As a society, India must admit that religious extremism and hatred are deeply entrenched in its sociocultural body politic.
On December 6, 2017, a Muslim migrant laborer, Mohammed Afrazul, was hacked to death and set on fire by an unemployed Hindu fanatic Shambhu Lal Regar in a small, sleepy Indian town of Rajsamand. Afterward, he posted a video of the brutal murder online, in which he claimed to have murdered Afrazul to avenge the so-called “love jihad” (a term used by Hindu nationalists to describe a practice in which Muslim men feign love to draw Hindu women away from their faith).
The gory video has left many shocked and aghast. The longtime supporter of Hinduism, Washington-based Baluch activist Ahmar Mustikhan wrote: “My head is bowed in shame as a defender of Hinduism as a humanist faith and an Indophile. I am speechless and very angry.” He compared the perpetrator to the Islamists Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, who brutally murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in London in 2013. The Huffington Post quotes the daughter of Afrazul saying, “They butchered my father like an animal.”
At this point, the debate shifts to an altogether different category where one feels the urge to look for a suitable nomenclature for an extremist strand in Hinduism.
But when this author confronted the middle and lower middle-class Hindus from the upper castes and the people from the Regar community (a Hindu lower caste to which Regar belonged) in Udaipur and the other neighboring districts of the perpetrator’s hometown, Rajsamand, he came across a very different set of sentiments. Many of those far away from the elitist, Anglicized, liberal corridors of the Oxbridge and Ivy-league world praised the killer for avenging the perpetrators of the love jihad and felt that the time has come for Hindus to take revenge for the supposedly Muslim atrocities of the last 1,000 years.
One glance at the social media outburst over the murder showcases the underlying social rift. The more sensible and thoughtful comments condemn the murder but add a qualifier that intellectuals and the media are selective in their outrage, meaning that when such brutalities are faced by non-Muslims in India, the reaction is muted. Many questioned the national media’s silence when a Christian professor’s hands were chopped off by Muslim students in Kerala for setting a grammar question that involved the name Muhammad, numerous Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS, a Hindu nationalist organization and is regarded as a parent organization of the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party) workers were brutally murdered by Islamists and communists in Kerala, and a Hindu activist Paresh Mesta’s genitals were cut off and face burned with boiling water by Islamists in Karnataka.
The prevalent complaint runs that in cases when the Hindu-majority community faces similar brutality at the hands of Islamists, the “liberal cabal” ignores the element of religious hatred, and, if anyone does bring it up, he or she is accused of giving the issue a “communal color.” For example, the online magazine Scroll.in headlined the article about Paresh’s murder with “BJP continues to fan communal tensions in coastal Karnataka over a young man’s mysterious death.”
Whenever India raises a step higher on the global barbarity index following such incidents, the end effect is almost always a polarization of Hindu versus Muslim. Even the lip service of condemning such despicable incidents does not remain an honest exercise. Right-wing political parties and cultural groups start complaining of liberal hypocrisy, of selective outrage, and extoll Hindu sentiments, going back a thousand years. Bulk WhatsApp messages appealing to the nationalist-cum-religious sentiments are circulated, resulting in sporadic incidents of violence.
Another group that primarily includes political parties like the Indian National Congress (INC) and some socialist and communist parties of India, as well as an array of liberal public intellectuals, journalists and historians known collectively and derisively as the Lutyens Club (power-wielding elite circles of Delhi) and pseudo-seculars, do not spare a second in raising a specter of “Hindu terrorism.” There is a deluge of op-eds declaring India as seething under a dictatorial regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is hell-bent on making India intolerant and extremist. Every such incident becomes another mortar in their fast-depleting salvo of ammunition against Modi.
Unfortunately, the majority of Hindus find themselves aligned to the right. This includes a large number of traditional INC supporters and the people who hate Modi for his demonetization policy and lavish foreign trips. Even the supposed liberals from the upper-class Hindu strata of Jains (followers of Jainism), Brahmins, Rajputs and Sikhs find themselves leaning toward the right as they go back to the dark spaces of their homes from their public intellectual siestas.
The question arises: Why do such real, relevant and genuine concerns get sacrificed at the altar of political chicanery and intellectual dishonesty? Yes, it is a fact that religious extremism and communal hatred has increased manifold in India over the years. It is also a fact that among Hindus one observes a spike in intolerance or a contorted feeling of resurgence. This is a dangerous phenomenon for the harmonious socio-cultural fabric of a religiously diverse society like India. It must be stopped in its tracks if we do not want this nation to descend into anarchy and chaos.
For this, the intellectuals and the media need to show a strong spine, an ethical consciousness, and ask the right questions to set the right political discourse. The right narrative can be created only with quality scholarship on sociopolitical, cultural and religious dynamics of India, which, at the present time, our public intellectuals and the media world lack.
First and foremost, the intelligentsia must make sure that such occasions in the future are not reduced to Modi-bashing campaigns based on either personal hatred, genuine ideological disagreements or hidden political agendas. Such intellectual dishonesty does the greatest disservice to the cause of secularism. Under the patronage of the establishment, Marxist historians threw visionaries like Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah into the dustbin of history as bigots and communalists.
Although there is an absence of well-reasoned alternative views from the right, there is a general perception among Hindus that the brutal history of forced conversions, temple-demolitions, genocides and jizya (tax levied on non-Muslims, or dhimmis, in a state governed according to Sharia) have been swept under the carpet, and the glorious chapters of Hindu rulers like the Gupta Empire, the Vijayanagara Kingdom and the Maratha Empire have been played down. Similarly, one often comes across headlines like “Hindu kills Muslim” even if the reasons are purely non-religious and personal. On the other hand, when a non-Muslim is slain by a Muslim, even when the motivations are purely out of religious bigotry, liberal intellectuals in India hesitate before condemning it as a case of Islamism.
These sentiments are deeply entrenched among Hindus. Even if we discount the juggernaut of the Hindu right-wing propaganda machine, the fact remains that there is truth in such allegations. For some intellectuals, it is easy to reject love jihad as a figment of imagination or a political tool of Sangh Pariwar (a term used for all the Hindu right-wing organizations affiliated to RSS) but, for a large number of Hindus, it is a real threat. But left-liberal intellectuals and media outlets brush it aside as extremist propaganda, which upsets the common Hindus.
If the liberal forces continue to take it as a mockery, the people on the ground find themselves insulted and become further detached from the liberal forces. And when liberals are found defending a particular community and perpetrators (real or imagined), the vacuum is filled by Hindu extremists who immediately appeal to the wounded Hindu sentiments and leave no stone unturned in proving liberals to be hand-in-glove with Islamists. In this, they are assisted by their strong grassroots cadre and the technological edge of social media.
As a society, India must admit that religious extremism and hatred are deeply entrenched in its sociocultural body politic. The roots of religious intolerance are to be found in the collective subconsciousness, which is the product of historical evolution over the last 5,000 years. Any analysis bereft of this understanding of the history, twisted to fit political ends, will serve no purpose except of intellectuals losing credibility.
An objective and independent inquiry will show that religious extremism and intolerance are increasing in India, and it is not confined to just one Hindu community. While analyzing Hindu-Muslim communal tensions in India, any inquiry bereft of its historical background will not give a complete picture. Muslims ruled India for more than 1,000 years, from 712 AD through 1857. The common trend among left-leaning historians is to highlight the phases of communal harmony and bonhomie between the two communities and hide the instances of forced conversions, brutal mass slaughter of Hindus and abduction of Hindu women.
But North Indian folklore is full of such incidents. During the Raj, the existing differences between the two communities were aggravated by the British for political ends. The British policy of appeasement toward Muslim separatism and extremism widened the rift between Hindus and Muslims and ultimately led to the partition of India in 1947, followed by violent communal riots on both sides of the border in which thousands of Hindu and Muslim lives were lost.
Though a large number of Muslims stayed behind in India, relations with Hindus remained strained. The history of independent India is full of bloody communal riots like the most recent ones in Gujarat (2001) and Mujaffarnagar (2013). Further, due to the spread of Islamic extremist strands like Deobandism (Orthodox school of Islam in India), and the activities of Hindu right-wing elements, extremism increased among the Muslim community. After India’s independence, Hindu nationalism was also fanned and nurtured by Hindu right-wing organizations like the RSS.
But, of late, Hindu nationalism has given way to Hindu extremism, especially when it comes to cow vigilantism and love jihad. Within the Hindu community extremism is a relatively recent phenomenon, but among the left-liberal intellectuals, politicians and the journalists there is a tendency to equate it with jihadism and put Hindu nationalist organizations in the same league as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. This tendency largely seems to be emanating from the ideological hatred, superficial understanding of Hinduism and vested political interests. This upsets the Hindu community and accentuates the intercommunal tensions. But the fact remains that incidents of Hindu extremism are increasing, and this monster must be nipped in the bud.
These are, indeed, the defining moments for India’s secularism, and it seems that the edifice has started to crumble. The process has just begun and the axis has already shifted to the right. Even the doyen of secularism, the Indian National Congress, has been quiet on Afrazul’s murder, and its chief ministers are busy banning Padmawati, a controversial film that has angered the Hindus as it allegedly depicts a fanatic Muslim ruler of Delhi Allauding Khiljhi (1296 AD-1319 AD) in love with a fictitious Rajput Queen Padmawati. The Gujarat elections are too important to be sacrificed for a Bengali migrant laborer, and the future of the party hinges on the success of “Yuvraj” — the scion of the Gandhi dynasty, Rahul Gandhi.
To a large extent, the shifting of the axis can be attributed to the minority appeasement of the INC, Hindutva politics and the menace of social media. But this blame game cannot protect us from descending into the cesspool of hateful majoritarianism if all this goes unabated. Addressing the genuine concerns of the majority community is the right thing to do, but if the process is accompanied by the brutal murders of Muslims, then we are not very far from sealing the fate of India’s supposedly robust democracy.