When the “bulldozers” – backhoe excavators to be precise – went to work on the morning of April 20 in the working-class neighbourhood of Jahangirpuri in northwest Delhi, they did so with a partisan brutality and illegality, witnessed over the last two years in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir.
Each of these regions is administered by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the message is clear: if Muslims are involved in riots – even as victims – their livelihoods and homes will be reduced to rubble.
In Kashmir, where there were no riots and collective punishment is now administrative practice, it is enough that the homes belong to Muslims. Proof of guilt is irrelevant. In Khargone in Madhya Pradesh, after the ramshackle stall of an alleged stone-thrower was torn down, photographs emerged of an unfortunate – obviously Muslim – man accused of throwing stones. He had no hands.
The backhoe excavator has become a symbol of how Hindu vigilantism is merging with the Indian State, providing official sanction to and making real violent anti-Muslim fantasies. These desires to subjugate or even exterminate Muslims are routinely and publicly expressed by assorted Hindu priests, amplified by social and mass media – both deeply complicit in spreading this hatred – and members of the ruling party and its vast and well-funded Hindu ecosystem, which finds they fetch ample electoral rewards.
Similar views flourish in more private settings – living room conversations and Whatsapp groups run by families, alumni of educational institutions, former bureaucrats, police and armed forces officials.
Hate, prejudice legalised
The steady drip of anti-Muslim feeling over the last decade has recently become a flood, plunging the police, the bureaucracy, the courts and India’s larger Hindu society into the deep, dark waters of radicalisation. Currently, the Hindu mind is swamped with fakery, imagined hurt and a deep insecurity, expressed as anti-Muslim paranoia.
Education is no protection. Indeed, highly educated Hindus harbour some of the worst prejudices. All feelings of humanity, the desire to do the right thing and adherence to the rule of law and the Constitution are being drowned out in this deluge of hatred.
Every day, the limits of decency and the law are pushed and accepted. India’s institutions are being hollowed out, as the mob emerging from Hindu society coalesces with the state and grows larger and stronger, emboldened by the silence of fellow Hindus, who either approve, could not care less or are otherwise complicit.
Justice is hard to deliver when there is a popular demand for injustice. The BJP and its allies know this, and that is why every new move to marginalise India’s largest minority is accepted by many Hindus with a shrug or a smile. Muslims now face restrictions on food, clothes, marriage, prayer, jobs, healthcare, housing, many of these legitimised by a law, administrative action or court ruling.
If Jammu and Kashmir has the Public Safety Act and various other laws keeping Muslims on a tight leash, Gujarat has the Disturbed Areas Act, ensuring Muslims are segregated from Hindus. Various BJP-ruled states have cow-slaughter, conversion and inter-faith marriage restrictions or bans.
Courts have delivered a Ram temple verdict, a hijab ban and routinely refused bail to dissidents – a majority of them Muslims – who can mainly be accused of calling for peace and restraint in fraught times.
As the world has seen, whenever injustice and majority oppression win the day, it is easy for the State itself to defy the instruments and processes of law and justice. So, in Jahangirpuri, the backhoe excavators kept running, even as the Supreme Court ordered a halt to the demolitions.
Hindus may hold illegal processions brandishing swords and pistols, be abusive, call for murder, spark riots and get away with a slap on the wrist or, in most cases, nothing. If Muslims retaliate – or even if they do not – they can face charges under the National Security Act or the anti-terror law Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, both of which allow long periods of detention without formal charges or trial.
In the long run, as we have seen around the world, no society can withstand the ceaseless oppression of a minority by a majority. It is wrong and immoral, and it does not take long for such immorality to be accepted as normal behaviour. As laws wither and a society is corroded from within, anarchy is but a step away.
To be sure, there are many Hindus who abhor what is going on in their name, and we have recently seen some expressions of this abhorrence by ordinary people – the Hindu woman who sheltered Muslims during riots in Karauli, Rajasthan; the man who told extremists from the Bajrang Dal to stop their hateful speeches. This is well and good, but these instances are few and far between.
Most Hindus, those who do not approve or are not complicit that is, do not know, perhaps, how to stem the tidal wave of anti-Muslim feeling, and lapse into uneasy silence. But this is not a time for silence, not if a genocide is to be stopped, if Hindu society must be saved from its own worst instincts and if India’s withering democracy must be salvaged.
Salvation can come at various levels. Ordinary Hindus must break their silence, and clearly and loudly express their disapproval and opposition wherever and whenever they can: at home and at work. They must not ignore but broach inconvenient topics of discrimination against minorities with their children and teach them that no god in the pantheon and no Hindu scripture teaches them to hate and kill.
Hindus in positions of power – in the administration, in politics, in the police and the judiciary – must be aware that this is a time to put their careers second and the future of their country and Constitution first.
Wherever they can, they must go out of their way to get communities to communicate, protect minorities and keep the peace under trying circumstances. For all the conflagrations that erupt, there are many that do not because the rule of law and good sense prevail, thanks to administrators who prioritise peace over conflict.
India can yet be saved – but if the Hindu so chooses.
Samar Halarnkar is the editor of Article-14.com, a project that tracks misuse of the law and the hope it offers.