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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 15, March 28, 2009

Communalism and Hate Speech

Thursday 2 April 2009, by Ambrose Pinto

Ordinary terms used by ordinary people to express significant experiences can be turned into hate speech. The word “conversion”, for example, means a profound experience of personal or social transformation. For Ambedkar, conversions were a symbolic expression of protest against caste. In one of his public discourses, he had said that “though born a Hindu, he will never die as one”. His outbursts were primarily because of the personal and social trauma that he and his community had undergone as untouchables in the Hindu social system. For Kabir, Buddha and Vardhman Mahavira and other mystics, religion was a personal transformation that helped them to be reformers in the system. In the current context of the emergence of Right-wing politics in the country, the term has become hateful. In the name of conversion, the Christian community is attacked first as we have witnessed in the Kandhamal district of Orissa, Mangalore in Karnataka, Dangs in Gujarat and other parts of the country. The community is identified for attack for larger political designs and people are made to believe through an extensive propaganda machinery that Hindus are lured to become Christians by inducements and bribes and atrocities are legitimised on the Christian community. The propaganda is so extreme that the common sense of the people is transformed. The facts on the growth in the Christian population after each census may be totally different as indicated in the table below.

1951.............................2.5 per cent

1961.............................2.44 per cent

1971.............................2.60 per cent

1981.............................2.43 per cent

1991.............................2.34 per cent

2001.............................2.18 per cent

But it does not matter for the communalists. When the community is declining in numbers, how does the hate campaign stick? Lies repeated can be construed as truth for a short time. Similarly, terrorism and extremism are the other two terms associated with the Muslim community. Though Muslims as a community are hardly terrorists or extremists, they are termed so and violence is unleashed on them. Whenever and wherever there have been bomb blasts, the community is targeted as culprits of the crime without investigation or proof. Ordinary people are influenced by the dominant discourse of the Hindutvavadis. There is no counter-discourse by the secularists or the so-called secular political parties. Hindutva terrorism is permitted to grow and expand by propaganda and violence on the minorities and the subalterns.

Then there are other kinds of hate campaigns that are accepted as normal of “Indian culture”. The institutional hate the SCs/STs have suffered for centuries and still suffer in spite of the country declaring itself secular is unthinkable. The Dalit groups have been stating again and again, both within and outside the country and in the national and international forums, that caste is worse than race. There is not only hate speech but hate behaviour expressed through violent actions and deeds directed against the community and the backward classes with the intent of asserting their imaginary natural inferiority or the superiority or domination of other groups. The recent case of violence in the Ambedkar College of Law by the Tevars on the Dalits in Chennai is a fine example of caste hate by the backwards on the Dalits. By linking achievement, status and merit with caste, the SC/STs are made to internalise inferiority. Perpetuation of social stereotypes of inferiority leads to feelings of self-hatred, humiliation and isolation and affects achievement. It is unfortunate that we still use terms like “untouchables, impure, polluted, low and backward castes”. This style of looking down on the majority of the population (the SCs, STs and OBCs constitute more than 80 per cent of the population) can induce low achievements in them and create for them problems at the workplace. The silent prejudice, the unspoken hatred that gets expressed in violent deeds and the inaudible threats pose a challenge to their very being. We cannot work towards a secular state with stereotypes of this kind on sections of the populace representing communities or parts of communities. The communalists desire to divide communities by myths and stereotypes. Their designs are clear. They are against development of the subalterns and the marginalised. If we fall is prey to such a divisive agenda, it would be tragic. All said and done, the communalists constitute a minority. They do not represent those whom they claim to represent and yet they have been able to influence the minds and behaviour of the masses due to the influence they wield in society.

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The majority of the people in the country are people of goodwill who hardly speak out. It is for the first time that we have seen citizens coming out in such big numbers against the politicians in Mumbai after the recent terrorist blast. The elite come out on the streets only when their interests are at stake. The other occasions when people protested must have been at the time of the Emergency and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Unfortunately, the mass of people are uncritical. The state is expected to represent them and as a secular institution is expected to educate the people. In fact, the state is the sole arbiter of what is publicly speakable or unspeakable, what can be used as part of public discourse and what should not be. But the marginalised and the subalterns have discovered that the state, even if it is not totally communal, sides with the communalists and hate-mongers and discounts secularism. It is in keeping with the secular credentials that the state cannot allow certain pronouncements or acts that affect the honour and dignity of the marginalised groups which attack the liberal foundation of democracy. Stereotyping communities is surely not permissible under any law. How can we still use terms like impure, polluted, backward, low, extremists and terrorists for communities in a secular framework? These are derogatory terms that demean individual personalities in communities. The state has to act.

Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits the promotion of enmity between groups, was used against Taslima Nasreen for her book My Girlhood and on M.F. Hussein for his artistic depiction of goddess Saraswati in nude. Both were within the framework of rationality. While Taslima was highlighting the exploitation of women in Islam, she became a victim of communalists of her community backed by the communalists of the majoritarian community. M. F. Hussein was attacked on the ground that he belonged to the minority community and he has been told that he has no business to take artistic licence on the religious symbols of other religions. Why does the state follow double-standards? The state, while using 153A on two reformers of society (the state action has not been favoured by the secularists and the progressives), has failed to use the same weapon against the incendiary language of the communalists of the majority community when they propagate hatred and attack the minorities and the marginalised. It is politically easy to target Taslima and Hussein since these personalities‘ acts have no political implications in terms of short-term political gains. Rather, the communalists gain in terms of vote-bank politics by attacks on the minorities. In the long run, however, by targeting them, the secular agenda of the state gets eroded and communalism is reinforced. Parties opine that they are likely to lose out if they clearly take a stand in favour of secularism and humanity. This, of course, is a misplaced belief. The so-called political parties have failed to realise that the communalists may claim to represent their communities but they are a minuscule minority in their own communities. If the secular parties along with the state decide to challenge the communalists by counter-speech and highlighting the latter‘s charges to be untrue, erroneous, mistaken, lies and hate, they are sure to succeed and establish a larger vote-bank than is usually imagined.

Nehru had stood up against the communalists and did not allow them to expand their base. That is because he was a firm believer in the secular ideology, and thus he could challenge the communalists and win election after election. If the Congress has lost in recent years its base, one of the important reasons is the compromise it made on the issue of secularism. The party bungled badly on Ayodhya and other acts of terrorism. Its stand on issues of both conversion and terrorism has been one of compromise. The success story of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu, Marxist ideology in West Bengal and Tripura and even the Bahujan politics of Mayawati are a result of challenging the communalists on their communal propaganda and proposing the counter-agenda. When hate speech and action are directed against the innocent and the weak who do not have the intellectual strength and numerical capacity due to poverty and illiteracy, it is the state that has to be at their service if the designs of the communalists have to be defeated. While freedom of thought and expression is a must for a liberal democracy, a liberal democracy should not tolerate any kind of speech that incites violence, that attributes inferiority, terrorism and backwardness to different communities and pronouncements geared to false propaganda against vulnerable communities. Silence by secular parties, civil society groups and the state on occasions when they should speak out can be injurious for secularism, development and the greater good of democracy. The state along with civil society groups needs to mobilise the marginalised and the discriminated who constitute the majority for a different India than the one proposed by the communalists. The experiences of political parties, especially of regional groups with a non-compromising agenda against communalism, have been positive. There is a need for all people of goodwill to come together to fight this menace which may destroy the secular edifice of the nation. The compromise of the Congress party on the issue of secularism has also affected development. If the party carries on with leaders who are not committed to ideology, it may not be long before one witnesses the death of the party.

More and more people are fed up with the national parties. The anger and frustration of the people have to be addressed. People will not wait for leaders and parties. They have too long been victims of rhetoric and political speeches. As they become conscious of their rights and responsibilities, they will act without delay. There is an urgent need for political parties, if they desire to govern, to link themselves with the issues and concerns of the marginalised and the subalterns and fight against the communal threat that will destroy all of us.

Dr Ambrose Pinto SJ is the Principal, St Joseph’s College, Bangalore

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