In mid-1998, I made my first solo train trip to Kerala in South India from Delhi. I was in a reserved sleeper class, the train had pulled up in Pune, and it was late evening. I’d just finished my dinner and was preparing my bed on the upper berth when we heard a loud trumpet of bum bum bole, followed by the clatter of footsteps of people boarding the train. It was a mob of Shiv Sena, a far-right regional political party, who, in their saffron attires, and with some carrying trishuls, emboldened one another to grab not only the empty seats but also the ones that were occupied.
A mob can infuse dread in anyone: their terror is synonymous with terrorism, only that their ideology isn’t firmer or clearer yet to push them into taking their own lives, as happens in terrorist killings; plus, the fear of the law softens some of their fury. I was lucky that no sainik wanted a share of my seat, but not everyone was as fortunate. The passengers who happened to be in the toilet then, lost a good percentage of their seat space when they returned; and those who protested, received some choicest local Marathi abuse. Shiv Sena was running the state of Maharashtra in an alliance with BJP, which is the ruling party of the Indian government now.
It was a mob of RSS – a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization – and VHP, its outfit, that demolished Babri Masjid five years earlier in Uttar Pradesh, and it was the same mob that was active during Gujarat riots three years later. These fiendish events, etched into our collective memories, had resulted in deaths then and in the aftermath, when sorrow and revulsion were the feelings shared by both communities. A mob pattern was emerging which – with the tacit approval of the states, BJP-ruled in the above two cases – attempted to assert that India is a Hindu nation (almost 80% are Hindus) and the minorities, especially Muslims (14% follow Islam), should know this.
It’s been almost 18 months since the BJP came to power. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been travelling the world, talking of investments, and talking Mann ki Baat on radio. He was given a grand welcome by several Heads of States, NRIs, and the media overseas, until a journalist in London asked him about the climate of intolerance in India. His response was confident that India is a land of Buddha and Gandhi and that her culture wouldn’t accept anything that is against the basic social values. Two months prior, a Muslim man was wrongly suspected of having beef in his fridge. A mob barged into his house and lynched him to death. This was amidst the frenzy of beef ban the BJP-ruled states were imposing, the monitoring and implementation of which was leased to the religious zealots who became the mob on the ground.
Cow-reverence being a practice in Hinduism, has a political history to it. In the book “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” the author writes: “The first agitation over cow slaughter in the Raj took place in the Sikh state of the Punjab where cow slaughter had been a capital offense right up to the moment when the British took over…In 1888, a British court in Allahabad ruled that a cow was not a sacred object, that Muslims who slaughtered cows could not be held to have insulted the religion of the Hindus, and that police were to protect Muslims who wanted to slaughter cows…At the Bakr-Id festival of 1893, riots broke out involving the entire Hindu population of villages, and thousands of people attacked Muslims…Cows continued to provide a lightning rod for communal violence from then until the present day.”
Modi’s condemnation of the lynching wasn’t specific, as he appeared to restrain himself. Agreed, this happened in Uttar Pradesh where SP, a regional party, was ruling, but a local BJP senior justified the mob’s action. Besides, the Prime Minister hasn’t reprimanded the likes of Yogi Adityanath and Sangeet Som, the party hardliners. His limited reaction to their polarizing statements has been vague; and his party unleashed fingers at other parties’ hardliners, including a Muslim political party that threatened to unleash bloodbath against Hindus.
The truth is, if the PM – who has the people’s mandate – doesn’t nip the Hindu fringe in the bud, the impression he leaves is that he’s in agreement with them and that this is part of a conspiracy theory.
Since India’s independence from the British, the Congress party has ruled the country for six decades. The 42nd amendment of the Constitution of India, enacted in 1976, asserted India’s secular identity. The state has to enforce religious laws instead of parliamentary laws, and respect pluralism; whereas in the West, the concept of Secularism envisions a separation of religion and state. Congress has long shown a contrived secularism mindset, which their opposition contests can best be construed as minority appeasement. Six decades is a long period for generation after generation of Indians to have faith, though shaky at times, in the secular fabric of the country.
There were communal riots under Congress’ rule and though, the party has had no alliances with religious fundamentalist groups, it failed to prevent the riots or maintain peace. What perhaps worked for them was that if a communal fire was lit somewhere, the top leader of the party, more often than not, would address the nation condemning the riots, appearing to do the right thing. In retrospect, this looked more like the appeasement of both sides for political survival than an effort to bridge the religious divide.
In my growing up years, I have heard not only Hindi-Chini bhai bhai, but also Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai. Congress’ minority appeasement politics, the BJP has long said, took the majority for granted. The vengeful BJP is now reversing the trend: appease the majority and take the minority for granted. The danger of doing this, which the BJP ignores, is that majority of Hindus don’t want to take their religion seriously: at least not serious enough to consider other religions inferior. The recent BJP debacle in Bihar elections was an eye-opener for the party.
Now: if the seed of conspiracy has been sown at all by RSS/BJP, it’s not working — because as I said above, Congress’ rule has prepared a comfortable secular mattress to sleep on for the majority of us, and our genetic code is peace-personified to begin with. However, if the theory blooms, it’ll take decades for the majority of Hindus to have an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder about Hinduism, and the OCD once diagnosed may only be to countervail Muslims’ obsession with Islam. How secular or communal we will then be, only time can tell.
Intolerance has been the darling word of the media for some time now, often used against the Hindus in matters of religion to favor the Muslims. However, if a Muslim family refuses to stand up while the rest of the crowd does when the national anthem is being played in a theater in Mumbai, it calls attention to their strange conduct. The government guidelines say that one must stand up when the national anthem is played or sung; the crowd that stood up in the theater might also have Muslims among them. The crowd’s jingoistic bullying of the family to ensure they leave the theater, wasn’t perhaps as harsh as the family’s intolerance to the anthem. Media may want to coin the use of intolerance both ways to bring balance and depth to debates.
Recently, Aamir Khan, a famous Indian actor, expressed his views that there was intolerance in India and that his wife was scared to live in the country. There was an immediate backlash and people reviled him. Several reactions flooded the internet including that he became a superstar because majority of Hindus had paid money to watch his films, and that he’d played a “Hindu” good guy killing a “Muslim” bad guy in a movie.
Let’s look at this in the right perspective: Aamir Khan was born a Muslim. He’s free to follow his religion and verbalize his thoughts. He became the fall guy, however, going from the one who beat up the Muslim bad man to the beaten one himself. Was the problem with Aamir Khan or with people who’d adored his films? Had they expected Aamir to extend his reel characters on to his real life? Was there an implicit agreement between the ticket paying majority and him that they’d watch his movies only if he never spoke his mind? His speaking his mind doesn’t make him a Pakistani. And the loud cry now to boycott his future films? Well, the majority will still flock to the theaters to watch him; the fringe minority will continue to burn his effigies outside.
We are in a democracy, not theocracy.
The Prime Minister was on the cover of Time with paragraphs chronicling how he’s the dynamic leader of a vibrant democracy. I have personally experienced a transformation here as people look at Indians with a lot more respect. Though India’s economic growth was talked about in the West under Manmohan Singh’s government, Modi is touring the talk, and his broader objective is development indeed. His vision appears to be that of an India where each citizen is strong and self-reliant; also, where Hindutva’s representation of cultural nationalism is understood not as an attempt to get a Hindu nationhood, but rather to attract all of the communities under one mainstream fold. But, could the development agenda mask for now, or eradicate for ever, the communal agenda? As things stand now, he only knows his Mann ki Baat.
When the train departed Pune that night, I wasn’t looking forward to a sound sleep, as loud lullabies of bum bum bole reverberated through the compartment. A Shiv Sainik who seemed comfortable under a white sheet, grinned at me from the opposite upper berth. When I asked him if he really was a Shiv-bhakth, his response was abrupt: “You pay me Rs. 50 and I’ll become Krishna-bhakth, Ram-bhakth or any bhakth.’ He smirked, then continued, “We make more money as sainiks than as laborers, you see, and we don’t have to carry weights.”