The Hindu right wing reaps political dividends from the strategy of pre-planned 'rioting' against Muslims with state-assured impunity.
The killing of Muslims and destruction of their properties in several localities of New Delhi by Hindu mobs over the past few days is a textbook case of what scholars have called the “production” of violence. In this manufactured violence, which no doubt acquires certain spontaneity while it is being unleashed, the perpetrators are generally insured against prosecution.
For the world in general, because of the limitations of news production and presentation, the latest round of violence would be one more spontaneous eruption of inherent Hindu-Muslim faultlines. But such convenient descriptions have masked the most important aspect of this violence: its persistence. The violence has found its executants, who seem to be assured of impunity, in every decade precisely because it has persisted that long. Why has it persisted?
First, the Hindu right wing has reaped its political dividends. Most of its political programmes aimed at consolidating power have been driven by anti-Muslim sentiments and rhetoric. No wonder then that widespread anti-Muslim violence occurred during, or because of, such programmes—the cow protection campaign in the Sixties or calling Hindus in the late Eighties to demolish a Mughal-era mosque so that a temple could be constructed over it. Most of the 900 people killed during the post-demolition violence in 1992 were Muslims.
An anti-Muslim pogrom in the state of Gujarat, triggered by the killing of more than 50 Hindu pilgrims on a train in 2002, happened under the watch of its then chief minister Narendra Modi. He has never lost an election since. In fact, it was under his leadership in 2013 that the Hindu far right formed a government on its own for the first time since 1947.
The people elected him the second time, this time with an even higher number of votes, in 2019. He inducted Pragya Thakur, accused of a 2008 bombing that killed nine people and injured 100 others, into his cabinet. She twice called Mahatma Gandhi’s killer Nathuram Godse a “patriot”. In 2017, Modi crowned Yogi Adityanath, a controversial monk who once called for “killing 100 Muslims for every Hindu killed”, as chief minister of India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh.
Soon after assuming power, Yogi’s government told a court that he could not be prosecuted for making a hate speech against Muslims. His government ordered that a case related to his defying prohibitory orders in 1995 should be withdrawn. A year later, Yogi’s government withdrew 131 cases against Hindus accused in an anti-Muslim pogrom of 2013 that killed about 50 Muslims and displaced more than 50,000 others in the Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh.
While earlier non-BJP governments were weak-willed or incapable of preventing anti-Muslim riots or punishing the perpetrators, Yogi went a step ahead and demonstrated such violence could be implicitly condoned by summarily withdrawing prosecution of the accused. Millions of young foot soldiers of Hindutva, the ascendant Hindu nationalism, quickly get the message that not only can they transgress the law but, like Pragya, they might end up as lawmakers one day.
Noted scholar on South Asia, Paul Brass, writes in ‘The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India’ that most of the so-called ‘riots’ are planned and the extent of this planning is concealed. The organised nature of the violence maintains “intact the persons, groups, and organisations most deeply implicated in the violence by preventing punishment of the principal perpetrators”.
Brass argues that the “maintenance of communal tensions, accompanied from time to time by lethal rioting at specific sites, is essential for the maintenance of militant Hindu nationalism, but also has uses for other political parties, organisations, and even the state and central governments”.
The media and the intelligentsia do not help in ending this unending cycle of impunity because they perpetuate, Brass argues, a “master narrative that requires no knowledge of facts on the ground for its immediate acceptance”.
How does it happen, Brass asks, that large-scale violent events, in which “mostly Muslims are killed, mostly by the police, get classified in the press, by the authorities, and by the public as riots rather than pogroms”?
The violence in Delhi throws some light on this. While Muslims have been peacefully protesting at several places against a citizenship law they fear would deprive millions of them the right to live in India, some leaders of the ruling BJP government made provocative speeches against the protesters. One called for “shooting dead the traitors”. Apparently, heeding to this call for murder, a juvenile fired into the protesters at Shaheen Bagh area, injuring a student.
Another BJP leader, Kapil Mishra, tweeted on Sunday that police should clear the streets of the Muslim protesters within three days.
“Don’t try to reason with us after this because we won’t pay heed." Hours later, the violence erupted, killing 27 people, most of them Muslims, so far.
A judge of the Delhi high court who was hearing a petition last Thursday seeking the registration of cases against Mishra and others had noted that "we cannot let another 1984-like event [anti-Sikh pogrom] happen in this country". Judge Muralidhar asked why the BJP leaders shouldn't be booked for hate speeches and asked the police chief to "seriously consider the consequences of" not registering the case. When the government of India's lawyer Tushar Mehta argued that the case would be registered at an "appropriate time", the judge said: "What is the appropriate time, Mr Mehta? The city is burning." The judge was transferred to another state the next day, while the defiant 'agent provocateur' Mishra took to Twitter to slam those demanding his arrest.
But Mishra could hardly be blamed for the provocation. The fire had already been lit by the top BJP leadership, including Modi and his trusted lieutenant Amit Shah, during campaigning for Delhi assembly elections, which BJP lost. Anti-Muslim prejudice oozed through most of these incendiary election speeches. Mishra, therefore, is only following a script perfected by the Hindu rightwing. His is only one of the processes in this assembly line manufacturing of violence. What has been produced and what would be its political value will unravel gradually.
Many had warned of anti-Muslim violence, especially after the hate speeches and Mishra’s ultimatum. But the government of India, which is responsible for policing in New Delhi, did nothing to secure the lives of Muslims.
In one of the affected localities with both Hindu and Muslim populations, Hindu households hoisted saffron flags, signalling to the rioters what houses should be spared during attacks. Was this part of the deal or merely caution exercised by an advantaged group that could not have done anything anyways to save its neighbours?
In several testimonies to the media, Muslim victims accused the police of siding with Hindu assailants and, in some cases, actually participating in the violence. That the police becomes one with Hindu rioters has been a recurring lamentation in the post-violence narratives of Muslims.
Barring a few independent outlets, most of the Indian media have already started deploying the “master narrative” Brass alludes to in his book. The sites of the violence have already ‘started limping back to normalcy’. There is no sustained effort to investigate the causes or the main players behind the violence, which is being consistently referred to as “riots”. But how is a locality where a mosque was burnt and where liquor bottles were thrown into a shrine ever going to be normal?
The science of violence production, scholars say, involves preparation and rehearsal, which have been continuous processes in some states of India, especially where Hindu and Muslim populations live side by side.
A fertile environment, such as political mobilisation or elections, provides spark for activation and enactment of violence. In the third and the important stage, which follows the violence, according to Brass, journalists, politicians and others get together in an elaborate process of “blame displacement”.
“It is a process that does not isolate effectively those most responsible for the production of violence, but diffuses blame widely, blurring responsibility, and thereby contributing to the perpetuation of violent productions in future,” Brass notes.
Example? On the third day of violence, after the horrors of the pogrom had been widely circulated on social media, Modi appealed: “My sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times."
He also said the security agencies were doing their job, thus discounting beforehand Muslims’ complaints that the police had been partisan, while also not acknowledging the criticism heaped on the police by media reports and the high court. The obfuscation began as the truth found its way out.
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