Old ghosts have a way of re-appearing. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has warned senior police officers that the communal situation has become dangerous and "miscreants" are using social media to provoke religious hostility between communities. The Assam riots and the subsequent exodus showed that the phantoms of religious polarisation are stalking us once again.
It was social media and bulk SMSes that led to the exodus of thousands of North-easterners from metros. There is constant outrage at 'Muslim appeasement' among 'nationalist Hindus' on social media. Social media also disseminated morphed images that contributed to almost 20,000 Muslims congregating in Mumbai's Azad Maidan. Clearly, the role of social media in mobilising thousands and whipping up extreme religious sentiments, particularly among the youth, cannot be ignored.
Now a terror plot, supposedly centred in Bangalore, has led to the arrests of 17 young Muslim men, among them a journalist, a chartered accountant and a Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) employee. One of them apparently plotted to kill a 'Hindu right-wing' journalist active on Twitter. Already in Bareilly, there have been five communal riots in 75 days. The All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi has spoken of a "third wave of radicalisation" of Muslims. Praveen Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has written to the PM saying Rohingya Muslims have "infiltrated" up to New Delhi with the help of local Muslims.
As a high-stakes general election draws near, on both sides of the religious divide, those who see political gain in religious polarisation may just be getting active again. Muslim rage and Hindu hate are feeding off each other. As mirrored in social media, there is competitive radicalisation of youths in both communities. Fringe groups, spoiling for street battles, are waiting for opportunities.
These are assertive angry times. As the economy contracts, the potential for massive social turmoil increases and the appeal of religious hotheads grows. The law has punished Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi for their role in the Gujarat riots, but the sad reality of Gujarati society as written about insightfully by Vadodara-based academic JS Bandukwala is a total lack of any reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims, ghettoisation, continuation of hatred and prejudice, in fact a religious apartheid.
The Hindu-Muslim relationship desperately craves a modern new direction, away from both the language of quotas and the language of conflict. 'Appeasement' and 'communalism' are words born in the last century.
Muslim victimhood drags at the feet of the community, bringing protestors out in thousands only against attacks on religious identity. Leadership by clerics has meant that there are no similarly passionate agitations against educational backwardness or plight of women. A perpetual sense of separateness means that Muslims have not yet built alliances with other minorities.
To not see the Muslims-in-India glass as half full, to fail to recognise a growing secularised ethos in which even Hindu nationalists will confess to being fans of Shah Rukh Khan, is to ignore the many small successes of secular India.
Yet, a modern political leadership that shuns quotas on the one hand and extremist rhetoric on the other, is still missing. The fact that the Congress's promise of 9% Muslim sub-quota brought no rewards in the UP polls shows that quota politics may be exhausted. Just as quota politics needs to end, politics of prejudice needs to be junked too. Although it claims to have already done so, the BJP needs to give up on identity politics. In a fast-changing world, slogans of 'minority appeasement' will anyway soon pass their sell-by date.
The BJP must now become a secular conservative movement like Britain has. This means locating right-wing ideology not in religion but in a movement that favours fiscal consolidation, encourages individual responsibility, supports private investment and generally believes that there should be less government involvement in all walks of life. Rising above identity politics, this movement should differentiate itself from a left-of-centre, subsidies inclined Congress and bury its 'Babur ki aulad' complex. Mohan Bhagwat recently said that the RSS is not the HR manager of the BJP; but the RSS is the guiding force of the Sangh whose cadres and foot soldiers (if not leaders) still mobilise primarily on an anti-Muslim platform and historical vendettas against Islam.
Trapped in the politics of quotas or the communal riot, politicians are not inclined to provide any leadership on how the Hindu-Muslim relationship can be managed in a situation of competitive assertiveness in a new India. The two main political parties still define their identities not on competing visions of governance but on sectarian stances on minorities. For them minorities remain a cultural/ideological issue, not a governance issue centred on justice and impartiality from police and judiciary. Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi's assertion that the state's Muslim population is growing because Muslims breed more than Hindus, shows that politicians do not have a new vision of co-existence.
Politicians will fight their narrow battles, but as a society we need to take the lead in staring down the bloodthirsty ghosts that regularly haunt us. The Hindutva movement has undoubtedly forced a welcome re-think on 'official secularism'. Argument and counter-argument about the uniform civil code, Kashmir and Babri Masjid are by no means settled. Former Bengal cop Nazrul Islam's book Musalman der karaniya (What Should The Muslims Do) may have become controversial. Yet, it is precisely a fearless open debate, free of mutual suspicion,that will keep religious hatred at bay.
Religious pride may be increasing on both sides but 'proud Muslims' and 'proud Hindus' of India must make a common covenant with modernity. They must refuse to be provoked by divisive campaigns and be unafraid to re-start the Hindu-Muslim dialogue as argumentative Indians. For this, the Hindu must first shed his prejudice, and the Muslim his anger.
Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal