In October 1999, super-cyclones struck the eastern part of India in the region of Orissa, leaving more than 10,000 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. In January 2001, massive earthquakes hit India’s western region of Gujarat. The quake registered a horrific 7.7 on the Richter scale and immediately left more than 30,000 people dead, more than 165,000 injured, and almost one million people without homes or economic support. When the earthquakes and the super-cyclones hit India, Project C.U.R.E. immediately became involved.
From our Project C.U.R.E. warehouse in Rochester, England, Project C.U.R.E. UK sent emergency medical goods to the earthquake victims, and from our warehouse in Phoenix, Arizona, Project C.U.R.E. sent goods to Orissa. But the real need proved to be in the long-term reconstruction of destroyed medical facilities in both venues. Requests for help began pouring into our Denver headquarters, and the pressure was on us to get to the locations and perform the needs assessment studies so that we could begin to ship the much-needed containers of donated medical supplies and pieces of equipment into the crippled areas.
Additionally, we had been getting pressure to perform a needs assessment trip into Katmandu, Nepal. I had decided to see if we could combine both assessment assignments into one trip. Throughout the history of Project C.U.R.E., it had not been out of the ordinary for me to travel into some pretty precarious situations. We never wanted to do anything foolish or presumptuous, but neither did we shy away from traveling into the “hot spots” of the world.
In India’s grievous history, the Babri Masjid Hindu temple had stood on holy ground near a place called Ayodhya, not far from the major western city of Ahmadabad in the State of Gujarat. Previous conflicts between the militant Muslims and the radical Hindu sects had resulted in the Muslims desecrating the holy site by destroying the Hindu shrine and building in its place, on the very spot, a Muslim mosque.
In 1992, the Hindu radicals had attacked the mosque and had torn it down piece by piece and burned it. Riots broke out across India where thousands of people were either killed or injured and surrounding properties were burned or looted. The Hindus made a declaration that they would rebuild their temple and reconsecrate the holy ground. They had declared that on the 15th of March, 2002, they would march to the holy site with a sacred stone called a “Shila daan stone” that would commemorate the official beginning of the temple construction. The Shila daan stone consisted of two heavy carved slabs of stone carried from Mount Govardhan to be used in the construction of the foundation of the new temple. Earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled that the Hindu temple should not be rebuilt, and the government purchased the surrounding property in order to block the building. But none of that was going to stop the Hindus from delivering the heavy stones and reclaiming the lost honor of their gods, which had suffered for such a long time under the Muslims. Hindu pilgrims began taking the public trains to Ayodhya to support the move to rebuild the Hindu temple.
On Wednesday, February 27, 2002, the Indian trains were packed with passengers headed to Ahmadabad. The Sabarmati Express had just pulled into the Godhra station. Muslims were at the station shouting anti-Hindu slogans. The train pulled out of the station only a short distance when someone pulled the emergency stop handle. Immediately, the stopped train was attacked by rock-throwing Muslims, who began smashing out the windows of the railcars.
The frightened passengers in a second-class sleeping car pulled down the shades and locked the coach doors. Soon burning rags, Molotov cocktails, and bottles of acid landed inside the train car while the attackers doused the outside of the coach with gasoline and kerosene. Almost immediately, sleeper car S-6 and the adjoining coaches were on fire. There was absolutely no escape for the passengers inside who were burned alive.
Of the fifty-eight people who burned in S-6, twenty-six were women and sixteen were children. An additional fifty or more were injured in the burning ambush. Then rumors quickly spread that in order to teach the Hindu pilgrims a lesson, the Muslims had also kidnapped and raped Hindu women.
Riots broke out all over India. Hundreds of people were being killed, and properties were being torched in Bombay, Ahmadabad, and Hyderabad, and as far away as New Delhi and Calcutta. Everyone figured that the violence was only a precursor to what might happen on March 15th when the Hindus marched to Ayodhya with the heavy Shila daan stone.
Our trip was scheduled to put us into India on March 12. From Bombay, we were to travel by train—the same Sabarmati Express train—to Surat, in the state of Gujarat, right through the city of Ahmadabad. That was where the train cars had been stoned and burned, and all the people killed. That was where the worst of the riots were taking place. Our airplane landed in Bombay at 2:00 a.m. Messages were waiting for us at the front desk to not take the train and to not travel north to Gujarat state. By breakfast, two of our hosts met us at the hotel and insisted we travel with them south to Hyderabad, where Anna Marie and I would be safe for a few days. Eventually, calm was restored across India and we were able to perform all of our needs assessment studies in the flooded areas of eastern India. We also flew into a military airport in Gujarat state and determined where Project C.U.R.E.’s help would be targeted in the tragically decimated earthquake areas.
As we were hop-scotching across India, avoiding the rioting, I had some time to reflect. Just months before the India episode, Rudolph Giuliani had responded to the terrorism of 9/11in New York by saying, “We can't accommodate terrorism. When someone uses the slaughter of innocent people to advance a so-called political cause, at that point the political cause becomes immoral and unjust and they should be eliminated from any serious discussion, any serious debate.” Terrorism is carried out in a calculated fashion. The terrorist supposedly fights to remedy wrongs. But for righting the wrongs, his only solution is the destruction of the structure of the society or culture.
To complicate the India encounter, this grudge between the Muslims and Hindus had been going on for a long time. The grudge had simmered and simmered and began to boil in 1992 with the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Another layer of complication existed because it had to do with a religious conviction. Paschal once stated that, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” And it certainly is not a new thing for people to use God to justify the unjustifiable.
Hate and bigotry seem to be learned responses. I don’t think people are born to hate other people or cultures or religions. They learn that characteristic through being taught. And if they can learn to hate and carry long-time grudges, then it seems to follow that they can be taught to experience and embrace love. In fact, I have come to believe that love comes a little more readily to the human heart than does bigotry. As Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
There was one more thing that impressed me about the Shila daan stone situation and the massacre of all the people in India, beginning with the burning of the loaded railroad cars. Life is too short and the alternatives too dangerous, and too expensive, to carry a grudge.
The two big slabs of carved rock that comprised the Shila daan stone were heavy. The folks who carried those stones put forth great effort and paid a tremendous physical price to humanly transport those stones to the temple site in Ayodhya. But even though the Shila daan stones were heavy, they were, in truth, not the heaviest stones in the story. The heaviest stone you can carry is not a Shila daan stone . . . the heaviest and most dangerous stone you can carry is a grudge stone. If you are carrying a heavy grudge stone today, let me encourage you to take a deep breath and just let it fall to the ground. The whole world will be better off!