Between Martyrs and Victims – K.P. Sasi

The decision of the churches in India to declare the victims who were murdered during the genocide and persecution of the Christians in Kandhamal, needs to be recognised and welcomed. This decision is also giving strength to a community of persecuted Christians all over the country, especially after one decade of the largest attack on the Christian community in Kandhamal. Apart from indulging in charitable support of relief and rehabilitation, It took almost one decade for the churches to declare and recognise that those who were murdered during Kandhamal genocide were martyrs. This was a step towards justice, beyond the usual charity work relief and rehabilitation. But somehow, I have some confusions to understand the notion of martyrs in public life properly. The question I may prefer to ask myself is: `Were all of them really martyrs? Were they willing to die for their convictions?’

K.P. Sasi

Jesus Christ was a martyr. He was prepared to die for his convictions. His resurrection was actually a beautiful poetic interpretation. The notion of resurrection of Christ resembles what many activists in history claimed that `you can only kill our bodies, but you can not kill our spirits and dreams.’ The resurrection of Christ was the resurrection of the dream of Christ and not of the body. Any medical college student in any Christian medical college can vouch for that.

The original word martyr’ came from the Greek wordmartys’ in the New Testament. The word was meant to describe someone who suffered persecution and death for advocating, renouncing, refusing to renounce, or refusing to advocate a belief or cause demanded by an external party. Jesus Christ became the first widely accepted and acclaimed martyr in world history. His refusal to accept the norms of the State at that time led him to crucifixion. He could not compromise on his convictions. He stood for humanity and not for a religion. It was his commitment to humanity that made him a martyr.

Shankar Guha Niyogi was a martyr. He was shot dead on September 28,1991. He knew that he was going to be killed and he recorded his views, feelings and convictions in an ordinary old tape recorder. He was not prepared to compromise against his convictions. The last time I communicated with him was several decades back, just before his death. He told me that he wanted to discuss with me. There was a plan for a black and white film on Veer Narayan Singh, a revolutionary who mobilised the Adivasis in Chattisgarh during the struggle against British colonial forces. Though this film project could not even raise a simple amount of Rs. 25,000 for that 16mm black and white film in the eighties, both Niyogi and I did not stop dreaming about the project. And before we could meet and discuss on it, he was murdered.

Safdar Hashmi was a martyr. He was attacked on January 1, 1989 on a New Year Day during his performance of a play called Halla Bol. His street theatre was an ultimate representation of resistance for the young generation of late seventies and eighties in Delhi. He was not only prepared to die, but he also wanted to save his team members from being attacked. 12 hours before his death, he left me after translating my documentary film called `In the Name of Medicine’. I do not doubt his martyrdom. Along with him, there was also another ordinary worker, who was also a martyr, fully prepared to die for his convictions. The name of that martyr is not heard properly in India even in the CPM circles, where Safdar was highly popular. Safdar worked hard to remake our English documentary film into Hindi throughout the night and he left the studio called CENDIT in New Delhi at 4 am in the morning. After his dedicated work, I felt that the Hindi version was better than our own English version. After the translation work was over in the early hours of the morning, he came to me and appreciated the work. But he mentioned that he had some problems with the film. He felt that I was taking an anti-development stand. I requested him to sit down and discuss on it. But he said that he was too busy and he had a theatre performance during an election campaign. He said that he really wanted to discuss with me in detail after a week, since he was busy. That was it. After 12 hours of this conversation, I heard that he was murdered.

TP Chandrashekhar was a martyr. He received 52 chops with swords on his body on May 4, 2012. He was actually aware that he could be killed. One week before his death I was in Trivandrum, busy with the coordination of the visit of Abhay Sahoo, the leader of anti-POSCO movement in different parts of South India. There was a large public meeting in Koodankulam also, organised by SP Uday Kumar. When we were in Trivandrum, there was a state wide protest against toll taxes. The protest was collectively organised by various activist groups in Kerala. The activists who initiated the protest requested me to find out if Abhay Sahoo could extend his solidarity for that protest in front of the Secretariat in Trivandrum. Abhay Sahoo was too willing. While he was speaking in front of the crowd, somebody tapped me on my shoulder and he wanted me to meet their leader. Two three young activists accompanied me to their leader. He was a short person. Extremely humble. He did not speak much. He said that he has been hearing about me and he wanted to discuss with me. He enquired how long I would be in Kerala. I said that we would be leaving after that event. He requested me to contact him when I came to Kerala again. I was also given a telephone number that I lost conveniently. I did not really know who this person was. After one week in Bangalore, I saw a familiar face of a person who was killed with 52 sword chops, in a Malayalam newspaper. I told myself that I had seen this person somewhere. I rang up my friends who participated in the anti-toll protest immediately, and they said that they had seen me speaking to TP Chandrashekhar.

Martyrs like Safdar Hashmi, Shankar Guha Neogi and TP Chandrashekhar only expressed their desire to discuss with me. Sometimes, I wonder why they should be murdered for that crime!

Gowri Lankesh was a martyr. She knew very well that she was walking through a path between life and death. She was one beautiful person whom I would like to cherish in my memories. There were no pretensions in her life. There was only a search for a meaningful life. And she became a martyr for that.

During Punnapra Vayalar struggle in October 1946, there were people who exhibited their chests to receive bullets from the police machinery. They were martyrs who were prepared to die for their convictions. Over 1000 people were killed by the then Diwan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer. He introduced a model of development called American model’. People rejected the model. The early communists fought bitterly against it. The slogan wasAmerican Model into the Arabian Sea’. Much later, when Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister of Kerala, welcomed Adani to build Vizhinjam Tramsit Harbour by dumping two hills from the Western Ghats in the Arabian Sea, threatening a population of 50,000 coastal people and a rich bio-diversity, that slogan more or less has become a reality. Looking back in history, the Punnapra Vayalar struggle could also be termed as a struggle against globalisation at a time when the term `globalisation’ was not invented as a political terminology. Hundreds of dead bodies of those who struggled against CP’s agenda were brought together in one place and burnt. When I visited the Rakthasakshi Mandapam (Martyr Memorial) in that area around three and a half decades back along with my friend P. Baburaj, the local people told us that due to the burning of dead bodies, the sand was still black. True. The sand was black around the memorial. But the reality was that the stretch of soil in that coastal belt had black soil due to the presence of monazite.

Among the dead bodies which were about to be burnt at that time, there were also activists who pretended to be dead. They knew that if they got up, they would get bullets. And some of these heroes escaped from the pile of dead bodies when the armed forces went in search of kerosene to burn the dead bodies. Those who escaped death were also heroes. But they were not martyrs.

Bhagat Singh, Gandhi and Che Guevara were martyrs, since they knew about the consequences of their political convictions and actions. You may or may not agree with their perspectives. But that does not matter. They were stubborn enough to believe that they could contribute to social change in their own ways. It does not matter whether they were successful or failures. But the fact remains is that they proceeded in life as per their own convictions. Their understanding of social and political lives, their strategies and methods can be debated. But their integrities, commitment and convictions can not be questioned, since not too many people were born like that.

In Jalianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, around 1000 people were killed by the British colonial forces. Those who died were considered as martyrs in history. But during Santhal revolt in the 19th century in Jharkhand, around 30,000 Adivasis were killed by the same British forces. But they were not considered as `martyrs’ in history. Because they were Adivasis. Some dead bodies do not have much value in history.

In a way, Abdul Nazar Maudany is a living martyr. His leg was bombed by the RSS. The time he spent in two jails as a cripple for two decades without any judgement, practically amounts to martyrdom of a living life. His eyesight and most of the body organs have crumbled. The left parties, the Congress and the Muslim League in Kerala pretend not to acknowledge the existence of this living martyr. They preferred to follow the political agenda created by RSS, rather than looking at all living evidences which tell us that Maudany is innocent. It was Abdul Nasar Maudany who hinted for the first time in India on the need for unity of the persecuted. What he said was power to the Avarnas and unity of Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalised sections.’ He became a living martyr precisely for such a political perspective. His support to the survivors of Kandhamal, the struggle of people against POSCO in Odisha, his support to the struggle of the people of Chengara or Muthanga or the struggle against the nuclear plant in Koodankulam, were all from this broader perspective. And it is stranger that even today, that he is still breathing. Even at a time when his body disobeys his breath. All political parties and the mainstream media in Kerala should be ashamed of the creation of a living martyr called Abdul Nasar Maudany. No monuments of martyrdom can replace a living martyr. Probably, the only way for the mainstream media and the political parties in Kerala to escape their guilt and shame for the crime of persecuting, fabricating and violating the basic human rights of Abdul Nasar Maudany, would be through apurification ceremony’ of themselves in Sabarimala.

Ambedkar was more than a martyr. The time he wasted to prepare an Indian Constitution which provided most of the rights for us in written form, could never be implemented in history.

Not everybody who is killed by the State, or corporate violence or communal violence can be termed as martyrs.’ Because many such innocent people were not prepared to die. They did not know that death will come to them so fast. Death was sudden. Most of these innocents were totally unprepared for death. Especially in Kandhamal. Many of these Adivasi Christians and Dalit Christians did not even know that they were going to be killed in the name of religion. They were not prepared to die. So, how can they be called martyrs? They were victims of communal genocide and notmartyrs.’

There are enough survivors of communal genocide also, yet struggling. What the churches in India should do is to support the struggle for justice for the victims and survivors and not brand every person who is killed as a martyr’. There are enough martyrs also in Kandhamal. For example, Pastor Samuel was asked by a crowd of over 300 violent Hindutva mob to convert himself to Hinduism or be prepared to die. Pastor Samuel felt very deeply that he could only die as a Christian. The crowd then asked him to be prepared to die. He pleaded with them for to allow some time as his last wish to read the Bible and pray. They laughed and agreed. He read the passages in the Bible Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ After his prayer, they chopped him and burnt his body. He was certainly a martyr for his convictions. His wife is still fighting this case in court. There are several others like Pastor Samuel in Kandhamal. But many innocents did not know that death was waiting for them for the simple reason of their religious identity. While some refused to be converted into Hinduism and got themselves killed, many people were forced to accept Hinduism, threatened by axes on their necks. They were simple innocent people who felt the need for their own survival more than their convictions in religion. Interestingly, most of them who were forcefully converted into Hinduism are going back to their own churches as Christians. My simple question to the Church is whether there is a difference in behaviour of people like Pastor Samuel who did not convert to Hinduism despite facing death in front of him and others who chose to live life? I feel that the real martyrs of Kandhamal should be respected and honoured by the churches. Martyrdom is a status that one gains out of one’s own deep convictions and not out of a simple death that you never expected or wanted to face in life.

If you travel between Kasargod to Trivandrum, you may find hundreds of monuments of martyrs in Kerala. Some were real martyrs and some were innocent victims who were not prepared to die. However, martyrdom is an idea, an inspiration and a direction for social, political and religious structures and institutions to flourish. A means for attaining further power. A life that vanished can bring power to the rest.

The Maoists and Naxalites have produced many martyrs. But most of them were not really martyrs. Many of them did not wish to die. They were also innocent victims. When martyrs become monuments and institutions, the dream disappears. Only the institution would survive.

It has become a high time for the churches in India to express moral courage to struggle and support the struggle for justice, if not for the larger section of humanity, at least for the persecuted sections of their own community. Enough documents have come out to state that Christians are persecuted in every state in India. The leaders of the church today in India have a moral responsibility to look after and protect the notions of justice of ordinary Christians in India. The acquired properties in the name of religion and FCRA certificates can go to hell. What is more important is to protect the lives of ordinary people within the religious minority communities. If Jesus Christ could stand for the justice of humanity, if even the present Pope Francis can attempt to do so, why can’t the leaders of the present churches in India follow the principles of justice, I wonder.

The term `martyr’ is only a brand name. What is behind this term is brutal injustice which every human being with or without religious faith must react to. Most of the people who were killed in Gujarat genocide, Sikh riots or Kandhamal genocide are simple human beings who wanted to live a peaceful life. It was just that this simple search for their ordinary existence was violated brutally by the communal forces. Both living a life in a meaningful manner and dying for a social cause can be interpreted as revolutionary. And one need not express any superiority of the choice of the individuals involved in this process. Death is not an answer for life. Life is a constant living answer to death. And if there are principles in life, then it is always a struggle.

Perhaps this anti-war song of Pete Seeger must be remembered in this context:

  • `Where have all the flowers gone
  • Long time passing
  • Where have all the flowers gone
  • Long time ago
  • Where have all the flowers gone
  • Young girls have picked them everyone
  • When will they ever learn
  • When will they ever learn.
  • Where have all the young girls gone
  • Long time passing
  • Where have all the young girls gone
  • Long time ago
  • Where have all the young girls gone
  • Gone to young men every one
  • When will they ever learn
  • When will they ever learn.
  • Where have the young men gone
  • Long time passing
  • Where have all the young men gone
  • Long time ago
  • Where have all the young men gone
  • Gone for soldiers every one
  • When will they every learn
  • When will they ever learn.
  • Where have all the soldiers gone
  • Long time passing
  • Where have all the soldiers gone
  • Long time ago
  • Where have all the soldiers gone
  • Gone to graveyard everyone
  • When will they ever learn
  • When will they ever learn.
  • Where have all the graveyards gone
  • Long time passing
  • Where have all the graveyards gone
  • Long time ago
  • Where have all the graveyards gone
  • Gone to flowers everyone
  • When will they ever learn
  • When will they ever learn.’

K.P. Sasi is a film maker, writer and a cartoonist