In a chilling show of majoritarian aggression, Hindutva vigilante groups stopped Friday namaz at various places in Gurugram. As the Times of India reported: “There were unprecedented scenes of people offering namaz getting up midway and running away” as organised Hindutva groups shouted slogans. This was the second time in three weeks that Hindutva goons disrupted Friday prayers in Gurgaon.
The state machinery – the police most prominent among them – has visibly acquiesced in this gross violation of basic rights and failed in its duty to uphold the law. The Bharatiya Janata Party state leadership and the Union government have, of course, been silent. Their silence is a ringing endorsement of the vigilante groups who include prominent organisations linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
The Opposition that in a functional democracy would be expected to speak out against such a shocking assault on constitutional freedoms has also been silent. The Congress, the main opposition in this part of the country, appears to have conceded the fight against majoritarianism to the BJP.
The horrifying image of men at prayer being forced to flee, is of a piece with a process that commenced properly in the summer of 2014. Since then, we have seen a steady accretion of majoritarian claims over the definition of the nation and the de facto erosion of justiciable rights of citizens.
There has, from the start, been a system in place to achieve this. Vigilante gangs – some directly affiliated to the RSS, others part of its wider ecosystem – act as the foot soldiers of Hindutva. In BJP-rules states and where the Center’s writ runs, they have a free pass to disturb the peace, to provoke, bully, humiliate and terrorise religious minorities.
Sangh Parivar organisations were already stirring things up in BJP-run states in the run up the 2014 general election. With Narendra Modi in government at the Centre, they have grown in power. Many Indians determinedly interpreted the “gharwapsi”, “love jihad” and “anti-national” campaigns and the cow-protection vigilantism that followed the 2014 election as “fringe elements” or Sangh rabble who were undermining a prime minister who wanted development. Modi himself uttered not a word to suggest that it was so.
It was Barack Obama, visiting India as US president in January 2015, whose pointed reference in a speech in Delhi to Article 25 (“Your Article 25 says that all people are ‘equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion’”) who appeared to caused the newish government some discomfiture on this count.
Enough discomfiture, in fact, for Modi to make a fulsome defence of Article 25 in a speech to a Christian gathering:
“…My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith.... My government will not allow any religious group… to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions. India is the land of Buddha and Gandhi. Equal respect for all religions must be in the DNA of every Indian. We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard.”
This speech was, without putting too fine a point on it, an aberration. It was just a timorous response to public criticism from a powerful global ally.
In the three years since that speech, the incidence of communal attacks – over cows, meat eating and inter-faith relationships, among other things, has grown. Prime Minister Modi, his ministers and his party colleagues have either been silent or mealy mouthed (“the PM cannot comment on every crime”, “law and order is a state subject”). And, while on election campaign (which has been for considerable periods in the last four years) Modi and his colleagues have used dog-whistle rhetoric to advocate for the divisions the BJP and its mothership the Sangh are fueled by.
Their language of division and hate now dominates the public discourse and the loudest voices are those that systematically defend the indefensible – from justifying Mohammed Akhlaq’s murder in Dadri in 2015 to publicly supporting the men charged with the rape and murder of the child in Kathua this year.
And the rest, the nation that nightly stays glued to its TV screens, it seems is still holding out for the long promised developmental miracle. But what they are actually seeing is the slow-motion unraveling of the ties of equal citizenship that bind a nation, ties of common decency that cohere a society – even one that eats and loves and prays separately.
While they wait for Modi (“there is no alternative to him”, they say) to conjure up the skilled work force, the jobs and the industrial output that is needed for the economic growth they were promised, they will have plenty of time to chew on this little fact: Hindutva vigilantes did not terrorise groups of peaceable Muslims in some obscure rural backwater, nor even in the badlands of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan where violence of all sorts is endemic. With the police standing by, goondas ferried between namaz sites in cars, shouting “Jai Shri Ram” terrorised Muslim worshippers within sight of the plate glass-clad bits of real estate that together represent much of the GDP of “New India”. This is the New India that Modi and the BJP promised.