Hindutva Vigilantism and Muslims: Institutionalization of Violence.
Status of Muslims in India: A Background
Before discussing the three case studies of Muslim persecution and ghettoization, I would like to give forth a general background of the precarious status of Muslims and other minorities in India. To situate my argument theoretically in the current discourse on Indian politics and its implications for the neighboring countries, I would like to borrow from Shakuntala Banaji's1 critique on Hindutva (2018).2
I am taking two parts from the essay - the synopsis and the conclusion - quoting verbatim to gain a certain sense to analyze the broad contours of the current situation that Indian Muslims live in. The synopsis reads:
History and common sense are re-written through audio-visual communications to appeal to one section of a dangerously split Indian public and a neoliberal-touristic sensibility elsewhere. Enlightenment rhetorics of progress, democracy and technological development are apparently embodied by WhatsApp groups, electronic voting machines and laws to protect cows. Voting - as a marker of democratic citizenship - becomes a masquerade protecting a resurgent far right Hindutva (Hindu fascist) regime under the aegis of Narendra Modi and the BJP. Caste Hinduism's association of cows with deities, and the proscription on meat-eating in certain versions of religious practice, are used as pretexts for unimaginable violence against Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and working class/lower caste Hindus. Violence against those who dissent is rationalised as patriotic. Hindutva's banal and spectacular audio-visual discourse overwhelms public communication.
Its consequences are a form of vigilante citizenship that is marked on the bodies of dead victims and of vigilante publics ready to be mobilised either in ethno-cultural violence or its defence and disavowal. Meanwhile, attracted to India as an enormous market, Western governments and corporations have colluded with the Hindutva regime's self-promotion as a bastion of development.3
The second paragraph from Banaji's work gives an insight on how the different institutions that a democracy pivots on are functioning. This would also afford some understanding about what kind of internal responses might be possible or available to those aggrieved by the violence of the state and vicious vigilantism that the state promotes. She writes:
The Hindutva project currently under way in India is a modern, indigenised version of fascism, not yet complete or able to reject electoral democracy, but with an alertness to the West's current fetishisation of Muslims as a worthy enemy and an ability to de-democratise and subvert democratic processes under the guise of democracy. Hindutva fascism's various actors are not united by any means: but they are both shrewd and patient, and have been far more effective in fusing violent othering with an acceptable facade of participation, modernisation and democracy than religious nationalists in neighbouring nations.
The insidious process of flooding the public sphere with images and signs of Hindu supremacy, of culling text books, and initiating Hindu supremacist schools, colleges and training camps has been joined by the faster and more agile processes of taking over boardrooms and media houses, running networks of trolls and normalising extreme violence. Thus, vigilante publics are created, while mobs, storm troopers and their mouth pieces in media and judiciary are supported by political allies' adept at demonising liberal-secular discourse.
While Hinduism and Hindutva are by no means synonymous, the leaders of the Hindu far right, and those who spread their voice in the west, have done their best to ensure that they appear as a singular entity. The vigilante publics created to bolster Hindutva now strive to erase all contention. The few high-profile Hindus to gainsay this narrative are labelled traitors and pseudo-secularists, while ordinary practicing Hindus who resist are silenced and persecuted. Despite its absorption of British orientalist narratives, laws and strategies, Hindutva is an autonomous postcolonial project, with ambitions to suppress, delegitimise, command or eliminate many existing cultures - and peoples - in India and surrounding countries.
There are several reasons for the myopia and negligence which attends mediated accounts of Indian fascism and colonial violence. Noteworthy among these are: an exceptionalist fixation on the genocidal violence in mid-twentieth-century Europe and the idea that Europe would never let this happen again; postcolonial myths about the "essential" peace-loving "nature" of Indians and India as the largest democracy on earth; and a misguided political correctness which cedes the telling of global south histories to particular groups of powerful "natives."
If viewed alongside contemporary, colonial and imperialist representations of India as a poverty-stricken, illiterate and superstitious "rape-capital," with a justice system and railways bequeathed by the British, it is possible to see how the modern imaginary and counter-narrative of "shining India," a global economic superpower replete with traditional beauty, faithful housewives and ancient (Hindu) temples (and surrounded by barbaric, terrorist Muslim neighbours), has a magnetic appeal for groups of Indian nationalists. But the fetishisation of a diminished form of democracy which allows India to clothe itself in the rhetoric of enlightened participatory modernity, and the refusal of many scholars and media in the rest of the world to take a stand against Hindutva is not so easy to comprehend, and will have repercussions across the globe.4
There is almost a consensus that the demolition of the historic 16th Century Babri Mosque in December 1992 by the Hindu extremists led to a massive Hindutva surge that finally brought these forces into the political mainstream and propelled them to power. The Babri Mosque has remained central to the Hindutva forces and their demands and pledges to build a temple dedicated to Lord Rama, or Ram.5 It remains a forceful rallying cry for various groups even after two decades since the demolition of the mosque. The empowerment and appeasement of the Hindutva forces started soon after the Independence in 1947, with the secular Congress government forming informal tactical coalitions with these forces, not only to keep Muslims under check but also to instill fear into them and turn them into some sort of pocket boroughs.6 In 1949, it was the Congress government that allowed shilanyas or the foundation ceremony for the Ram temple at the mosque.
Aijaz Zaka Syed (2018), a Dubai-based Indian journalist and commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs writes about this phenomenon, which is quoted below:
Ignoring the historical role of various Hindutva organisations in the destabilisation of the country by purveying hate and strife between Hindus and Muslims and their role in Gandhi's assassination as well as thousands of anti-Muslim riots, successive Congress governments humoured them and looked the other way. Not one person involved in all those thousands of riots under the Congress has ever been convicted. It is under the Congress that thousands of 'shakhas' [or units] of the RSS, the ideological parent of the governing BJP, have operated - openly preaching hate and giving arms training to impressionable Hindu children and youth. It is thanks to that groundwork and indoctrination by the RSS under the watchful eyes of the Congress that the BJP is in power today and enjoys absolutely unassailable position across the length and breadth of India. For this the Congress has to blame no one but itself.
The fact is, the BJP has grown all these years right under the nose of the Congress, at the expense of the Congress and with the blessings of the Congress!...
The number of those killed in anti-Muslim riots across the country since Independence runs in millions. Ensnared in false cases by security agencies, thousands of young, promising lives have been scarred and wrecked forever. While a significant number of Indian Muslims rejected the idea of Pakistan and consciously chose to stay back in India, charmed by Nehru's liberal, effervescent personality and the idea of a secular and inclusive India, the Congress presided over a systematic devaluing, degenerating and dehumanising of this minority community. Using its famous politics of tokenism and feeding stereotypes of skullcap sporting netas [or leaders] fraternising with the community, it has managed to keep Muslims down in the dumps in every aspect. Even as the Congress allowed the Hindu Right to grow into an unstoppable force that it has become today, the Congress used the spectre of Hindutva to keep Muslims locked away forever in their ghettoes.
If the Indian Muslim today finds him/herself at the absolute bottom of the pit, below the lowest of the low, in terms of every socio-political and economic indicator and stares at an increasingly bleak future in the land of his ancestors, the credit solely goes to the Congress. Without a voice and presence reflecting their population size in parliament and assemblies, in government services and the highest decision-making bodies of the country, the dispossession and powerlessness of Muslims is complete and unprecedented.7
This is the picture of Muslims in India today. So, one can run a wild guess about any response from within to counter the decades-old institutional violence coupled with actual violence on the streets, hatred and apathy from the various institutions of the state. One Muslim activist recently told me that their focus at present is not to get justice, as it has eluded the Indian Muslims since 1947, but to somehow try that no violence happens against them. This is a far cry, because violence is the means through which the Hindutva forces have raised their influence and gained public support. A study conducted by the Yale University political scientists showed that the BJP gained after every anti-Muslim riot and pogrom, politically and electorally.8 This is no wonder that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recently predicted large-scale anti-Muslim violence in the run up to the forthcoming national elections.9
I have picked up three case studies from the recent past to explore the Hindutva-provoked incidents of violence and what kind of response was framed by the aggrieved parties i.e. Muslims to deal with them. We will also try to survey if these internal responses have had any bearing on the situation. These case studies involve a Muslim educational institution, a Muslim public personality, and an administrative province that is not too old and had almost no history of anti-Muslim violence in the past.
Case Study 1: Aligarh Muslim University (AMU)
The AMU is one of the oldest Muslim educational institutions. It has produced many top Muslim public figures, intellectuals and politicians since 1947 and is ranked 10th in the central Indian government's latest ranking of public universities. With more than 35,000 students from across India, majority of them Muslims, the AMU is an essential part of India's Muslim heritage and a symbol of its progress and promise. Because of AMU's position as being central to India's Muslim intellectual identity, Hindutva groups are increasingly targeting it for its symbolic value and the public and media attention that any controversial activity around it garners nationally. During the last five years, it has been under a continuous and vicious assault from the right-wing Hindutva groups. According to the Muslims, the motivation of the Hindutva groups is to erase the historic Muslim character of the institution, as well as stoke hatred to garner support for the 2019 Indian elections.10
On this year's Valentine's Day, supposedly a day to foster love and understanding, a well-known Muslim Indian politician and parliamentarian, and the President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittihadul Muslimeen, Assaduddin Owaisi, was planning to visit the AMU. The Republic TV, a pro-Hindutva and anti-Muslim television channel headed by Arnab Goswami and financed mainly by a BJP leader, went on to the campus to do a television program. The TV channel did not carry authorization to film inside the campus, something that is necessary given the grave threats to Muslims in India and the fact that the AMU that has been threatened by the Hindutva workers on a continual basis. The crew started provoking the students and blaming the institution to be 'a den of terrorists.' The altercation led to the threats from the journalists who were also supported by the violent members of the Hindutva parties.11
Earlier, the members of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), an affiliate of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), held unauthorized and charged demonstrations against Owaisi and called for a ban on his entering into the campus. This also created a heated atmosphere. Later, a complaint was filed with the police by the local head of the BJYM, Mr Mukesh Lodhi. He accused the students of assaulting him and chanting pro-Pakistan and anti-India slogans. This resulted in filing of nine charges including sedition against 14 students of the university, including the chief of the student's union. But no action has been taken on the two separate complaints filed by the university administration. The administration filed a complaint each against the journalists for entering the campus without permission, and the unidentified miscreants for indulging in arson and unlawful activities.
This is not for the first time the police have displayed an open partisan and pro-Hindutva approach. Talking about the incident, AMU students' union president, Salman Imtiaz, said the crew was 'asking farcical questions and labelling AMU with terror and anti-national activities.'12 According to him when the students challenged the journalists about their style of questioning and advised them to seek a proper permission for filming from the authorities, 'the reporters heckled the students and the female reporter threatened to frame false sexual harassment charges against the students.' As per Imtiaz's account, this led to the disruption in the campus, 'followed by a reaction from a well-armed gang of BJP terrorists who started beating AMU students.'13
It is quite obvious from the above incident that the police, state administration and the ruling politicians are indulging in open and brazen partisan behavior. So, one could gauge what kind of response can be framed in such a situation. Following points sum up the situation:
- A Muslim member of Indian parliament had planned a visit to the AMU
- A right-wing news channel wanted to do an unauthorized program on this, entered the campus illegally and started asking provocative questions from the students, blaming that their institution is a factory of terrorism.
- The university authorities ask the journalists to leave because they had no authorization.
- The journalists threaten both the administration and the students, and they are supported by the local Hindutva activists, who start beating up the students.
- The leader of a Hindutva group lodges a complaint with the police blaming the students for raising pro-Pakistan and anti-India slogans.
- Fourteen students are booked under the sedition charges.
- The police do not take any action against the journalists or the Hindutva leaders on two complaints of the University against the illegal trespass and violence.
- Assadudin Owaisi cancels his visit.
Case Study 2: Hamid Ansari's visit to AMU
On May 2, 2018, India's former Vice President Hamid Ansari, escaped unhurt from an attack organized and orchestrated by the Hindutva men.14 Ansari was inside the Aligarh Muslim University where he was to deliver a lecture on India and pluralism. Earlier, he had enraged the Hindutva extremists by defending the portrait of Pakistan's founder, Jinnah, inside the hall of the students' union in the premises of the university. At the time, a controversy was provoked by the local BJP parliamentarian, Satish Guatam, who had demanded the removal of the portrait that hung there since 1938. The controversy was duly fanned by the right-wing media and supported by several Hindutva leaders across the country. Ansari, being an alumnus and the former vice chancellor of the university questioned the rationale for the removal of the portrait. This earned Ansari wide scale rebuke from the right-wing and culminated into an attack on the AMU campus during his presence.
More than a dozen Hindutva men equipped with firearms and sticks invaded the AMU campus and started shouting incendiary slogans while Hamid Ansari, was inside the campus. Some among the posse started waving pistols and country-made revolvers in front of the building where the former Vice President was staying in. This was the first such Hindutva attack on the AMU but since the anti-Muslim violence has been so normalized, it did not receive the media attention or the government action that it deserved. The details of the incident are quite scary: According to some AMU students quoted by the media at the time, 'goons first burnt an effigy of Mohammad Ali Jinnah at the AMU's Bab-e-Syed gate. After this, they started shouting slogans against AMU and the university administration. Later, they went on to assault another student.'15
The Ansari event was cancelled. The police refused to register an FIR against the perpetrators, who allegedly belonged to the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a militia established in 2002 by Yogi Adityanath, the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the province where the AMU falls. Besides, the six members of the violent mob who were overpowered by the students and handed over to the police were released without ascertaining their role in the violence.16 Later, the police also attacked a peaceful student demonstration against the Hindutva violence held inside the campus. According to the reports, they were mercilessly beaten through baton charge and attacked with tear smoke shells. The police also snatched mobile phones of several students who had recorded the violence. More than 30 students were critically injured, including the president and the secretary of the students' union.
A university spokesperson had shown 'deep concern' over the police behavior while one teacher, Najamul Islam, remarked the students were treated like enemies.17 Let me break down the main points of this case study:
- A former Indian Vice President is attacked by a Hindutva mob who brandished firearms and raised abusive slogans.
- They broke the security protocol, entered illegally into a famous university, beat the students. The university security or that which was present with the vice president took no action.
- Some of the perpetrators were caught and handed over to the police who released them immediately.
- The police refused to file an FIR on the complaints of the university administration.
- When the students held a peaceful protest against the Hindutva violence, they were baton charged and attacked with tear gas.
- A university spokesperson said they were treated like enemies by the police.
- Under these circumstances, what internal mechanisms can be adopted to counter such a menace, remains to be answered.
Case Study 3: Uttarakhand
Uttarakhand is one of the youngest Indian provinces. It came into being in November 2000 and was created from the Himalayan districts of Uttar Pradesh and is considered to be part of central, northern and north-central India.18 It has a large number of Hindu temples and pilgrimage centers. In the geographic area that forms Uttarakhand, there was no history of mob violence, particularly in the hills. Nor was violence part of normal politics. But this changed in 2017 when the BJP came into power. There have been almost one hundred attacks, initiated by the Hindutva groups, mainly directed against Muslims. Each of these attacks has been justified in guise of a response to some 'atrocity' or 'anti-national' act by Muslims.19 'In every attack, the modus operandi is simple and the same as elsewhere in India. An allegation is made that someone from a target group - mostly a Muslim - has insulted the Hindu faith, or has sexually harassed a Hindu girl, or praised Pakistan, and so on.
The saffron organizations then 'protest', demanding police action. Simultaneously, they beat up that person, attack their family's property, or attack other Muslims to 'punish' them for their 'offence.' The police then arrest the targeted person and their family members. No action is taken against those responsible for violence.'20
In Uttarakhand, at least to some level, the Hindutva violence is being opposed in a more organized and better way than in the rest of India where the response is too fragile, fragmented and feeble. A civil society group Chetna Andolan has formed collaborations with the political groups like CPI, CPI(M), some women's groups and many local social movements and organized public conventions to oppose violence. They have held programs using traditional forms of protest at the village level such as Kanastar bajao - beating of the jerry cans - to raise awareness and foster the spirit of communal amity.21
These anti-violence protests have seen participation from a wide spectrum of opposition political leaders, intellectuals, thought leaders and large social movements. A majority of the protestors belonged to the marginalized classes, showing a promise that those suppressed could join hands to fight a common scourge - violence. So, we have seen joint protests by daily wage workers, working women, Dalits of various hues and Muslims. Their demands have been the enforcement of the rule of law and an end to hate politics; the implementation and enforcement of labor laws and welfare schemes; and rights over natural resources. The collaboration has led to some pause in violence, at least for now. But with the help of a partisan administration, the BJP government continues to work towards its aim of marginalizing Muslims.22
Muslim Shops Forced to Remain Closed
On July 30, Hindu mobs attacked Muslim businesses and shops in Ghansali town in Tehri Garhwal district. Thirteen shops were ransacked and shopkeepers were threatened to leave. Many families or shop owners left.23 Four days after the riot, when some of the Muslims tried to open their shops, they were threatened or beaten by Hindu youth and forced to close again. When some shopkeepers approached the police for help, they were advised to keep them closed for few days in view of tense environment.24 The police took notice but no action was taken against the rioters. A leader of a local Hindu trader's body, Saheb Singh Komain, who is also a member of the Hindutva group, claimed no Muslim shops were forcibly closed but suggested Muslims should leave the town. District Magistrate Sonika Ghansali said, 'No Muslim from the town has told me that he has been asked to shut his business and leave.'25
She added 'If the local police have asked the ... Muslim traders to close their shops for the next few days, then it must have been done after analyzing all aspects.' The Congress party accused the BJP of trying to polarize the society for political gains, said the Congress state president Pritam Singh. In response, BJP state president, Ajay Bhatt said, 'No BJP member has been involved in such incidents. BJP and its government treat all citizens equally by protecting their rights and freedom.'26
I discussed three case studies, of a Muslim educational institution (Aligarh Muslim University), a Muslim public personality (Hamid Ansari), and an administrative province (Uttarkhand) in India, to explore the Hindutva-provoked incidents of violence and what kind of response was framed by the aggrieved parties i.e. Muslims to deal with them. The social and political ghettoization of Muslims in India is enacted as a form of state-sponsored vigilantism and subsequent violence against Muslims. Due to the lack of response from within the state institutions to counter the decades-old institutionalized violence, the Muslims in India have been put on the defensive, not to demand justice but the reduction in violence against them.
It is therefore, abundantly clear from the case studies of violence perpetrated against Muslims has been institutionalized and fed into Hindu imaginary that serves as a means through which the Hindutva forces have raised their influence and gained public support, it will continue to be inflicted on Muslims and Dalits for their vested political interests.
1 A British academic who has written about the Indian media and public behavior.
2 Shakuntala Banaji, "Vigilante Publics: Orientalism, Modernity and Hindutva Fascism in India," Javnost - of the European Institute for Communication and Culture 25, no. 4 (2018):333-350, DOI: 10.1080/13183222.2018.1463349.
3 Ibid., 333.
4 Ibid., 345-346.
5 Arshad Islam, "Babri Mosque: A Historical Bone of Contention," The Muslim World 97, no. 2 (2007): 259-286, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1478-1913.2007.00173.x; and Julia Shaw, "Ayodhya's Sacred Landscape: Ritual Memory, Politics And Archaeological 'Fact'," Antiquity, 74 no. 285 (2000): 693-700, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00060087.
6 Badri Narayan, Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2009).
7 Aijaz Zaka Syed, "The Problem is Not Indian Muslims," News, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/292845-the-problem-is-not-indian-muslims.
8 Gareth Nellis, Michael Weaver and Steven C. Rosenzweig, "Do Parties Matter for Ethnic Violence? Evidence from India," Quarterly Journal of Political Science 11, no. 3 (2016): 249-277, http://dx.doi.org/10.1561/100.00015051.
9 "India May Face Communal Riots Before Elections, Warns US Intelligence Chief, Economic Times, January 30, 2019,//economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/67752414.cms?utm_source=contentofinterestandutm_medium=textandutm_campaign=c ppst.
10 BJP leader Narendra Modi again secured a landslide victory in April-May 2019 elections.
11 See also the online article by the same author, Murtaza Shibli (February 16, 2019) Sorrows of Aligarh, The News, URL: https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/432466-sorrows-of-aligarh. (accessed on March 30, 2019).
12 "14 Aligarh Muslim University Students Booked for Sedition after Fracas with Republic TV Crew," Scroll.in, February 13, 2019, https://scroll.in/latest/913063/14-aligarh-muslim-university-students-booked-for-sedition-after-fracas-with-republic-tv-crew.
14 Tariq Hasan, "Was Former VP Hamid Ansari The Real Target of Attack on AMU," Citizen, May 3, 2018, https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/2/13707/Was-Former-VP-Hamid-Ansari-The-Real-Target-of-Attack-on-AMU.
15 Murtaza Shibli, "Sorrows of Aligarh," News, February 16, 2019, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/432466-sorrows-of-aligarh.
18 Raj B. Mathur, "Uttar Pradesh," in Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed July 8, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/place/Uttar-Pradesh.
19 Sharjeel Imam, The Hindu Republic: Seven Decades of Muslim Exclusion in India, TRT World, Feb 3, 2019,https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/the-hindu-republic-seven-decades-of-muslim-exclusion-in-india-23794.
20 Shankar Gopalakrishnan and Trepan Singh Chauhan, "There are Signs of Hope in the Fight against Saffron Violence in Uttarakhand," Economic and Political Weekly 53, no. 13 (2018), https://www.epw.in/engage/article/there-are-signs-hope-fight-against-saffron-violence-uttarakhand.
23 Kautilya Singh, "Uttarakhand: Mob thrashes Muslim boy for being with Hindu Girl," Times of India, July 31, 2018, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/mob-beats-up-muslim-youth-found-in-hotel-with-hindu-girl-in-tehri-area-of-ukhand/articleshow/65204150.cms.
24 "Muslim Traders Threatened, Asked to Leave by Hindu Traders," Siasat Daily, August 1, 2018, https://www.siasat.com/news/muslim-traders-threatened-asked-leave-hindu-traders-1387179/.
25 Kalyan Das, "Facing Threats, Muslims Fail to Open Shops in Uttarakhand Town a Week after Mob Violence," Hindustan Times, August 6, 2018, https://www.hindustantimes.com/dehradun/facing-threats-muslims-fail-to-open-shops-in-uttarakhand-town-a-week-after-mob-violence/story-V4Lm79e2e8y2FE6uEkSOZJ.html.
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