A Tolerant Nation Must also be a Just Nation
By Ashali Varma
When I was 11 years old, I lived in Calcutta, which is now renamed Kolkota, in India. Like most lucky children who grow up in sheltered and privileged homes, I thought my life was perfect and secure. It took just one day and one event to change this view of my existence and the world. I witnessed a moment of complete madness where senseless mobs went on a rampage. It was a riot between Hindu and Muslim mobs, started by an act so trivial that Icannot even remember it. This happened in 1964, in a country that had been liberated by a man, whose very acts defined tolerance, secularism, non-violence and peace. How could this happen in Gandhi’s country?
As I stood on the terrace of our house, I could see violent mobs burning a Muslim squatter settlement. In other parts of the city similar acts of mindless violence were taking place in Hindu communities. This is a city where on a day-to-day basis people worked together and celebrated their festivals together. As I watched this horror unfolding my eleven-year-old mind reeled with shock. I asked my father, “Daddy what is happening, why are people doing this? Why are they hurting so many families and women and children?” He said bad things happen and we have to save them. I said, “ But grown ups are doing this and added, “ If this is what happens when you grow up—I hope I never grow up.”
That night and for two days to come we opened our gates to more than 200 Muslim families. They were given food and shelter. Ten years later when my father lay dying in a hospital in Calcutta, surrounded by his loved ones there was one man who kept a silent vigil, a stranger. I asked him who he was. He told me that my father had saved his family during the riots in 1964 and now he had come to save him by praying at his bedside.
My father was not the only one to save lives. In many parts of Calcutta, Hindus and Muslims alike hated what was going on and sheltered people who were in danger. They too were aware that a mindless kind of mob violence was taking place and even those taking part knew not why. Today, in Thailand, I hear of cases where Buddhists have shielded Muslims and vice versa. I hear of ordinary people trying to keep the peace. But unfortunately, this is not played up as much as the killings.
Like we had Gandhi for us in India, Thailand too has a very gracious and humane King and Queen who above all want peace and justice to prevail in their country. They have tried to show the way for tolerance and secularism and are adored by their people. Even we, who are not Thais, appreciate their role in trying to keep politics in place and the country in peace. If only, all other walks of society tried to emulate their example, especially the police, the army and the politicians, I do think the problems in the South would be resolved.
I believe that there is no active insurgency going on as yet—there is a flame that has been lit by disgruntled and marginalized people who want justice and fair representation. And there are some on the fringes who are trying to take advantage of this by stoking the flames to cause a fiery blaze. It helps their cause when incidents like Tak Bai happen. And it becomes worse when the government merely brings out a report and does little to bring the perpetrators to justice. People react most when their government tries to whitewash a blatant act of callousness and suffocating 80 people to death is just that.
In minority communities, injustice is sometimes perceived and sometimes blatant. For the families of the victims of Tak Bai, compensation and a report are not enough they need justice. Dropping origami birds on any minority group, anywhere is more of a stunt than an effort to bring peace. No one will buy that. If the government were to really care about what happened it would bring to justice the officials who allowed it to happen. Ignoring this will only perpetuate such highhandedness in the future and lead to further disillusionment among an already disillusioned people.
We are unfortunately living in a period where statements like “You are either with us or against us,” and “we in the civilized world,” have already jeopardized peace and made even moderate Muslims think that most of the world is against them. In such an environment, it becomes even more important to tread softly, to act with empathy and concern for those who have suffered and to bring to justice officials on both sides who have encouraged acts of violence. This is the only way, this tolerant and peaceful country can show the rest of world that it not only stands for what is right and just but is discerning enough to do something about it.