India, as we know it, is fast being unmade, with hatred and bigotry becoming the new normal. Hate-mongering led powerfully and charismatically from the top – a kind of ‘command bigotry’ – creates an enabling environment for people to freely and publicly articulate their bigotry and act out their hate.
As we came together 70 years ago and forged a compact of egalitarian unity as a pluralist, humane and inclusive democratic nation, we tried to thrust behind us our history of cruelty and segregation against browbeaten, subjugated, humiliated castes and women, and claim instead that part of our civilisational history that was comfortable in diversity and tolerant. The promise embedded in the Constitution that we the people gave to ourselves, was that this nation would belong equally to all people who are born into or choose it, regardless of their faith, caste, gender and class. This equitable, democratic and humane political order would protect all people equally without discrimination, and would ensure fair and just life-chances to all people born here and those who choose to live here.
But in Narendra Modi’s India today, Muslim and Christian people are at the risk of being reduced to second class citizens. Everywhere - on the streets, in workplaces, in living rooms, in neighbourhoods, in television studios and on the internet - this permissive environment for hate speech and mob violence labels and targets not just Muslims, but also Dalits, Adivasis, Christians, women, people of colour, ethnic minorities from India’s northeast and liberals. A fearsome climate of everyday, mostly unspoken, dread has been mounted by the reckless stoking of embers of recurrent, divisive and considered provocative hate-speech, threats, incitement and assaults. These together seek to coerce, by intimidation, a single way of living on all Indians – a homogenised faith system and set of cultural practices, with violent prohibitions on what you can eat, what you can wear, what work you can do, who you can love and what you can think.
We witness in India today the systematic erosion of equal citizenship of Muslim and Christian and many Dalit people. That this erosion and subversion of India’s constitutional assurances was accomplished without adequate resistance by India’s political and state institutions, courts and the media, and by ordinary Indians, causes me intense disquiet and grief. In all of this, I see around us massive failures of solidarity.
The people of India are not alone as they grapple with these turbulent times. These are indeed times of global disquiet as gales of hatred and bigotry are sweeping country after country around the world. Country after country is throwing up - and people often choosing - leaders who are authoritarian, chauvinistic, hostile to immigrants, minorities and Islam, and indifferent to the poor.
Authoritarian dictators are giving way to authoritarian leaders supported by sufficient sections of the electorate to allow such leaders to either assume power or, as in France, come credibly close to getting elected. Citizens of most countries with a majority of Muslim populations also tend to live under authoritarian regimes that are intolerant of political and religious dissent and of minorities. The world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States—as indeed large parts of Europe—are increasingly becoming hostile, threatening places for people with a Muslim name to live in. Being born a Muslim in too many countries around the globe today carries with it often intolerable and utterly unjust burdens of stigma, discrimination, segregation, stereotyping, exclusion and an ever-lurking fear of violence.
We witness in India today the systematic erosion of equal citizenship of Muslim and Christian and many Dalit people. That this erosion and subversion of India’s constitutional assurances was accomplished without adequate resistance by India’s political and state institutions, courts and the media, and by ordinary Indians, causes me intense disquiet and grief. In all of this, I see around us massive failures of solidarity. I do recognise that although this battle within has reached a decisive phase, it has long been in the making, with the so-called ‘secular’ parties carrying a great part of the responsibility for where the Indian people find themselves today. For these political parties, secular and egalitarian democracy has too long been an instrument of opportunism, electoral calculation and consolidation, rather than a core ethical principle.
I worry about the powerful rise in recent years of a polarising political leadership in India – similarly to those claiming power in so many countries, a leadership that does not heal or bridge divides but instead legitimises hatred and bigotry. However through all of this, I worry even more that the voices of public protest across India have been far too muted and few.
In recent years of mounting organised hate-mongering against Muslims and Christians, I worry that although the majority did not join these campaigns to scapegoat, stigmatise and target their neighbours, we also did too little to resist these. We allowed cow vigilantes – and in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh uniformed policepersons – to attack Muslim and Dalit people for rumours that they eat cow meat. Fifty thousand Muslims are expelled from their villages in Muzaffarnagar by hate violence, and the only opposition we hear is from Hindus protesting that their relocation has worsened crime because Muslims spell trouble wherever they go. There are reports from many parts of the country that many Muslims are too frightened to perform their annual ritual animal sacrifice on Bakr-Eid because they fear that they will be attacked for cow slaughter.
Young Muslim men continue to be detained for years on false charges of terror violence and none can return to them the years stolen from their lives by bigotry, but we believe that the state is justified in suspecting Muslim men of terror crimes even if they are innocent.
Eight Muslim youths jailed in a high-security jail in Bhopal were killed at close-range in the winter of 2016 after claims that they crafted keys from toothbrushes and a knife from a spoon, yet there were no protests. In the autumn of 2016, the country’s security forces responded to stone throwing by students in mass protests in Kashmir with pellet guns that blinded and maimed hundreds of teenagers. This muscular militarism against youthful civilian protest was applauded as patriotism. There is a vigorous campaign under way in Gurgaon, in India’s National Capital Region, against Muslims offering Friday prayers in the open, although this has been a practice with no resistance for the past decades as the number of Muslim migrant workers in the city grew exponentially.
Philosopher-economist Amartya Sen has voiced his worry that this fear being faced by the minority communities in India cannot be seen as the cultivation of fraternity.
Indeed, during the energetic and powerful leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we observe severe contestations of many constitutional principles, but none more than fraternity. The centrality of fraternity in nurturing and sustaining democracy is one of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s many profound and precious insights. The word used in the Constitution in Hindi is bandhutva, which evokes vividly ideas of comradeship and mutual belonging. That regardless of our bewildering, almost boundless multitudes of differences - of faith, caste, class, gender, language, of the ways we dress and eat, love, marry, divorce, celebrate, quarrel and mourn - we are, in the end, one people, because we belong to and with each other.
(The writer is the Director of the Centre for Equity Studies)