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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 23, May 30, 2015

Minorities under PM Modi: A Landscape scarred with Hate, Violence, Impunity

Saturday 30 May 2015, by John Dayal

On the night of Monday, June 4, 2015, less than a fortnight of the swearing in of the new government headed by Narendra Modi, 28-year-old Information Technology manager Mohsin Mohammed Shaikh was lynched in Pune, Maharashtra. The Times of India reported on June 5 under the headline “In Pune, ‘Hindu zealots’ kill man over ‘offensive’ Facebook post, 13 arrested”. Shaikh was killed randomly after rumours spread over an objectionable post on Facebook. His killers were members of the Hindu Rashtra Sena, a police inspector said. Shaikh and his roommate were returning home on their motorcycle after picking up their dinner when a gang blocked his way near the lane just behind his house and started hitting him with hockey sticks. While the roommate managed to escape, they bludgeoned the young man. Shaikh died a little while later in the hospital where he was taken. Earlier, a little before the murder, the same youths had beaten up two other men at the same spot, the Times reporter said.

Shaikh’s was the first death in communally targeted violence in the country after Modi assumed office, winning an election with the promise of development for the emerging aspirational India, and an unprecedented galvanising of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s, and Modi’s, core majority constituency. The pungent mix of supremacist religious and nationalist rhetoric, and the accompanying demonising the Muslim and Christian minorities raising the bogey of demographic threat to Hinduism in India, polarised the electorate. Modi’s failure, if not refusal, to name and chastise the Sangh Parivar conglomerate has led to a singular aggression by cadres of the party and the Sangh in small towns and villages across the country. And exacerbated the impunity inherent in the state apparatus, specially the police. “Don’t you know this is a Hindu Rashtra,” the Station House Officer of a Greater Noida police station in Uttar Pradesh told a group of pastors as he beat them up to “appease” a mob from Kulesra village that had attacked them, accusing them of carrying out illegal conversions to Christianity. Unlike Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh neither has the notorious Freedom of Religion Act, the ironically named law against conversions mostly to Christianity, nor is it governed by the BJP. But that is the mood prevailing in most States since May 26, 2014. [http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/villagers-allege-forced-conversions-in-greater-noida-pastors-questioned/]

Since then, there has been a marked shift in public discourse. There has been a relentless foregrounding of communal identities, a ceaseless attempt to create a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Hate statements by Union and State Ministers, threats by Members of Parliament, State politicians, and cadres in saffron caps or Khaki shorts resonate through the landscape.

The hate campaign is well documented. The Evangelical Fellowship of India and Alliance Defending Freedom recorded 44 separate cases of hate speech by prominent politicians which merit criminal charges against them. But most cases go unreported, unrecorded by the police. Christians form about 2.3 per cent of the population. The Muslim population, according to a selective leak by the government of the 2011 Census data, has grown to 14.2 per cent. The Census report on religious populations has not been officially published. [http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/census-hindu-share-dips-below-80-muslim-share-grows-but-slower/99/]

Hate speeches have resonated in debates in the Chamber of the Lok Sabha—an exceptionally and aggressively provocative and virulent one by the BJP leader and lead speaker, Yogi Adityanath, in the debate on communal violence—and in meetings, rallies and statements to the media by leaders of the Rashtriya Swayam-sewak Sangh and its associate organisations. Adityanath, now head of a religious cult in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, got away with demonising the Muslim community and others.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has repeatedly asserted that everyone in India is Hindu, including Muslims and Christians, because this is the land of the Hindu people and civilisation. Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the foundation of its religious wing, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS Sarsangh-chalak, bluntly stated that “Hindutva is the identity of India and it has the capacity to swallow other identities. We just need to restore those capacities.” In Cuttack, he asserted that India is a Hindu state and “citizens of Hindustan should be known as Hindus”. Bhagwat, arguably the second most politically powerful and culturally influential person in the country, has been unremitting in his pronouncements. Indian Express reporter Shyamlal Yadav on March 17, 2015 reported under the headline “Ghar wapsi ‘thrust’ area: RSS chief says help those who want to ‘come back’ to Hinduism” Among three programmes that the RSS has listed as its thrust areas is dharma jagran, another name for ghar wapsi. The other two are kutumb prabodhan (family values) and samajik samrasta (social harmony)

This refrain was picked up by the Deputy Chief Minister of Goa, and by big and small leaders across the country, going viral on social media and the national TV News channels in their English and Hindi debates. The Sangh ideologue, MG Vaidya, said on May 19, three days after the election results, that they can now tackle issues such as the building of the Ram temple on the site of the Babri mosque they demolished in 1992. Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Ashok Singhal said: “If [Muslims] keep opposing Hindus, how long can they survive?”. Another leader said: “Modi will restore Hindutva rule, like Prithviraj Chauhan. (May 25, 2014) The focus shifted to Love-Jihad, and more children to be produced by Hindu women to offset the increase in the Muslim population. Sadhvi Prachi, a Central Minister, Members of Parliament Sakshi Maharaj and Adityanath set targets for Hindu married women—conceive from four to ten children, each. By February 2015, the cry for a total ban on cow slaughter was in full peak. Maharashtra banned the slaughter of the cow and its progeny, and even the possession of beef from other States, becoming the first of the few States where such a ban does not already exist. The first arrests under the new law took place in May 2015 for the possession of meat suspected to be beef in a butcher’s shop in Mumbai.

The hate campaign has mutated to a more coercive and threatening, phenomenon that has percolated to the universities and colleges on the one hand and the villages and small towns over much of the country. One group even set up a “Hindu Helpline” to assist anyone from the majority community who is being harassed by Muslims, announcing its cadres will come to the help of any Hindu parent who suspects his or her daughter is seeing a Muslim youth.

Such hate, inevitably, leads to violence.

Desecration and destruction of churches, assault on pastors, illegal police detention of church workers, and denial of Constitutional rights of Freedom of Faith aggravate the coercion and terror unleashed in campaigns of ghar wapsi and cries of Love-Jihad. In Chhattisgarh, villages are passing orders banning the entry of priests of faiths other than Hinduism.

At least 43 deaths in over 600 cases of violence, 194 targeting Christians and the rest Muslims, have taken place in between May 26, 2014 and May 13, 2015, marking almost one year of the National Democratic Alliance government of Narendra Modi. The number of dead is other than the 108 killed in Assam in attacks on Muslims by armed tribal political groups.

The number of incidents of communally targeted violence could be very much higher, but official records are not available. Many other crimes are not registered by the police. Victims too are often coerced into reaching a compromise with their asscilants In the very first few weeks of the new government, by its own admission, 113 communal incidents took place in various parts of the country during just the two months May-June 2014 in which 15 people were killed and 318 others were injured, Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju told the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament. Many of the incidents of violence were directed against individuals and places of worship of the Muslim community. Uttar Pradesh, which saw large scale violence in its western district of Muzzafarabad in the run-up to the general elections, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Assam have been among the States where Muslims have been targeted.

Days before United States President Obama’s Town Hall speech in New Delhi went viral for commenting on the need for communal harmony and protection of freedom of faith as intrinsic to the thrust for economic development, India’s President, Pranab Mukherjee, noted the rise of communalism and the targeting of religious minorities. In his address to the nation on January 25, 2015, the eve of Republic Day, President Mukherjee said: “In an international environ-ment where so many countries are sinking into the morass of theocratic violence ... We have always reposed our trust in faith-equality where every faith is equal before the law and every culture blends into another to create a positive dynamic. The violence of the tongue cuts and wounds people’s hearts. The Indian Constitution is the holy book of democracy. It is a lodestar for the socio-economic transformation of an India whose civilisation has celebrated pluralism, advocated tolerance and promoted goodwill between diverse communities. These values, however, need to be preserved with utmost care and vigilance.”

 The Prime Minister, however, refuses to reprimand his Cabinet colleagues, restrain the members of his party or name and silence the Sangh Parivar which proudly proclaims it has propelled him to power in New Delhi. His response has been an aggressive rebuttal, accusing the church leaders of making mountains out of trivial molehills. He has accused them of internationalising trivial incidents in a motivated campaign that injures India’s image and his development agenda. In Tokyo, he mocked at “secularists”. And in Delhi, in the wake of an outcry over the desecration or attack on five Catholic churches and a convent school, the Delhi Police Commissioner and government trotted out a list of temples which had reported thefts. The Ministry of Home Affairs published data of the last three years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government to say there had been no sharp rise in violence against religious minorities. It did not release the data for communal violence since Modi took over as the Prime Minister.

Modi’s first formal response, made on August 15, 2014 in his Independence Day address at the Red Fort in New Delhi, was to call for a ten-year moratorium on communal and caste violence. But this was followed by the government declaring Christmas to be a “Good Governance Day” in honour of the BJP leader and former Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. There are fears at a severe whittling down of the 15-Point Programme for Minorities, a lifeline for many severely economic backward communities, and specially their youth seeking higher education and professional training. Since then, twice in Parliament in brief interventions, and once in a a major address to the Christian community, he has assured protection. “Your security is my job,” he told a Christian delegation which called on him to greet him on the eve of Christmas 2014. He repeated that while addressing a Vigyan Bhawan function of the Syro Malabar Catholic community.

But the incidents of violence continue.

And so does the anxiety of the Muslim and Christian communities, in particular, though a section of the Sikh leadership has also expressed its unhappiness with the RSS’ ghar wapsi campaign in Punjab.

Cardinal Mar Baselios Cleemis, the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and the National United Christian Forum, in a statement on March 17, 2015, said: “The cultural DNA of India of pluralism and diversity is being threatened. We are anxious about the impli-cations of the fundamentalist political thesis that India is “one nation, one people and one culture”. A nation of cultural homogeneity is an impossibility and any effort to impose it is fraught with grave ramifications for country. We are deeply concerned about the physical violence—arson, murder and rape of our religious personnel both men and women—as with the structural violence which is manifest in urban and rural India, in social and administrative excesses, and aberrant judicial pronouncements. We welcome the occasional statements of those in authority of adhering to the Constitution of India and, in particular to its assurances of the Freedom of Faith. However, these statements fail to have any impact on the leadership of socio-political organisations that are polarising the nation with the language and acts of intolerance, hate and violence.”

The author is a senior journalist, human rights activist and member of the National Integration Council.