The country is once again dangerously adrift in a stormy sea of competitive hate politics. The signs are both ominous and familiar — the systematic creation of hatred against people because of their ethnicity or religion; rumours and hate propaganda choking the internet; the public moral justification of violence against targeted communities on grounds of ‘larger’ alleged wrongs; and weak-kneed State action against people and organisations which preach hate and organise slaughter and arson.
In what is probably the largest displacement of human populations by hate violence after Partition, four lakh Bengali Muslim and Bodo people are driven away from their homelands after attacks and the burning of their villages. They are living fearfully in cramped makeshift relief camps. In Mumbai, mobs protesting the Assam attacks and slaughter of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, run amuck, criminally set aflame public property and attack media and police personnel. Rumours of retaliatory attacks by Muslims against people from North-east India in many southern cities have led to a panic exodus of migrant students and workers.
In district towns in which I have worked, I observed during the 1980s how dedicated communal organisations skilfully spread rumours, which manufacture hatred locally and provoke communal attacks. But hate propagandists are today equipped with sleek new vehicles of cyberspace and mobile phone technology, which they deploy to transport provocative falsehoods, rumours and emotive messages of hate across the country — and indeed across the world. These recast people of different ethnic or religious identities as the dangerous ‘other’, and foment suspicion, dread and loathing against them. Morphed pictures of bloody corpses near robed Buddhist monks in Myanmar, circulated through the internet and mobile phones, provoked protestors who gathered in Mumbai. Messages claiming that people from the North-east would be attacked in retaliation for the killings in Assam led to their panic exodus.
Even more hazardous is the creation of an alternative moral universe in which violent attacks on people of specified communities is accepted as defensible, even justified. The underlying ethical assumption is that it is acceptable to physically attack people who belong to a community which has committed a real or perceived wrong. The same rationale was meted out for the slaughter of Sikhs in 1984, ‘understandable’ anger against all Sikhs because two Sikh bodyguards murdered Indira Gandhi. Even today I hear people say that the carnage against Gujarati Muslims in 2002 was a natural outcome of spontaneous mass anger because Muslims allegedly burned the train and killed pilgrims in Godhra. The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the years of violence which accompanied it were explained by warranted anger because Muslims had demolished temples in medieval times. Whenever Christians are attacked, people immediately speak of missionary ‘conversions’, as though this in any way is cause for the killing of Christians.
In Assam, the violence of indigenous Assamese against the Bengali Muslim community is described by leaders of the BJP, All Assam Students Union and the Sangh organisations as righteous anger against ‘outsiders’. Economic refugees are emotively described as ‘infiltrators’ from Bangladesh, and although scholars estimate that only around 10% of the Bengali Muslims in Assam are illegal residents, by implication the attacks and ethnic cleansing of the entire community is rationalised. Likewise, radicalised Islamist leaders use persecution of Muslims to provoke and justify mindless violence of the kind witnessed in Mumbai.
It is long overdue that the people of this vast diverse nation affirm that nothing — nothing — can justify the shedding of blood of even a single person, or sexual assault, or the burning of her properties, for no reason except that she belongs to the religious or ethnic community of a perceived wrong-doer. We cannot be selective in our espousal of non-violence, democracy and rule of law. If, for instance, we believe that there are illegal residents in Assam, the only legitimate demand is not mass violence and ethnic cleansing, but for due process of law to identify the illegal residents and if proved to return them to their homeland.
This clouded moral universe is further blurred by compromised or weak-kneed political and administrative leadership, which fails to uphold the equal rights of all persons, regardless of their faith, caste or ethnic identity. In Assam, the government entered into an accord with the Bodos for autonomy in Bodo-dominated areas. Bodo militants drove out Santhal descendants of tea plantation workers and Bengali Muslims in successive waves of attacks since 1993, and 1.75 lakh displaced people continue to live even today in refugee camps, for nearly two decades. The government did nothing to restore these displaced people to their homelands, and thereby incentivised ethnic cleansing. It is terrifying to consider the destinies of people now in fresh camps, if they, too, are not firmly assisted by a fair and caring state to return to their villages.
But amid these storm clouds, hope still shines through. In a blog, Siddharthya Roy reports a meeting called by the Police Commissioner of Pune regarding the fear exodus of Northeastern people. He reports that the hall was full of Muslim people who unequivocally said ‘my home is open for them’. A maulvi mourned that 30 Assamese workers cleaned and repaired the old Masjid, left suddenly yesterday. “How am I to celebrate Eid without them?” The Mufti said, “If you receive an SMS that tells you to get angry about what’s happened in Assam, delete it. We will not fight battles in the name of Assam in Pune.”
In Bangalore, Akbar Ali, convener of the Muslim Welfare Association appealed to people from the North-east who were fleeing the city, “Those who feel unsafe in their homes are welcome to come to our homes and mosques to take shelter. We will protect you, but please do not leave the city. It is your city as much as ours.”
Harsh Mander is a member of the National Advisory Council
The views expressed by the author are personal