Last week, my colleague Devanik Saha reported the findings of a new survey from a Delhi think-tank and a non-governmental organisation. This was one of the findings: Upper caste Hindus fear the police the least, are most likely to have a favourable opinion of them and are least likely to be contacted by them. Essentially, those at the top of India’s power hierarchy were treated better by the police, those at the bottom, the worst.
These findings were not particularly startling. Intuitively, we have always known this was likely to be the case. Now, there was data to back up that intuition. But facts, as Saha, realised, are not welcome in the new India. He received these jolly WhatsApp messages from a man named Sameer Malik.
“Madar c**d ki aulaad.” Offspring of a mother-f***er.
“Motherf***er behenc**d [sister f***er].”
“Randi ke pille.” Pup of a whore.
You get the idea.
Unlike many of us of who write for a living and are of a liberal bent of mind, Saha had not been abused before. Taken aback, he calmly asked Malik what had happened to provoke such anger. It was only the fact that Saha had reported the findings about upper-caste Hindus. “There is no need to write such articles,” warned Malik.
Saha soon found that, like the hordes of social-media trolls spewing abuse and hate, Malik was one of India’s elite, an engineer with an MBA and a posh job: assistant manager at the Bank of America, a multinational bank headquartered in the US. Saha complained to the bank, which replied that they were investigating the case.
Here is the irony: Malik’s abusive reaction only reinforces what the data indicates – that upper-caste Hindus are a privileged lot in India and they do not hesitate to exercise that privilege. There are exceptions, of course, but it is rare to see a Muslim or a Dalit confident enough to use such language on social media, where the troll armies tend to be upper-caste Hindus.
Malik’s reaction is common among Hindus: Whether Atul Kochhar, the celebrity chef who railed about Hindus “being terrorised by Islam for 2,000 years”; the UP Bharatiya Janata Party MLA who said the Taj Mahal was made from Hindu slave labour and so should be renamed the Ram Mahal; the Karnataka BJP MLA who said Muslims should stay away from him; the aging, polite “uncle” who explained in my swimming-pool locker room how the media were not reporting the “war against Hindus”; and sundry other now ubiquitous bigots.
The rise of public bigotry reveals a growing sense of persecution among Hindus. Those who make up 77% of India’s population and control the levers of power have somehow convinced themselves that they are oppressed.
India’s Hindu paranoia is not unique. It is similar to, say, newly expressive anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim or racist sentiment among white people in the US and Europe, Muslims in Indonesia and Pakistan and Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In each case, the majority believes it is oppressed by minorities. Equally, there are still countries and communities – Canada or Singapore, for instance – who resist the descent into bigotry and take special efforts to ensure peace and fraternity.
Radicalised Hindus are blind to the dichotomy that underlies their anger against minorities, who occupy the lowest rungs of the economic and social ladder and are under-represented almost everywhere – except India’s prisons, where 55% of undertrials are Muslim, Dalit or tribal (together they are 39% of the general population).
As crimes against Dalits and Muslims grow, so does a feeling of impunity and privilege in large swathes of Hindu India. Facts are inconvenient and contrary to their vocal hysteria, which they spread through a Hindu-first approach that is often as bizarre as it is revealing of a great insecurity. Hindu anxiety is also apparent in various government attempts to infuse religion into education.
This Hindu-in-danger script comes at a time when India has 24 Muslim members of Parliament, the lowest political representation since Independence. Of India’s 36 states and Union territories, no more than eight elected Muslim MPs in the last general election. Muslims are under-represented in the administration, with less than 3.5% of the Indian administrative and police services Muslim in a country where their proportion is more than 14%. In Uttar Pradesh – a state that elected no Muslims in 2014 and is one of India’s leading areas for heightened Hindu paranoia – the police are dominated by Hindu officers, particularly the upper castes. Of 75 district superintendents of police, 13 were Thakurs, 20 Brahmins (the highest Hindu caste), one Kayastha (an upper class), one Bhumihar (a caste that claims Brahmin status), one Vaishya (a business caste) and six other upper castes, the Hindustan Times reported in 2017.
In most other spheres of life, Muslims, Dalits and tribals tend to lag upper-caste Hindus, who are better educated, have more opportunities in life, are more likely to be chosen for better jobs and live in the best areas. Yet, Hindus, we are told, get the worst deal. The only time Muslims, more accurately the elite among them, had first claims to the spoils of power – tribals and Dalits never did – was during India’s Islamic era, but that time is long gone.
There are some common features about Hindu paranoia. It is obsessed with a supposedly golden past that was supposedly destroyed by Islamic invaders; it uses that past to demonise all Indian Muslims, and if arguments against this position waver, proponents fall back on Quranic verses against infidels. It uses its favourite medium, WhatsApp, to radicalise and spread anxiety about fake concerns, from love jihad to the dangers posed by cattle thieves.
Christians, many of whom themselves rail against Muslims, are also targets of Hindu ire, identified as a threat because of conversions. Against Christianity, a similarly muddled, random anger pours out about the Vatican, the Pope and Sonia Gandhi – in no particular order.
Upper-class Hindu distaste for Dalits is sotto voce, because without Dalit support, the Hindu-run BJP cannot return to power. Yet derisive comments against educational and job reservations are common – as is the continuing belief of upper-caste privilege, expressed manifestly when Dalits try to ride horses, grow moustaches, drink water from the same wells as higher castes or generally fail to understand their place.
Hinduism has always been a religion that is inclusive not exclusive, argumentative not abusive. That, too, is part of the golden Hindu past that the persecuted Hindu should understand: The age of Sanatana dharma, the eternal order, the essential creed of the Hindu way, an all-encompassing philosophy that holds everything together, from beliefs to people. Hindus who feel persecuted can still reclaim their true heritage – if they cannot, the slide into paranoia will only accelerate.