Howdy and the forgotten hero

Sanjay Jha
National Spokesperson, Indian National Congress party

Indians love reality TV and bodacious spectacles of spectacular size. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did a follow-up to his razzle-dazzle Madison Square Garden show by another serial flamboyant outing in Houston, USA which was cleverly hash-tagged as #HowdyModi to give it the cool, occidental flavor.

From all accounts, the grand jamboree hit the bull’s eye as the presence of the US President Donald Trump ensured that it got official American imprimatur (and Trump got Indian Americans vote-bank rooting for him).

The personality cult creation project continues unabated, with clear political objectives, but the real innumerable silent heroes of India are not even accorded a perfunctory mention in our daily lives.

Of course, with the Maharashtra elections round the corner next month on October 21, one forgotten braveheart may just be resuscitated for a photo-op. In a world driven by solipsistic megalomania, I remember the real hero.

I asked a few people in a small group who Ajmal Amir Kasab was (albeit this was a few years ago, rest assured, the script would remain remarkably unchanged even today). They were visibly stunned, even terribly amused as if saying, “Are you a lunatic?”

I prodded them anyways, deliberately provocative, feigning the status of an ignoramus. Sighing with profuse exasperation, one of them said: “The captured terrorist who brutally massacred innocent commuters at CST railway terminus and slaughtered our valiant cops on the horrendous night of 26/11 in Mumbai.”

Then I asked them, “Who is Tukaram Omble?” They gave an anemic smile, looked helplessly at each other and expressed their inability to answer that.

Some took wild shots in the dark while others were honest enough to avoid the reckless guessing exercise. No one had heard of the brave assistant police inspector who even as Kasab gunned him to death, held on to him long enough for his colleagues to pounce on the dreaded terrorist and capture him alive.

In a sense, it was the late Tukaram and the other police constables that night who gave India its damning evidence against Pakistan, confirming its complicity in the deadly terrorist conspiracy.

Kasab was intending to drive into a South Mumbai high-rise like Malabar Hill and execute his wanton destruction of human lives. Omble died saving Mumbaikars.

It has been nearly eleven years since the 26/11 attacks but the dark memories of that ugly bloodbath are unlikely to ever be obliterated from our minds. On an annual basis at least, Mumbai goes through its ritualistic processes of solemn remembrance.

By the next morning, the stock-price of HDFC Bank or the latest WhatsApp political meme becomes the dominating impulse. And yet, on 26/11 there were myriad stories of providential escape: like this girl Feroza who was all set to have dinner at Café Leopold that night till the last minute switch to the charming deli Theobrama. Of those who, due to some quirky personal reasons caught a late night local train from Churchgate instead of the traditional CST route. Of a friend from London staying at the Oberoi Trident who chose to step out of the luxury hotel to have a quick bite at some tony restaurant in Colaba.

In 60 hours, 164 innocent people were butchered. And a billion minds scarred forever.

Now-retired Sachin Tendulkar, Mumbai’s own prized prodigy, played a Test match at Chennai a few weeks later after the gruesome terror attacks. India was still in mourning. India was to beat England by 6 wickets and Sachin would score an unbeaten hundred and in a touching poignant moment dedicate the win and century to Mumbai (in the process also exorcising the ghost of the heart-breaking defeat against Pakistan at the same ground nine years earlier).

But the tranquility accompanying that elegiac episode was short-lived.

In 2009, Sachin Tendulkar stood accused by some political guardians of his own city of Mumbai of letting down his birthplace. And pray what was his sacrilegious violation? “I play for India and Mumbai belongs to all”: this is the putative ‘blasphemous’ statement that the modest master-blaster uttered.

It led to a vitriolic attack on the greatest cricketer of the modern era, even resulting in violent assaults on media offices espousing sanity. In his own home town of Mumbai, India’s most revered, lionized role model was under siege. Tendulkar, the national hero was being pilloried for saying that we are all one in our nation; I am not sure if the valiant martyr Tukaram Omble would have approved. He died for every one of us, too.

Mumbai continues its immaculately rehearsed perfunctory anniversary activities on 26/11. People join in social groups and private endeavours to express solidarity and say prayers. We still hold candlelight marches and observe two-minute silences for those who fell a tragic victim to barbarous backpackers not knowing why till the very end. For those incredible heroes who emerged to become saviours for their guests and martyrs for the nation.

But this is where we become schizophrenic. We rarely outrage when the wife of the chief minister of Maharashtra calls India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi the ‘father of the nation’. It is like saying that it was not Abraham Lincoln but Donald Trump whose historic legislation ended slavery in the United States; a grotesque misprision.

Mahatma Gandhi is being systematically expunged from the national consciousness of his beloved country and it is being done with brazen sophistry. A conniving propaganda machine amplifies the mendacity. And soon everyone is consumed by this mesmerizing chimera; people line up as servile devotees to hero worship.

Howdy Modi trends globally even as seven million Indians continue to be quarantined. Cars whiz past the lonely bust of Tukaram Omble as the monsoon fury lashes at its dark silhouette.