Any comments welcome.
(Previous essays: Not just about tennis, May-Jun 2010, The crane preens, Jul-Aug 2010.)
Most of the pages contained routine stuff; then, as if a stern schoolteacher had been at work, two lines were heavily blacked out, word by offending word. I was reading, of all innocuous things, a Bombay housing society's book of minutes. What could have caused such a fit of pique?
The minutes from a later society meeting, when the residents first noticed the black marks, solved that mystery. Referring to the black marks, they observed that a previous society resolution had been "illegibly scored out by some member." So they "incorporated" it again: "It was unanimously resolved that any member wanting to sell his flat will not sell to a Muslim."
This time, the words were not "illegibly scored out" by that same unknown member. Nor even some other unknown member. No: there they were, black ink on white paper. There they were, recorded on January 26 1994.
And I was stunned. On India's Republic Day, when we commemorate a constitution that's eloquent about secularism and the freedom of faith, a set of affluent, educated Bombayites put down in writing, and for the second time, their distaste for Muslims. But what depressed me more than the distaste itself was this: while one among this lot did not share his neighbours' feelings, he lacked the guts to speak his mind. He wasn't able to stand up to their expressed prejudice. And that says something.
To me, the episode suggested a moment in the early 1990s when something changed in this society -- and I mean that word now in a wider sense. A moment when it became respectable to give voice to prejudice and hatred; but more disturbing, a moment when people who would confront them became scarce on the ground. It became easy to leave hate unchallenged, to look the other way.
The trouble is, looking the other way is no passive act. Instead, it is too often the way to horror. Example: Rwanda.
By 1994, Rwanda, a small country in the middle of Africa, had gorged itself for months, even years, on hate propaganda that few thought to stop. The majority Hutu tribe in that country came to believe the worst about the minority Tutsis, their neighbours and fellow-Rwandans. Radio broadcasts called explicitly and openly for eliminating the "cockroaches" -- the Hutu extremists' word for the Tutsis that became commonplace. Inevitably, in April that year Hutu turned on Tutsi -- Rwanda turned on itself -- with a fury that staggered the world.
This late-20th Century genocide was rawer, more elemental, than what Hitler or Stalin accomplished. In one hundred days, Hutus slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis with machetes and sticks, fire and guns and farm implements: anything that could serve as a lethal weapon. The arithmetic is surreal and defies description: 8000 killed every day, 330 every hour. One Rwandan murdered every 11 seconds, 24/7 for 100 days.
This was barbarity beyond comprehension. This was slaughter three times faster than Hitler managed with Europe's Jews. Rwanda decimated itself in the primordial meaning of the word: one of every ten Rwandans died.
During the massacre, there was actually a UN force (UNAMIR, or the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda) present in the country, established there months before to keep the peace. Its "Force Commander" was a Canadian soldier named Roméo Dallaire. He later wrote a memoir -- if that bland word really applies to memories of genocide -- of his time in Rwanda, "Shake Hands With the Devil." It is a searing, shocking book, but not just because of the killing. Dallaire describes how, after nobody stopped the propaganda and the killing began, nobody stopped the killing either. The rest of the world did nothing.
I'm sorry: the word "nothing" actually overstates what the rest of the world did.
Two weeks into the massacre, with plenty of news already out about the thousands already dead, the UN's Security Council decided to withdraw its UNAMIR from Rwanda. In her foreword to Dallaire's book, Samantha Power describes this as "the single most shameful act in the history of the United Nations." (Dallaire himself refused to leave Rwanda. He was left with 450 men who, Power writes, "watched helplessly as the bodies piled up around them".)
Early on, a group of bureaucrats from an unnamed country came to Rwanda to assess the situation. Their report contained these words that Dallaire says are "engraved still in my mind": "We will recommend to our government not to intervene as the risks are high and all that is here are humans."
Only humans. Think of the import of those words. Rwanda is a small, poor, landlocked country with no particular strategic or mineral wealth, which is why the world did not care what happened there in 1994. Indeed, all there is in Rwanda is its humans. If you're like me, you've grown up believing that's worth infinitely more than any mineral wealth. Yet their existence itself was reason to turn away from Rwanda. To let 800,000 humans die horribly.
This was not "doing nothing". This was far worse. The world's apathy to bloodshed in Rwanda actually fueled the massacre, kept it going. That's the danger when those who can take a stand, won't.
Is it a stretch to link prejudice in a Bombay housing society to the slaughter in Rwanda?
Only if you live in a utopia where people suppress prejudice and hatred. In the real world, these eventually find expression. Stand up to them when they are merely aired in a society meeting, and you stand a chance of heading off catastrophe. Don't, and a society begins the slide to depravity. Like when three thousand Indians were killed in Delhi in 1984, or over a thousand Indians were killed in Gujarat in 2002 -- or like Rwanda's agony of 1994. When hatred boils over and massacre begins, it's much harder to stop, much rarer to find people with the fibre to stop it. Exactly as Dallaire discovered for himself.
That's why I can't help finding seeds for the massacres in those of us who will not confront ugliness in our neighbours.
To the writer Hannah Arendt, the Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann stood for what she famously called "the banality of evil". Explaining the phrase, she spoke of "evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any … wickedness, pathology or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness."
It's that shallowness that, for me, connects the unknown man who blacked out his society resolution to the bureaucrats for whom Rwanda meant nothing because it contained only humans.
Yet in small but profound ways, some of us do dig beyond shallow.
After the Gujarat massacre of 2002, a group of anguished citizens met regularly in Bombay to discuss the tragedy and what their response should be. I joined them every now and then. We gathered once just days after the police shot dead two suspected terrorists at Ansal Plaza in Delhi. It was an acrimonious evening. Several people supported the "encounter", several were outraged by it. Till a short exchange brought the discussions to an abrupt end.
First, a man I'll call P said, as close to verbatim as I can recall: "These guys deserved to be killed! I'm from Kashmir and I've seen plenty of these Islamic terrorists. Trust me, these two looked like terrorists, so I'm sure they were terrorists!"
Silence as we digested this. Then G, wearing a deep blue turban and beard, stood and said simply, quietly: "In the '80s, most of you would have said I look like a terrorist. Does that make me one?"
Silence again, even from P. Our Sikh friend had asked the question that laid bare the absurdity of P's claim: they "looked like terrorists", so "they were terrorists". What a stupid, abhorrent remark. Fortunately, G had the fibre to call the bluff on it.
In his preface, Roméo Dallaire writes: "May this book help inspire people … to rise above national interest and self-interest to recognize humanity for what it really is: a panoply of human beings who, in their essence, are the same."
The words speak of both the magnitude of what Dallaire experienced and the kind of man he is. They also make me wonder in some despair: what, really, is humanity? Maybe what Dallaire saw around him in Rwanda, indeed in the world outside Rwanda, is humanity as it really is. Raw, elemental, all there is here.
But then there's someone like G, who gives me hope.