Symbolism of the Kargil War Funerals, French scholar Max-Jean Zins expressed the thought that the Vajpayee government evolved, not least because of the impending general election, an official ‘funeral’ policy. He writes, "The Kargil funerals provided an excellent opportunity to stage a spectacular extravaganza, a sort of meticulously choreographed national funereal ballet." Zins thought such orchestration drowned out voices striking a discordant note. He quotes the father of an army captain killed in Kargil on 5 July 1999 as saying: "Why can’t those who allowed the infiltrators to come so deep into our country be punished?... the politicians are responsible for the situation created so far and for all the deaths."

The advantages accruing from parading the dead were seemingly not lost to Narendra Modi, who was the BJP’s general secretary during the Kargil war. So when the train at Godhra caught fire in 2002, his administration, despite warnings, brought the charred bodies from there to Ahmedabad and then handed them over to their families in processions. It created the setting for the riots that followed, allegedly allowed to go out of control for the purposes of winning elections then just nine-ten months away. There are other instances of links between elections and riots, such as the Nellie massacre of 1983 in Assam.

It is the wont of political parties to spar over corpses, as is indeed happening in Uttarakhand. Neither a natural calamity of terrifying magnitude nor incidents of violence of unimaginable horror prompts them to overcome their ideological differences and competing interests to provide succour to people. In contrast, they have united to oppose the verdict that seeks to bring them under the ambit of the Right to Information Act. It tells you about the depth to which the political class has fallen, as also the illness plaguing Indian democracy.

(The author is a Delhi-based journalist. Email: ashrafajaz3@gmail.com)