We built a monument here, to the witness as storyteller, to the activist as historian. And to the spectator as a citizen who will not be allowed to forget
I’ll begin personally. I’m a sociologist and I have served as a kind of assistant munshi to Teesta Setalvad and RB Sreekumar (former Director General of Police, Gujarat) during the 10 years during which these riots were studied. I want to begin very practically. Romila Thapar put it beautifully. Genocide — and here I want to distort it a bit — like Hinduism, is a way of life. And when it’s a way of life, how does the
This question came in a very pragmatic way when I was tailing the photographer who shot many of the pictures that you see here today: Binita Desai. And the first question she asked was, What are we building?
It cannot be a monument, because, we felt, and she agreed, that a monument is a tribute to forgetting. We want to remember. She said it can’t be a museum because a museum is a tribute to erasure and we need to remember. Mukul Mangalik said it beautifully (when he asked), How is philosophy possible after the genocide?
I think comedy is possible after a genocide because the most tragic comic figure in Gujarat is Narendra Modi. And if I had to build a museum today I would do a Madame Tussaud’s on Narendra Modi… It is very interesting that Modi’s range of colours are a semiotic delight. He uses speech because he somehow thinks speech can exonerate a genocide.
The other point that I want to emphasise is how to remember when a society is desperate to forget and when a society thinks development is the art of forgetting? When these photographs were being shot, an old man came to us just as we were moving out to the car; he stopped and he said, I want to just tell you a story. He said, My son was arrested at the age of 15, he is 25 today. They put him in jail in Calcutta. I don’t have the money to go and see him. Can you send him a message?
I think comedy is possible after a genocide because the most tragic comic figure in Gujarat is Narendra Modi. And if I had to build a museum today I would do a Madame Tussaud’s on Narendra Modi
It is this struggle of memory against erasure that we want to capture here. Because what we want to build here is a memorial… because what we watched after the riot was how a citizenship of memory was constructed between a group of activists and a group of survivors. It’s an invitation to story-telling and why storytelling is important?
The biggest monument that Narendra Modi as a fascist administrator built to the riots was a waste dump. When the riots began it was exactly two-and-a-half feet high. Today, it’s seven storeys high, higher than Humayun’s Tomb and it is a tribute to the survivor. Because today the survivor realises he is treated by the Gujarat government as a piece of junk and junk needs to remember. Junk refuses to be erased, junk demands that its role in history be told and retold.
And this memorial is the tribute to the survivor, to the witness. And I want to just begin with one last story which captures for me the craftiness of this whole process. One of the journalists who went to Godhra came back and said the BJP is moving towards an electoral plan for Godhra — the social contract they offered captures what I call the evil of this project. Because they went to each of the Muslim families and said, If you vote for us we might release some of the sons arrested over the last 10 years. That is the kind of evil we have to confront and to do that we built a monument here, to the witness as storyteller, to the activist as historian. And to the spectator as a citizen who will not be allowed to forget.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist and commentator.
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