RELIGIOUS bigotry has official sanction in the new India. It is fashionable in saffron circles and common among the middle class. The common refrain is that India is a Hindu country and finally the majority community need not be apologetic any more about it. Brazen bigotry is the zeitgeist of the ruling Hindu right-wing BJP, whose icons, such as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, openly trash secularism and want those who introduced the concept in independent India to be penalised.
Hate crimes are fine, too, in the new India. Crimes that are committed against Muslims for the way they dress and look, the food they eat and for the work that they do. Sometimes the targets are also the Dalits (considered untouchable by caste-bound Hindus) just as the Roma were the other target of the Nazis after the Jews. Muslim cattle traders and dairy farmers are periodically lynched in the name of cow protection and the gruesome murders, committed often in broad daylight, are recorded in videos and boastfully posted on social media where unbridled majoritarianism is celebrated in offensive language and images. If the lynchings are part of a systematic plan to deprive Muslims of one of their remaining avenues of traditional livelihood, the overall message being conveyed is that they are not equal citizens.
But citizenship is under serious threat. In Assam, nearly 90,000 Muslims have been declared illegal immigrants and 2,000 others have been locked up in detention camps in a tragedy that has largely gone under the radar. Thousands of others — most of those arrested are poor labourers — are running from pillar to post trying to prove their bona fides. Illegal immigration and the ‘Muslim’ question has been a long-festering issue in Assam but the drive to arrest and deport ‘foreigners’ got fresh impetus after the BJP came to power for the first time in May last year.
Muslims are on notice that their life, livelihood and religious freedom are not secure.
The exercise to arrest and deport Muslims termed Bangladeshis is “one of the world’s largest efforts at disenfranchisement”, according to IndiaSpend, a data journalism website which investigated the issue. It said hundreds of crores of rupees and over 100,000 staff were being deployed to weed out ‘doubtful Muslims’ or ‘Bangladeshis’. Harassment to prove citizenship is widespread and even a retired soldier who had been in the India Army for 30 years has not been spared.
In its treatment of minorities, the BJP has drawn its ideas from its parent organisation, the RSS. And the RSS viewpoint mirrors the two-nation philosophy of conservative Muslim ideologues who propagated the concept of zimmi, which treats religious minorities as second-class citizens — zimmis, or the protected, who would enjoy property and contractual rights and be subjected to their community laws but not enjoy some of the political rights allowed to Muslim citizens.
M.S. Golwalkar, the most influential chief of the RSS whose ideas inspire Prime Minister Narendra Modi, goes a step further to say that rights of the foreign races as he termed the minorities should be strictly circumscribed. Golwalkar declares that “they must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen’s rights”.
Last week, as India marked the 25th anniversary of the demolition of the mediaeval-era Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the first shrewdly orchestrated mass movement to assert Hindu supremacy and put Muslims in their place, it was clear that BJP have come audaciously close to implementing Golwalkar’s agenda. The trajectory has been more sharply etched in the three years since the Modi regime came to power.
Bigotry under the new dispensation is impervious to either parliamentary etiquette as the unseemly attack on the outgoing Vice President Hamid Ansari showed or even judicial circumspection. Judges after all are human and as prone to prejudice as anyone else as Bombay High Court judge Mridula Bhatkar revealed when granting bail to men accused of beating a young Muslim man Mohsin Sheikh to death in Pune. She said they had been ‘provoked’ by his religion. Her order which did not dispute the prosecution’s claim that the men had been identified as the assailants makes for chilling reading. “The accused had no other motive such as any personal enmity against the innocent deceased Mohsin. The fault of the deceased was only that he belonged to another religion. I consider this factor in favour of the accused. Moreover, the accused have no criminal record and it appears in the name of the religion they were provoked and have committed the murder.”
In other words, there is always an excuse for religious hate crimes. Mohsin was killed in 2014 soon after the BJP came to power with a sweeping majority. It turns out the killers had been primed by the leader of the Hindu Rashtra Sena, one of the countless extremist Hindu organisations that have sprung up, to wage war on Muslims and to create terror in the area. The Pune case reflects a more widespread bigotry against the minorities or Dalits in which identified assailants are either let off by the police or whose actions are justified by the political establishment. For flagging concerns over such divisive and discriminatory trends, outgoing Vice President Hamid Ansari was mocked by someone no less than the prime minister for what were termed his “core beliefs” and his leaning towards “certain circles”. Modi was referring to Ansari’s career as a diplomat, mostly in West Asian countries and to the fact that he had been vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University.
What Ansari had highlighted during a convocation address was that India has become “a polity at war with itself in which the process of emotional integration has faltered and is in dire need of reinvigoration”. He suggested that measures should be taken to assuage the heightened insecurity amongst segments of the citizenry, “particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians”.
But bigotry does not like a light being shined on its darkest corners.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.
Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2017