By Geeta Seshu, Womens Feature Service
The digital photo frame unit sits oddly on a mantelpiece stacked with medals and citations, including an Ashok Chakra posthumously awarded to Hemant Karkare in the wake of the November 26, 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Lovingly loaded by his daughter with scores of photographs of the Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS) chief in better times and set to his favourite Hindi film songs, the photo display vainly tries to drown out what became one of the many defining images of that Wednesday night: Of the ATS chief donning a bullet-proof jacket and a helmet only to be shot dead later.
The ATS chief was proceeding along the Rang Bhavan Road in a police vehicle with Addl Commissioner Ashok Kamte, Sr. Inspector Vijay Salaskar and four constables when they were fired at by two of the attackers. Only one constable, Arun Jadhav, survived.
Along with scores of others glued to the television screens that night, Kavita Karkare also saw that last visual of her husband. Only a few hours earlier he had been having dinner at home.
“Jadhav came to meet me afterwards. He is psychologically very shattered. He told me how it happened. But it took at least two to three months before I went to the Cama Hospital site. I wanted to see how it happened and where… I took my sister-in-law with me and we tried to picture it,” says Kavita.
For her, as well as for the other victims, the shock, confusion and grief were played out on TV screen monitors, almost in real time, and the disconnect with reality is still difficult to come to terms with.
Yet, barely a month after the death of her husband, Kavita Karkare resumed duty as a lecturer in Educational Sociology in a Mumbai-based B.Ed college, so as to finish the portion for the year and prepare the students for their forthcoming examinations.
“I don’t know how I did it, but I had to go back and finish my work,” she says, her matter-of-fact tone belying the effort it must have taken. Grateful that her students respected her privacy and refrained from referring to the death of her husband, she is pragmatic about civil society’s response. She observes that many organisations had, in the aftermath of November 26, held meetings on the concerns it had raised, but while some were genuine, others were merely interested in projecting themselves.
Talking about her husband’s sacrifice, Kavita says, “You can’t suddenly become a martyr, you can’t suddenly imbibe values of patriotism. It is the atmosphere at home and parental guidance that are crucial factors in shaping one’s value-system.”
Karkare’s father, Kamlakar Karkare, was a well known communist in Nagpur while his mother came from a family close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Despite this marriage of people from opposing ideologies, the relationship was free of any conflict. The parents, in fact, encouraged independent thinking and the roots of liberalism ran deep. Karkare’s mother completed her education after her marriage and even Kavita was encouraged to take up a job and do her B.Ed.
“I worked in a bank earlier but since I always loved teaching, I fulfilled my dream of doing a Master’s in Education. I find teaching very satisfying. Yes, the contract system has resulted in such low wages for teachers. We need a revolution in the educational field too. But as teachers, we can at least discuss issues with our students and hope that they think about society,” she says.
Kavita believes November 26 was a defining moment. “Some officers and politicians measured up, others didn’t. Today’s politicians are not patriotic unlike those of yesteryear like Babu Genu, Sukhdev and Bhagat Singh,” she affirms.
Despite her calm and reflective demeanour, Kavita does feel bitter about the fact that officers like her husband were sent into the field badly equipped – they had little information, no reinforcements and poor equipment. “I do feel angry. This system has to be changed from within. There must be more transparency, politicians must be made accountable. If they do not perform, they must be removed,” she says.
The Pradhan Committee appointed by the Maharashtra government recently submitted its report virtually giving the police a clean chit. But this is at variance with the accounts Kavita and Vinita Kamte, wife of Ashok Kamte, have managed to piece together. And despite voicing her criticism on television, Kavita despairs over whether there will be any justice from the government. “It is the responsibility of citizens…all those who light candles…to come forward and ask questions,” she feels. She believes that the questions raised by Vinita Kamte must bear fruit. The latter is a lawyer and had systematically gathered information on the absence of reinforcements and intelligence inputs for the three officers, which – among other factors – may have caused their deaths.
Sitting in the living room of the official quarters she has permission to reside in for the next three years, Kavita points to the driftwood lampshades, a wall-clock and a coffee table – all designed by Karkare during his stint as Superintendent of Police in the Naxalite-dominated area of Chandrapur in eastern Maharashtra. The house is full of souvenirs and mementos. Kavita recalls that her husband took personal interest in the decor, re-arranging the furniture and artefacts every fortnight. According to her, he had varied interests – from listening to old Hindi film songs or Marathi ‘abangs’ to reading books, especially those on philosophy and science.
Discussing these books with his father is just one of the things her 17-year-old son – the youngest of their three children – misses greatly. “As victims, we are struggling to make sense of our lives,” Kavita says, adding that her older daughter who is married, and younger daughter, who is studying at the London School of Economics, are coping a bit better.
Kavita is not unfamiliar with single parenthood. She had lived alone and worked in Mumbai while Karkare was deputed to Vienna (Austria) for over five years by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Karkare was a liberal parent. He never forced his views on his children, much less directed them. While he had believed that children must be given the freedom to take their own decisions and should be supported even if they made mistakes, Kavita’s own parenting style was more protective.
Kavita father, Narayan Deo, was an Additional Commissioner of Police and she was, as she put is, well aware of “the negative side of government service”. She harks back to happier times when her husband was working for a consumer goods multi-national. But Karkare was restless and wanted a more challenging job. Kavita didn’t want to discourage him from joining the Indian Police Service, something she regrets today.
Over the months, the attack has begun to fade from public memory but the victims of 26/11 are still haunted by trauma and loss. Kavita points out that all victims need help in some form or the other, and monetary compensation is simply not enough. Kavita makes it a point to keep meeting other victims informally and talk to them. “They need help at every stage in their lives and there is no infrastructure or a social support system for them,” she observes. She has herself sought succour in spiritual studies and bi-weekly sessions at the Chinmaya Mission in Mumbai.
Ultimately, though, it is her children who are her biggest support. “Yes, we do feel lonely and this loss has created a permanent vacuum in our lives. Everyone says women are more courageous but that is simply not true. It’s just that women are better survivors,” says Kavita Karkare, a woman who has come to embody courage for many in India.