The masks have been thrown to the winds. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his most trusted aide and Bhartiya Janata Party President Amit Shah have audaciously signalled to both national and global public opinion that they feel no need for masks and fig-leafs any longer. So many commentators in the mainstream media had wasted reams to persuade us that the emphatic vote for the BJP in the spring elections of 2017 in Uttar Pradesh represented not a hard communal consolidation of the Hindu voter against the perceived Muslim “other”. It was instead, they argued, a cross-caste, cross-community vote for sab ka vikas – development for all – and Modi was the new Indira Gandhi, the combative leader for building a better life for the poor.
Many Hindu voters read the election results quite differently. They saw it just the way many voters saw the election of Donald Trump in the United States a few months earlier, as a vote for majoritarian triumphalism, a vote against Muslims and minorities, a vote that legitimised prejudice and hatred. I saw a Facebook post of a notice pasted in villages of Gorakhpur district in Uttar Pradesh.
It starts with the rallying slogan of the Ram Janam Bhumi movement – Jai Shri Ram. It goes on to give notice to the Muslims of the village that they must leave the village by the end of the year. It warns them that if they do not comply, then they themselves will be responsible for the consequences. It goes on to warn them that they will be treated in the way that they are being treated in Trump’s America, because a BJP government will be installed in Uttar Pradesh. Decide quickly, the notice says, because you do not deserve to live in the village. It is signed by the Hindus of the village, whose sanrakshak or patron is said to be Yogi Adityanath, Member of Parliament from Gorakhpur.
But by selecting Adityanath, one of its most belligerent anti-Muslim campaigners, given to unapologetically coarse hate speech and skirmishes, as chief minister of the country’s largest state in terms of population, Modi and Shah have gestured unambiguously and brazenly their frank and unashamed resort to hard-line Hindutva as the calling card of their party.
The election speeches of Modi and Shah already signalled the direction the party has chosen. Adityanath’s hate speeches are in-the-face and dangerously toxic. Ever since he was hand-picked by Modi and Shah as chief minister, the social media is full of his pronouncements. I rely here on only one such compilation.
His intent is unambiguous: “I will not stop till I turn UP and India into a Hindu rashtra”. He blames Muslims for communal violence: “In places where there are 10 to 20% minorities, stray communal incidents take place. Where there are 20 to 35% of them, serious communal riots take place and where they are more than 35%, there is no place for non-Muslims”.
Despite numerous reports that deny the claim of the “exodus of Hindus from Kairana”, he still claims in the spirit of “post-truth” that “the population of Hindus which was once 68% has come down to 8% there”. He blames this on alleged policies of “pseudo-secularism and appeasement” followed by successive governments in Uttar Pradesh, which “speak against the majority community in the name of secularism”.
A falsehood that even Prime Minister Modi was to echo was that “governments in UP give land for kabristans (graveyards) but not for shamshanghats (cremation grounds)“. “Issues like the exodus of Hindus from Kairana, love jihad and women’s safety”, he claims are threatening to turn “western Uttar Pradesh … into another Kashmir”.
Even more sinister are his open threats to Muslims. “Every time a Hindu visits the Vishwanath temple, the Gyanvapi mosque taunts us. If given a chance, we will install statues of Goddess Gauri, Ganesh and Nandi in every mosque”. The Ram Mandir is high on his agenda. “When they could not stop karsevaks from demolishing the Babri Masjid, how will they be able to stop us from carrying out the construction of the mandir?”
Any of these declarations amount to gravely provocative and culpable criminal hate speech. Adityanath has a number of hate crimes lodged against him. These are not the utterances of an outrageous fringe rabble-rouser. He is the man chosen by the country’s prime minister to lead the country’s largest state in terms of population, which if it were a separate country, would be the world’s fifth most populous country of over 200 million people. Among these, a fifth or around 40 million are people of Muslim faith.
It is a frightening time to be a Muslim in Uttar Pradesh today. It was bad enough that the election results reflected the unification of most Hindu caste and class groups against the Muslims and that the BJP found it unnecessary to field even one Muslim candidate from a fifth of the state’s population and that the prime minister and, even more, his party chief and other candidates openly resorted to a communally charged discourse. But if some among them were still hoping that with such a large majority, at least after the elections, there would be a move to more responsible governance in the state, the choice of Adityanath as their chosen leader leaves no ambiguity about their status.
The Muslims in UP, it seems, must learn the same lesson that Muslims in Gujarat have been forced to learn so painfully since 2002. This is that they would be “permitted” to live in the state, but only as second class citizens, if they accept the political, cultural, economic and social superiority and dominance of their Hindu neighbours. It is the further fruition of the vision for India of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, less than a hundred years since it was constituted in 1925.
This is indeed a victory for the RSS, its ideology and cadres and for Modi’s muscular and crushing leadership. But the victory of a brawny politics of communal hectoring and name-calling, hate and division and the defeat of the constitutional values of fraternity and equality, cannot be laid only at their door. Equal credit, or culpability, lies with the parties of the opposition, which have long abandoned any real commitment to secular values, or even the defence of the country’s minorities.
I will illustrate their multiple failures with their role, or the lack of it, in Muzaffarnagar in Western Uttar Pradesh, which I observed closely in the course of our work with the survivors of the mass communal violence of 2013.
We must begin with the pernicious role of the BJP, and the cadres of the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, in stirring the communal cauldron in these regions which had an unbroken history so far of communal amity, even during the Partition riots and the turbulent movement for the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
It is proved beyond doubt that BJP MLA Sangeet Som circulated a fake video of two youth being lynched by a crowd of Muslims. He claimed mischievously and dangerously that the lynch mob was of Muslims of the region, and the men who were brutally killed were two Jat brothers who were trying to defend the honour of their sister from the sexual harassment of a Muslim youth. It mattered little in the post-truth world of command prejudice led right from the top, that all of these assertions were falsehoods, that the video was of a lynching in Pakistan, and that the Jat brothers and Muslim youth killed each other not because of any sexual predation but following a skirmish stemming from a motor-cycle accident. These falsehoods resulted in the largest episode of communal violence in a decade (along with the attack on Christians in Kandhamal).
Between 70,000 to 1,00,000 Muslims fled from their villages in terror after their neighbours of generations suddenly turned against them, burning and looting their homes, raping women of their village, killing even elders and children. The role of the RSS was not different from what it has been since the Partition riots – fomenting communal hatred and violence through hate propaganda and rumours. But the role of the Samajwadi Party government led by Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, and other parties that claim to be secular, requires much closer interrogation.
I found the character, the part played and the attitude of the state administration in Uttar Pradesh hardly different in most ways from that of the state administration in Gujarat in 2002. It could have prevented the scale of hate attacks on Muslims if it had been firm and steadfast in not permitting the mahapanchayats in which hate speeches were made against Muslims based on the RSS-created rumours. It was a mahapanchayat that led directly to massive crowds being mobilised and provoked and incited to inflict hate violence against their Muslim neighbours.
The soft-pedalling by the administration did not just suggest criminal administrative incompetence: if it was just this, it would be bad enough. The real doubt was that it secretly believed that it would benefit along with the BJP from the polarisation between Muslims and Hindus in a communal riot, a harvest that both parties hoped to reap in the 2014 general elections.
Payments to stay away
Even more shameful was the neglect, and even hostility, of the Uttar Pradesh state administration to the refugees from hate violence in camps. I visited the camps on many occasions and found them little different from the relief camps I had seen in Gujarat in 2002. In both, the state administration refused to establish and run relief camps for those displaced from their homes by hate violence.
It left this mainly to the battered community itself, as though the responsibility for taking care of these hate refugees was not of the state but of organisations of Muslim people. With nowhere to go, people endured the winter cold, the hot dusty summers and the rains under plastics, with reports of children dying, but the state administration remained unmoved. As in Gujarat in 2002, we found little presence of the state in these camps: it did not organise sanitation, health care, child care or police outposts to record people’s complaints.
The only real departure of the practice of the Uttar Pradesh administration from that of the Gujarat administration 11 years earlier was in the payment of five lakh rupees as compensation to those persons who undertook that they would not return to their original villages. This policy had no precedent in India. For people displaced by hate violence, the duty of the state administration was recognised to be to create conditions that were conducive to enabling people to return to their original homes. This required the administration to take the lead in attempting to rebuild social bonds between the estranged communities, and to ensure the security of those who returned.
Far from doing this, the action of the Uttar Pradesh state government in effect accepted that Muslim and Hindu populations would no longer live together peacefully, and even incentivised their separation. In earlier large episodes of rural communal violence, as in Bhagalpur and Gujarat, we found that social fractures tend to be enduring, and Muslims are ejected from mixed settlements. The state should have fought and resisted this, promoting the restoration of mixed habitations, rather than for the first time actually incentivising separate living on religious lines. This was an utterly bankrupt state policy adopted by the Akhilesh government, with communal underpinnings, one that has no precedents in past communal riots.
Premature closing of camps
Just three months after the carnage, the state government officially terminated all relief camps, again as happened in Gujarat, even though several thousand displaced persons were still in fear and dread, and unwilling to return home because they continued to feel unsafe. Whereas displaced persons in camps should be officially assisted and supported to return to their original homes by promoting reconciliation and security, to force them to do so by premature closure of camps resulted only in thousands being left without even the meagre food and health support which the government had extended in the camps.
The sense of fear and alienation of the survivors was enhanced by distressing reports of organised social and economic boycott of Muslims after the mass violence, once again just as in Gujarat. Many men testified that if they went back to their villages, they were told they should cut their beards off if they wished to live in their village. People also reported similar hate exchanges in buses and public spaces. Survivors recounted intimidation and boycott in employment as farm labour, or economic activities like pheris¸ or selling cloth and other goods from house to house.
The Akhilesh Yadav-led state government did little to create conditions in which survivors felt safe to return to the villages of their birth. Without any public remorse by their attackers, any official or community initiatives for reconciliation, and any attempts at justice, these hapless people were unable to return to the villages of their birth. Sometimes with small grants from government or NGOs, but mainly with usurious loans from private moneylenders, they bought house-plots in hastily laid out colonies in Muslim majority villages on what were cultivated fields. Seizing the opportunity to make windfall profits, local large farmers and real estate developers sold these plots at exorbitant rates to these luckless displaced persons.
The indifference of the state government was reflected also in the fact that there was no official record of these mostly self-settled colonies, let alone official plans to ensure that they were able to access basic public goods and citizenship entitlements. In a survey undertaken by Aman Biradari and Afkar India Foundation, we discovered as many as 65 refugee colonies, 28 in Muzaffarnagar and 37 in Shamli, housing 29,328 residents, described in Living Apart: Communal Violence and Forced Displacement in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, a book about the conditions of the survivors, written jointly by my colleagues Akram Akhtar Chaudhary, Zafar Eqbal and Rajanya Bose, and me.
In hellish slum-like settlements, these internal refugees are bravely building their lives anew. Perhaps our most striking survey finding was the almost complete absence of the state from these efforts to begin a new life of the refugees. Apart from a 5 lakh rupee grant given only to households directly hit by the violence (and none to the much larger number who escaped their villages because of fear of attacks), the state took no responsibility for helping them resettle in any way. The displaced were forced to either abandon or sell their properties at distress prices in their villages of origin, and the state compensation for the loss of their moveable assets was negligible. The colonies were settled substantially with the self-help efforts of the impoverished and battered refugees themselves. This again mirrors the story of the violence-affected people of Gujarat.
The confidence of survivors to return to homes was further shaken because of the very low numbers of arrests and convictions of the men accused of murder, rape, arson and looting. Without justice, as we have learned from survivors in many sites of communal violence, neither do wounds heal nor can fresh violence be deterred.
Police and even the judiciary in Uttar Pradesh often displayed communal biases similar to their Gujarati counterparts. Of 6,400 persons accused of crimes in 534 FIRs, charges were ultimately pursued against only 1,540 persons. Most of the cases of murder were closed without a charge-sheet or trial claiming the accused were “unknown persons”. Even a year after the carnage, only 800 people were arrested, and most of those who were arrested were quickly released on bail. One reason given for low numbers of arrests by the police administration was that large numbers of women blocked the entrance to the village entry whenever police vehicles drove there for arrests, or farmers parked tractors to thwart police passage.
Survivors on the other hand believed that police themselves informally tipped off the villagers before arriving to make arrests, otherwise how would so many assemble at short notice to blockade village roads? This allegation was difficult to independently verify, but no self-respecting police administration could accept this kind of public blockades to persist when it came in the way of their fulfilling their official duties.
Only three of the 25 men accused in six cases of gang-rape were held. In one rape case, all the accused men have been acquitted. In another, after three years no one has been arrested. And in the other rape cases, all the accused men are out on bail. There was enormous pressure on the witnesses to rescind on their statements, and a large number of witnesses have turned hostile in court.
Although Indian criminal law does not permit “compromise” in heinous offences, this remains a routine practice after mass communal violence. Since the accused freely roam the same villages, either evading arrest or on bail, they are free to intimidate the complainants and victims. It does not help that the majority of the complainants are impoverished farm workers or brick kiln labour, critically dependent economically on the large Jat landowners for work and loans.
The police was particularly soft in acting against politicians who were allegedly directly involved in the rioting. They have at best been booked in very minor sections like Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. Most of them did not even see the inside of a jail. There were also other distressing signs of judicial bias, because most arrested persons have been granted bail almost the next day or soon after their arrests. This ignored the gravity of hate crimes, and the susceptibility of the survivors to intimidation because of their vulnerable situation after mass targeted violence has spurred large-scale fear, destruction of livelihoods and habitats and migration.
Absent political parties
When the carnage unfolded, and in the crucial months that followed, the Congress Party headed the United Progressive Alliance government in the centre. But it never directed or advised the state government in Uttar Pradesh to fulfil its constitutional duties to the violence affected people more responsibly or compassionately, nor did it reach out to them directly in any way.
As a party, I found Congress workers completely absent from the relief camps, in Muzaffarnagar as much as in the Gujarat camps a decade earlier. This is where the Congress Sewa Dal (does it even exist?) should have been visible, extending discernible solidarity and service to the people displaced by hate violence.
Equally, Mayawati never once reached out to the hapless violence-hit people. She mostly maintained her imperious silence, indicating indifference. What credibility would she carry when years later, she reached out for an alliance with the Muslims of the state, as she did before the Assembly elections?
The only political party that did reach out in any way to the violence-hit people of Muzafffarnagar was the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which helped establish a resettlement colony. But even this assistance was much smaller and less visible than the role that the Communist Party played in the early communal riots after Independence.
No credible alternative
The lesson, then, is that the runaway electoral victory of the BJP in the elections to the Uttar Pradesh assembly in the spring of 2017 is as much due to the BJP’s polarising campaign and Modi’s charismatic but divisive leadership, as it is due to the failure of any authentic and credible secular alternative.
Secularism is not treating Muslim minorities as a hapless, powerless, dependent client population whose votes can be taken for granted at election time and forgotten for the rest. Secularism is not a selective, opportunistic policy, to be played with a continuous timid eye fixed on not upsetting majoritarian communal sentiment. It is an article of faith, which rises above all immediate electoral considerations.
The enormous tragedy of India’s secular majority, as much as of India’s minorities, is that India today lacks an authentically secular political opposition. This emboldens a resurgent and triumphalist political right, led by Modi and Amit Shah, to display their communal fangs with the selection of communal firebrand Yogi Adityanath as the leader of Uttar Pradesh.
It is ordinary people who must act as the opposition. Our large so-called secular political opposition has betrayed us profoundly, and the people if India are paying the cost. The hot winds of communal hatred of the past three years can be expected to grow now into a blinding sandstorm.