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Maryam Of Ramgarh

Maryam Of Ramgarh

Ramgarh, a small city 40 kilometers or so from the Jharkhand state’s capital Ranchi, has a history most of India, and specially its armed forces, would not like to remember.

On June 10, 1984, some 600 Sikh soldiers of the Sikh regimental center at Ramgarh, then in undivided Bihar, mutinied, murdered their commander, Brigadier RS Puri, commandeered army vehicles, and marched towards Delhi, the National Capital.

This mutiny was sparked by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the prime minister, sending in the Army to clear the Golden Temple in Amritsar of Jarnail Singh Bhindrawalan and his armed followers. In the action, termed Operation Blue Star, much of the Akal Takht was destroyed.

The mutineers were encountered on the highway some distance away, and met with summary military justice. This is now but a footnote in military and political history of independent India, but Ramgarh has forever lost its sheen as a cantonment town, and risks being swallowed by the rapidly expanding Ranchi.

As for Ranchi, other than the name of the airport, Birsa Munda, and a statue in the city square, there is little evidence that this is also the home of one of the most gallant freedom fighters in armed conflict against colonial Britain. A great grandson of Birsa Munda is now in apprenticeship to become a human rights activist, and sings ballads in his ancestor’s memory when activists drop in. We in the Karwane Mohabbat met him on our way to meet, first, Stan Swami, the Jesuit activist and social worker, and then Maryam, the widow of Alimuddin Ansari, who reminds one so much of Gladys Staines, the widow of Australian leprosy worker Graham Stuart Staines.

The women share much in their individual trajectories of tragedy and a superhuman moral strength.

On 22nd January night, 1999, Graham and his pre-teen sons Philip and Timothy were burnt alive in their jeep in the Orissa forest area of Manouharpur. The leader of the killer gang was Gau Rakshak and Bajrang Dal leader Dara Singh who was a terror for Muslim animal traders in coastal east India, the so-called cattle rustling route to Bangladesh, and was now focusing on Christian church workers and evangelists he saw as hurdles in his way.

The cruelty of the murders, and Dara Singh’s declaimed motives of religious nationalism, shocked the world. Even though the Atal Behari Vajpayee government minister George Fernandes called it a foreign conspiracy, the President of India called it a black spot on the country’s ancient culture. Gladys was sunk deep in her loss, but when asked by the media, said “I forgive the killer of my husband and sons”. It was, she said, for the rule of law to decide what to do with the criminals. But when Dara Singh was sentenced to death by the Sessions Judge, Gladys spoke firmly against the death penalty though fundamentalist Christians cried out for an eye for an eye.

The High Court reduced his death penalty to one of life imprisonment. The State appealed in the Supreme Court for restoration of the death penalty. The statements of Gladys made the Supreme Court also reject the death penalty, though a judge went out of his way to suggest Dara killed Graham to punish him for converting people to Christianity. The judgement seemed to justify murderous vigilantism. It took a public outcry for the Supreme Court, in a rare measure, to delete the offending sentence from the judgement which went on record.

Mariam Khatoon - we met in her cousin’s home close to her own in Ramgarh - is distraught she has received no compensation or assistance, but she seems not to bear any ill will towards the government, or the ruling party, the BJP, or even the killers of her husband Alimuddin Ansari as one would otherwise expect. We had met her a year ago, and the passing of time has only strengthened the woman's resolve.

Alimuddin, a petty coal trader, was lynched on June 29, 2017, on suspicion of transporting beef. The lynching was planned. The local Sangh goons had procured a mound of flesh. They stopped Alimuddin as he drove through the crowded main vegetable and general market of Ramgarh near the bus stop. As they beat him close to death, filming the gory ritual on a dozen mobile films, they planted the flesh on the road near the van he was driving. The video went viral. Maryam’s children rushed to the spot when they saw the live streaming of the lynching on their mobiles. The video on social media also helped police identify the murderers who were arrested. 
During the investigations, Maryam took a keen interest to see that the police covered every angle. She had some help from senior police officers who seemed sympathetic, quiet unlike the case in other states where the impunity and often the complicity of local police was a major encouragement to the killers.

Maryam’s composure and equanimity, despite her loss and the worry of bringing up a family now on her own with a son who has damaged an eye in an accident and a daughter on the verge of marriage, was one reason witnesses too stood firm. In another rarity, of the 12 accused, 11 were sentenced to life in prison in September last year for murder. They are now out on bail, after appealing their sentence in the high court. These were the men who were garlanded by central minister Jayant Sinha, raising a stink in civil society and even in political circles, forcing him to apologize to the public at large.

Maryam tells us she has no hate for Jayant Sinha, or for anyone else. She remains opposed to the death penalty. “Why should we create more widows by hanging the men who murdered my husband? Let them remain in jail and repent.”

And then she startles us some more, saying she will be happy to welcome Jayant Sinha and would offer him corn on the cob from her kitchen garden if he were to call on her. But she is not going to go to his office or home to beg for charity for her family. Her self-respect stands in the way. She is assured of help from the woman district collector, but it is yet to materialize.

Maryam, much as Gladys before her, has defeated hate and the politics that kindles it and keeps it ablaze. In doing so, she offers hope to the nation, and is now a beacon to civil society.

(Published on 24th September 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 39)