In an age where “secular” is a contested word, the only way we can better our record of communal harmony is by standing up against hate
The 11th day of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat became one of unexpected confrontation and tension.
The Alwar district administration tried hard to persuade us to bypass Behror, where Pehlu Khan had been lynched on the highway. They did accept my request that we visit the Behror police station to ask the police a few tough questions about their investigations into the lynching. But they were resolute to not permit us to place flowers at the site where he was lynched by a violent mob. The district officers said mobs had gathered with stones to block our passage. I said I was prepared for it, and would not discard plans of a floral tribute.
I began to walk to the site, but the police physically blocked me. I then sat on the ground in a spontaneous dharna. They would have to either arrest me, or allow me to walk to the location and make my floral tribute. I sat for about half an hour, as they confabulated.
Finally they relented.
With two fistfuls of marigold flowers, and surrounded by a few police persons, I walked the couple of hundred yards to the spot where the ageing cattle trader had been cruelly lynched. It was a dirty, nondescript stretch of a sidewalk.
I knelt down, and said, “I am not a believer, so I cannot pray. But I believe in insaniyat aur insaaf — humanism and justice. Therefore, for humanism and justice, I place these flowers here. In memory not just of Pehlu Khan, but of hundreds of others like him who have fallen to hate violence across our land”.
The police bundled us rapidly into the bus. As we drove past, the protesting men threw a few stones at the bus. In the presence of the police, a bunch of young men arrived, tore down the banners and threw away the flowers. The police said they were helpless.
The Karwan bus now had police escort vehicles ahead and following it. A sad day when a caravan of love can travel only with the protection of the police. We don’t need protection; it is the bereaved families whom the police should protect, but it is them they fail so profoundly.
— An edited excerpt from my diary entry dated September 15, 2017
Many images will haunt us from the year we leave behind. Of a teenaged boy bearing Eid gifts stabbed more than 20 times on a train even as no one comes to his aid and he dies. Of another boy, just 14, his hand rocksteady as he records his uncle attacking, hacking and burning alive an unsuspecting man, a migrant worker, an innocent stranger. Of petrified dairy farmers pulled off pickups on busy highways by lynch mobs claiming to love cows. Of carol singers beaten and detained in a police lock-up like ordinary criminals. The new year inherits an India where hate attacks have become commonplace, almost normalised, in our social code of conduct. The few that have registered in the public consciousness are a tiny fraction of those that occurred.
To protest this violence, and to declare solidarity with victims of hate attacks, in September 2017, a few peace workers undertook what we called Karwan-e-Mohabbat or Caravan of Love. In our journey across eight States stretching from east to west — Assam, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Delhi, Western UP, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat — we met families of those killed or hurt in hate attacks, to seek forgiveness and share their suffering. Everywhere the Karwan went, we found minority communities living in fear, but resigned to accept hate attacks as normalised elements of everyday living. We met widows, mothers, fathers and children, numbed with incomprehension by the loathing and violence that snatched away their loved ones. We also witnessed profound and pervasive failures of compassion among local communities, a feeling that somehow their Muslim and Dalit neighbours deserved their cruel fate.
The narrative of hate
India Spend, a news data portal, found that 97 per cent of reported hate attacks in the name of the cow post 2010 occurred after Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected to office in 2014. About half the attacks were on Muslims, who also formed 86 per cent of the those persons killed in such attacks. The World Watch List 2017, put out annually by Open Doors, a community of Christians who come together to support persecuted believers in more than 60 countries, ranks countries on the severity of persecution against the community, has India at the 15th position when it came to religious freedom for minorities, a decline from the 31st spot four years ago.
It may be persuasively argued that there have been attacks on minorities in the past as well, in incidents of mass-targeted violence frequently described as communal riots through the decades post Independence. But, as I have often argued, these attacks, deadly and brutal, were still bound by geography and by time; they occurred in a particular area, had a beginning and an end. The current spate of lynching, by contrast, carries a different message, a warning that persons from the targeted community are now not safe anywhere, at any time. They can be attacked in their homes, on trains, on public roads, or at work.
Another troubling feature of many lynchings was their meticulous documentation by the perpetrators, the making of a ‘viral’ spectacle. In a horrifying incident at a busy market square in Ramgarh, Jharkhand, a mob stopped the car of a Muslim man. A huge pile of red meat — the size of a cow — appeared on the street, with the mob claiming they ‘seized’ it from the car. The proceedings thereon, the laughing faces of the attackers as they beat the man to death, were filmed. The videos were uploaded even as he was being lynched and his car torched. Among those who received the video was the man’s young son.
When lynching becomes public entertainment, it signals that the perpetrators consider hate attacks to be righteous acts of masculine valour. Secondly, they feel assured of their impunity, even when their faces appear in the videos. Finally, it communicates a fearsome message to the targeted community, as the victim implores vainly for his life, about the community’s status in a new triumphantly majoritarian India.
The price of silence
Hate thrives with more impunity than ever before. There were reservoirs of hate, no doubt, suppressed in many hearts, but it is the current political environment and discourse of the country’s political leadership, that have allowed these to be legitimised and stirred to the ugly levels. In this age of mute spectator ship and feigned helplessness, resistance and dissent have become our highest public obligation.
Prime Minister Modi speaks of progress, of sanitation, of the Opposition’s corruption, and of ‘development’ or ‘vikas’. But most hate attacks on Muslims are never publicly condemned by Modi, who is otherwise extremely articulate on Twitter and during his regular public addresses. The comments of his party colleaguesarticulating venom against the country’s minorities go unchecked.
Spirited and vocal dissent against ideologies of hate has become central to secure India’s vulnerable populations, as well as the idea of India. However, the climate is such that any dissent is dubbed to be an act against the nation. And even more dangerously, dissent is attacked with viciousness, combining invective and threats. These range from tax notices, defamation suits, coercive law suits, and withdrawal of state support to establishments, to online and offline abuse (such as the forceful shutting down of the Humans of Hindutva Facebook page) and even questioning their love for the country (as with the Delhi student Gurmehar Kaur).
Hopes for 2018
And yet, we must welcome 2018 with hope. We must together make this a year in which we fight back, to reclaim the idea of India as humane and inclusive. It must be a year of resistance with dissent and solidarity, and with hope. While large sections of civil society, India’s intellectuals and artistes, and the mainstream media in the face of the sustained onslaught on free speech and dissent have allowed themselves to be incorporated into supporting the ruling establishment and its anti-minority (and big business-friendly) ideology, there still remain voices that have not allowed themselves to be silenced. Young people in universities are stirring. A few mainstream media houses still allocate editorial space or screen time for liberal and progressive voices. And then, of course, there is the open and democratic space of the internet; we have independent and assertive online portals that are willing to brave defamation suits and financial intimidation.
I derive hope also from the sardonic dark humour that fills the internet. Barely a day passes without stand-up comedians, singers, and ordinary people calling out — with savage wit and satire — the ideology of hate, deliberate untruths, and anti-poor policies.
Most political parties seem to operate on the belief that the majority of Hindus have become antagonistic to their Muslim and Christian sisters and brothers, and have turned their back to the ideas of secular democracy, love and solidarity. I don’t believe this is true. And even if it was, the duty of principled democratic politics is to bridge and heal divides rather than foster them.
I could take heart from the first speech by Rahul Gandhi after he took over as the president of the Indian National Congress in December. He described the political narrative of the BJP as the inflammatory politics of hate. The Congress, by contrast, he said, would be an instrument for people of every religion and caste to dialogue with love. “They divide, we unite,” he declared. “They ignite fires, we douse them. They show anger, we show love.” He spoke of his resolve to fight the BJP’s “politics devoid of kindness and truth… where people are butchered for who they are, beaten for what they believe and killed for what they eat”. I worry, however, because during the election campaign in Gujarat, he chose to be silent about the hate attacks and intimidation to which Muslims had been subjected. Among the candidates who fought the Gujarat elections, it was only Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani who openly spoke of the fear, isolation and injustice endured by the Muslims of the State, and called for the solidarity of all oppressed castes and communities.
There is far more heartening resistance in the underbelly of India, outside political parties, beyond Parliament, than we give credit to. A spontaneous medley of protests that were held in many cities across the country under the banner ‘Not in My Name’ is reason enough for hope. The Karwan-e-Mohabbat will continue in 2018, travelling to one State every month to visit families hit by hate violence, in the hope that spontaneous resistance will help revive a public conscience that will be stirred to act as a natural defence against the idea of hate.
In 2018, I believe our greatest, hardest battle will have to be with the bystander. Within ourselves. We need to interrogate the reasons for our silences, for our failures to speak out, and to intervene, when murderous hate is unleashed on innocent lives. We need our conscience to ache. We need it to be burdened intolerably. It will take a generation, maybe even longer, to mend the tears in our social fabric. But we must begin now and make 2018 our year of healing.