November 30,


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Dilip D'Souza

The Implication Being

The time the thought first occured to me was ten years ago, when I read an affidavit an assistant commissioner of police submitted to the Bombay high court. The most recent time it drifted into my mind was the morning I read about a report of an investigation into the lynching of five Dalits in Jhajjar, Haryana. And that morning, I also thought: some things just get more entrenched each day.

Ten years ago, it began with a strange episode on my terrace. I was up there, taking photographs of the setting sun, when a group of portly cops in plainclothes waddled through the door. They wanted to know what that odd black device in my hand was, then insisted I had been using it to take pictures of them in their next-door police office. I said no. They began shoving me around. When I got over my initial bewilderment and asked for identification, what I got by way of an answer was two guns yanked from somewhere between ample folds of skin. One cop pointed his at me, its muzzle less than an inch from my eyes.

But the really frightening happened some months later, when I read that affidavit I mentioned. The ACP began by asserting that "it is absolutely false that the police officers concerned pointed a gun at the said Dilip D'Souza." Having lied once to the court, he tried his hand at some more. He explained that when the officers had "questioned" me, the name I offered as mine had made his "extremely watchful" men suspicious. "There was no explanation given by the said Dilip D'Souza," the ACP told the Court, "as to why he had falsely stated his name as 'Shaikh'".

That's right. "Shaikh."

Think of the wheels within wheels here. It was a lie that I had said my name was "Shaikh," but to me, that was a minor detail. These cops simply assumed -- they knew -- that a Muslim name would be accepted by the court as legitimate ground for suspicion. Naturally, they thought, any judge would hear this explanation, nod his head in sympathy with the terror the cops must have felt at hearing a name such as "Shaikh," and exonerate them.

The implication: using a Muslim name was the safe bet in court. After all, why didn't they aver that I had said my name was "Godbole," which would have been just as much of a lie as "Shaikh"? Because they assumed -- they knew -- the judges wouldn't buy the argument that "Godbole" had made them suspicious. And why didn't they tell the truth anyway, that I had said my name was what it is? Because they assumed -- they knew -- the judges wouldn't buy suspicion on that count either. So what's the best way to cover for a foolish mistake, perish the thought of simply admitting to making one? Play on a supposed association to criminality and terrorism, that's it. Bring in the Muslim name. Enough.

I remembered that encounter -- I use that word very deliberately indeed -- when I heard of incidents in the US after 9/11. There were attacks on Sikh- and other Indian-Americans by angry, if ignorant, Americans. Just a resemblance to Osama or to Arabs -- those fellows who wrap 'diapers' on their heads, said one particularly stupid dude -- was enough to trigger suspicion. (Certainly, as we have heard at various times since, including from Wipro's Azim Premji recently, a Muslim name remains enough as well).

But what struck me about those attacks was the reaction from the victims' communities. They raced to show they were as American as everyone else -- by wearing and waving Old Glory, attending memorial services for the WTC victims and so on. As they had to. It's hard to imagine what else they might have done to demonstrate their American-ness, their loyalty to their country. Some owners of shops and small businesses put little signs in their windows, or issued statements, that said they were American. Also as they had to.

But some signs in particular intrigued me. These proclaimed that the store-owners concerned were not Arab-Americans, but Indian-Americans.

On the face of it, another natural thing to do. How can anyone fault a man, fearing for his life, doing all he can to save it? Still, give some thought, again, to the implications here. To this question: Would it be all right for ignorant Americans to attack Arab-Americans instead?

We were all outraged that merely because Osama wears a turban and beard, others who wear them turned into fair game for retaliation. Is it acceptable, even conceivable, that every Arab-looking man, everyone who sported turban and beard, automatically was a target? After all, the same logic -- illogic, really -- that might lead an ignoramus to assault an Arab-American also applies to Indian-Americans. If you've got an idiot who sees guilt in turbans, what difference will he see between the names 'Abdul' and 'Parminder'? Or between their origins -- one in the sands of the Rub-Al-Khali, let's say; the other in the wheat fields of Punjab, and Indian Punjab at that? In fact, if his outrage makes him think he can assault innocent people, why should he see any difference at all between these targets?

Yet here were some of these very targets, pointing out that they were really the wrong targets. Implying thereby that the right ones were somewhere else. Implying, that is, even if involuntarily, that there were actually targets that were right: in fact, those Arab-Americans over there.

Doing so, they overlook the criminal fallacy in this assumption of guilt in the first place. The reason those attacks on Sikhs were wrong was hardly that the victims were Indian-American and not Arab-American. They were wrong because you cannot attack innocents -- even if someone who looks like them, or dresses like them, or has a similar name, or shares their religion, commits a horrible crime.

And in Jhajjar, in mid-October, a crowd gathered to lynch five men because they suspected the men had skinned a cow. The five were Dalits, which got a lot of us thinking about caste in this country. But if those were the bare facts we knew when it happened, by now the whole incident has been wrapped in layers of effective confusion.

Some people claimed there was a Brahmin among the five, which 'proved' that this wasn't a caste thing at all. Others claimed that it was the police who had actually killed them, not the crowd. Whichever it was, the village is outraged -- or at least, the upper castes in the village are outraged -- that authorities want to arrest and file charges against their men who are accused of the crime. Yet another angle came from the conversions of Dalits in the area after the murders. And there was even doubt about whether the cow was dead when it was skinned. That is, if it had been alive, that might explain the lynchers' -- crowd or police -- blood-crazed rage.

But now there's one more twist to this shameful tragedy. The head of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Bizay Sonkar Shastri, has issued a report on what happened in Jhajjar that day. In it, he claims that the 'killing took place out of mistaken identity.' (Times of India, November 28 2002). And what was this mistaken identity? The mob, says Shastri, was told (by whom?) that the people skinning the cow were Muslim.

The implication? It was a case -- a mistaken case, of course -- of killing Muslims. You see, lynching Dalits is a truly awful thing, yes. But this was not such an event; in fact, it must not be seen as a caste thing at all. Because here, the mob thought they were lynching Muslims.

Think I'm making a Kanchenjunga of a mound of mud? Consider this, just for the sake of argument. What would our reaction have been had Shastri said that the mob was told (by whom?) that the cow-skinners were monkeys? Or Ecuadorians? Why is their being Muslim any more of an explanation -- any more acceptable? -- than their being Dalit?

Put this another way: who, if anyone, asked B S Shastri the real question, which is why did the mob lynch anyone at all? After all, the crime in Jhajjar was not that the men killed were Dalits, but that men were killed, period.

Note the same subtle insinuation, perhaps involuntary, in every one of these incidents. The name 'Shaikh' raises suspicion. It's understandable to react against Arab-Americans. A horrible crime can be explained -- maybe not explained away, but explained -- by claiming that the criminals were actually killing Muslims.

Suspicion of Muslims? You see, that's understandable. Or at least, that's what all the implications I've listed are founded on. That's the thought we are supposed to carry in our heads, the one I referred to at the start of this column.

So now you answer some more delicate and difficult questions for me. Is it atrocities like at the Raghunath temple, Akshardham, WTC and Godhra that fuel such suspicion? Are 'reactions' to those atrocities -- like attacks on Sikhs in the US, like the slaughter of innocents all over Gujarat after Godhra -- justified since they are based on those suspicions?

Or is it the suspicion that produces those atrocities? Are they then justified?

Or am I looking at this entirely the wrong way anyway? Must we not ask these questions at all?

Dilip D'Souza

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