For the poor and the weakest, the only thing as bad as a riot is a curfew
IN AUGUST 1980, riots broke out in Allahabad, forcing the administration to clamp curfew in the city. For many, it was the beginning of the end of violence. For others, especially the poor in the squalid neighbourhoods, it meant an extension of the violence. In Curfew in the City: A Novella, former police officer Vibhuti Narain Rai takes a literary route to examine how the lives of ordinary people are affected by prohibitory orders. Rai’s novella avoids sword-wielding fanatics and men with home-made bombs. Instead, it narrates the travails of a mother, who can’t get medicine for her sick child and when the child dies, she can’t get water from a nearby public tap to wash the body—her family can’t even get enough curfew passes to bury the child. In the book, a
15-year-old schoolgirl is gangraped while stranded in the deserted streets, families of Allahabad’s beedi workers, who squat on the floor for 14 hours, rolling the leaves over tobacco to ensure two daily meals, go hungry and sex workers starve, as nobody wants to come out of their houses. Policemen kick poor people while searching their homes, but get kicked out themselves from rich homes.
First published in Hindi as Shahar Mein Curfew in 1988, the novella gets a new English translation nearly three decades later in the form of Curfew in the City. Rai says in the preface to the new edition that nothing much has changed since then. However, he is quick to point out the differences between the riots during Partition and those since 1960. During the riots after independence, families were protected by neighbours from another faith. A lot of people then stood up to the trouble-makers. But not any more, argues the author. It’s not just the perpetrators of violence, but the system, too, that fails the people, he adds. A peace committee set up by the administration becomes a ploy for getting plots for journalists and settling differences between the district collector and the police chief, setting the stage for the next election.
In the process, the damage that an incompetent administration, a biased law-enforcement wing, and competing political parties and religious organisations do to society is severe. “People who have observed communal riots up close know that not every stone that is thrown succeeds in starting a riot,” says the author in the afterword. “In fact, an air tension is first created in the city before any riot occurs. And to that end—months before any incident—a web is woven of false accusations, rumours and negative propaganda.” The tension keeps building until it reaches a flashpoint, where just one stone or one inflammatory slogan can cause a mighty explosion. “And at that critical height of tension, it is immaterial who throws the first stone,” Rai says.
Literary works on communal riots in India are nothing new, but Curfew in the City remains where it is meant to: ground zero. Its characters are simple individuals whose lives are destroyed for reasons least connected to them. “In the Indian subcontinent, as elsewhere in the world, the worst suffering from communal violence is borne by the population’s poorest and weakest, the most vulnerable sections,” Rai writes. “I learned this truth most forcefully as I performed my duties as an officer in an agency whose purpose is to establish and maintain peace,” he adds. After he wrote the novella, Rai went on to research the perception of police neutrality during communal strife, earning a fellowship from the National Police Academy in Hyderabad. Rai may not be an expert of literary craft, but he sure knows how a curfew works in India.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer