What the communal flare-ups manifest - Hindustan Times
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What the communal flare-ups manifest

Apr 21, 2022 05:58 PM IST

A deliberate attempt is being made to find polarising issues aimed at othering Muslims — hijab, halal meat, azaan, the list is growing

You can get quite far in a democracy if you can convince a majority that they are victims of a minority, and that only you can protect them, Garry Kasparov said once. The chess legend was referring to America in 2016, but a striking parallel can be drawn with India in 2022. Just look at the toxic narrative playing out in the aftermath of a week of bruising communal flare-ups across more than half-a-dozen states: Viral videos of Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti processions being pelted with stones have fed into an ominous storyline of “Hindus as victims” of a violent minority which must be “taught a lesson”.

The aggressive celebrations of Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti are meant to send out an unambiguous message that Hindu cultural revivalism is now an unstoppable force (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
The aggressive celebrations of Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti are meant to send out an unambiguous message that Hindu cultural revivalism is now an unstoppable force (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

You can get quite far in a democracy if you can convince a majority that they are victims of a minority, and that only you can protect them, Garry Kasparov said once. The chess legend was referring to America in 2016, but a striking parallel can be drawn with India in 2022. Just look at the toxic narrative playing out in the aftermath of a week of bruising communal flare-ups across more than half-a-dozen states: Viral videos of Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti processions being pelted with stones have fed into an ominous storyline of “Hindus as victims” of a violent minority which must be “taught a lesson”.

The truth is somewhat more complicated: Religious processions marked by abusive sloganeering and open threats from Hindutva groups being confronted by angry Islamist sections threaten to wreck Narendra Modi’s well-spun “new” India dream of “sabka saath, sabka vikas [inclusive development for all]”. The chickens have come home to roost from years of “normalising” hate politics with the so-called “fringe” now firmly and truly mainstream.

The geographical arc of violence is revealing, having spread from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat through Opposition-ruled states such as Rajasthan, Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand to the national capital where the police report to the Union home ministry. In BJP-ruled states, there is an election on the horizon as there is in Congress-ruled Rajasthan while Delhi too is poised to hold a crucial municipal election later this year. This may partly explain a rise in the communal temperature and resurgence in divide-and-rule politics.

A deliberate attempt is being made to find polarising issues aimed at othering Muslims — hijab, halal meat, azaan, the list is growing. Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor has dubbed these as weapons of mass distraction, designed to keep the communal pot boiling to divert the public mind from the deepening crisis of falling incomes and rising prices.

Tharoor may be right, but only up to a point. Because the religio-cultural war that lies at the heart of the Sangh parivar’s Hindu rashtra mission has been ascendant for a while. If anything, eight years in power have convinced many Hindutva zealots that the time to strike has come. The stunning victory in the key state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), where chief minister (CM) Yogi Adityanath has emerged as a strident Hindutva icon, may have emboldened the Sangh leadership. When Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat boasts of an Akhand Bharat vision being realised with a “heavy stick” within the next 15 years, he is only reaffirming an enduring fantasy of a unified Hindu supremacist subcontinent.

The aggressive celebrations of Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti with a warrior-like display of weaponry are part of this playbook, meant to send out an unambiguous message that Hindu cultural revivalism is now an unstoppable force. In the late 19th century, Lokmanya Tilak recast Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations into a mass public event to unify society against British colonial rule. In the 21st century, the saffron brotherhood wants to use Ram and Hanuman as symbols of religious machismo that go well beyond traditional rituals of prayer and devotion. What else explains playing loud DJ music outside mosques during a Ram Navami procession? The signalling is clear: If Muslims are allowed loudspeakers for azaan, Hindutva groups will assert their identity by blaring songs with an even greater frenzy in Muslim-dominated mohallas.

This tit-for-tat militant religious politics are lifelines for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal. Having played a crucial role in the early years of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that first propelled the BJP into national prominence, these Hindutva foot soldiers have felt marginalised by the relentless Modi election juggernaut. Now, they seek their moment in the arclights, unhindered by any legal or governance constraints.

The impunity of their actions in recent times — be it organising hate-spewing dharam sansads, spearheading violent gau-rakshak movements or commanding divisive love jihad campaigns — are aimed at resurrecting their political equity in the crowded Hindutva marketplace. That the VHP-Bajrang Dal chose to defiantly go ahead with a shobha yatra on Hanuman Jayanti in Delhi, despite not having police permission, stems from their conviction that their benefactors in power will ultimately protect their interests.

Polarising election campaigns haven’t helped — and only served to reinforce the perception that demonising minorities has the top leadership’s tacit endorsement. Nor can a heavily compromised police force read the riot act to those rabble-rousers who are well-connected to a hyper-partisan regime. So much easier then for State authorities to sidestep due process and bulldoze the “illegal” houses of alleged rioters from the minority community rather than ensure the even-handed enforcement of law and order. Just as the “Hindu as victim” narrative is galvanising majoritarian co-religionists, the “Muslim as victim” counternarrative is providing fresh ammunition to radical Islamist hotheads who are spreading their extremist beliefs. For a country with “vishwa-guru” superpower pretensions, that is an alarming situation to be in. India at the moment needs bridge-builders, not bulldozers.

Postscript: Prime Minister Modi has been conspicuously silent in the face of mounting hate speech and communal violence cases as has home minister Amit Shah. A senior RSS leader explains it as a “political compulsion”, pointing to Gujarat elections later this year. Ironically, it is Yogi Adityanath as UP CM who has been talking tough on reigning in all religious processions that disrupt peace and harmony. Is this strategic positioning or clever optics aimed at consolidating a tough on law and order image?

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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