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Snakes and Ladders Gita Mehta,
Bantam Doubleday, Dell Publishing, NY
ISBN 0-385-47495-4

Mass Transit

One summer night in 1975 while the nation slept, the Prime Minister ended democracy in India. Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency "to defend India's unity and integrity." For goodness' sake! What on earth had threatened Indian integrity? Well, on June 12 the courts had found Indira Gandhi guilty of using government personnel to further her electoral prospects." She was forbidden from holding any elected office for the next six years. In view of her lofty office, she was given twenty days to appeal to the Supreme Court of India, but she could no longer act as Prime Minister. "A week is a long time in politics," the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, once said.

But twenty whole days? For a leader who could already sense the sharks circling? The clock was ticking, so on June 16, at three o'clock in the morning, the Delhi police handcuffed her political opponents and carted them off to jail. That same night power was cut off to newspaper printing presses. When the power was turned on again, the censored newspapers printed blank pages with black borders, announcing the death of India's freedom in their obituary columns.

A week later the President of India declared that an imperiled India was now under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. Indian citizens could no longer question the grounds on which they were detained. Or invoke habeas corpus-the court's right to view a prisoner and establish that he was well, or even alive. The proclamation was followed by midnight raids and mass arrests across the nation-political opponents, dissenting members of Mrs. Gandhi's own party, students, social workers, journalists, teachers, judges, union leaders, and thousands of innocent bystanders. Even a group of astonished hippies. The writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, and other Indian patriots on the right to freedom were forbidden; Mahatma Gandhi's own newspaper was closed by government fiat. And with half the nation's elected representatives in jail, the constitution of India was amended four times. The first amendment prevented any legal challenge to the declaration of the Emergency. The second amendment nullified retroactively the judgment against Mrs. Gandhi for corrupt practices, and deprived the courts of jurisdiction over any future electoral malpractices by a Prime Minister. The third amendment gave India's Prime Minister permanent immunity from any civil or criminal proceedings-not only while occupying office but before assuming office and, just to be on the safe side, after leaving office. The fourth amendment was particularly poignant. Having lost their fundamental rights, Indian citizens were now given a list of fundamental duties.

Neutered of its constitutional power, the Supreme Court overruled Mrs. Gandhi's sentence. Only Justice Khanna, next in line to become the Chief Justice of India, argued that all these constitutional amendments had become meaningless, since depriving a person of life and liberty without the authority of law was to remove the distinction between a lawless society and one governed by law. As if to prove his argument, the offices of over two hundred rebellious Delhi lawyers were bulldozed to the ground. The lawyers marched, black-robed, in silent protest on the Supreme Court. They were promptly arrested as arsonists and looters. But the poor who objected when their homes were bulldozed for beautification of the city were given no reason for their arrests.

And they had no redress against a new population-control program in which government employees were given sterilization quotas that had to be filled if employees wanted promotions or even to keep their jobs. Villagers were rounded up, police cornered the city's poor, people died of botched operations, doctors who objected to the lack of hygiene were jailed. Meanwhile, nationalized television and radio kept up a barrage of propaganda telling the nation we had never had it so good. After all, each sterilized person was being given a transistor radio by the government.

With awesome inevitability, Mrs. Gandhi raised her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, to become an unelected center of absolute power, second only to herself in the country. Equally inevitably, having ruthlessly silenced all dissension, the Prime Minister and her son believed that the massive organized crowds were spontaneous displays of a nation's adulation. And across the border Pakistan was going to the polls.

Determined to prove to the world that she was indisputably the voice of India, assured by intelligence reports that victory was a certainty, Mrs. Gandhi suddenly called a snap election to legitimize her actions. The elections were to take place in a mere six weeks, but most of India's political leaders were still in jail. To prove the election was not a fiction, they were now released-on parole, required to report their iyiovements to their local police, forbidden to travel. There was every expectation that Mrs. Gandhi would win. The state-owned radio and television companies were pumping out government propaganda. Newspapers were censored. And now the government raised the salaries of millions of its employees-teachers, factory workers, army personnel, bureaucrats-certain that self-interest would guarantee electoral success. Everyone knew-though they could not speak of it for fear of being overheard and reported to the police-that India's future rode on this election. What Mahatma Gandhi had done in the 1930s with his Salt March had to be done again in the 1970s, a silent protest of gargantuan proportions. And six weeks was all the time the nation had. I attended a series of rallies in Delhi in those weeks, learned about through word of mouth. At each rally the crowds grew larger, proving the bush telegraph to be as effective a means of communication as electronics when there is something urgent to convey. While Indira Gandhi addressed meetings in the main parks, with all the attendant panoply of state-police cordons, massive platforms, free transport to bring reluctant attendees back and forth-we strained to hear paroled leaders standing on soapboxes with only a megaphone for amplification. On the road leading into Delhi University I listened to the redoubtable Madame Pandit, with her Chinese collars and blue-rinsed hair, urging us to vote for freedom. Although she was Nehru's sister, she had needed no nepotistic appointments. She had been the first woman president of the General Assembly of the United Nations, and played a distinguished role in the struggle for India's freedom. Now, despite the fact that she was already in her eighties, Madame Pandit had come out of political retirement to hold meetings all over the capital, appalled by the smashing of the Indian democratic process by her own niece.

At one rally Madame Pandit was speaking to us in Hindustani when she noticed the arrival of camera crews. She broke off her speech to inquire who they were. Learning they were European reporters, she proceeded with her impassioned speech on freedom but translated her words into English, German, and French for the television cameras. It was a tour de force performance. Such effortless sophistication-it made you proud to be an Indian. Then, only days before the momentous general election, a meeting was held at night in the walled city of Old Delhi, inside the great Friday Mosque built by the Moghul Emperors to face the Red Fort, which was the seat of their empire. For five hundred years this particular area of Delhi had been the goal of those who wished to gain power over India. It was here that the victorious British soldiers had built their army barracks on the harem of the last Moghul Emperor, here that the Union Jack was lowered and the Indian flag unfurled when India became a free nation. The sun had long since set by the time I reached the rally, but crowds were still streaniing onto the grounds of the mosque. To discourage attendance, electricity to the entire area had been cut off by the city administration, and for once the brooding vastness of the mosque dwarfed the narrow streets of the old city crowded with veiled women. Many of its residents were Muslim families who still lived in the same sixteenth-century houses, with interior courtyards and latticed stone balconies and narrow stairways, that their ancestors had occupied. For two long years they had endured the excesses of the Emergency-seen respected elders, or young boys not yet pubescent, forcibly sterilized to fulfill government quotas; seen shops crushed into rubble under the bulldozers' inexorable advance. Now the darkness, lit only by kerosene lanterns and huge torches, added a somberness to the occasion, almost a magnificence, allowing us to see the great mosque as it must have been seen by the Moghuls themselves, its massive lines looming above us undiminished by the neon strips that would ordinarily have illumiiiated the bazaars and warrens of streets of the old city. Two and three-story houses ringed the mosque. Wouien in billowing burnooses crowded at the dimly lit balconies like the silhouetted audience in some theater, their shapes negated by folds of black cloth. There was no space on the wide sandstone steps leading tip to the platform, where lanterns threw the features of the speakers into grotesque relief as they addressed the crowds spilling into the streets. We could hardly hear the speakers, but we knew from their shapes who they were. The Imam of the mosque, spokesman for Muslim sentiment, shared the platform with the leader of the right-wing Hindus. Sworn enemies froin the time of Partition, they shared a blood hatred. Yet together they were exhorting us to exert our democratic rights. There was the greatest snob in India, Madame Pandit, her hair purple in the lamplight, sitting at the feet of the leader of the untouchables. Ignoring the separations of caste, of class, of gods, the speakers shared the crowded platform while we stood there straining to hear them remind us how our ballots could change history. Suddenly the women weren't up on the balconies anymore. They were among us, their faces exposed, cloth panels thrown resolutely above their heads, breaking the enormity of purdah to rally against the leader whom they held responsible for dishonoring their menfolk, destroying their homes. A fortnight later the counting had ended and the government was preparing its victory celebrations. At two o'clock in the morning I waited with thousands of other Indians in front of the offices of the In&an Express. We were milling in the street at that ungodly hour because the newspaper's correspondents were telephoning in the election results from all over the nation, results that the shocked government television and radio stations were not announcing. Every few minutes a journalist caine out of the offices, handed a piece of paper to a thin clerk in gray trousers scribbling with chalk onto a blackboard, raced back inside again. While we held our breath, the clerk scribbled the latest election results onto the spotlighted blackboard. Each time a candidate of Mrs. Gandhi's party lost a seat, money was flung at him for bringing good news and he blinked at us in surprise through the currency floating like confetti over his head. When Mrs. Gandhi lost her own seat in Parliament by a massive margin, women began flinging their jewelry at the clerk. In all the cheering I heard someone say, "She got what she deserved. Why did she trouble the poor?

But of course the Janata party disintegrated and Indira Ghandi was later again re-elected.

God's Work

When Britain's expatriate Sikhs celebrated the three hundredth anniversary of their faith, in the Royal Albert Hall in London, they invited the Indian writer Khushwaiit Singli to speak on the occasion. Singh had once been a ineinber of the Indian diplomatic mission in London. His novel Train to Pakistan was considered a classic on the horrors of Partition. And he was a Sikh. Unfazed by tlie red velvet chairs and royal boxes of the Albert Hall, Singh rose to his feet and shouted lustily to the packed chamber, "Beloved ones, do yoti remember the taste of tinleavened bread?" There was a roar of response froni the ttirbanned audience, hearing the earthy language of tlie Punjab farmers. Back in India, their industrious relatives were turning Punjab into the granary of India, those relatives who were not in tlie Indian Armed Forces mostly as frontline troops. "And do you remember the taste of black lentils?" Whistles and stamping shook the chamber in nostalgia for the diet to which the audience ascribed their robust strength. "And what about the taste of mustard spinach and sugarcane juice?" Cheering Sikhs were on their feet, shouting their battle cry, "Victory to the guru's faithful! Victory to his inen of truth!" It was a common response to anything that moved them. The Sikhs are a people proud of their martial history, which is why they still wear their long hair under a turban - the sign by which Sikhs once identified each other on the battlefield defending their religion. In fact, during the religious persecution of the fanatical Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb, even Hindu families often gave one son to the Sikh faith, to keep their line alive. Yet in their holiest shrine, the Golden Temple of Amritsar, symbolic of the spiritual power of God, with its library containing books collected over five centuries and manuscripts written by the gurus of their faith, serenity is sacrosanct.

It was, that is, until Mrs. Gandhi and her younger son supported an obscure Sikh priest named Bhindranwale to bring down the state govertitnent of Ptinjab. Armed with automatic rifles, confident of the central -,overniiient's protection, the priest andi his followers emtered the Golden Temple. From its safety the priest declared that anyone not a Sikh should be evicted from Punjab. While he issued fanatical edicts his followers beat up those Sikhs who dared to raise their voices in protest, shot dead the Sikh Inspector General of Police, and intimidated non-Sikhs into fleeing. Soon Punjab was an armed camp. Inside the state Hindus were being terrorized; outside the state Sikhs were being terrorized. For the first time in India's history, there was hatred between Hindu and Sikh. On the grounds of restoring stability, Mrs. Gandlii assumed control of Punjab. But the monster she had created so unthinkingly could no longer be controlled. The priest was now so powerful he was being courted by other political parties. He was now so powerful he didn't want to be courted - he wanted his own country. Having run out of options, she dispatched the Indian Ariny to oust the priest and in the pitched battle the great library of the Sikhs was destroyed, innocent worshippers were killed by cross fire. Blood had at last stained the white marble floor of the Golden Temple.

To avenge those deaths, Mrs. Gandhi was herself shot by a Sikh bodyguard even as she was campaigning for a new general election. Squads of thugs responded by murdering thousands of Sikhs in Delhi. Sikh temples were set alight, priests guarding holy books were torched. Anyone who wore a turban was attacked. To save their lives, the vastly outnumbered Sikhs cut their hair, but they were butchered anyway. The Indian Army, which could have prevented the killings, was confined to barracks by a government now uiider Rajiv Gandhi's control, while the only Indian general who had ever taken the surrender of an enemy army was called a traitor because he was a Sikh, his wife and children forced to flee their home to seek sanctuary with shocked strangers. I accompanied a Sikh woinan to the Delhi suburb of Trilokpuri, which had seen some of the worst carnage. Mistaking me for a member of the dead Prime Minister's family, people sidled up to me and proudly boasted how niany defenseless Sikh families they had killed in their homes. "How did you know where they lived?" "We were given lists with their addresses. And cans of kerosene." "By whom?" "You know. Everybody knows." They could not understand my rage. They certainly would not have understood the rage of the Indians flooding into a privately run relief camp with food and clothing for the wounded women and children who had survived the killings, where priests of every faith were trying to comfort the bereaved families, people oi every religion trying to alleviate their anguish. All around me I heard the incandescent fury of ordinary Indians that the ruling party had kept the Army in barracks, claiming tlie massacre was a spontaneous outpouring of enraged grief. If this was true, they asked, why were so few Siklis attacked in states not governed by Mrs. Gandhi's party? Later they would ask why Rajiv Gandhi as Pritne Minister would not hold an inquiry into the slayings, despite the detailed case histories assembled by a citizens' committee headed by a Chief Justice. Still, with Mrs. Gandhi's assassination and the civil war in Piinjab, it seemed no leader would, in the sinister understatement used in India, "play the religious card" again.

We had forgotten Kashmir. Nestled below the holy Himalayas, Kashmir possessed a unique religious mysticism. Kashmir's Islam was inspired by the ecstatic visions of the Sufi poet-saints; her Hinduism was a product of the great sage Shankaracharya, who had urged pilgrims to travel India from the beaches on the Indian Ocean to her highest mountain caves and learn that they belonged to a common world. Indeed, during the carnage of Partition Mahatma Gandhi had described peaceful Kashmir as "an island of sanity." But shortly before her death Indira Gandhi had dismissed Kashmir's democratically elected government and installed a puppet government. Three years later Rajiv Gandhi did the same, and the beautiful Kashmir Valley erupted in violence, convinced it would never get justice from an imperialist Delhi. Demagogic priests played upon the insecurities of a largely Muslim population, and Kashmir's mysticism was replaced by fanaticism. Those who did not believe in Islam were terrorized out of the valley. The Army was sent iii. Soon a hundred thousand Hindu refugees were eking out a miserable existence in camps waiting to return to their homes; twenty thousand Muslims could never return, killed in police and army action. As if the deadly adventurism in Punjab and Kashmir were not enough, we soon learned that Indira Gandhi had been financing and training Sri Lanka's Tamil insurgents in order to gam the support of India's thirty million Tamil voters, angry over injustices to the Sri Lankan Tainils. Under Rajiv Gandhi, that training intensified. Sri Lankan guerrilla leaders were received in Delhi as guests of the Indian government. India violated Sri Lankan airspace to drop supplies to beleaguered Tamils.

Finally, an intimidated Sri Laiika invited India to dismantle the insurrection, but when our army reached Sri Lanka, it discovered the rebels it had trained didn't want to be dismantled. During the next three years fifteen liundred Indian soldiers would be killed bv Tainit guerrillas before a new Prune Minister, V. P. Singh, finally brought our demoralized troops home, leaving behind a festerin Tamil hatred of India's leaders. Ptinjab, Kaslmir, Tamil guerrillas-so uiuch dainage unleashed in five short years. And the worst was vet to come,. Years ago, while conducting the negotiations forpartitioning tlie subcontinent, Lord Wavell, Viceroy of India., had observed, "The more I see of these Indian politicians, tlie more I despair of India." Now Indians would despair of their politicians as the genie of Hindy-Muslim hatred was once again released into mainstream Indian politics.

In 1985 the Supreme Court of India granted an illiterate Muslim woman maintenance payments for herself and her children from the husband who had divorced her. The landmark judgement applied to all Indian women. But in 1986, to win the support of fundamentalist Muslim voters, Rajiv Gandhi used his brute majority in Parliament to pass a new law. Henceforth, Muslim women would be subject to medieval interpretations of the shariat, Islamic religious law on marriage and divorce. Moderate Muslim opinion and the vast majority of Indians were appalled. If the votes of Muslim fundamentalists were to be bought in this fashion, what would fundamentalist Hindus demand? Had the Prime Minister forgotten that the Hindu Laws of Manu sanctioned untouchability?

Couldn't he see that naked opportunism was setting the cause of equality before the law back by centuries in India? Where would this end? That question was answered within weeks in the small northern temple town of Ayodhya. Many Hindus believe Ayodhya to be the birthplace of the god-king Rama, and it is ringed with temples claiming to be the site of the god-king's birth. Among the temples is a single sixteenth-century mosque identified by soine Hindu fundamentalists as the actual site of Rama's birth. To prevent religious disputes, the mosque had been padlocked for half a century. Now, angered Hindu fundamentalists prevailed upon a district judge to open the montinient for worship by Hindus. Suddenly remembering that Indian Hindus outnumbered Indian Muslims by six to one, Rajiv Gandhi permitted the fundamentalists to lay a foundation stone for a temple in the disputed precincts. Then he arrived at tlie mosque to launch his campaign for a new general election, promising to give India "Rani Rajya," the government of the god-king Rama. Only a Marxist had the courage to observe dryly that India needed latrines more than India needed temples or mosques. The wise observation was ignored. Seizing the political weapon that had so carelessly been placed in its hands, the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), clainied to be the only party able to give India the government of Rama.

Still, Rajiv Gandhi lost the general election, the Hindu nationalists didn't win it either, and India gained a brief respite when a new government threw a police cordon around the town and jailed religious rabble-rousers. But the barred Hindu fanatics kept the issue of the temple simmering, their rhetoric becoming increasingly violent as a new general election approached. And the BJP grew steadily more powerful as it made the temple the central plank of its election campaign. Vowing to destroy the mosque and build a great Hindu temple on its ruins, BJP leaders toured the subcontinent exhorting every Hindu village in India to fire a brick for the new Rama temple. Campaigning for the next election, Rajiv Gandhi was blown up by a Tamil woman guerrilla wired as a human bomb.

India's new Prime Minister, heading a minority government, did not want to alienate the Hindu nationalists. The BJP was now the second-largest party in Parliament. Reassured by Prime Minister Rao's inactivity, one December morning in 1992 a mob of three hundred thousand Hindu fanatics, in the presence of BJP leaders, demolished the Ayodhya mosque with their bare hands, planting images of Rama in the rubble. Massive Hindu-Muslim riots followed. Twelve hundred kilometers from the mosque armed gangs claiming to be the Shiv Sena, the BJP's closest political allies, began massacring Mtislitns across the length and breadth of Maharashtra state, insisting they were Pakistani spies. For a week the state capital, Bombay, the engine of India's economy, shut down in fear. Witliin a month Bombay would shut down again as ten bombs exploded simultaneously across the city, damaging luxury hotels. offices, the stock market killing and injuring hundreds. How could this happen? Only fifteen years earlier, during the emergency had seen ttie BJP leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with Muslim priests on the steps of India's largest mosque, urgin its to bring democracy back to the nation. "Why are you engaged in this insanity?" I asked one of those leaders now. "We are just doing what the Congress Party does," she replied. "But we are doing it better." Very much better. They had drawn up a list of other mosques tliat had to be destroyed. Indeed, one of their followers had written a whole book to prove that another Muslim monument had been built over a Hindu place of worship. This claim had even caught the attention of the New York Times, and his supporters were clamoring to be heard. The Taj Mahal, they said, was an affront to the Hindu faith. It must also be pulled down.