In the three months since Narendra Modi’s spectacular triumph, many corners of the country have begun to smoulder in slow fires of orchestrated hate and distrust against India’s Muslims and this is mostly unnoticed by the majority. Only a few violent episodes make it briefly to the front pages of the national Press and television news. But what is unseen is that cumulatively, many small communal skirmishes have contributed to a sustained but decentralised campaign of sectarian hate. This and the studied silence of the prime minister through all of this – except a welcome reference from the Red Fort – have created mounting disquiet and fear among the country’s largest minority.
The patterns are familiar. A multitude of ever-growing Hindu nationalist organisations – some mainstream, some fringe – deploy and refashion small local disputes to spur rage and suspicion against the Muslim people, each time reviving and fuelling old stereotypes. The manufactured flashpoints are also familiar: disputes over land for shrines and graveyards, an offending loudspeaker in a place of worship, charges of young Muslim men sexually harassing hapless Hindu women in a sinister campaign of ‘love jihad’, sometimes with the added twist of forced conversions, or cow slaughter.
In Muzaffarnagar, a murderous hot-headed clash following a motorcycle accident is converted into a story of stalking for love jihad. In Moradabad, Dalits in a Muslim majority town are instigated to install a loudspeaker on their shrine. In Saharanpur, an old and almost settled land dispute over the site of a gurudwara acquires a communal colour. In Meerut, an unfortunate young Hindu woman teacher in a madrassa who undergoes a late and unsafe abortion becomes the centre of murky charges of gang-rape and forced conversion. Allegations of cow slaughter lead to clashes in Udipi, Kathua and Loni. Even in Delhi, trucks are set ablaze alleging that they were transporting cows for slaughter.
In Mewat in Haryana, clashes break out after a truck driven by a Muslim runs over a motor-cycle killing two Hindu men. In Pithampur, Madhya Pradesh, a communal clash erupts from a dispute over a children’s cricket match. It is as though activists are hunting for any dispute which can be twisted and morphed to heighten communal tempers.
The internet becomes a handy tool for communal mobilisation. All across Maharashtra, from Pune to Nagpur, Aurangabad to Dhule, violence between communities breaks out after pictures insulting religious and political icons are posted on social networks, and rarely do enraged street warriors know or bother to know who actually posted the offending pictures. The attacks in Pune during the last week of May are particularly tragic. Activists of the Hindu Rashtra Sena armed with cricket bats, iron rods and daggers, run amok, damaging 250 buses, two madrassas (where children are studying at that time), two mosques, a graveyard, and a string of bakeries, hotels and shops owned by Muslims. Their rampage climaxes in the bludgeoning to death of a young man returning from his evening prayers, marked out as a Muslim by his beard and skull cap.
The culpability for each of these clashes lies with the communal organisations bent on fomenting animosities. But it is shared equally by the shamefully weak-kneed (or actively prejudiced) responses of the state and district administrations in these states, especially UP and Maharashtra. Each of these episodes could have been prevented or rapidly quelled, if only local officials had effectively publicly dispelled hate rumours and expeditiously arrested those who spread these falsehoods and organised violence.
However, blame also lies with the ruling central leadership. It is true that law and order is primarily the responsibility of state governments. But it is no secret that the BJP rose to power with active support of RSS cadres, and the adrenaline of their decisive victory has led them to feel emboldened to pursue even more vigorously their intensely divisive agendas. Raised on a staple diet of anti-Muslim propaganda, and encouraged further by the open deployment of these sentiments to reap a polarised vote in states like UP and Bihar, high-pitched communal tempers are not a genie which can be released and then pushed back into a bottle at will.
Matters are not helped when a young BJP leader with a proven record in fomenting such communal divides for rich electoral gains — in Gujarat first, and now in UP — is handpicked to lead the party. Even more disturbing is that these communal passions are being stirred precisely in those states and constituencies that go to polls in coming months. The ruling coalition further alienates Muslim people when a BJP MP on the floor of Parliament tells a Muslim MP to ‘go to Pakistan’, as though the country belongs any less to its many minorities. After characterising the millennium of Indian history when the majority of its rulers were Muslim as an era of slavery, the studied silence of the otherwise garrulous Prime Minister about these attacks is both deafening and ominous.
A sense of dread slowly therefore mounts almost invisibly over the country as communal tempers are cynically and perilously being overheated for a series of electoral harvests, and for drawing larger and larger sections of low-caste Hindus to stand with their upper-caste oppressors against the Muslim ‘other’, who is portrayed as their common enemy. The Congress, socialists and the Left are too dispirited to convincingly take to the battle. The struggle to preserve the idea of India has to be fought outside Parliament, by ordinary people, on the streets and in our homes, in places of worship and secular assembly, but most of all in the hearts of the young.
(Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies. The views expressed by the author are personal.)