The appointment of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh has stoked conflicting emotions. It is easy to comprehend the fears of Muslims, who feel Adityanath’s rise to power is incontrovertible evidence of India gradually turning into a Hindu Rashtra in which their status will be that of second-class citizens.
By contrast, it is assumed that a Hindu Rashtra will not scare Hindus, who, at worse, will remain indifferent to it. To test this assumption, I spoke with Hindus, whose ideological inclination was not known to me in every case, in Uttar Pradesh.
Broadly, I posed four questions to them:
- Why did the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections become communally polarised?
- Are Muslims to be blamed for it?
- Do Hindus hate or are antipathetic to Muslims?
- Would Hindus wish to live in a Hindu Rashtra?
But before you read their responses, here is a story in which a respondent’s family was the principal protagonist.
Way back on March 10, 1995, Hindus and Muslims took to the streets in Aligarh to battle against each other, as they periodically did through most of the 20th century. Oblivious to violence having erupted, a marriage party of 50 Muslims threaded its way through the city on the return journey to Lucknow. Among them was the couple who had been married the evening before. Their bus was stopped in the Achal Tank area, near Dharam Samaj Mahavidyala, and attacked.
“It was 1 pm,” recalled Surendra Mohan Yadav, whose wife Mithilesh Yadav nee Upadhyaya was on her way home after meeting a friend. At the sight of the violence that soon turned horrific with women being dragged out of the bus, Mithilesh Yadav gathered a handful of people from her colony and rushed to the spot, her daughter and son in tow. They beat back the assailants and her son drove the bus to the family’s residence.
Among the 50, one was already dead.
The mob regrouped to attack Yadav’s residence. But Mithilesh Yadav had already inspired the colony residents to stand guard. They were on rooftops, armed with stones, a few even having taken out their rusty rifles. The mob retreated.
“We fed the Muslims, we nursed their wounds,” said Surendra Mohan Yadav, who is an advocate in Aligarh. In the evening, the district authority had the marriage party sent to Lucknow by bus, where its first port of call was Mulayam Singh Yadav, who was then the chief minister.
Mithilesh Yadav became the toast of Aligarh and beyond. She was publicly felicitated and bestowed with numerous awards. Referring to her role in the incident, political scientist Paul S Brass wrote in his book The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, “… We have here a documented case, for which I have no similar reports in the post-Independence rioting in Aligarh, of civic action at the local level that prevented imminent death and destruction.”
‘Two eyes of India’
When the Bharatiya Janata Party swept the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections on March 11, I decided to reach out to Mithilesh Yadav, wondering whether the Hindutva storm could have yanked out the anchor that tethered her to secular politics, now rubbished as pseudo-secularism. It took me days to secure the mobile number of her husband.
“Mithilesh died in July 2013, after battling illness for 13 months,” Surendra Mohan Yadav said. He went on to list the names of mosques and Muslims who had organised special prayer meetings for her recovery. “Ours was a love marriage,” he added.
A day before this conversation, it had been announced that Adityanath was to be Uttar Pradesh’s new chief minister. What did Surendra Mohan Yadav – the husband of Mother Courage, so to speak – think of the BJP’s decision? Yadav said, “It is a ghaatak [grievous] attack on the idea of India. Hindus and Muslims are the two eyes of India. You blind one and the vision is bound to be impaired.”
He said religious polarisation has always been the BJP’s agenda, but it clicked stupendously this time round because of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi-Congress alliance. For one, Mayawati kept speaking of the 100 tickets she had given to Muslims. For the other, the Samajwadi Party and the Congress failed to counter the perception that their coming together had been aimed at consolidating Muslim votes.
“There was a reaction against it,” said Surendra Mohan Yadav, who is a member of the Samajwadi Party’s lawyers’ wing.
He paused and said, in an apologetic tone, “Please don’t mind it, but don’t you think Muslims should do away with triple talaq?” (The practice allows Muslim men to divorce their wives simply by uttering talaq thrice in one sitting.) I said, sure, they should, telling him of a story I had written last year – that the Muslims of India should abolish triple talaq as 24 Muslim countries, including Pakistan, have abolished it.
Confident my feelings wouldn’t be hurt, Surendra Mohan Yadav spoke of a 45-year-old father of three who had divorced his wife, married a 20-year-old girl from a poor family, and divorced her too after a couple of months. “I filed a case against him,” he said. “He was arrested.” Chastened, the 45-year-old man wanted a compromise. “I had him annul the divorce and gave the girl a share in his property,” Yadav added.
Given that his own family members had risked their lives to protect 50 Muslims from a blood-thirsty mob, and that he still thinks Hindus and Muslims are India’s two eyes, nobody can possibly accuse him of putting on the Hindutva glasses for critiquing triple talaq.
Indeed, every Hindu I spoke with, whether admirers of Hindu Rashtra or its vehement opponents, or to even those not committed to any ideology, the brazen wooing of Muslims by rival political parties surfaced as an explanation for the BJP’s astonishing victory. In the responses of most, triple talaq too crept in. Yet, their answers differed in nuances.
Onus on Muslims
Take Rakesh Sharma, an advocate in Shamli, West Uttar Pradesh, who owns a sprawling 125 bighas of agriculture land. He voted for the BJP, claims to have very good relations with Muslims, and wants them to think over the kind of leaders they have. “Look at Azam Khan [Samajwadi party] and Asaduddin Owaisi [All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen], the language they use,” he said.
You would think he would also fulminate against Adityanath’s rhetoric. “Oh, there is a lot of substance in what Yogiji speaks,” Sharma said. “Take it from me, Muslims will have a great time under his rule.” As to why they would, he had no explanation to offer.
In narratives such as Sharma’s, the onus for restoring communal harmony is on Muslims – they must reform their political outlook, their personal laws, and curb their inclination to rally behind leaders who are full of fire and brimstone.
“The discourse on communalism mimics that of patriarchy,” said Roop Rekha Verma, former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University. The deeply embedded notion of patriarchy is why women are asked to adhere to a dress code, not venture out after a certain hour, and learn martial arts for self-defence. It is not their male tormenters who are to blame.
“Similar is the case with Muslims,” she said. “It is they who must change themselves, but not the ambassadors of hatred, not those who seek to Hinduize our psyche. How do you fight the unreason of children of [Hindutva ideologue Veer] Savarkar?” Verma said she had slipped into a state of “intellectual paralysis” at the Uttar Pradesh election results.
One has only to go through data on caste-community voting to see that Muslim consolidation is a myth, spawned by the media. Until 2017, Muslim votes in Uttar Pradesh were always split three ways – the Samajwadi Party, Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party. Every social group in India has a favourite among political parties. The degree of upper-caste consolidation behind the BJP has been far more in comparison to that of Muslims for the Samajwadi Party.
From this perspective, Verma is right in claiming that to solely accuse the Muslims of triggering the polarisation is to forget that the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva philosophy is ideologically designed to consolidate Hindus and widen the gulf between them and Muslims. Thus, the role of Muslim political behaviour can be cited as a factor only when you ask the question: Why did Hindutva succeed in winning nearly 40% of Hindus of Uttar Pradesh in 2017, as it did in 2014 as well?
“Uttar Pradesh was where the politics of Partition played out. Uttar Pradesh remains partitioned,” said Ramesh Dixit, a former professor who was the sole spokesperson of the Congress for years before he joined the Nationalist Congress Party, only to quit it in 2014.
“On top of it, Uttar Pradesh has several symbols of Hinduism that the Sangh can easily appropriate,” he said. “If you resolve, say, the Ram Janmabhoomi controversy, it will raise the Krishna temple issue in Mathura; if you solve that, it will move to Kashi. The Sangh has traction because the burden of memory of Partition still weighs on Uttar Pradesh.”
This is why triple talaq has had resonance in the state, as will the minority status of Aligarh Muslim University – the BJP-led government at the Centre has opposed minority status for the university and the case is in the Supreme Court – as will any issue with the word Muslim inscribed on it. Muslims have been demonised for producing terror specialists, for still striving to vivisect India 70 years later. And if they can’t achieve their mission through violence, it is widely held that they will devilishly boost their fertility rate to alter the country’s demography. In other words, it is easy to persuade Uttar Pradesh of a Muslim takeover.
“Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activists work in villages and towns to spread these dubious notions,” Dixit said. “No party has cared to fight the ideological battle against the Sangh at the grassroots. Ninety per cent of the Congress in the state has a Hindutva mindset. They didn’t even vote for the Samajwadi Party in their constituencies.”
Not only have so-called secular parties failed to engage the Sangh in an ideological battle, this problem has been compounded because of the degeneration of the social justice movement, suggested Dipak Malik, director emeritus, Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi. This has been deftly exploited by the insecure upper castes.
The insecurity of the upper castes dates back to the Green Revolution [a period of increased agricultural productivity in the 1960s on the back of technological improvements], which gave a fillip to the emergence of Other Backward Castes. Numerous, now they also became upwardly mobile and sought to capture power. It triggered among them a desire to unite and consolidate, which was an idea socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia expounded, and which peasant leader Charan Singh executed after exiting the Congress.
In response, the upper castes began to search for parties that could represent and protect their interests. The 1990 decision to introduce reservations in jobs to redress caste discrimination was a watershed – the upper castes moved to the BJP, which was leading the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that was suffused with Brahminical cultural symbols.
But as long as parties representing social justice retained their vibrancy, upper caste-sponsored Hindutva enjoyed limited success. “But Mulayam Singh Yadav turned social justice into casteism,” Malik said. “He Yadavised the administration, and did not give tickets in numbers sufficient to satisfy several non-Yadav Other Backward Castes, for instance the Kurmis.”
These castes, said Malik, felt alienated, as did non-Jatav Dalits from the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose leader Mayawati turned the party into a nucleus of Jatavs. “The 2017 result is because the upper castes have very intelligently brought these alienated castes into the BJP fold,” Malik added.
Substitute “intelligently” in Malik’s formulation with “communally” and you get the picture – a medley of diverse social groups was cemented together by resorting to communal polarisation. “Even the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were won by communal polarisation. Only a gullible media thought the 2014 verdict mandate was for development,” said Malik.
He said Hindutva can be fought only through a popular movement. “Muslims will have to emerge out of isolationism,” he said. “They need to come out to participate in movements such as, say, price rise,” not just take to the streets only on religious issues pertaining to them.
Lies and advertising
For sure, it won’t be easy to fight the Sangh because, as Ajay Bisaria, who teaches Hindi at Aligarh Muslim University, said: How do you counter lies in which people have abiding faith? How do you dispel fear that has struck deep roots in people?
Bisaria recalled that day (September 21) in 1995 when Hindus across India and in several other countries flocked to see statues of Lord Ganesha drink milk. Or when people stopped buying and eating tori (ridge gourd) after rumours that it had been cursed by a nagin (a mythological female snake that can take on human form).
“They [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] were always known to manufacture rumours and spread them,” he said. “Now they have the technology [Twitter, WhatsApp] at their command.”
The devastating impact of falsehoods can be discerned in Bisaria’s story of the grisly 1990-1991 riots in Aligarh. Three Hindi newspapers front-paged a story declaring that 72 Hindu patients had been slaughtered in Aligarh Muslim University’s Medical College Hospital. It fanned the communal conflagration that raged for days.
Bisaria then had a press card. He used it to reach Gyan Sarovar Colony in curfew-bound Aligarh. He found his friends, all doctors, preparing to defend themselves against an attack by students of the university. He asked them whether it was possible for the students to rush across the four kilometers that separated the colony from the university, past the police bandobast, to assault them.
But they pointed to Hindi newspaper stories about the hospital to say anything was possible. Bisaria told them it was a concocted story, and the district authorities had denied it, as had the hospital administration. His efforts were to no avail.
From this perspective, whether or not Hindu consolidation happened in response to that of Muslims, or how, for that matter, triple talaq transgresses the rights of Hindus are irrelevant. What matters is that the BJP has the capacity to convince Hindus that all parties pamper Muslims at their expense.
“In the age of consumerism, advertisement is treated as truth,” Bisaria said. “When I get a talcum powder, my daughter says it is meant for men. That is the power of advertising. Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi is the most successful advertiser of them all.”
But then, is it also possible for a Hindu Rashtra to emerge through advertisement? “No,” Bisaria said confidently, in contrast to other academicians. “What is this Hindu Rashtra? Apart from reducing Muslims to second-class citizens, they haven’t even told us how it will be organised and run.”
To this, you might say hate runs on its own steam, wreaking havoc as long as it lasts.
Fear of the future
The BJP’s sweep has already turned Muslims sullen and silent. For instance, former Indian Administrative Service officer SK Verma said, “I spoke to my Muslim friends in the bureaucracy. They feel cornered; they wouldn’t discuss the BJP’s victory.” He said it was impossible for him to imagine a society without Muslims.
Lawyer Brijendra Singh of Shamli said the number of Muslims coming to the collectorate has visibly reduced over the last week. “Some Muslim villagers asked me whether Modi would now disallow their women to wear burqas,” he said, insisting, “All governments have to operate within the secular framework of our Constitution.”
Colonel (retired) Subhash Deshwal, who now farms in Bulandshahr, testified to the silence of Muslims. “I observed the election campaign closely,” he said. “There was no Modi wave, there was in fact anger against demonetisation. But communal polarisation swept aside these issues… We just can’t have a religion-based Constitution.” In fact, what is the point of democracy in which religious passion inundates all issues?
If such is the pull of communalism, might not the idea of Hindutva galvanise the electorate even further? “It is an uncomfortable truth to face, but I think Hindutva will go to the extreme before its energy is exhausted,” Deshwal answered.
His are ominous words. The destructive energy Hindutva can release was glimpsed in around 15 communal incidents that were reported within 24 hours of the Uttar Pradesh election results, pointed out Dr Satish Prakash, who teaches at Meerut College and is a Dalit activist.
Prakash said it was mostly graveyards or mosques that were targeted. “Muslims have shown remarkable restraint in their response,” he added. “But there were two incidents in which Dalits clashed with those who wanted to know why they didn’t vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party.”
He said this was because the Dalits are aware that a rising Hindutva poses grave dangers to their movement and assertion. “Dalits won’t accept the idea of Hindu Rashtra because it implies altering the Constitution to deny them their rights,” Prakash said. “Hindutva’s anti-Muslim politics has only the limited purpose of polarising voters to get majority. Its real target is Dalits.”
In case Prakash is right, then Hindutva would appear keen on blinding India’s one eye, Muslims – to use Surendra Mohan Yadav’s evocative expression quoted earlier – to check subaltern assertion. In a land of extreme inequality and abject poverty, an eye might not seem such a price to pay for the powers that be.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.