Of all the gruesome tales to emerge from Gujarat this past fortnight, the one that chilled me to my bones came from a friend there who witnessed the Hindu mobs run amok. One particular group of thugs had gathered near his home, self-appointed vigilantes who claimed they were there to protect Hindu families from attack by Muslim killers. My friend was under no personal danger—the louts knew him to be a Hindu—but as he listened in on their conversation, he couldn't help but feel frightened.
"They were talking about the best technique to kill Muslims," my friend told me. "Everybody had a favorite—burning, stabbing, strangulation—and they were arguing about which method would deliver the greatest amount of pain." Some of the group claimed to know of people who had actually killed Muslims with their bare hands, and told their stories with the kind of awe reserved for mythic heroes. A few boasted of having personally participated in lynching of Muslims in riots elsewhere in the country. "One guy described, with sound effects and everything, how a Muslim schoolboy had been set alight. And this guy proudly said he had been among those who held the boy down as others poured kerosene over his body."
Some, if not all, of this was undoubtedly pure braggadocio. The stories sounded fake, or at least embellished for effect. "It was like a bunch of schoolboys boasting about imaginary achievements," said my friend. "But these so-called achievements were murderous." What was especially scary was the casual, matter-of-fact tone in which this conversation was conducted. "These guys seemed no more agitated than they would have if they were talking about the weather," said my friend. "It was like an everyday discussion."
And, just as in any "everyday discussion" in the subcontinent, it wasn't too long before the subject of cricket came up. "One minute they were talking about setting people on fire, the next minute somebody brought up Sourav Ganguly [captain of the Indian cricket team] and his batting form." The conversation switched from one to the other and back, as if there was no material difference between them.
My friend, who will remain nameless for obvious reasons, is a devout Hindu. He has consistently voted for the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party for over a decade. He has on occasion been known to speak disparagingly of Muslims (if you're wondering, yes, I have his permission to divulge this information), and when I've chided him for it, he has accused me of being a bleeding-heart liberal. The name-calling hasn't been one-sided: I've taunted him over his fondness for beef steaks and told him that his hard-line political posturing was a sham, that deep inside he really was a liberal, too. This always made him go ballistic, which I enjoyed watching.
I don't think we will be teasing each other along those lines ever again. Listening in on the mob outside his house has left a deep impression on him. "It bothers me that I have something in common with them," he said. "If we support the same party and the same political ideas, there's something terribly wrong with me." A week after the event, his voice was still trembling, as much out of rage as fear.
It didn't seem a good time to say: I told you so.