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Our Hindu rashtra

Whether in Delhi or the states, the Congress or the BJP, secular India is gradually coming apart. The nation is being remade. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Feb 14, 2013 01:16 IST

'Arre, we Muslims did not run to Pakistan… this country was ours, it is ours, it will stay ours… if we go, we will not go empty handed. We will take the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the Qutb Minar. What will be left? That broken-down Ram temple in Ayodhya, the naked statues of Ajanta… Oh Hindustan, we are 25 crore, you are 100 crore, right? Okay, remove the police for 15 minutes and we'll show you who has more courage, more power.'

Akbaruddin Owaisi, 43 year old, who delivered this speech on December 22, 2011, in the town of Nirmal, Andhra Pradesh, is now in jail, pending trial on charges that include promoting enmity among different groups and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings.

A similar police case was made out against a certain 56-year-old Pravin Togadia after he had this to say in Jammu and Kashmir's Rajouri district on March 6, 2011: "If today anyone demands a Pakistan on this land, the response will come from lakhs of villages, as it came from hundreds of Gujarati villages after Godhra… the security of Hindus in Srinagar is not Srinagar, it is the power of 100 crore Hindus across India."

As with Owaisi, oncologist Pravin Togadia's speech is mesmeric: A calm, gentle voice that gradually rises to a screaming crescendo; the eyes bulge with anger, the fore-finger waggles violently.

Confident democracies tend to disregard demagogues. But volatile, insecure India has clear laws against hate speech. The problem is it displays selective application of those laws. So, Owaisi, MLA and floor leader of his party, the Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen, was arrested. Togadia, the president of the VHP, has never been. The latest case against Togadia - for another hate speech in Maharashtra's Nanded district on January 22, in reaction to Owaisi's rant - was reluctantly registered by the local police.

It is not strange that a hate-monger from the fringes - though I am no longer sure how fringe he is - of Hinduism escapes legal action in a state ruled by a supposedly secular coalition of the Congress and NCP. The coalition's time in power is marked by several hardline actions, including ignoring the virulence and violence of the Senas.

There are two reasons why the Congress-NCP coalition often makes a hard, turn right, an ideology that increasingly appears to focus on anti-Muslim acts. One, India's Grand Old Party knows the state is only a grasp away from its nakedly pro-Hindu rivals, the BJP-Shiv Sena combine, and so it prefers to kowtow rather than confront. Two, the society it governs and the government machinery it runs is gradually veering towards hardline Hinduism. This is how local officers arrested two college girls for 'liking' a comment against the Shiv Sena on Facebook. This is why police, aiming for the body, shot dead only Muslims during religious riots in the town of Dhule. Six policemen were arrested last week only after videos showed them vandalising Muslim property.

In Delhi, the Congress - aware that India is increasingly less disturbed by selective justice - pushed through the execution of a man for reasons allied with his religion. Mohammad Afzal Guru had to die to soothe India's "collective conscience", as the Supreme Court put it. That conscience does not appear to be particularly exercised by the unrepentant Tamil Hindu assassins of India's late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sikh assassin of the late Punjab chief minister Beant Singh.

Police forces, whether in Congress-ruled AP, Maharashtra, Assam or Delhi, or BJP-ruled Gujarat or Karnataka, are increasingly communalised. This is illustrated not only by numerous partisan actions against minorities - during recent riots in small towns and terror investigations - but by a visible, creeping Hinduisation of police forces. In Mumbai, many patrol vans now carry images of Hindu deities; in Bangalore, policemen routinely report for work with vermilion on their foreheads.

Education syllabi in schools and colleges across BJP-ruled states have steadily been infused with right-wing ideologies. In Karnataka, new school text books are prepared in as much secrecy as shrouded Afzal Guru's hanging.

India's vocal public conscience unapologetically feeds hardline stances. There is no concern at the collective punishment meted out to the people of Muslim-majority Kashmir. As I write this, curfew continues in Kashmir, five days after Guru's hanging. An attack in New Delhi on protesting Kashmiri students, including women, by Bajrang Dal activists in the presence of police, found little resonance in the mass media.

Television channels, even those considered liberal, feel forced to take ever harder, 'nationalist' stances. As the editor of one national channel once told me: "What to do boss, this is what the public wants."

While there are certainly ill-winds ahead for a democracy that cannot tolerate peaceful protest and is selective about its conscience, there are portents of a storm-surge of greater hate ahead, enough to overwhelm the secular foundations of the republic.

The increasingly anti-Muslim tone of the evolving Hindu identity is finding an opposite response. On India's economic ladder, Muslims are near the bottom, roughly on a par with Dalits and tribals. "The Muslims of India seem to suffer from an unprecedented marginalisation process," write scholars Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurent Gayer in their new book, Muslims in Indian Cities. They are falling behind on economic, social and political indicators and are possessed of a siege mentality, which worsens whenever Muslims are arrested - often wrongly, as a slew of recent acquittals indicate - as terror suspects. In conversations I've had with some angry, young Muslims, they mock secularism for having failed them.

Like Hindus, many Muslims are susceptible to the call of warped, hardline religion, in this case the global brand called Salafism. One manifestation: The hordes that groped police woman and vandalised a martyrs memorial in Mumbai last August.

Many opponents of the BJP's prime ministerial hopeful, Narendra Modi, fear a remaking of secular India if he comes to power. That process has already begun.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal