Towards the end of 1992, India was reeling in the grip of religious fanaticism. An ancient religious structure claimed to have been built by one of the Mogul emperor’s, was torn
down by a mob, which claimed the structure was built over the birth place of their god. In the days that followed the incident, words like riots, genocide, massacre became regular entries on the main pages of news papers. By the time common sense prevailed, over 2000 people had been killed across the country. Most of them, people who never in their worst nightmares would have imagined that their lives would end abruptly due to a dispute, where the principal actors had all died centuries ago.
During this time I was in college. Our village of Anadhikritapuram, used to be our holiday destination during our school years. Vacation time, relatives from across the country used to descend upon this tiny village, as it was here that our grandparents lived. Later when the parents retired, we had come over and settled down here.
Personal religious beliefs were never important in APuram, which lay at the southernmost tip of Kerala, the southern most state in India. Religions flourished here from times immemorial. It was on these shores that Judaism, Christianity and Islam first landed before moving across inland. In APuram, we had all the religions closely packed together and living in an atmosphere of peace and tranquility.
Then suddenly one day, the myth of harmony and brotherhood was shattered. Thick smoke billowed out on the main street of the market. It was the early morning worshipers to the temple who first noticed it. Their shouts for help got people pouring out of houses, still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. The smoke seemed to be coming from the middle of the market, and in particular from three shops. These shops belonged to two brothers who used to sell cheap plastic goods and they, were Muslims. The highly combustible plastic was proving to be easy fodder for the fire, which soon raged across all three shops.
People tried to get the fire to subdue by throwing buckets of water at it, but it didn’t prove very effective as a fire-retardant. Soon after reducing all the plastic to a boiling liquid lump the fire moved upwards and started consuming the wooden roof rafters. The shop owners lived some kilometers from there and by the time they had reached the spot, all three shops were reduced to ashes.
Luckily there were some empty space next to these shops, which separated them from the next set of shops, and in this case proved lucky as the fire did not spread. This also proved to be the reason why they were so easily targeted. By mid morning a huge crowd had gathered, mostly shop keepers and local residents, I was in the middle of this group. The local police came in and started asking questions all around. Finally some beggars who slept on the street mentioned having seen two men riding a motorbike, toss a bottle with a burning rag at the shop. It seemed to be an act of arson, and with nothing solid to move on, even the policemen slowly slipped away.
Amidst all this the brothers sat quietly in the middle of the now burn out shell of their shop. Once in a while picking up a burnt, shapeless toy looking at it and then letting it fall down and become a part of the rubble all around. They were from a poor family and this shop had been their only source of income. Now amidst all the rubble, they sat clueless as they looked at an uncertain future with a blank vacant look on their faces. Meanwhile the local shopkeepers who had gathered on the street were discussing amongst themselves. Then one of them, a young man stepped forward and made his way towards the brothers. I knew this young man as he was my friend. He had left his studies halfway and now ran a grocery store, he was also one of the prominent leaders of the local shopkeepers union. I saw him walk towards the brothers and speaking in a low voice. it was not clear exactly what he said, but what ever it was, the words had a dramatic effect on the brothers. Slowly they got up, with an expression of surprise and incredulity on their faces. They caught hold of the hand of my friend and seemed to be thanking him. Apparently the shopkeepers had decided to contribute money and help the brothers to set up their shop again. A collection was set up and the best part of all this was that the no one hardly thought about religion at that time and contributions came from people of all faiths.
Even today the three shops are still there at the same spot. The two brothers, who now have put on some weight and started greying, still own the shop and can be seen selling there wares. The arsonist was never caught, but then no one cares, for that day the simple villagers taught them a very valuable lesson. There have been no religious or communal incidents in APuram to this day.