The year was 1993. Babri masjid (mosque) had just been brought down in Ayodhya a few months ago and was being discussed threadbare everywhere. I had joined Tihar jail as a psychologist for an NGO to work with psychological problems faced by the prisoners.
Tihar jail, for those who may not know has a population of about 12,000 inmates. Each jail is divided into multiple wards of around 200-300 prisoners each and each ward is run by a ‘munshi’ and each jail has a ‘chakkar munshi’ who supervises the ‘munshi’ of each ward.
The ‘chakkar munshi’ would often tell me about those who would ask for counseling, ‘doctor saab who understands dil ki bat (doctor with whom you can share your inner feelings).’ One day he came with a prisoner named Usman (name changed). Usman would scream during his sleep and wake up everyone around him. He was 24 years old, tall and good looking and hailed from Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh. Initially, he was reluctant to talk but after sometime opened up as in his words he began to feel safe with me. He shared with me having attempted suicide feeling shameful about not able to control his nightmares and being made fun of by fellow prisoners.
He told me that he has nightmares about the roof of Babri masjid falling down with a huge thud and he getting buried under it. “I went to see the structure after a few days it was destroyed and wept at the site with my family. My friend who lives near the mosque saw it being brought down and told me everything in great detail,” he said. “Every Muslim in my village and nearby villages was affected with trauma,” he added.
In the next meeting, Usman brought some more prisoners who he said had been affected like him. I suggested they do some trauma reducing exercises and the psychiatrist suggested they take some medicines. They seemed to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In Usman’s group, there was a boy named Omar (name changed) from Srinagar, Kashmir. One day Usman shared that Omar had destroyed several temples in Kashmir during the purge against Hindus in 1989 and even killed some Kashmiri pandits much before the Babri masjid was destroyed.
“Why did you do that?” I asked Omar.
“To create an Islamic Kashmir,” he replied.
What happened next took me by surprise. Usman got up and asked him to leave the group saying, “This is not ‘insaniyat’ (humanity).”
Then he told me, “It is wrong to destroy any place of worship.” The other prisoners nodded their heads in agreement. The discussion turned towards how is the prison, inmates pray side by side and there has never been any issue.
In a later meeting Usman said what was helping him to reduce his nightmares was not medicines or exercises but sharing with his Hindu friends in the ward and realizing that Hindus had faced a similar trauma over centuries at the hands of Muslims. He pointed out to the man who helped him with this. His name was Prabhat (name changed). Prabhat came to the group at his insistence and shared his story.
“On the night of 6th December, 1992 when the Babri masjid fell the atmosphere in the jail was unusually tense. Prisoners assembled in small groups and talked in hushed tones. “I had never seen such an atmosphere in the jail,” he said. “Suspicion and distrust was marked in the eyes of everyone. Then some of us in the ward decided to hold a joint meeting. First the Muslims talked of their pain at the mosque being razed down. After listening to them some of the Hindu inmates talked of the pain they carry over their temples being destroyed. The Sikhs shared stories they had heard from their grandparents about how the Sikh Gurus were tortured and martyred for their faith. We thought there would be arguments and maybe even fights but there were none. It was as if hearing others’ trauma, we realized how universal it is.”
Prabhat then added saying that the discussion helped the Muslim inmates to realize that their pain was contextual and what happened on 6th December wasn’t due to revenge or malice but a centuries old anger that had burst forth. One of them said in the group, “If one mosque caused so much pain to us Muslims, we should also understand how much pain our Hindu brothers would be carrying over the centuries.” Then Prabhat said, “There has been so much violence and rioting over this issue outside but inside the prison there is peace.”
Seeing the look of surprise on my face one of them made a statement, “Jail ek aisi jagah hai jahan log ek doosre ke mooh se khana khate hain.” (jail is the only place where people eat from each other’s mouths, in other words it’s a place which destroys all the barriers between people).
I realized that these sessions had affected me profoundly. I learnt how a heart to heart talk can lead to forgiveness, understanding and peace building. The prisoners had expressed a profound maturity that had defused a situation that could have turned volatile but also shown to me that the path to peace was dialogue around collective grief.
I also realized how deeply this issue resides in the psyche of both Hindus and Muslims and also Sikhs. Thinking over what Usman had said, I tried to imagine how it would have been for Hindus to go through something similar to Usman centuries ago and how they must have felt all those emotions that Usman described. Of incessant crying and feeling of humiliation. This was over a single mosque. What about the impact of thousands of temples that were broken down all over India in the narratives of Hindus, I wondered? Why does no one talk about it?
I had understood there would not be any easy answers to my questions. Psychological trauma, I knew from different studies, never dies but is passed on from generation to generation.
How would a Hindu man in medieval times have felt when he witnessed his temple crumbling to a rubble in front of his eyes? How, for example, he would have felt seeing the Somnath temple being brought down by an army or the Kashi Vishwanath temple being destroyed?
These temples were considered the soul of Hinduism and the life of society revolved around it. As the news would have travelled to other regions of India, did it affect other people too?
No psychologists or historians were willing to discuss this topic telling me, “Let bygones be bygones.” Some colleagues even suggested I would be called communal for bringing up this issue.
My explanation that psychological trauma grows as a seed in silence and fights for space when excluded and suppression of narratives by perpetrators, didn’t cut much ice with the intellectuals I talked to. It was, as I was to learn, a taboo topic.
Now we know that historical injustices exist in societies as a raw wound that hasn’t healed. But still they don’t get talked about for being politically incorrect in India. But if we can understand today why native American Indians weep at the site of the wounded knee or black men raise their fists in anger at the point of no return for slaves in Africa, can we not extend it nearer home to ourselves?
Should we not look at the issue from a psychological lens where a race, a people holding a faith faced an attack on their most treasured symbols and it stayed suppressed for centuries? How would it have been if the Vatican or Kaba were to meet a similar fate like Kashi Vishwanath temple or Somnath temple? Doesn’t such an issue need healing touch for an entire society and not just a few? Even if it is symbolic, by acknowledging an injustice it will bring peace to many.
Today the Ram Janma bhoomi issue lies entangled in a legal, moral and political quagmire from which it seems difficult to escape. Political leaders face charges while intellectuals, the larger community still remains silent about the issue while taking recourse behind law, history and archeology. Law must take its course and no one is above it. But it is perhaps important that we now, more than ever, go beyond to see what this issue psychologically means to Hindus as one that attacked identity of a people and the subjugation and the humiliation that resulted.
Usman, Prabhat and Omar taught me two lessons. One was that the Ram janma bhoomi – Babri masjid issue was of unresolved grief of a society over their identity. The other is that till Hindus remain stuck in denial and don’t acknowledge their trauma to the world, it will remain shrouded in denial of what Will Durant described as one of the worst genocides in history of mankind.
Today we know that multigenerational transmission of trauma is an integral part of human history and is transmitted in words, writing, body language and even in silence. Bruno Bettelheim, the psychologist once famously said, “What cannot be talked about can also not be put to rest. And if it’s not, the wounds continue to fester from generation to generation.” Should we not take heed of that for peace of our future generations?
In my novel ‘The infidel next door’ I have tried to describe this wound that still haunts the two communities and makes peace difficult. One publisher told me that Indian society is not yet ready for such a book.
But I often wonder, that in the same way that a group of inmates in Tihar showed how sharing one’s grief along with historical understanding of wrongs can bring peace and reconciliation in the present, can we not come together as people for dialogue, forgiveness and healing?