From Nellie to Shaheen Bagh: India’s inherent contradictions come to a violent head

The anti-Muslim violence in Delhi early this year is but one of a spate of anti-Muslim but also anti-minority pogroms and massacres that are the culmination of the decades long institutionalisation of Hindutva politics, groups and politicians.  Zulkarnain Banday argues that the roots of India’s anti-Muslim violence lie deep in its recent history and impact all minoritized communities.

“There were 360 idols inside THE Kaaba when Muhammad (pbuh) destroyed them and made it a mosque. It was actually a Hindu temple and Muslims took it from us, and soon we (Hindus) will take it back,” screamed a  visibly angry man surrounded by a group of his coreligionists at Chand Bagh, one of the localities in North East Delhi where a pogrom against Muslims was unleashed in February, killing at least 55 people, the majority of them Muslims.  This statement is just one of the myriad fictions that circulated around India via various social media platforms at the height of the mob attacks.

The current wave of violence directed against Muslims intensified after the BJP regained power in the 2019 general election with a resounding parliamentary majority. Amongst its first acts was the amendment of 1995 Citizenship Act. The new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), made religion the primary criteria for acquiring Indian citizenship for the first time in the history of independent India. The Act offers refuge to persecuted religious minorities, except Muslims, from the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. This Act, of course, is discriminatory but it becomes dangerous when read in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR). Read together, they mirror the Nuremberg Laws.

The alleged need for the NRC arose from the specific context of Assam, a border state in the

north east of India. It deems as Indian citizens all those who can prove they were residents of Assam before 24 March 1971 – the day before the creation of Bangladesh. The process, which is riven with bureaucratic failure and arbitrariness, shifts the burden of proving citizenship on the people and is based on the production of a series of documents. The results of the process were published in August 2019 wherein two million people, both Bengali Hindus and Muslims, were left out of the final list, thereby rendering them stateless. The alleged illegal immigrants risk being put into concentration camps and dispossessed of any property and rights that come with citizenship. But here the CAA comes to the rescue of Hindus and other non-Muslims who are excluded from the list of Indian citizens in Assam. They will be granted Indian citizenship. What about the Muslims?

What happened between Assam and Delhi?

The state of Assam has six detention centres and the government is planning to build 10 more. It is here that “doubtful citizens” or “foreigners” are lodged in pitiable conditions. Harsh Mander, a prominent social activist in India described these detention camps as “worse than prisons”. “In the women’s camp, in particular, the inmates wailed continuously, as though in permanent mourning.”

In July 2019, the Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah, told parliament that the “government will identify illegal immigrants living on every inch of country’s soil and deport them”, signalling that the expansion of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to the rest of India is inevitable. In fact, during the 2019 general elections, the BJP claimed that “illegal immigrants”, or “termites” from Muslim majority Bangladesh as the Home Minister called them, have sneaked in and are sponging off Indian citizens.

Soon after the CAA was amended and passed in the Indian parliament, students from different universities hit the streets protesting against what they called a discriminatory law that goes against the very founding ideals of India. The police responded with force, entering university campuses and brutally attacking students. The assault on Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh and Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi left hundreds injured. Police stormed the campuses and chased protesting students through the libraries and corridors destroying everything in their way. As one of the students describes it, “it was not meant to disperse the protesting students, but to punish.”

Several sit-ins bloomed across the country, mainly led by Muslim women, to protest against the NRC and CAA. but even they were attacked and beaten, with state forces placing several protestors under arrest, launching smear campaigns against prominent faces of the sit-ins, and engaging in rampant custodial torture of Muslims, especially of young boys. There were also murder attempts against protestors by gun-wielding men who identify with the right-wing Hindutva ideology, fuelled by fiery remarks by ministers bent on stoking violence.

The pogrom in Delhi followed the crushing defeat of the BJP in the state election that month. The election campaign, led by none other than the Home Minster, Amit Shah, saw deeply communal and divisive speeches designed to polarise voters on the basis of religion. The BJP’s main pitch, in contrast to the governance issues of the rival Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), was that a vote for the BJP would be the defeat of the anti-CAA/NRC protests which had erupted across Delhi. These protests were labelled as a “conspiracy”, “anti-national” and an attempt to establish a “mini-Pakistan”.

The pogrom against Muslims in Delhi lasted for 72 long hours in the latter half of February. I visited the most affected areas of Chand Bagh, Mustafabad, Jaffarabad, Gokulpuri, Bhajanpura, Maujpur, and Shivpuri. The violence unleased by the militant Hindutva mobs was not sporadic, targeted and well planned. It is noteworthy that these communities were rendered vulnerable not only because of their religious identity, but also because most were from the lower-income social strata.

There was a pattern and precision in attacks against Muslims. For example, in a cluster of shops, those belonging to Muslims were either burned down or looted. Similarly, at least fourteen mosques, a madrasa (religious schools) and a cemetery were targeted. The charred Qurans and other religious texts in wooden racks, residual smell and charcoal on the walls of mosques, homes, and businesses bore testimony to the magnitude of the violence. In Ashok Nagar, murderous mobs vandalised a mosque and placed a saffron flag on its minaret amidst loud and passionate chants of “Jai Shree Ram” (Victory to Lord Ram). In the frenzy that unfolded, it was not merely property that was damaged or lives that were lost. An entire community was scarred, violently evicted from their homes and deprived of their livelihoods.

A generation of young Muslim children were witness to a macabre decimation of their history, identity, and community, thereby leaving them scarred for life. Reports of sexual violence began to emerge from women who had to bear the double assault of the vulnerability of their identity as Muslims as well as women.

Back to beginnings: the foundation of the RSS

The violent disempowerment and disenfranchisement of Muslims and other marginalised communities of India did not begin with the recent authoritarianism of Narendra Modi-led BJP (Bhartiya Janta Party) rule at the centre. It has a longer history and is a colossal project which has been underway since the foundation of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) in the early twentieth century. The RSS takes inspiration from Italy’s Mussolini and Nazi Germany and strives for the Hindu Rashtra, a Hindu homeland.

The bloodiest episodes of violence against Muslims in 1993, 2002, and most recently, 2020, and against Sikhs in 1984, and against Dalit-Bahujan communities on an everyday basis are mere symptoms of an underlying disease, a rot that poses a danger to everyone who is not designated an upper caste Hindu in the imagination of the militant right-wing organisation. Their dream of Akhand Bharat (undivided India) is premised on neo-colonial, territorial expansion where several parts of the subcontinent are to pay allegiance to the supremacy of Hinduism. It is this idea that has accelerated the brutal occupation of Kashmir as well as unbridled militarised rule over India’s north east. And it is this idea that propagates a system of disciplining Muslim bodies within the fold of the Indian nation state and punishing them should they transgress. Such punishment ranges from daily discrimination to systematic exclusion and even, as we saw recently in February 2020, a state sponsored pogrom.

As is clear from, but not limited to, the Nellie massacre of Muslims in Assam in 1983, the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi, the Hashimpur massacre of Muslims in 1987, the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, the 1996 Bathani Tola massacre of Dalits in Bihar, the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat and other violent episodes from independent India’s history, state forces, including the police and the judiciary, have actively abetted and shielded murderous Hindu mobs or have been directly involved in propagating and legitimising violence against those targeted as the enemy. For example, in 2000 the Indian government set up the Justice G.T. Nanavati Commission to investigate the 1984 anti-Sikh violence. During that pogrom, over 3,000 Sikhs were massacred in the capital alone. The commission culminated in a 185-page report which found that the police provided indirect or direct assistance to mobs that were in many instances led by leaders of the Congress party.

The Commission observed: “There is enough material on record to show that at many places the police had taken away their (Sikhs) arms and other articles with which they could have defended themselves against the attacks by mobs. After they were persuaded to go inside their houses on assurance that they would be well-protected, attacks on them started. All this could not have happened if it was merely a spontaneous reaction of the angry public. The systematic manner in which the Sikhs were thus killed indicated that the attacks on them were organised.”

In a subsequent separate official inquiry, around 72 police officers were indicted for their direct and indirect involvement in the violence against Sikhs. However, the battle for justice continues with some of the chief instigators of violence now enjoying key roles in the current ruling party. In fact, this cycle of impunity is so entrenched that after overseeing the murder of more than 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, then Chief Minister of the state, Narendra Modi went on to become the Prime Minister of India in 2014. This has parallels with the success story of BJP which saw an increase in membership after the 1992 violence in Ayodhya. By 1996 it had become the largest party in the Indian Parliament.

The RSS is the parent body of the BJP. It is the world’s largest non-governmental paramilitary group boasting approximately six million members. The RSS acts as the sole fountainhead and an ideological source for various splinter groups which include Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing, founded in 1949, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the religious wing that was founded in 1964, the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing, founded in 1984. All of these organisations are collectively known as the Sangh Parivar. The RSS is not registered and does not have any bank account or registration records of its members. All these groups have for decades been involved in hate crimes against several minority communities in India.

The ideology that binds these ultra right-wing groups together is Hindutva. Hindutva is described by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom as an ideology which holds non-Hindus as foreign to India, whereas Amnesty International defines Hindutva as the political ideology of an exclusively Hindu nation. It is this poisonous ideology that defines the hegemonic political, social, economic, and cultural networks in contemporary India. In fact, the first pogrom, in which the RSS, along with the army of Dogra Hindu ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh, was directly involved, happened in the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir in October 1947. A report in 1948 in the London Times estimated that 237,000 Muslims were systematically exterminated in this pogrom.

In an essay in The Nation, celebrated writer and public intellectual Arundhati Roy wrote: “RSS is no longer a shadow state or a parallel state, it is the state.” She goes on, “Day by day, we see examples of its control over the media, the police, and the intelligence agencies. Worryingly, it appears to exercise considerable influence over the armed forces, too.” Little has changed for RSS since its inception. Its current leader, Mohan Bhagwat declared in October 2019 that, “the vision and proclamation of the Sangh regarding the identity of the nation, social identity of all of us, and the identity of the country’s nature are clear, well-thought-of and firm that India is Hindustan, a Hindu nation.”

A cursory look at the Indian Parliament shows that nearly 75 percent of the ministers, including the Defence Minister and the Home Minister, have firm roots in the RSS. The current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi boasts about being a lifelong member of the group. A concerted effort by its members for decades has culminated in an unassailable control of the social and political realm.  According to a US-based writer and political commentator, Pieter Friedrich, who has extensively written on the RSS and its affiliates, “the kind of violence in which the RSS, and the Hindu nationalist movement it has cultivated, is implicated includes assassinations, bombings, and even pogroms against Christians, Muslims, and anyone who stands up against its xenophobic agenda.”

The BJP,  the political arm of the RSS, is the present ruling regime in India. The potential dangers it poses for the country have been summed up by the former US ambassador to India, Joel Ehrendreich, in a Wikileaks cable: “The traditional muscle power of the BJP has always been the RSS. The RSS can survive without the BJP but the BJP cannot exist without the RSS. This inextricably links the BJP to the RSS’s Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) agenda. If the BJP does not toot the Hindutva horn, the RSS will not mobilise Hindu voters.” This poisonous nexus has, in fact, contributed to the rise of hate crimes and other grave violations of human and political rights of the minority communities in India. Not only do these acts go unpunished but are also rewarded with promotion, monetary gains, heightened access to the corridors of power, and in the case of the BJP, a boost to the vote bank.

The BJP rose to prominence when it joined the VHP’s campaign for the destruction of the Babri Mosque. The Babri mosque, an imposing place of worship for the Muslims in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, was a 15th-century mosque built during the times of Mughal emperor, Zahir ud-Din Muhammad Babur. In the early 1990’s, the BJP could hardly win a seat in the state or send its members to Parliament. However, that drastically changed with the demolition of the Babri Mosque at the hands of Hindutva radicals.

India post-Babri Mosque

The forceful encroachment of Babri Mosque began just two years after the Partition of British India when Hindutva fanatics invaded the mosque and placed a Hindu deity there. They claimed that the Hindu deity Ram was born where the mosque stood. The dispute continued for decades until the VHP decided to launch a pan-India movement in the mid-1980s with the BJP formally joining it, led by LK Advani. Advani, a radical BJP leader known for making inflammatory speeches, led a road journey across India called “Rath Yatra” (journey on a chariot) to garner support for building a Ram Temple at the place where the mosque stood. The culmination of this journey, along with provocative speeches by various BJP leaders which include former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, resulted in the demolition of the Babri Mosque on 6 December 1992. It was followed by a nationwide wave of attacks against Muslims led by the RSS and its subsidiaries which killed at least 3000 people, and damaged or destroyed many Muslim religious and cultural symbols.

By 2019, the entire site where Babri Mosque once stood was handed over to Hindus, gouging a permanent scar in the psyche of the Muslim community. The judge who pronounced the judgment was later given a seat in parliament as a quid pro quo by the BJP.

Faizan Mustafa, a senior law professor and jurist of constitutional law in an interview with The Indian Express remarked: “Based on the operative parts of the judgement it looks like the Supreme Court gave importance to belief over other concerns. The court, even while observing that faith is limited to individual believer and that it cannot determine a land dispute, eventually gave the disputed land for the construction of a Hindu temple. This means that belief of a section of people was given prominence over the rule of law even though the latter should have ideally determined a property dispute.”

Such an absolute surrender of the judiciary to the whim of the hegemonic Hindutva forces was also witnessed in the execution of Afzal Guru in 2013. He was framed on false charges of carrying out an attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and was placed in solitary confinement in New Delhi’s notorious Tihar Jail for 12 years. In 2013, the Government of India hanged him secretly, without informing even his wife or his son, despite a glaring lack of evidence against him. The judiciary pronounced that the decision was taken to “satisfy the collective conscience” of India.

‘Anti-Romeo squads’, beef lynchings and other majoritarian vigilantisms

Another way in which this hate-filled collective conscience is manufactured is by moral vigilantism under campaigns such as the so-called “Love Jihad”, and “Anti-Romeo Squads”. In vogue in India for the last decade, these campaigns are aimed at “saving” Hindu women from “sensuous Muslim men”. Their danger lies not only in the obvious patriarchal control exerted on the choices women make, but also in normalising the demonisation of Muslim men.

Chetna Devi, one of the right-wing leaders, a lawyer and head of a Meerut-based outfit called Akhand Hindustan Morcha (United India Group) and a campaigner against “Love Jihad”, said in an interview recently that, “Muslim men are sensuous and are better at satisfying a woman’s desires.” She goes on to say that , “if a Hindu girl experiences intimacy with a Muslim boy, she falls madly in love with him and even the honour of her family becomes a secondary consideration.”

These are not fringe expressions, instead they are mainstream, inspired by constant state backing. “Anti-Romeo Squad” was, in fact, launched by Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. This was the first initiative he undertook after being elevated to the highest seat of power in the state. These squads would patrol streets and force couples to do sit-ups if spotted together. The state mandate for the squad did not merely give them immunity from the law but made them the law. These saviour missions, rooted in the chronic yet manufactured victimhood of the majority community, reproduced by declaring a permanent war against the marginalised.

Infringement on personal space does not stop at women. The state also decides what one should eat, wear or speak. Muslims and Dalits are increasingly lynched by mobs on suspicion of cow slaughter or consuming beef as the ruling regime weaponises the popular beliefs of the majority community which considers the cow to be “Ma” or mother. The cruel irony remains that India is one of the world’s largest exporters of beef.

The first victim of lynching after the BJP came to power was 58-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq from Uttar Pradesh who was killed in September 2015. Cow vigilantes barged into his house and attacked him with knives, sticks and bricks for allegedly storing beef in his refrigerator. This set off a chain of lynchings across India, mostly in BJP governed states, where the victims were Muslims and Dalits. Lynching is not just violence against the Other or death due to violence, it is a public spectacle designed to terrorise whole communities. In an article in the New York Times, writer and journalist, Aatish Taseer elucidated, “A lynching is much more than just a murder. A murder may occur in private. A lynching is a public spectacle; it demands an audience.”

This was evident in a case in 2017 in the state of Rajasthan where Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old dairy farmer was accused of smuggling cows and lynched by a radical Hindutva mob. The incident was filmed and videos of the gruesome crime were circulated across social media to be consumed by millions of people. The practice of filming and circulating such videos became a model for subsequent lynchings wherein the videos acted as a tool for instilling fear within the Muslim community on the one hand and giving Hindutva extremists a sense of power and dominance on the other. Not surprisingly however, these murderers are often left to roam free or are bailed out swiftly to be garlanded by ministers of the ruling regime upon their return from prison.

The history of modern India is replete with examples of horrendous crimes committed against Dalits (formerly untouchables) and Adivasi (indigenous) communities. Massacres, social exclusion, everyday discrimination and systematic oppression apart, mobs of upper caste Hindus have lynched males from the oppressed caste for growing a moustache, riding a horse or building a two-storey residential house – all characteristics reserved for the upper castes as symbols of honour and wealth.

Since 2014, concerted efforts to consolidate the Hindu Rashtra project through cultural, political and judicial paraphernalia have seen stunning success backed by a majoritarian sanction. However, in 2019 the country witnessed unprecedented mass protests not only against discriminatory citizenship laws but which brought in an entire gamut of issues. The protests led by the Muslim community, notably women, also witnessed cross-community solidarity with other marginalised groups. The Modi regime had not anticipated such a large countrywide response. However, it seems the thrust of the majoritarian project is still strong and popular enough to forge ahead undeterred by the protests. There are enough people in the country who see Modi as a messiah anointed by God to lead India to the promised land of an exclusivist Hindu state.

Zulkarnain Banday is an independent journalist and researcher based in New Delhi. He holds a first class Master’s degree in international journalism from the University of Bedfordshire, UK. He has previously worked with Hindustan Times, Delhi and has been published in The Statesman, Caravan Magazine, The Dawn and Project India Magazine.