Gautam Navlakha is a senior member of the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights and a veteran of many battles against the Indian state. In this interview to, he speaks about the Sangh Parivar’s silence and inaction during the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage, its own role in many riots, why the mayhem of 1984 was different from that of 2002 in Gujarat, and why so many people are speaking out against the rising intolerance in the country. Excerpts:

The report Who are the Guilty? created the narrative of powerful Congress ministers fanning the 1984 riots against the Sikhs. It was a joint report of the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. How did this report come about? Who were the people who contributed to it?
The report was much more significant than just for naming names. The engagement of people from civil society with the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage began from Day One, that is, October 31 itself. Concerned citizens took out a march when the massacres were actually taking place in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. It was quite a brave effort.

Who were the people who joined this march?
The march took place on November 1, and members of the PUCL and PUDR, professors, social activists, women’s groups [joined in]. In fact, conscientious people from all walks of life joined in – Swami Agnivesh, Prof Sumanta Banerjee, Rajni Kothari, Dinesh Mohan, among others. Of course, the police tried to dissuade them. The Nagrik Ekta Manch came out from the November 1 march.

Different people joined in at different moments because the issue wasn’t what happened during those three-four days and its aftermath; it was a struggle of 32 years for justice. Students from Jawaharal Nehru University and Delhi University helped in relief camps. Romila Thapar spoke against it.

Who were the people behind the report?
What happened was that volunteers who were working in relief camps realised that the victims were talking about those who had played a role in fanning the riots. They wanted to tell their stories. It was then decided to collect their evidence. These stories newspapers were not reporting at that time. We found that in many of these cases the names of Congress leaders figured.

The decision to carry the names of Congress members who were implicated in the riots was taken after much discussion. There were people who tried to dissuade us from naming them.

People like who?
In the PUDR, there was absolutely no difference of opinion about bringing out the names. But senior members of the PUCL warned that those named might get lynched, or that the list of names we wanted to be published could be used by the Khalistanis to target them. But at that point of time it was important to take out the names the victims were mentioning.

Would you agree that the report affixed the blame on the Congress in the popular consciousness?
I and others were happy that the report played the role it did. But several detailed reports too came out subsequently. For instance, the team that Justice VM Tarkunde led came out with an excellent report. In fact, there were many such reports that were made public – and groups like Manushi played a good role in it.

But what is surprising, in terms of contemporary relevance of it, is the fact that members of the RSS-BJP [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party] were completely silent about it then. It was much later that they opened their mouth and began to blame the Congress for it.

Could you define “much later” – December or January?
It was after the dust settled, so to speak, the Sangh became much more vocal about it. That is alright, I guess. In a large democracy such as ours, people have their right to choose their own way to express themselves. The RSS-BJP, I suppose, felt that the assassination of Indira Gandhi was far more important than the massacre of Sikhs.

Did they feel that way?
Please, let us step back and recall the whole ambience which led up to the massacre of Sikhs. Our report also captures this ambience very well. Very strong anti-Sikh feelings had been built up….

But it was the Congress which built this anti-Sikh feeling.
Absolutely. The Congress was playing upon the Hindu sentiment. It synced with the feelings of the RSS at that particular juncture. There was no difference of opinion between the Congress and the BJP on this count. It was later, for political reasons, the Sangh joined in [to accuse the Congress of fomenting the riots].

What do you mean by later – one year, two or…
That is hard for me to tell. But I have absolutely no memory of RSS leaders speaking out against the killing in that entire period of November. When it was needed for political parties to speak out, they did not, they kept silent even though the ruling party was involved in it. The role of the police, the way rumours were spread…

Are you referring to rumours about Sikhs distributing sweets at the news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination?
Not just that, but also about water being poisoned and trains from Punjab arriving with the bodies of Hindus. Our report referred to the police going around in colonies and asking people not to drink water as it had been poisoned. The nexus between the hoodlums and the police, patronised by the ruling party, was palpable.

And because the Sangh claims to represent the Hindus, it was silent about it.

Did you come across Sangh members pitching in at the relief camps?
Our report also implicates RSS people in the riots at some places.

Are you saying the RSS people were at the forefront of the riots?
Let us not mix it up – the 1984 riots were carried out by the Congress. But at some places the RSS people did play a role. It doesn’t surprise me. Given that the Congress was stoking the Hindu sentiment, and trying to exploit it for its own end, it jived well with the RSS.

From this perspective, the BJP has managed to change the narrative of the 1984 riots, hasn’t it? For instance, when the writers were returning their awards, the BJP leaders kept asking, why were the awards not returned in protest against the 1984 riots?
This is like a dog’s whistle. They are trying to drive the point that these people did not open their mouths in 1984 because they were Congress supporters, and now that they are opening their mouth, they are doing it because of their ideological proximity to the Congress. I find this attempt to focus on 1984 as ridiculous.

They also say these people didn’t speak against the Emergency, and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley referred to the 1989 Bhagalpur riots.

When the Janata Party came to power in 1977, a series of anti-Muslim carnages took place, such as in Jamshedpur and Aligarh. The RSS was involved in them. They are being extremely selective when they talk about the Emergency or 1984. What about the riots since the one which took place in Jabalpur [in 1961-1962]? The fact is that one commission of inquiry after another has established the role of the RSS in them. Are we going to close our eyes to that? What about [RSS chief] Balasaheb Deoras’s overtures to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency?

As someone pointed out in a TV debate the other day, one is bound to be selective in one’s outrage. There is nothing wrong with that. You can’t expect people to be outraged with everything happening around them all the time. There are situations in which all kinds of people get very agitated because of things going far beyond what they believe is the normal.

Do you feel this point has been reached now?
Of course, but this doesn’t mean that attacks on our freedoms have begun today. Civil liberties and democratic rights activists know that attacks on our freedoms have continued unabated from the First Amendment to the Constitution [which imposed restrictions on fundamental rights] onwards. Restrictions on our freedoms which are claimed to be reasonable are downright unreasonable. This is because it has given the government of day the discretion to decide what is right and what is wrong.

So what makes the current situation special?
The danger that faces us is that when our freedoms have already been infringed to such a great degree, you allow the most vituperative, hate-filled propaganda of the Hindutva right-wing because you describe them as nationalists of the extremist bend. There are groups which are being targeted through anti-terror laws – for instance, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, in practice, ends up prosecuting the minorities, the oppressed castes, the Dalits, the indigenous people, or political dissidents like the Maoists, or SIMI [Students Islamic Movement of India], or the Hizbul Mujahideen. Yet their [Hindutva forces] exhortation to violence…

Give me an example of them exhorting violence.
It is very clearly etched on my mind. On March 1, 2002, when the Gujarat carnage was going on, there was [VHP leader] Pravin Togadia on Zee TV exhorting people to carry on with what they were doing. It was not an opinion he was expressing. Those were fighting words, which in criminal law means you are inciting people to take to violence. Nothing happens to them.

Or, say, what [Tamil Nadu Chief Minister] Jayalalithaa has done recently, charging the folk singer [Kovan] with sedition. Well, it has become a norm. There has to be public pressure of enormous kind before the government backtracks. All this shows  how much power has come to reside in the hands of various governments.

Is it this which has made the current situation so very dangerous?
Yes, and this is because in addition to an already-weakened Constitutional order, in which freedoms have come under attacks, restrictions and infringements, you now have an ideological-driven party, based on a combustible combination of bigotry and jingoism, in power.

It is a two-pronged attack – they carry out their social agenda through agitations such as love jihad, ghar wapsi, beef (the next one now will be on the Muslim population) and they are patronised by the party in power. In fact, there is no difference between the two. What happens on the ground is legitimised through a deliberately constructed rationalisation. For instance, the Haryana Chief Minister said that Mohammad Akhlaq had said something very insulting against the holy cow and people got incensed and, therefore, lynched him. In other words, Akhlaq was to blame for what happened to him. That’s legitimising what the hoodlums have done.

This kind of nexus exists between the political and government authority on the one side and the hoodlums and social forces which come from the same family [the Sangh Parivar]. Obviously, you then see a very dangerous phenomenon take root – and that is very worrying.

Why is it that what is happening now worries us far more than the many communal riots in the past?
In one respect, all riots are all the same – that is, as far as the criminal justice system is concerned, it has failed to provide justice to the victims of these massacres. It is not only true of 1984, it is also true of Bhagalpur, Mumbai in 1992 and 1993 – there is a long list of it. After the carnage between October 31 and November 10, 1984, there was an attempt at suppression and cover-up to protect those who were implicated – that is, from police officers to party members, particularly those senior.

However, the difference between 1984 and 2002 is that civil society interventions and engagements with the survivors and victims of the 1984 carnage did not lead to a situation in which Muslims found themselves after the 2002 riots. The Muslims in Gujarat were reduced to becoming second-class citizens.

Also, after the 1984 riots, there were a few efforts at finding a political solution to the Punjab problem. This isn’t to say that the Congress involvement in the riots should be excused. However, in Gujarat, the Muslims lost out in terms of their economic position or clout or prosperity they enjoyed earlier. In post-1984, the same kind of excommunication or isolation of the Sikhs didn’t take place. They weren’t ostracised as Muslims in Gujarat were.

Therefore, what you saw in Gujarat was the coming together of the state and the [divisive] social forces. This poses a much greater threat. That is why all of us find it worrying. This is why from the RBI governor to Moody’s, they are speaking out against it. They are, after all, not Modi-baiters, as the BJP believes. The danger is palpable to some.

There is also the culture of impunity.
On October 23, the RSS was allowed to take out and brandish weapons on Vijayadashami in Jammu region, which is a disturbed area. A boy, please remember, throwing a stone can get killed in Kashmir. But in Jammu region, the RSS can get away with brandishing weapons in the name of celebrating Vijayadashami, in utter violation of law. It shows you the extent to which the administration and the police system have been implicated in what the RSS wants to carry out.

Or take what happened at Delhi’s Kerala House. It is shameful we have a police commissioner who at a press conference said that whatever he did, that police action – mind you, he insisted it was not raid – was in accordance with law. He was not even familiar with the law, which actually shows that the police had no authority to enter Kerala House. He was completely silent on the rude behaviour of the Parliament Street SHO, the same person who detained three persons, including the journalist from Scroll, and lectured them on Hinduism, patriotism and nationalism.

While I welcome the churning…

Churning? What do you mean by that?
The current period is extremely heart-warming. You see writers, natural scientists, film-makers, social scientists, bankers, in fact, people from all walks of life breaking their silence and speaking out. These different types of voices have put to shame the ministers and their other leaders who speak in the print media and on TV channels.

It is heart-warming also in the sense that it creates the condition for the people to understand that encroachments on our freedom of expression and the right to form association, which are two basic fundamentals for any democratic society, have made state institutions so decrepit and weak that they are at risk of being taken over by the RSS elements.

Well, you say it is heat-warming for you that so many people are speaking out today. But the Sangh claims these people never spoke in, say, 1984.
Nayantara Sahgal, Romila Thapar, so many of them spoke. Why focus on 1984 alone? Just because Jaitley spoke about it? They are being very selective. I have a grouse that very few democratic and even progressive-minded people have spoken about the atrocities the Indian armed forces have committed in Kashmir, that they spoke very late about the atrocities that were committed in the North East, that they are still very selective in their position about the war unleashed in the forests of central India against the adivasis, who are led by the Maoists, or that they never spoke on the ban on SIMI on grounds that are very ridiculous. There is an endless list of woes I have.

My grouse against the RSS is that they were nowhere around in the freedom movement. As far as I am concerned, it cancels them out. The BJP’s claims and counter-claims are very juvenile. They pick up some issue but do not speak on others. They talk about Godhra, but they are completely silent on the carnage which took place in Gujarat subsequently.

They use Godhra to justify the carnage in Gujarat.
Justification is shameful and reprehensible. You can’t justify a massacre on any count, by citing any argument. The Gujarat carnage happened when the police and the administration were under their control. At best, it shows a complete lack of administrative ability; at worse, their complicity in it. And yet they don’t feel ashamed at the carnage. What about Mumbai, Babri Masjid?

The BJP says no one talks about the fact that the Kashmiri Pandits were compelled to leave the Valley.
The Indian government is one body which has talked about them – and only them.

I suppose no one here means civil liberties activists and the liberal-left.
We can’t be accused because of the illiteracy of the RSS. Our records and our reports are available on our website. They can read our first report that appeared in March 1990 on Jammu and Kashmir. But their own demand that the Indian armed forces be given a free hand to suppress the proxy war of Pakistan, well, Kashmiri Muslims simply don’t exist for them. It doesn’t matter to them that 80,000 Kashmiris have been killed, that even a child throwing a pebble has been shot dead.

This charge that you spoke for Y but didn’t when X happened, I am sorry but this accusation can’t be levelled against the civil liberties and democratic rights organisations. Our record speaks for itself in our reports. Yes, but we do feel it is a matter of grave concern when the Indian state gets implicated in terrorising the civilian population.

The Sangh has many outfits on tribals, swadeshi, etc. but it doesn’t have one on human rights. Why?
It is a question you should ask them. I am just happy they don’t have one. It is not that human rights needs a fascist definition. On a lighter note, they are more interested in animal rights – and that too of a particular type. Human beings, for them, are less important than animals… Well, they could always float an outfit on human rights. The point is that this wouldn’t mean they are committed to democratic rights and civil liberties. Ever since Modi came to power, there has been an attempt at straitjacketing our thoughts.

We are being told that X, Y, Z are taboo subjects and you can’t talk about it. It is as if they are the repository of all wisdom and knowledge. So if Hamid Ansari doesn’t salute the national flag, they get outraged. But when governor Ram Naik interrupts the playing of the national anthem, there isn’t a wrinkle on their forehead. They are not guided by patriotism or nationalism. They are imposing the most bigoted and jingoistic ideas on the nation and they will put us back by 50 years if they are allowed to carry on.

This is why scientists felt compelled to speak out. Please, look at Modi’s intellectual contribution from the time he became prime minister – he compares the successful Mangalyaan venture to the cricket team’s; he talks about plastic surgery, cloning, etc. If we have a prime minister who talks about all this from a public platform, then it is very scary and dangerous. That is why scientists have spoken. As I said, we are living in very interesting times.

I guess it is interesting times because of the debate that has been triggered.
As a civil liberties and democratic rights activist, I do ardently hope that the debate which has been triggered, and has also led to churning in our society, will lead to discussions on a whole range of issues which have come to the fore. For instance, I hope the Uniform Civil Code and the cow-slaughter issues will be debated. It is very good that people are talking about beef in a number of ways which go beyond food habits and connects it to the issue of livelihood.

But I also hope that this is the time for us to ask about the kind of nationalism we set out to establish in 1947 and where it has gone wrong.

We have refused to recognise that the Indian state is waging war against its own people in J&K and North East. This is because of the suppression of what are political movements demanding the right to self-determination or negotiated solutions for independence or autonomy. We have refused to recognise the predatory development model which has been imposed on the adivasis and the middle and poor peasantry.

When we talk about freedoms, we cannot fight for our freedom by squelching the freedom of the Kashmiris or the Nagas or the Meitis or by trying to suppress the Maoists and the adivasis on the ground they are obstructing development when that develpoment itself is predatory.

There are many serious issues which confront us. Freedom is under attack from various quarters and for a variety of reasons. When there are so many questions being asked of tolerance and intolerance, [I hope] we become intolerant of bigotry and jingoism, we become intolerant of anyone who espouses the cause of inequality and subscribe to the disparities of all kinds. We can only cherish freedom when we respect the struggle of people for freedom taking place amidst us.

A lot of people who are protesting today might not agree with you on these counts.
Sure, and that is alright. Our commitment to freedom of speech and the right to form association is that you don’t have to agree. But you can’t curb my freedom to say what I believe in, you can’t say that because you support X, Y, Z, or that you criticise the Indian state, or that you condemn the atrocities of the Indian armed forces, you are therefore anti-national. If there is weight in my argument, if there is weight in the evidence we present, we will be able to convince more people. I believe they are more open to these divergent opinions today than what they were a few years ago. That’s my conviction.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.