Every passing week, in one part of the country or another, we Indians seem to underscore the validity of American civil rights champion Martin Luther King’s profound observation: “The ultimate tragedy of mankind is not the brutality of the bad, but the silence of the good.” To encourage the good to speak out against the vigilantism sweeping the country in its many menacing forms, India urgently needs a movement to rally them.
The need for such a movement was on display last week in Ghaziabad in the National Capital Region, just about 25 km from the residence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After a five-year courtship, a Muslim man and a Hindu woman were getting married under the Special Marriage Act, 1954. Neither had changed their religions and the marriage was blessed by both their families.
Yet, activists of the Bajrang Dal, Hindu Raksha Dal and Dharam Jagran Manch descended on the woman’s house. They denounced the marriage as an instance of “love jihad”, a term used by Hindutva groups to accuse Muslim men of marrying Hindu women for the sole purpose of converting them to Islam. They created a ruckus for five long hours, provoking the police to lathicharge them. In protest, they blocked traffic on the roads nearby.
It is unlikely that the Hindutva vigilantes would have had the audacity to interfere in the personal affairs of two individuals had they expected resistance from fellow citizens.
Ghaziabad is not a remote, parochial place. It is definitely home to a large number of people who believe that an interfaith marriage is a personal choice, not a case of love jihad. But such citizens cannot or do not resist fundamentalist groups because they lead individualised lives, isolated from others who share their opposition to these attacks on freedom. There is no way to rally them against the bullying of Hindutva groups.
The organised vigilantism in India is aimed at ensuring Martin Luther King’s Good Citizen is silenced or paralysed into inaction. Most often, the good feel that it is futile to imperil their own safety by opposing a pack of vigilantes. From this perspective, the inaction of the good is structural – and it has been compounded by Hindutva’s rise over the past three years.
This is borne out by the fact that the three subjects that most agitate the Hindutva vigilantes – cow slaughter, love jihad, religious conversion – have long roots. Riots over cow slaughter date back to the late 19th century, as do allegations against Christian missionaries using fraud to convert people. As for the claim of “love jihad’, India’s first major communal riot after Partition, in Jabalpur in 1961, was triggered by a Hindu woman eloping with a Muslim man.
Hindutva vigilante groups have never seemed as brazen as they have since the Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in May 2014. Most of these groups are either affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or ideologically influenced by it. The fact that the RSS-BJP rules as many as 19 states, besides running the central government, has emboldened the vigilantes. They believe that their violence is tacitly approved by their political masters, who will intercede on their behalf with the administration if it has the temerity to act against them.
This change in India’s political architecture has had a chilling effect even on those citizens who would at least want to urge the state to crack down on Hindutva vigilantes. They feel they cannot, as individuals, confront the merchants of hate who are organised, armed, and enjoy immunity from state action.
Since the silence of these citizens is a structural problem, it can be overcome only through a movement aimed at creating a network of individuals deeply perturbed by the increasing tendecy of Hindutva groups to fan religious hatred, squash freedom and subvert the rule of law.
It is clear that these vigilante groups have a clear aim in raising the bogey of love jihad, cow slaughter and apostasy: to achieve the RSS’ dark dream of a Hindu Rashtra. Religious identity is primordial, but it ebbs and flows. In times of social conflict, however, its appeal is irresistible. This is why Hindutva groups seek to create a social atmosphere where religious communities are perceived to be in permanent conflict. By convincing Hindus that they are under siege, these groups aim to win more recruits, and votes, to their cause.
Thus, Christian priests singing Christmas carols are accused of attempting religious conversions and beaten mercilessly – as happened in Madhya Pradesh earlier this month– to convey to Hindus that they face a dire demographic threat. A Muslim-Hindu marriage like the one in Ghaziabad becomes a collective insult to Hindus because women have been held up as a symbol of the honour of their communities.
To create a situation where communities seem to be at war with each other, it is essential for individuals to be denied their freedom to choose. The vigilantes insist a Hindu girl must abandon her love for a Muslim boy in her community’s interest, just as is expected of people in times of war.
If the Hindu woman refuses to play along with their demands, the Hindutva groups attempt to portray her as being too naive to fathom the wiles of her partner, who, in the manner of the archetype Muslim, is accused of feigning love only so that he can convert her. Their attempt to disrupt the wedding is Ghaziabad was an attempt to emphasise that the Hindu woman’s decision to marry a Muslim man was not only a trap but an anti-Hindu act, a betrayal of community.
Similarly, Adivasis choosing to become Christian are projected as having to have rejected Hinduism, not matter that many indigenous groups are animistic and do not think of themselves as Hindu to begin with. Much like the Hindu woman marrying a Muslim man, people who convert to other religions are infantilised: since they are deemed incapable of voluntarily choosing their own faith, they are criticised as having converted for material gain.
In the current climate of Hindutva hatred, it isn’t just Adivasi converts or Hindu women marrying Muslim men who are suspect. Every critic of Hindutva represents the fifth column in the war between Hindus and the rest. The critics are, to quote Union minister Anantkumar Hegde, “people without parentage or who don’t know their bloodline. They don’t know themselves.”
Hindutva groups, therefore, believe that they have the responsibility to make them realise who they are: Hindus of the kind Hindutva demands. The right of the individual to define himself is subjugated to the demands of the community as defined by Hindutva. With this comes codes about how to dress, what to eat, which films and books to shun. It is the vigilantes’ duty to implement these multifarious, forever multiplying codes. This sense of duty drives Hindutva groups to subvert the rule of law in the course of their mission, safe in knowledge that illegality is sometimes necessary if community is to be protected.
The state’s abdication of its duty to act against these criminals makes it imperative for India to start a movement against the insidious forms that vigilantism has taken. Some people believe that Hindutva groups are becoming increasingly brazen because they enjoy societal sanction, but this perception is the consequence of citizens being terrorised into silence. The Good Citizens must rally together in solidarity to voice their opposition to these acts of illegality.
Such solidarity was precisely why the anti-corruption movement of 2011 had such resonance. It was not a spontaneous upsurge, but crafted through the ingenuity and zeal of civil society activists. In his book India Social, Ankit Lal describes how social media was used to recruit volunteers for the movement and to rally them behind the Aam Aadmi Party in the 2013 state election in Delhi. Citizens angered by corruption were given a platform to build group solidarity around an issue they were individually agitated about but had not raised their voices against – until then.
As we ring in 2018, Indians should think of crafting a movement whose slogan could be: “Fight hatred, save freedom, preserve the rule of law.”
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi.