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Is it safe to be a communal peace hero in India?

August 04, 2015


Statues of Vasant Rao Hegishte and Rajab Ali Lakhani inside the memorial. —Photo:
Statues of Vasant Rao Hegishte and Rajab Ali Lakhani inside the memorial. —Photo:

Over 1,000 people died in the horrific 2002 Gujarat violence. Subsequently, I visited different parts of Gujarat on a number of occasions, and got the opportunity to learn about two legendary youths who had laid down their lives to protect people when communal violence broke out in Ahmadabad, India in July 1946.

These two young men, Vasant Rao Hegishte and Rajab Ali Lakhani, close friends and workers of the Congress Seva Dal, came to the streets to stop the killings. Vasant Rao was trying to protect Muslims, while Rajab Ali stood firm to save the Hindus.

Both were killed by the mobs on the 1st of July.

In the aftermath of the violence and the sacrifice of Vasant and Rajab, activists in Gujarat decided to celebrate July 1st as the day of communal harmony. Recognising this fact, the government in Gujarat has raised a memorial in their memory called the Bandhutva Smarak (Brotherhood Memorial). In news coverage of this programme, what struck me was that while Vasant Rao’s relatives were present for it, Rajab Ali's relatives were not there.

Acts of violence have continued in the country after 1946 with increased intensity. Rajab Ali's relatives were targeted in subsequent violence to the extent that they first started concealing their relationship with him, then they started assuming Hindu names and eventually, some of them adopted the Hindu religion and fled to Canada and the US.

The person who stood for the amity of religious communities must not have imagined that his own kin would be subjected to the kind of hatred and divisiveness that he chose to fight against.

The story of Rajab's family mirrors the trajectory of events in India, where Hindu-Muslim violence has made Muslims feel increasingly insecure.

Today, the percentage of religious minorities as victims of communal violence is several times more than their percentage in population. The Ministry of Home Affairs data of 1991, quoted by researches, shows that while Muslims were a 12 odd per cent in population then, they constituted over 80 per cent of all victims of communal violence.

Communal violence, or violence in the name of religion, originated in the Indian subcontinent from the colonial policies of the British idea of ‘divide and rule’. They introduced communal historiography, where the religion of the king became the central marker of his rule and his major policies related to taxation were downplayed. The kingdom’s central focus of power and wealth was substituted by ‘religious identity’, and this was picked up by communal organisations.

These communal organisations remained aloof from freedom movements and did their best in spreading hatred against the ‘other’ religious communities. Communal clashes began and thereby, a ‘social common sense’ that looked down on the other community, became the norm.

The prevalence of myths, stereotypes, biases against minorities came in handy for the practitioners of communal politics in instigating violence. Investigations into incidents of communal violence, especially as explained in one recent Yale University study, tell us that the instigating communal organisation becomes electorally strong in the areas where the violence takes place, and that’s what we are witnessing in India today.

Climbing the ladder of violence, communal organisations then come to the seat of power, irrespective of the amity that people like Gandhi promoted and people like Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi laid down their lives for.

Today, we are in a phase where violence has changed its form; from the massive bloody phenomenon to sub-radar actions, where minorities get intimidated on some issue of a mosque or a church or eating beef or some other social practice. The major goal of communal forces is to polarise communities along religious lines.

What would a Gandhi have done in such a scenario? Many an experiment in peace have been floated.

There have been mohalla committees (area level inter-community committees); shanti sena (peace armies); awareness programmes about the need for harmony, interfaith dialogues, inter-community celebrations of religious festivals, promotion of films on harmony, Kabir festivals and the likes.

Social activists are also struggling to get justice for the victims of violence and have been encouraging people to come together through programmes cutting across religious lines.

How to undo the ghettoisation; how to create an awareness for amity that overcomes negative perceptions is a great challenge for today's India.

The issue needs to be addressed to ensure that the likes of Rajab Ali’s kin do not have to hide or change their identities.