(Inspired by R Jagannathan’s Gandhi vs Godse: We have to go beyond the binaries of good and evil)
Almost nobody is a pure hero or villain to all people. Sometimes you can be both hero and villain to the same person. Sometimes you can be hero to one group, and villain to another. My purpose in beginning with this generality is to discuss the Hafiz Muhammad Saeed versus 26/11 Mumbai victims issue, which has elicited much holy discussion in parliament and outside it.
Contrary to what one may believe, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) commuters were not villains only for the Lashkar-e-Taiba, its founder Hafiz Saeed and their Inter-Services Intelligence allies. Those commuters were pretty annoying for us high net-worth individuals because they’d slow down our cars during peak traffic while crossing the road to their overcrowded tin can compartments. (I would however like to record my support for the renaming of Victoria Terminus after Hindu Hriday Samrat Chhatrapati Shivaji Bhosle; it makes me feel authentically subaltern, just like Dhirubhai Ambani.)
So to portray those poor commuters as anything other than hapless victims and Ajmal Kasab as nothing more than a villain, just because the latter was the man who massacred the former, is to try and create black-and-white, cardboard characters, Bollywood-style.
The CST commuters were grey, as was each of the Lashkar fidayeen. Each had their own moral compass and political ideology, some parts sublime, some venal.
So when politicians use terror victims to berate those who believe Hafiz Saeed may be someone worth praising or be allowed to hold demonstrations at the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, we have to ask ourselves: where is our tolerance of dissent and freedom of thought and speech? If someone has a right to eulogise Mumbai commuters, surely others have a right to criticise them or praise their executioners? If we can today write books giving imaginary versions of Ravana’s side of the story (and not Ram’s), surely we can live with the ideas of those who think the Lashkar or the Islamic State is not pure evil?
The only thing absolutely wrong about what Ajmal Kasab did was putting bullets through the CST commuters instead of debating them and converting the Indian public to his cause. But, at that time, the public was obsessed with nationalist discourse and unwilling to listen to others. Hafiz Saeed’s ideas were checkmated by the popularity in India of Kashmir’s accession, and this frustration drove him to murder, for which he rightfully is a wanted man with a bounty of $10 million on his head. In fact, all those who now use the Mumbai victims as a stick to beat the Lashkar with have actually murdered them in spirit by their own venal corruption, hypocrisy and general abandonment of the idea of justice.
So let us be clear. Neither those who posit terror victims against terrorists, nor those who do the opposite, today see those victims in black and white terms. They both embrace and discard his ideas at the same time. He is both hero and villain, depending on a person’s tolerance of crowded public transport.