From Delhi By Heart

by    /  April 20, 2016  / No comments

The Mahabharata tells us that Delhi was founded on a jungle inhabited by ancient tribes. The Pandava brothers cleared the jungle and eliminated all its inhabitants to build Indraprastha. Thus, primordial Delhi set the pattern for violence—it has always marked the city’s existence. Small wonder that all the Delhis that were to follow faced political upheaval involving a fair amount of violence. The first recorded war for the throne of Delhi–mythological as it might be–is narrated in the Mahabharata.

The events of 1947 added another life to this monument. Purana Qila was used as a vast refugee camp. Violence on the streets of Delhi had forced thousands of Muslim families to leave their homes and prepare for a long journey to Pakistan. The conditions of this refugee camp, where up to 100,000 people may have taken shelter, were appalling. Dr Zakir Hussain, later the president of India, bemoaned that those who had escaped sudden death came here to be “buried in a living grave.”

I am completely confused. Shall I appreciate the beauty of the ruins or the syncretic architecture of Sher Shah or its pre-historic significance? Or shall I search for traces of the blood of those who must have died here? Accidents of history can be deaf and dumb. Like Ajeet Caur’s interpretation of the elements, history is alive yet indifferent to individual tales and personal suffering. I still have to probe into these difficult questions.

In September 1947, Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Delhi to take stock of the violence and ease communal tensions. A shaken, non- violent Gandhi visited Purana Qila to witness the conditions of dispossessed Muslim exiles-refugees in their own city. I can hear him making his appeal to Hindus by comparing the predicament of the Muslims to that of the five Pandava brothers who were exiles in their own kingdom for twelve years: “It is said that in the Mahabharata period the Pandavas used to stay in this Purana Qila.” Thus Muslims “are under your protection and under my protection.” Gandhi’s tireless efforts in Delhi that included visits to the Jama Masjid, Old Delhi, as well as his rounds of fasting, brought a tenuous peace back to the city. But what a price he paid for attempting to clear the poison in the air!

Gandhi, in that season of Independence, stayed in Delhi and went from neighborhood to neighborhood to arrest the violence and bring about a truce between India and Pakistan and between Hindus and Muslims. Within months of his effective campaigning and fasting for these causes, he was assassinated. The greatest icon of modern Indian consciousness was an irritant in the dark world of Hindu fundamentalists. From 1934 to 1948, six attempts were made to kill him. The last one, by Nathuram Godse, was successful.

Delhi must have witnessed one of its coldest days on January 30, 1948. The country must have needed Gandhi’s sacrifice to nurture its complex society and the new state. Over time, this gruesome murder of India’s greatest leader has slipped into relative oblivion. The grievances of the assassins were that Gandhi supported the creation of Pakistan, he was fasting for the payment of dues worth Rs 55 crore to Pakistan and his “appeasement” of Muslims were making Muslims more belligerent. Appeasement has become the bane of Indian politics. The major policy plank of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been to end this policy of appeasement (of minorities) and Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi implemented a harrowing version of this political aim.

The same day we visit Gandhi’s cenotaphs at Raj Ghat. We park the car under the keekar trees and walk. The monsoon breeze has cooled the air. There are a few flower sellers with heaps of marigolds. Bunty and I walk to the shrine and, passing through well-kept lawns, we reach the unostentatious marble platform. Not many visitors are around. This is a peaceful afternoon. As we return, I see an exquisite structure at some distance and find out that it is Zeenatul Masjid, the beauty of the mosques, built by Emperor Aurangzeb’s daughter.

A Mughal mosque overlooks Gandhi’s cenotaphs and the silent Jamuna flows, or rather trickles through most of the year, at a close distance. It is a shrunken river that has been filled with the blood and corpses of past sufferers but now it is choking with sewage and pollution. From Indraprastha to the Sultanate and the Mughal takht of Dilli, the Jamuna has witnessed centuries of violence and has changed its course several times but has been faithful to Delhi.

I hold a mustard flower in my hand and put it inside the copy of Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi that I have with me. In Delhi, time and again, I think of Ahmed Ali who could never return to the city he loved.

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