The Haridwar hate speech episode reflects a crisis of secularism and democracy in India. Simultaneous democratization and secularisation of public and private spaces is the need of the hour if such horrendous acts are to be contained, writesMD. ZEESHAN AHMAD in a free-wheeling exploration of what went wrong, and how to heal our broken Constitutional promises.
BETWEEN December 17 and 19 last years, at an ostensible religious assembly in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, a band of saffron clad sadhus and sadhvis made direct and blatant calls for genocide and violence against India’s Muslim community. This assembly was also peppered with, and attended by, some people having direct affiliation with the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). Worse, even after the passage of three weeks, the ringmasters of the Haridwar hate episode have not been arrested. This, despite the fact that there are clear video clips of attendeesfomenting vitriolic hatred and inciting the Hindus to take up arms against Muslims. However, in the face of outrage and criticism, some of the perpetrators have been arrested, but the overall lukewarm response on the issue has reflected poorly on BJP-ruled Uttarakhand, and consequently has raised serious questions about the authorities’ bias in favour of the hatemongers.
The studied silence of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on this egregious act is noteworthy. For, recently in his speech at the virtually-held international ‘Summit for Democracy’, Modi has said with great eloquence and overwhelming pride, among other things, that “democratic spirit is integral to our civilization ethos” and “[India’s nation-building] is a story of unprecedented socio-economic inclusion in all spheres.” (emphasis is mine)
Modi’s eulogy to India’s democratic model predicated, inter alia, on “socio-economic inclusion” flies in the face of the Haridwar episode. Far from being inclusionary, the assembly in Haridwar was an attempt at crude and chaste communalization of society, on a grand scale, based on visceral anti-Muslim hatred.
Economising on the anxiety and despondency borne out of the failure of neo-liberalism in India, and other socio-economic fault lines, which has produced a marked inequality in the society, witnessed in the form of large scale unemployment, dilapidated public health and malnutrition, among other things, has provided a propitious ground for the Hindu Right to sell a majoritarian model of politics. This is being done at the cost of forging a national identity informed by the broad objectives of the Constitution laced with a feeling of brotherhood and fraternity.
The Haridwar development, when seen in the immediate backdrop of spate of similar such incidents of calls for violence against Muslims, threw up many searching questions, particularly on the claim of the secularity of the Indian State and its democratic tenability. As an editorial in The Hindu notes, and rightly so, “To overlook the orgy of communal hatred at … Haridwar … as an inconsequential derangement of a fringe group may be a convenient pretext for the inaction by the police and the silence of the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), but the reality is scary.” Also read: The hollowness of the Hindutva Governance Model
Pursuit of Hindutva
This celebration of hatred in Haridwar by the votaries of Hindutva, an ideology that seeks, inter alia, cultural homogenization of a pluralistic society and privileging the majority community over ‘others’, as also those who do not subscribe to their antediluvian and constricted notion of a nation (that of a Hindu Rashtra) is frightening.
Economising on the anxiety and despondency borne out of the failure of neo-liberalism in India, and other socio-economic fault lines, which has produced a marked inequality in the society, witnessed in the form of large scale unemployment, dilapidated public health and malnutrition, among other things, has provided a propitious ground for the Hindu Right to sell a majoritarian model of politics. Subsequently, by installing religion right at the heart of Indian politics, followed by its popularising by way of movements, say, in the name of cow protection or love jihad, the Hindu Right has been perhaps successful in engineering a society largely marked by antagonism. This, however, and sadly, is being done at the cost of forging a national identity informed by the broad objectives of the Constitution laced with a feeling of brotherhood and fraternity.
The monstrosity on display in Haridwar in terms of its hatred, audacity, volubility, blatantness, semiotics, semantics, advertisement, and above all, the shoddy institutional response, is something unprecedented.
In a prescient assessment, journalist Snigdha Poonam wrote in her book ‘Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World’ (2018) that, “BJP doesn’t have to worry about elections as long as it can channel the anxieties of India’s hopeless millions.”
This ideology of Hindutva, with its history of aloofness from the national movement and, of scant regard (and at times indifferences) for ideals such as democracy and secularism, among other fine principles of Enlightenment that has anchored India’s Republican journey since 1950, has been well documented in the book ‘Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags: A Critique of the Hindu Right’ (1993). While dismissing all these progressive constitutional ideals by representing them as tools for “minority appeasement” or as a hurdle in the realisation of a Hindu Rashtra, the proponents of Hindutva provide us a window to how their Hindu Rashtra would actually be. Also read: Hindutva is a Political Movement, not a Religious One: Shashi Tharoor
The Hindutva proponents have an attitudinal approach towards the Constitution because, as explained in ‘Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags’, “the ideal of composite nationalism as enshrined in the constitution of secular India is abundantly clear, for that grants equal rights irrespective of religious creed and protection to minority cultures.” Thus, our constitutional setup, privileging individual rights over other communitarian identities, with the promise of social justice, doesn’t fit in the Hindutva scheme of things.
Present is reflection of the past
In their maddening march to establish a Hindu Rashtra, with a subordinate place for Muslims, the foot soldiers and their political-cum-religious masters are just following the precepts enunciated by ideologues such as V.D. Savarkar, the chief theorizer of Hindutva, and M.S. Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak or Chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). In his book ‘Essentials of Hindutva’ (1923), Savarkar writes: “Nothing makes Self-conscious of itself so much as a conflict with non-self. Nothing can weld peoples into a nation and nations into a state as the pressure of a common foe. Hatred separates as well as unites.” Whereas Golwalkar’s aversion towards Muslims can be gauged from his works like ‘We or Our Nationhood Defined’ (1939) in which he gives Muslims the epithet of “traitors” because they, according to him, look to some foreign lands as their holy places; while in his book ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ (1966), his canvass is much broader wherein he brands Muslims, Christian and Communists as internal threats to this nation. Also read: Savarkar: the original divider-in-chief of India
Besides the ideology, there are certain characteristics and inherent features of Hindutva which have been witnessed in the course of its distinct style of politics. In the anthology ‘Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India’ (2019),Dutch anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen observes that, “Violence is indeed a foundational element of Hindutva – as an ideology and as a political action” while French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot notes that “Vigilantism is inherent in the mission that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh assigned itself from its inception”.
The violence about which Hansen talks has a strange pretext of being activated and exercised against the minorities, but mostly Muslims. The pretexts may include “rumour” , “imagined threat”, “Muslims surpassing Hindu population by overbreeding”, “the binary of national vs. anti-national” and “hurt sentiments”. These pretexts, however, are just illustrative, and not at all exhaustive. A few recent examples of this raw violence would give us perspective. For example, the illegal demolition of the 16th century Babri Masjid by kar sevaks, at a site believed to be the birthplace of Lord Rama, the scores of lynchings of Muslims in the name of the cow, considered holy by Hindus, and the bogey of “love jihad”, wherein it is claimed that Muslim men are duping Hindu girls for religious conversion on the pretext of marriage.
The Haridwar hate speech episode calling for violence, however, marks the latest and the most egregious low in this tradition of violence, which has been integral to the politics of Hindutva. However, the monstrosity on display in Haridwar in terms of its hatred, audacity, volubility, blatantness, semiotics, semantics, advertisement, and above all, the shoddy institutional response, is something unprecedented.
A new model of hate
The sadhu at the religious assembly in Haridwar representedwhat German philosopher F.W. Neitzsche, speaking of the “men of resentment”, called “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outburst”. For, a few of the sadhus at the carnival of hatred in Haridwar, while purveying raw hate and instigating the crowd (bordering on incitement) against Muslims said, inter alia, that the Myanmar model of ethnic cleansing, wherein the minority Rohingya Muslims were massacred, which the International Court of Justice has described as “State sponsored violence”, should be deployed in India. The sadhus didn’t stop at this. One of the speakers claimed that he would have turned into a ‘Godse’ and shot former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in Parliament if he had the opportunity. Invoking and eulogising Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, in an ordinary political climate, could have elicited a different political and public response. However, popularisation of this sort of vocabulary of politics, is an indicator of the testing times in which we are living.
Incidentally, several of the sadhus who were adorning the stage and taking turns on the mic are pathological and habitual rabble-rousers, with an infamous track record of whipping hatred.
According to a report by The Hindu, a senior Uttarakhand government official has said that “[The perpetrators] may not face imminent arrest owing to several Supreme Court orders and observations that bar the police from arrest where maximum possible sentence for an offence is seven years or less”. The officials, however, should also be conscious of the fact that the same Supreme Court of India, in its S.R. Bommai judgment (1994) held that secularism forms part of the basic structure of the Constitution and it cannot be fiddled with.
What was acted out in Haridwar in the name of religion and behind the saffron colour could not, and should not, be passed off as anything secular. It was crude communalism! Comprehending this doesn’t need any sort of mastery.
This inconsistency, or perhaps wilful omission, in the invocation of laws regarding hate speeches has now acquired a status of everydayness in India. Lately, with the way sedition law has been used against critics of the union or state governments, a retired Supreme Court judge lamented last year that the sedition law has been weaponized.
The trauma which Munawar Faruqi, a stand-up comedian, who was booked for hurting religious sentiments under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (the Indian anti-blasphemy law) for a joke which he didn’t crack, is one such recent example that captures both the institutional failure to address the menace of hate speech, and privileging speech over imagined religious sensibilities. Also read: Munawar Faruqui’s case questions India’s liberal credentials
On the inconsistency of invocation of penal laws Kaleeshwaram Raj, a lawyer at the Supreme Court of India, wrote in The Hindu: “Hate Speech has become a prominent mode of articulation in the country which is abetted by selective invocation of the penal laws.”
The institutional failure, therefore, doesn’t only make the crisis of governance pathetically prominent and concerning in India, but even leaves one with gnawing concern for the life, limb and security of the Muslims of India whose otherization has reached an alarming level, in particular; and the sharp and irreversible erosion of the constitutional values, owing to galloping majoritarianism, in general.
Arithmetic of hatred
This tryst with hatred within the Hindutva ecosystem is not just exhibited by, or limited to, giving calls for genocide of Muslims, or vandalism of churches. It has many other insidious tools in its playbook, or has come to invent some lately, the examples of which I have given above. The semiotics, modes, dynamics and paraphernalia are deployed in the production of violence and then taken to its logical conclusion through a systematic process.
American political scientist Paul R. Brass, in his book ‘The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India’ (2003) has theorised what he calls an “institutionalised system of riot production” (IRS). In his theorization, Brass challenges the popular proffered explanation of riots being “spontaneous occurrences arising out of historical implication”. Further, Brass argues “[institutionalised systems of riot production] have been created in the years since independence, which are activated during periods of political mobilisation or at the times of elections.” Brass underlines that “[f]ar from being spontaneous occurrences, the production of such riots [are preceded by and] involves calculated and deliberate actions by key individuals, the conveying of messages, recruitment of participants, and other specific types of activities, especially provocative ones, that are part of a performative repertoire.”
In sum, there is a political economy of violence, or for that matter riots, which is activated as and when it is required for political mobilisation, and remains dormant, which Brass calls “the rehearsal phase” when there is no demand for it.
Furthermore, highlighting the political dividend which accrue from riots, historian Ramachandra Guha, in his treatise ‘India After Gandhi’ (2007), observes that “[b]oth parties [Indian National Congress and BJP], and leaders, reaped electoral rewards from the violence they had legitimized and overseen. Rajiv Gandhi’s party won the 1984 general election by a very large margin, and in December 2002 Narendra Modi was re-elected as chief minister of Gujarat after his party won a two-thirds majority in the assembly poll.”
However, given the embarrassment that such large-scale riots bring to the political establishment and subject it to media gaze, the producers of such violence have been forced to recalibrate their approach and methods. Though broadly, the method has changed over the years, the zeal to communalize a society hitherto marked by mutual tolerance, has not stopped. The march is on.
Political scientist Suddha Pai and researcher Sajjan Kumar, in their seminal work ‘Everyday Communalism: Riots in Contemporary Uttar Pradesh’ (2018), offer a framework of “institutionalized everyday communalism” while arguing that “[institutionalized everyday communalism] is viewed as politically more manageable [in comparison to institutionalized systems of riot production], to be carried out by the local cadres without the top-leadership being involved”. In light of this framework, Pai and Kumar argue that “low-key communal tension …. low-intensity incidents out of petty everyday issues that institutionalize communalism at the grassroots, [and] keep[s] the ‘pot boiling’”. Further, Pai and Kumar underline that “communalism is being manufactured … [to] carry out … mobilization using local, mundane issues and imaginary threats …”
The irrevocable compartmentalisation of Hindus and Muslims into two antagonistic groups on communal lines lies at the core of this politics of hate and violence, as the above studies show.
Be that as it may, unfortunately, this time-testedtemplate of calls for violence, or vitiating the society by communalising it to the brim, which gets eventually manifested in the form of riots or pogroms or massacres is not new in India. This model has been perfected by right-wing forces with its frequent deployment over the years. The studies on riots by scholars like Brass and Hansen even show that often State actors have played an active role in riots, either by their omission or commission. Also read: Message from Voters in Assembly elections: We want Development, not Hindu Rashtra
What went wrong?
The project of modernity, which started with the independence of India, but more specifically, with the coming of the Constitution into force, had democracy, secularism, multiculturalism, and social justices, to name a few, at its core.
However, misgivings about the axis around, and foundation on, which a modern nation was being envisaged existed even then. It was argued that democracy cannot work in India given its unpropitious circumstances: unbounded poverty, illiteracy, the absence of a middle class, and immense and deeply entrenched social cleavages. Even Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, and India’s first Union Law Minister, echoed this by saying that India is essentially undemocratic, on whose soil democracy needs to be instilled.
Proving all such arguments wrong, democracy survived in India. But, is the democracy that survived actually the democracy that was promised? Democracy, since the birth of the Republic, has been a contested issue. Its functioning has raised certain questions.
Was this democracy laced with the required wherewithal, say, rule of law and liberalism, that, when faced with the challenge of majoritarianism, could stand its ground? Similar questions can be posed with regard to secularism (because like democracy, secularism was also the most preferred tool used by the nationalists against the colonizers) – was it that resilient that it could have been indifferent to a politics where religion becomes a tool of mobilization?
In his critique of the Indian model of secularism, historian Mukul Kesavan, in the essay India’s Embattled Secularism, argues that in India, secularism was “a clumsy, patronising secularism, always vulnerable to resentment and the charge of appeasement, but at a critical moment in India’s history it held the pass and helped buy time for secularism to become an ordinary part of the republic’s furniture.” While in his reading of the democratic crisis in India, historian Gyan Prakash, in his book ‘Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point’(2018) argues that: “No history of civil rights battles stands behind the granting of equal rights to minorities in postcolonial India. Instead, it was the nationalist struggle against British rule that produced a secular and democratic constitution. But with nationalism now hijacked by Hindu nationalism, the defense of minority rights can summon no history of popular struggle on its behalf.”
The irrevocable compartmentalisation of Hindus and Muslims into two antagonistic groups on communal lines lies at the core of this politics of hate and violence.
This project of secularization, which provides room for secularism to deepen and evolve, followed by it becoming part of the social fabric, didn’t actually happen in India. During the anti-colonial movement, it had certain specific tasks – to harness the support of the people in order to gain independence and to challenge the politics of the Muslim League; secularization of the society was not on top of the agenda then. However, with the ascendancy of politics of the Hindu Right based on resentment and religious polarisation starting in the 1980s, things took an awry turn, for the required mechanism to check it was not there, or if it existed, was not sufficient. In sum, this post-independence quagmire, where politics should have been informed by the ideal of secularism and democracy, rather than religion and hurt sentiment, shows the failure of the Indian State in institutionalising secularism and democracy. If at all it exists, it is just symbolic.
The very institutions that were conceptualised for deepening democracy and secularism are also in a state of crisis. Civil society was hopeful at least about the Supreme Court of India, given its mandate as the guardian of the fundamental rights and protector of the Constitution. But, sadly, even the Supreme Court- the last resort of hope, given its failure to stop the galloping majoritarianism – has just accentuated the hopelessness of those who have reposed their faith in it. Also read: Supreme Court’s mixed record in 2021 brings its counter-majoritarian role under scrutiny
Highlighting the role of the Supreme Court of India in giving currency to the politics of Hindutva by accepting, in 1995, the definition of Hindutva to mean a ‘way of life’, legal scholar Saumya Saxena, in the essay Courting Hindu nationalism: law and the rise of Modern Hindutva(2018), observed that, “It was precisely this redemption of ‘Hindutva’ by the courts that permitted the appropriation of secularism by the Hindutva ideologues, such that ‘secularism’ as hitherto understood could be caricatured as pseudo secularism.” Saxena further argues that “the Hindutva judgment allowed the term ‘Hindutva’ to expand beyond religion altogether.”
Another failure on part of the Supreme Court, wherein one gets a sense that secularism was thrown by the wayside, was in its Ayodhya judgment (2019). Despite acknowledging the demolition of the Babri Masjid as an egregious and criminalact, and underlining that the issue could not be decided on belief, the Supreme Court’s verdict handed over the disputed land for the construction of a Ram temple. Even in the Haridwar episode, despite a group of lawyers submitting a representation to the Chief Justice of India asking him to act against the perpetrators, it has not been acted upon yet.
This project of secularization, which provides room for secularism to deepen and evolve, followed by it becoming part of the social fabric, didn’t actually happen in India.
The call for genocide of Muslims in Haridwar in essence captures this existential crisis of democracy and secularism in India, which, since the inception of the Republic, was not established on a strong footing. This, however, has been further exacerbated by the crippling of institutions which were mandated to deepen it. Though the Preamble proclaims India to be a secular and democratic nation, the present political culture marked by hatred, hardly upholds it.
In order to ensure that this rabid communalization stops, the political agenda needs to be set right and around secular issues. Beyond the electoral arena, alternative models and avenues need to be identified to challenge this pernicious politics of hate. Recently, this approach was witnessed during the farmers protest against the three controversial farm laws. Such was the impact of this well-coordinated and intrepid protest that not only did the government ultimately repeal the said laws, but it even became a cause of great embarrassment for the regime. This model didn’t just achieve what it was organised for, but it even demonstrated that if people have the will and are guided by leadership committed to constitutionalism, then the politics of divisiveness can be taken head on. The template of the farmers’ model needs to be popularised, and important lessons from it, like, keeping religion as far as possible from public affairs, must be internalised.
Symbolic secularism, which in itself is hypocrisy of high order, would not suffice in the given political environment charged with religious polarisation. Secularization of both public and private spaces, and the percolation of democracy to the crevices of the society, should be at the top of the agenda, if this tide of divisive politics is to be stopped. Just claiming that India is the largest democracy, or for that matter that it is an enigmatic and diverse nation would be foolhardy.
The template of the farmers’ model needs to be popularised, and important lessons from it, like, keeping religion as far as possible from public affairs, must be internalised.
In short, democracy and secularism should be our articles of faith, rather than being tools of convenience. This, perhaps, is the only antidote to the sinister attempt by the smugglers of hate to commit violence on the idea of India.
(Md. Zeeshan Ahmad is a Delhi-based lawyer. The views expressed are personal.)