“Totalitarian regimes are …paradoxically pluralistic. This permits the masses to identify with or distance from the regime as needed. However when a totalitarian regime breaks apart, the majority can then shuffle the atrocities off themselves as what ‘they’ committed and by renouncing horror and bad conscience, while it is much easier for them to keep faith with the advantages the regime offered.

— Theodore Adorno in 'Guilt and Defense'.

Will we listen to a young fellow Indian patiently as he asks us an uncomfortable question with care or will we hound him to death for his audacity? I am assailed by this question as I see that Hindtuva leaders have invented a new villain for Hindus. After demonising student leaders Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam, Hindutva leaders are now after another youth campaigner, Sharjeel Usmani. They claim that he insulted Hindus in his speech at the Elgar Parishad event in Pune on January 30.

Before going into the details of the case, it would be correct to say that they are assuming (or hoping) that Hindu sentiments will be hurt by his remarks.

First, a criminal case was registered against Usmani in Maharashtra, which is ruled by the Shiv Sena, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party. After an appeal by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders to their Uttar Pradesh counterparts to put Usmani behind bars, another case has been lodged in Lucknow.

Some Muslim leaders have already distanced themselves from Usmani, lamenting that fact that he has allowed himself to be pushed to an extremist position by fascist forces. It is becoming clear that the young man will have to fight a lonely battle in the coming days.

What exactly did Usmani say that caused Hindutva leaders to be so outraged? He said that a rot has set in India’s Hindu society. He explained his disappointment with this society. How could a crowd stab a 14-year-old child 31 times? What do people do after lynching someone? They go back to their usual business, do their daily chores. Do they use some purifier, something to wash their hands? How do they eat peacefully, love their near ones, touch the feet of their elders? How do they comfortably move from one lynching to another? This is the part of Sharjeel Usmani’s speech making the rounds.

Time to introspect

Why are Bharatiya Janata Party leaders offended by these words?

Should these words be an occasion for the BJP leaders, or for us, the Hindus they claim to represent, to take offence? Shouldn’t we pause to ask what makes a young, educated fellow Indian who happens to be a Muslim say this?

Before going further, let us ask those who want Usmani jailed if the reason for their anger is solely the religious identity of the questioner or the actual content of his question.

Isn’t the question relevant? Usmani was forced to ask it because we never cared to ask ourselves how a society could be at peace with itself after the mass killing of Sikhs in 1984. Why didn’t we as Hindus demand that the people responsible for the murders to be brought to book? How is it that justice for the victims of 1984 has remained a concern only for Sikhs? Why aren’t we alarmed that the murderers and those complicit in the mass killing are living as honourable fellow citizens? They could be our uncles, neighbors, colleagues. Were there no Hindu witnesses to the killings?

A 1997 photo of a protestor seeking punishment for those responsible for the 1984 riots. Credit: AFP

After that Bhagalpur. And before that Nellie. Many more. How can we forget Gujarat of 2002? In the uprising of the farmers in the Western Uttar Pradesh, the painful memory of the mass killing and displacement of Muslims in 2013 has resurfaced. Can you have farmers’ unity without assuring justice for Muslims who were wronged by their Hindu neighbors?

The souls of Mohammed Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, Tabrez Ansari, Afrazul Khan, Junaid and scores like them who were lynched ask how is it that their killers are enjoying their lives after depriving them of the gift of life that was bestowed on them by the Almighty. Why should it not be a debate for Hindus? Weren’t the killers from within Hindu society?

The rot to which Usmani referred runs deep in our society. It is not confined just to killing Muslims or persecuting Christians. We have turned the invocation “Jai Shri Ram” into a slogan that is shouted when Muslim localities are ravaged. Should not we think about it?

Adorno’s study

It was only after the defeat of Hitler that the question of the complicity of ordinary Germans in the genocide was asked seriously. Should they have felt offended when Jewish people asked them, even if you did not kill us, why did you allow us to be killed? As a study by the philosopher Adorno demonstrates, when confronted with questions about their role in the preparations for the Holocaust, the majority of Germans tried to shrug off any responsibility.

Adorno persisted with his interrogation. When victims find the tormenter brushing aside the issue of murder, they want to shake him into consciousness. It is a desperate attempt.

Yes, Hindus do need to get hurt by Usmani’s question. We need to hang our heads in shame that a young member of a community that has lived side by side with us for centuries now looks at us as potential murderers.

We know that Sharjeel Usmani will be scolded for using the term “Hindu society”. He could have been more circumspective by saying “some Hindus” or he could have avoided the word “Hindu” altogether, those criticising him will say. Was not he blaming all Hindus for the foul act of some elements?

Another objection will be that a Muslim does not have the right to criticise Hindus. It is alright if a Hindu does it. Muslims should mind their business, worry about the ills that plague Muslim society and not pontificate to Hindus.

But there is a problem with this demand.

Credit: PTI

Muslims have every reason to question Hindus because those persecuting Muslims come from their fold. Because Hindus have elected a party that has made it very clear that Muslims hold a secondary status in the national life.

Hindus seem obsessed with Muslims and their lives. We want to protect Muslim women, we want to drag them out of backwardness, we want to modernise them, we want to school them about nationalism. We want to choose for them their food, their attire, their ways of greeting so that they look agreeable to Hindu eyes.

It is not that Hindus are indifferent to Muslims. It is this that gives Sharjeel Usmani the right to lament the corrosion of the soul of Hindu society.

Similarly, Umar Khalid has every right to ask Hindu journalists about the lies that they spread about him and ruined his life. The students of the Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University have every right to ask the policemen who came from Hindu society why they used communal slurs while attacking them. The dead Faizan has a right to ask the chief of the Delhi Police why he was humiliated and assaulted by his men, all Hindus, for his crime of being Muslim.

These are not rhetorical questions. We should not complain that by doing this, Hindus are being forced into a state of guilt and that such an expression of guilt is unhealthy. We should not ask why the multitude of Hindus should feel guilty for the acts of a minuscule, wayward section.

We need an Adorno to examine the collective mind of the Hindus that identifies with the regime, enjoys the advantages it gives them and yet does not own up to the atrocities that are being committed under its watch and in the name of Hindus. The angry reaction of the Hindus demanding criminal cases against Sharjeel Usmani is in fact an expression of the defensiveness of the Hindus about the question he has put before them.

Any reference to the crime is seen as an attempt to defame the criminal. Again, to use Adorno, the hangman gets upset when reminded in his own home of the noose. It would be good for our collective health that we listen to Sharjeel Usmani instead of being defensive. We must effect an urgent course correction to save ourselves and the nation from a greater tragedy.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi in Delhi University.