March 2, 2020
It’s tempting to believe that India has been communalised beyond repair. But there is no alternative to re-secularising India.
We don’t let our house burn when we have an important guest visiting us. In fact, we don’t let our house burn even if we have no guest visiting us simply because we have problems, even enmity, with our co-habitants. But that’s what India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi did last week.
Even as Modi gave US President Donald J Trump the customary tour of the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat, home to Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindutva mob orchestrated a repeat show of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom in north-west Delhi, killing and maiming Muslim individuals, and setting afire Muslim-owned shops and homes while Delhi Police officers played either mute spectators or accomplices to the mob. Decomposing corpses are still being recovered from gutters a week after the violence, the death toll reaching 43 at the time of writing this piece.
As expected, the prime minister waited until the guest had departed, the inferno subsided and the mob returned to their dens, tweeted a lame appeal for calm. It was as if he had wanted exactly that–to show Trump, who has been comparatively less successful in disenfranchising Muslims in America, how it is done.
Just like his political guru, home minister Amit Shah remained mute during the ordeal, only to later claim that the violence was spontaneous rather than pre-planned. With enormous resources at his disposal, Shah could have contained the violence within hours if not prevent it altogether had he been serious about the security of his citizens. Delhi Police would certainly not keep itself busy stone-pelting along with the mob, breaking CCTV cameras and forcing the wounded victims to sing the national anthem had it not been communalised.
Had it been the first instance of communal violence after the BJP-led government came to power in India, Shah could be given the benefit of doubt. But if we ask ourselves whether the police would have as long as it did to contain the violence if the perpetrators were Muslims and not Hindutva extremists, we have our answer.
Although the magnitude and cruelty of the violence has shocked the world, those of us who have even the slightest idea of how the Modi-Shah duo has communalised India in the past six years, after the BJP came to power in the Centre, knew we had it coming. Those who didn’t expect it were either too naive or were just pretending not to see what was coming as they played along surreptitiously with the Hindutva frenzy.
To be fair to Modi and Shah, communalism isn’t something they started out of the blue in 2014. It has remained deeply entrenched in the hearts and minds of the Indians, most prominently since the middle of the 19th century when the British colonisers realised that their interests would be best served by the divide-and-rule policy. The colonisers successfully aggravated the animosity between the two communities in the decades that followed, resulting in the propagation of the two-nation theory–the idea that Hindus and Muslims were mutually antagonistic and therefore irreconcilable. For colonial India, it took what historian Bipan Chandra calls the ‘extreme communalism’ propagated by extremists of opposite sides, such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah of the Muslims League and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha, to translate the two-nation theory into Partition.
Come 2020, the extreme communalists–and it is only the Hindutva communalists this time–hold the country’s capital to ransom by killing dozens of citizens and burning properties for three days unabated and with the state machinery complicit in the crime.
One would have hoped that Indians have learnt from the tragedy of the Partition. What the Modi-Shah duo has done in the past six years is to channelise the subterranean suspicion that Hindu and Muslims have for each other into hatred and violence. In doing so, they have taken India to 1947, when Hindu-Muslim animosity was at its peak.
As the victims of last week’s pogrom pick up the pieces and attempt to return to normal life, what hits home is the lack of formidable secular forces that promise to stand by the Muslims as well as other minorities in the event of another such pogrom.
This begs the question: Are India’s Hindus and Muslims destined to be at each other’s throats for eons or is there a way for the two communities to live together peacefully? This takes us back to 1947 again, when India’s founding fathers such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel were faced with the task of decommunalising politics, and did so by vigorously promoting secular ideals. It was the best way to keep diverse Indians from religious, linguistic and communal conflicts. While Gandhi appealed for an affirmative politics of friendship between religious and cultural communities, Nehru spoke of India’s diversity as a palimpsest, with ‘layer upon layer of thought and reverie inscribed and yet no succeeding layer completely erasing what had been written previously’. Patel, whom Modi and Shah swear by day in and day out, considered protecting minorities the primary responsibility of the majority population as well as of the state. He even banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as he believed the ‘poisoned speeches’ of its functionaries had inspired Nathuram Godse to kill Gandhi.
But in Modi-raj, the foundational ideals of pluralism, diversity and secularism have gone for a toss. And what’s missing is the acknowledgement of the systematic misappropriation of Hindu identity at the hand of the communalists. The Hindutva brigade, in its bid to legitimise its criminal politics, has successfully conflated its vitriolic ideology with the life-affirming ideals of Hinduism. It is as if you have to play along with the Islamophobia of the Hindutva brigade if you want to be considered Hindu enough.
In believing this false equivalence, and remaining mostly silent even as their neighbours are burnt alive in broad daylight, the Hindus of India today are orchestrating the undoing of their own identity. The longer they let the Hindutva extremists wreak havoc in their name, the sooner the Hindus of India will find themselves ashamed of being identified as Hindus. This is the situation the largely silent Hindus of India today fail to appreciate as yet.
One is tempted to believe that India has been communalised beyond repair. But there is no alternative to de-militantising and re-secularising India, notwithstanding the fact that it takes decades of affirmative politics to undo what the Modi-Shah duo has done in the past six years. As the Delhi inferno subsides, it is time Indians wrestled India back from the Hindutva extremists before it is too late.