We do not have to guess anymore about the extent of hate that has spread to the heart of Indian society. The epidemic of hate is not just confined to stray incidents of hate speech and violence that can be dismissed as the handiwork of misguided fringe elements and which can easily be controlled by strict enforcement of the law. On the contrary, minority-bashing has steadily spread in many ways and at many levels, from politics to society, over the last nine years. It can be seen almost everywhere — in schools and colleges, on social media, on television and in films, on roads and in trains, in religious gatherings and public addresses of politicians. Recently, it also entered Parliament, India’s highest democratic forum.
If it does not require a trigger or spark and nobody can tell where the next incidence of hate speech or conflagration will occur, it is because hate has reached a level where it requires no friction or altercation but mere prejudice and anger against a particular faith, aided by lack of action on the part of the law-enforcing authorities. Whether the hate we see in everyday life emanates from the top of the current political dispensation or is the result of some careful political calculation is difficult to say, but the silence of political leadership and lack of intent to enforce the rule of law and punish the guilty gives rise to an impression or suspicion that it may be all a part of a design.
India was never like this before 2014 and no government in the past supported discriminatory national and state policies that severely restricted the rights and religious freedom of minority communities. This is not to say that there was no hatred in India before the current regime came to power. After all, independent India was created out of partition and, by extension, out of hatred and bloodshed. But ever since then, most leaders, political parties, and social and cultural organisations worked hard to heal the wounds and create social and communal harmony. Of course, there were communal conflagrations and minor and major riots but they did not lead to the kind of communal poison that we see today. But over the past decade, it seems the old wounds have been reopened with religious nationalism, divisive politics, and frequent reminders about our history of the last 1,000 years.
The kind of polarisation and communal speeches one gets to see on television during election campaigns, and the way religious fault lines are exploited by senior BJP leaders in violation of model code of conduct and democratic norms, cannot be dismissed as mere compulsions of electoral politics. They are rooted in their ideological moorings and socio-political agenda. So even if post-election, the top leaders are responsible in their speech and conduct in public, their silence and inaction in preventing fringe elements, fanatics, fundamentalists and the rest from spreading their gospel of hate and bigotry amounts to indirect approval of dehumanising religious minorities through disinformation and hate. Most distressing of all, and the more worrying thing about the poison of hatred and majoritarian politics, is the effect it will have on the web of interactions and connections that binds us all as a society.
In a Hindu majority country, not all BJP supporters are Muslim-haters; neither are all Muslim-haters RSS supporters. India has no state religion, but religion plays a central role in daily life of people through its festivals, temple ceremonies, pilgrimages, family religious traditions and the like. As most people are deeply religious, religious nationalism is a potent force for politicians and communal organisations to polarise people on religious lines. Take the case of the Ram temple movement. Whether the Babri mosque was built over a Ram temple was archaeologically never established, but it was given a hardline political spin and made into a matter of faith that was not open to a negotiated settlement. It united people in the Hindi heartland and became a rallying point for the BJP.
Hindutva was one of the factors that helped the BJP come to power at the Centre in 2014, though it was camouflaged as economic development, jobs, and prosperity for all. Uninterrupted political power over two terms has emboldened the saffron party to use religion to unite the majority community under the broader Hindutva umbrella. Majoritarian politics has empowered hardline elements of the RSS Parivar and others like them to demonstrate in public their hatred and bigotry, aided and supported by social media campaigns to justify acts of hate and violence. Whenever the BJP is questioned about the status of minorities in the country, its templated response is that there is no discrimination against anyone in India and the social welfare is extended to everyone. But when the whole party apparatus is involved in creating an environment of hate and discrimination, can one get away by claiming that poor Muslims also get access to ration?
When the ecosystem is polarised, the poison of hate gets mainstreamed and normalised. That is precisely what is happening. It started with lynching years ago and gradually spread to other types of hate crimes. The hijab and halal controversies, love jihad, anti-conversion laws and bulldozer justice are some of the examples of targeting a particular community. When a railway cop kills Muslim passengers in a train or school teachers target Muslim students, it is a sign of gravity of the problem that the ruling establishment seems reluctant to control. It is not just individual or local, it is systematic and deeply rooted in prejudice. The bigger problem is such incidents are resorted to with impunity and are being legitimised.
The special session of Parliament last month will be known not only for the welcome passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill but also for the vicious message of communal hatred sent out by a member of the Lok Sabha. Parliament in its history has not heard such crude words as hurled by BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri at a fellow MP, Danish Ali. The latter was attacked for being a Muslim with words of abuse specifically used against Muslims. If the BJP’s creed is “Sabka saath sabka vishwas”, then Bidhuri has blatantly violated it. His words are an expression of a mindset which is being sought to be legitimised. The important question is: what kind of a country are we becoming?
The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule.