It is sixty nine years today since that fateful day of July 1st 1946. The traditional rath yatra – instead of being a day of bonding and harmony – resulted in a communal conflagration as both Hindus and Muslims went for the jugular: in a rioting spree and murdering one another.
Vasant Rao Hegishte and Rajab Ali Lakhani were good friends and also volunteers with the Seva Dal. Deeply disturbed with what was happening in the city, they were determined to do all they could to stop the venom, the fire and the killing from spreading. They jumped into the midst of the violence begging those involved on both sides to cry halt immediately; many did listen and relented. Recorded evidence tell us that their heroics helped save a Muslim driver from a Hindu mob and a Hindu who owned a washing company from a Muslim mob.
Their acts of valour seemed to have temporarily quelled the violence. Late that day, they returned very exhausted to the Congress Office at Khand-ni-Sheri, when they received news that a group of Dalit families in the Jamalpur area were surrounded by a very violent mob. They immediately ran back and tried to pacify the mob. Their entreaties were in vain. The crowd warned them to stay away; but Vasant and Rajab lay down on the road in order to prevent the Dalit families from being touched. The blood-thirsty mob did not spare them and brutally murdered them: two young men who had the courage to lay down their lives for the cause of communal harmony and peace!
Vasant and Rajab have plenty to teach us: today Ahmedabad, many areas of Gujarat and across the country are polarized and divided on communal lines; powerful politicians and other vested interests leave no stone unturned in dividing and instigating people in the name of religion.
Media in Gujarat has just reported of how a Superintendent of Police has referred to the minority community as “dogs”. The SP shamelessly admits that he is a classmate and close to the international President of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and has connections with the RSS; that a ranking officer can boast of such claims speaks volumes indeed of the ground reality in our country today.
The martyrdom anniversary of Vasant & Rajab is indeed a painful reminder to all of us that our great country is about pluralism and diversity; about respect and tolerance of all religions and ideologies and above all, about justice and equity for all.
The sad fact is that the memory of many is very selective and we conveniently forget heroes like Vasant & Rajab, who walked the talk; who died for a greater good!
1st July, 2015
Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is the Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace