India, as we know it, is being unmade with every passing day. In this bewilderingly changing land, hatred and bigotry are fast becoming the new normal. Hate-mongering is led powerfully and charismatically from the top – a kind of “command bigotry” – and Muslims are fast being reduced to second class citizens. Everywhere, on the streets, in workplaces, in living rooms, in neighbourhoods, in television studios and on the internet, there is a permissive environment for hate speech and mob violence that labels and targets Muslims, but also Dalits, Adivasis, Christians, women, people of colour, ethnic minorities from India’s North East, and liberals.

A climate of everyday, mostly unspoken, dread has mounted because of the reckless stoking of embers of recurrent, divisive and considered provocative hate speech, threats, incitement and assaults. The aim is to force a single way of living upon all Indians – a homogenised faith system and set of cultural practices, with violent prohibitions on what you can eat, whom you can love and what you can think.

If this pattern of routinising systematic hate violence is not effectively resisted, the danger is that it will spiral downwards into unending cycles of dark and deepening strife, which will continue to target innocents and ultimately tear us apart as a people. India already has an ancient and troubled history of socially legitimised inequality and violence against savagely oppressed castes and women, and a more recent history of horrific bloodletting in the name of religion. But it also has an iridescent tradition of pluralism, and respect and protection for diverse religious faiths going back to the time of King Ashoka in 270 BC. A tradition sustained – after centuries of brutal violence against Buddhists, wiping them out from the land of their birth – by Emperor Akbar in 1556 AD and Mahatma Gandhi during the anti-colonial freedom struggle.

After attaining freedom, we tried to put behind us our history of cruelty and segregation against the browbeaten, subjugated castes and women, and claim instead that part of our civilizational history that was comfortable in diversity and tolerant, as we forged a compact of unity as a pluralist, humane and inclusive democratic nation.

Despite frequent failures, setbacks and betrayals, there were significant efforts over seven decades of independence to live up to those promises. Successive governments compromised cynically with secular and egalitarian principles over and over again, thereby failing both their constitutional mandate and the people of India. But through all this, the constitutional core of secular and pluralist democracy held. However, it increasingly appears that the central organising principle of the current ruling establishment is to deny religious minorities their right to exist with dignity as equal citizens.

Deadly history

Independent India has witnessed sporadic bloodletting against people because of their religious identity as part of a political and social enterprise to break their economy and spirit. These bloodbaths are often described as communal riots. These episodes typically constitute targeted hate killing, gang rape, arson of homes and businesses, large-scale looting, and destruction and desecration of places of worship. I have grave reservations with calling these riots, because the term “riot” suggests people of two communities battling each other, usually spontaneously. But this is most often not the case. For instance, it is a travesty to describe the violence against the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 as anti-Sikh riots, because it was exclusively the Sikhs who were the victims of violence in almost all these attacks. The same is the case with many, if not most, other episodes of communal violence. The survivors in Gujarat widely describe the mass violence against Muslims in 2002 as toofan, or storm.

I observe three distinct phases in India’s troubled history of periodic mass attacks on Muslims and other minorities since it became free in 1947 amid the Hindu-Muslim riots that took a million lives.

Beginning with a communal conflagration in Jabalpur in 1961, 14 years after India’s freedom, many parts of the country have witnessed sporadic episodes of hate violence victimising people because of their religious identity. Especially since the 1980s, this sectarian violence has spiked, targeting Bengali Muslims in Assam in 1983; the Sikhs in the nation’s capital after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 and subsequent years of Khalistani militancy; and Muslims in many parts of the country during the movement that led to the destruction of Babri Masjid, beginning with the Bhagalpur massacre in 1989 and peaking in the Gujarat carnage in 2002.

Post-Gujarat, I believe we see the emergence of a new phase, with much in common with the phase stretching from Nellie 1983 to Gujarat 2002 – the creation of hatred around issues such as cow protection, religious conversion and alleged sexual predation, one-sided targeted pogroms, sexual violence, rural riots, violence against minorities other than Muslims, social and economic boycott, sustained social divides and population divisions, and so on. The big difference in this phase is much less loss of life than in the worst massacres of 1983, 1984, 1989, 1992-93 and 2002, but significant damage to property and far greater displacement of populations. I speculate that the intense legal accountability enforced by actions of many organisations, and the international odium and disrepute which followed in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage, has resulted in a shift to attacks with far fewer deaths but extensive social mobilisation through hate, attacks on property, and much larger displacement of populations.

In this phase, we see first the Kandhamal violence of 2008. We also see the extensive low-intensity hate mobilisation in coastal Karnataka from around 2006. The violence in Lower Assam in 2012 saw comparatively fewer deaths, but half a million people were displaced, the largest displacement by targeted violence after the Partition. (I must add strong caveats here that Assam did not see communal violence of the kind seen in other parts of India. Here, oppressed minorities attack other oppressed minorities. In this particular case, Muslims did to Bodos in Muslim-majority areas exactly what Bodos did to them). In 2013, Muzaffarnagar again saw limited number of deaths (at least 62) but more than 50,000 people were displaced in just two districts (Remember, Gujarat saw two lakh people displaced by violence that affected 20 districts and two large cities). This scale of displacement – often permanent – was rarely witnessed in the communal violence of the 1960s and 70s.

More than 50,000 Muslims were displaced by the Muzaffarnagar communal carnage in 2013. Photo credit: Reuters

Everyday dread

The current phase of lynch attacks on minorities and Dalits is another mutant of low-intensity localised communal violence. It is too early to say if this represents an evolving fourth phase of communal violence after Independence, or whether lynching will continue to coexist with low-intensity, dispersed episodes of communal violence.

Lynching is fast becoming the new normal in these times of orchestrated hate and rage in India. The targets of furious public bloodletting are most often Muslims, but Dalits are also in danger. It has become increasingly common for mobs to gatherand to publicly attack, lynch and murder people they claim have broken the law or hurt their (Hindu) sentiments. The excuse for the mob killings is often the claim that the victims were transporting cows for slaughter. In Jammu in April 2017, even women and a young girl from a pastoral Muslim tribal community that traditionally rears livestock were attacked while they were taking their animals to the higher mountain reaches, where they migrate every summer. If the animals being transported turn out not to be cows, the vigilantes claim instead to be animal rights activists, and beat the transporters for alleged cruelty to the animals. In Assam in May 2017, two young Muslim men were killed by villagers because they suspected them to be cow thieves. But the claimed love of cows is not the only reason for murderous attacks. In Jharkhand, rumours of child kidnapping circulated on social media and led to mobs brutally killing seven men. In Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, six men alleged to be members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a private militia raised by Chief Minister Adityanath, killed a 59-year-old Muslim villager only because he was the neighbour of a Muslim man who had eloped with a Hindu woman. One of the most sensational instances of lynching occurred in 2015 when a mob broke into the Dimapur Central Jail in Nagaland, dragged out a 35-year-old Muslim man accused of raping a Naga woman. He was stripped naked, paraded and beaten to death in the city square.

Only a tiny fraction of the most dramatic of such mob killings make it to the front pages of newspapers or television screens. In most contemporary instances of mob lynching, the police are absent or merely stand by, and defend themselves by claiming they were outnumbered. Both in cases of cow vigilantism and those where Muslim men and Hindu women have even consensual relations, the police are seen to tacitly or openly encourage mob attacks. Often, the attacks are recorded on mobile phone cameras and uploaded to the social media because the attackers gloat over what they see as acts of valour. Part of the new normal is also that no one comes to the rescue of the people attacked. Afterwards, it is common for the police to charge the victims for alleged offences, thereby constructing a rationale for the mob violence, while the attackers are recorded as anonymous men enraged by the illegal activities of the victims.

The internet has become a handy tool for communal mobilisation. The carnage in Muzaffarnagar was triggered partly by an unrelated video circulated on social media, and the lynching of seven men in Jamshedpur early this year was spurred by WhatsApp rumours about child-kidnappers.

In the political and social enterprise of reducing minorities to second class citizens, lynching is a critical instrument. Mass communal and caste violence created fear among the targeted communities, but it was still bounded by geography and time. Lynching respects no boundaries, of either space or time. Every person of the targeted community feels vulnerable everywhere and at all times. For them no place feels safe – they can be attacked in their homes, or on trains, buses or public roads. Christian minorities, especially in the tribal regions, are being terrorised not by lynching but by attacks on their places of worship as well as by draconian anti-conversion laws of the kind the Jharkhand government has just approved.

Hindu Yuva Vahini is a private militia raised by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. Photo credit: Reuters

State complicity

The culpability for each of these incidents – lynch attacks as well as small decentralised communal clashes – lies with the organisations bent on fomenting communal animosities. But it is shared equally by the shamefully weak-kneed (or actively prejudiced) responses of the state and district administrations. Each of these episodes could have been prevented or rapidly quelled, if only local officials had effectively dispelled hate rumours and expeditiously arrested those who spread the falsehoods and organised violence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi periodically speaks a few lines of condemnation for lynch attacks, apparently only to allow his domestic supporters and foreign governments to absolve him of any responsibility for such crimes. IndiaSpend reported in June that of all the cow-related attacks since 2010, 97% happened after Modi was elected in May 2014. Lynching is a device by which the ruling establishment outsources violence against minorities to mobs. It creates an enabling environment for people to violently act out their hate against minorities with assured impunity, while allowing governments to absolve itself of any responsibility.

Much of the blame lies with the central government. It is true that law and order is primarily the responsibility of states, but it is no secret that the Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power with the active support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadres. The decisive victory of 2014 has emboldened these cadres – raised on a staple diet of anti-Muslim propaganda, and further encouraged by the open deployment of these sentiments to reap a profoundly polarised vote in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Assam – to pursue their intensely divisive agendas even more vigorously. High-pitched communal tempers are not a genie that can be released and then pushed back into a bottle at will.

Now, a sense of dread mounts, almost invisibly, as communal tempers are cynically and perilously being overheated for a series of electoral harvests, and for drawing ever larger sections of low caste Hindus to stand with their upper caste oppressors against the Muslim “other”, who is cultivated as their common enemy. The Congress, socialists and the Left are too decimated and dispirited – and most importantly too weak in their convictions – to convincingly take to battle.

India has survived as a relatively peaceful nation, rebuilding itself from the ravages of colonial rule and the desperate poverty of millions of its people, because it has forestalled the path of majoritarian dominance, protected minority rights and respected difference and diversity. India’s admittedly imperfect adherence to its core constitutional values has so far enabled it to avoid the enormous civil discord and violence that several other countries in the neighbourhood and beyond have experienced since their independence. But today, we are witnessing the growing destruction of the egalitarian and humane principles of secular democracy. India as we know it – both as an idea and an aspiration – stands profoundly threatened.

After the general election of 2014, we are increasingly witnessing the dispersed low death but high hate, fear and displacement communal violence as well as lynch attacks that threaten to grow into a new normal. Is this the new normal?

It is imperative that people do not allow hatred and bigotry to be routinised into a new “normal” that would have been morally and politically unacceptable in the past. Solidarity with and between religious, ethnic and sexual minorities; oppressed castes and tribal people; women; poor and dispossessed people; immigrants and working class people; and people of colour must be forged and strengthened. Above all, in these times of normalising hate, a new imagination must be nurtured – that of people, of differences of religion, caste and gender, within and across borders, bound together by love and respect.