Modi didn't create Hindu majoritarianism, he only stoked the simmering embers

Updated July 04, 2017

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Indian Muslims hold a banner protesting recent attacks on them by Hindu fringe groups on the issue of beef eating which is taboo for Hindus as they arrive to offer Eid prayers in Kolkata. ─ AP
Indian Muslims hold a banner protesting recent attacks on them by Hindu fringe groups on the issue of beef eating which is taboo for Hindus as they arrive to offer Eid prayers in Kolkata. ─ AP

On the 22nd of June, 15-year-old Junaid Khan left his home in Khandwali, a small village in Haryana, along with his three brothers on a train bound for Delhi to do their annual Eid shopping for their family.

Somewhere between Mathura and Ballabgarh stations, while playing a game of Ludo to pass the time, Junaid and his brothers were confronted by a group of men wanting their seats, a common enough occurrence on Indian trains, and a scuffle ensued.

What should have ended with harsh words and perhaps a shove or two, quickly escalated. Within minutes, Junaid and his brothers were accused of eating beef, knives were wielded, and Junaid was brutally stabbed and murdered on the platform as a large group of people stood by and watched.

Junaid was not the first person to be lynched in India on suspicion of eating beef, and he will not be the last. In fact, only a week later, another man was beaten to death for allegedly transporting beef in his van in the state of Jharkhand.

Unfortunately, such violence is quickly becoming the norm in Modi’s ‘new India’. Since 2010, 28 people have been killed in ‘cow-related violence’ and 63 other cases of violence have been registered in total.

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The vast majority of these incidents have taken place in states that are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party and have been targeted at Muslims and Dalits. Very often this violence is prompted by rumours, which spread like wildfire in an increasingly communally charged environment.

Junaid’s murder came as a shock to many because of where it took place. Delhi was assumed to be relatively sheltered from the wave of communal hatred that is otherwise engulfing large swathes of the country.

If a lynching could take place in the nation’s capital, then truly no place was safe anymore.

For me as well, Junaid’s killing was particularly distressing. It is has been 12 years since I spent an extended period of time in the country of my parents’ birth conducting my PhD research on Muslim insecurity in the area of Zakir Nagar — a Muslim-majority locality not far from where Junaid’s murderers boarded his train.

My research focused on the narratives of women in particular who spoke about their sense of marginalisation from the city and from the country as a whole as a result of repeated episodes of communal violence beginning with Partition and continuing till the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.

I wondered why Muslims would feel so insecure in a city that had itself not experienced large-scale communal violence since Partition with the exception of the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres. My research showed that despite the fact that actual incidents of large-scale violence may have been relatively few and far between, the reverberations of this violence could still be felt many years after the event and in places far away, and this contributed to a pervasive and growing sense of fear amongst Muslims, which led many to prefer living in Muslim-majority areas.

In-depth: How oppressed are Muslims in India?

At the same time, my research also demonstrated long-standing and deep bonds between people across religious boundaries. Women spoke about childhoods spent playing with Hindu neighbours and celebrating Diwali.

There was also a sense amongst the younger generation that, whilst insecurity lingered, things were getting better. Young people spoke about how their parents may have cheered for Pakistan during India-Pakistan cricket matches in the past, but they were staunch India supporters.

The new generation was confident that India was their country, and they were ready to claim their rightful place as full citizens.

While I concluded my research arguing that the marginalisation felt by Muslims was very real and that a general hardening of religious boundaries had taken place since the 1980s, I was also naively hopeful that I might be documenting the decline of communalism and of the Hindu Right in general.

The Congress Party was in power at the Centre, and although their record was far from spotless when it came to the manipulation of religious sentiments for political gain, they at least maintained a veneer of secularism, which provided some level of solace to religious minorities.

Few, including myself, could have imagined that less than a decade later, the man who many believe was the mastermind behind the Gujarat pogrom would become the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy.

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This followed by his seemingly unshakeable popularity and the election of other even more venomous politicians such as Yogi Adityanath seemed to be sounding the death knell of Indian secularism.

The nature of violence in India has evolved considerably. While the large-scale communal riots that took place throughout the 1980s and 90s have declined, religion and caste-based violence has in many ways become more pervasive and acceptable.

This is reflected in the media, with mainstream television personalities such as Arnab Goswami dominating the airwaves with their blatantly anti-Muslim rhetoric.

This is also reflected in social media, where average Hindus defend the killing of those who eat beef as justifiable.

All the while the government remains silent at best and laudatory at worst in response to the vigilantism of so-called ‘cow protectors’.

Of course these divisions were not created overnight. As my research and that of many other scholars has demonstrated, the roots of Hindu majoritarianism can be traced far back in Indian history to the period preceding Partition.

The seeds of this majoritarianism were not only present in the explicitly right-wing BJP but were also present in the rhetoric of the Congress Party. And alongside the bonds of cooperation and friendship between religious communities were also strands of resentment and distrust, which flared up periodically.

Modi did not create Hindu majoritarianism. He only stoked the embers that had been simmering in the Indian polity for several decades.

However, India is not exceptional; majoritarianism is not an exclusively Hindu malaise. Like twins separated at birth, India and Pakistan both continue to carry the same toxic ingredients within our countries’ DNA.

The only difference is that Pakistan is perhaps more blatant about its majoritarianism and has never claimed to be secular (despite those few lines from Jinnah’s speeches that may lead us to believe otherwise) while India has, at least in the past.

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If frenzied mobs are rallied to lynch supposed beef-eaters in India, similar mobs are rallied in Pakistan when they hear another b-word. The brutal murder of Mashal Khan was the latest in a long string of violent attacks of those suspected of blasphemy, again most often belonging to the country’s religious minorities.

And of course this rise in majoritarian, xenophobic politics is not exclusive to the Subcontinent alone. The last few years have demonstrated the growing appeal of right-wing majoritarianism in countries around the world with race, ethnicity and religion all being used as a means of creating fear and distrust between communities as a means of gaining political mileage.

The need of the hour in both India and Pakistan is to step back from reacting to each of these incidents in isolation and to instead think carefully about what in our shared history has produced this violence and why these exclusionary ideologies are gaining so much traction at this particular moment.

It is only through careful analysis and collective action that we will be able to overcome the wave of violent majoritarianism that is engulfing both of our countries at this time.


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