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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 2 January 13, 2024

Understanding Rise of Communalism, Lynching and Social Suffering: A Way Forward | Swati Draik, Badre Alam Khan & Sumit Kumar Gupta

Friday 12 January 2024, by Badre Alam Khan


A two-day workshop conducted by Karwan-e-Mohabbat (karwa of love) on “Communal Violence, Lynching, and Social Suffering and Justice” was held on December 17 and 18, 2023. The workshop, held at Adhchini, Delhi, covered a spectrum of themes including communal violence, the rising threat of majoritarian politics, hate crimes, legal justice, lynching, and the role of the judiciary, state, and wider civil society. The prominent speakers provided insightful and valuable knowledge on such issues. They also discussed the routine targeting of religious minorities, particularly from Muslim and Christian communities, by communal forces and vigilante groups in the public domain. In other words, they highlighted how the violence against Muslims has become the “new normal” through the acceptance of a majoritarian common sense. However, amidst the despair, the eminent speakers and learned audience underlined the need to come forward (by “We, the People of India”) and stand united with forged solidarity to protect Constitutional morality and the idea of India based on pluralistic and secular values as envisioned by the nationalist leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Azad, and Ambedkar, to overcome the extremely critical situation in times to come. In this workshop, more than ten sessions were held on several themes and issues, as stated above.

The workshop began with the noted journalist, John Dayal, who presented an overview of the rise of violence and hatred against religious minorities, including Christians in Manipur, and Muslims and Christians in Palestine. While toeing the line of Dayal, Prof V.K. Tripathi further expressed concerns about rising violence and hate against Muslims within the country, as in Nuh, (Haryana) and even globally, particularly in Palestine.

Another key speaker Dr. Harsh Mander, writer and peace activist, reviewed the situation on issues of communalism, and lynching and how they hurt the foundational idea of India. Drawing on Bipan Chandra’s writings (Communalism in Modern India, 1984), Mander explained that communal ideology becomes problematic when a religious community realizes that their common social, economic, and political interests are in direct conflict with the interests of other communities, as propagated by communal organizations in the current political scenario. To elucidate this, he contrasted the disparity in issues that a person of impoverished status may face in comparison to what may be faced by an affluent person of the same faith (within the community the problems of poor and rich are not identical and same) . However, communal ideology focuses only on religious identity, rather than other distinctions, such as caste, class, or gender, underlined by the speaker.

He further shed light on the trends and trajectory of communal riots that happened in our country since the 1960s. Mander said that after the horrific violence during the partition, India witnessed a period of relatively communal harmony and peace during the Nehru years, which were disrupted by the 1961 riots in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. Since then we have witnessed several instances of communal riots such as the anti-Sikh riots (1984), the Bhagalpur riots (1989), the Mumbai riots (1992) after the destruction of Babri Mosque in 1991, and the Gujarat pogrom (2002) in which more than thousands of people were massacred. He categorized roughly four phases of communal riots and forms of violence that took place from the 1960s onwards. The first phase (from 1961 to 1983) was marked by large-scale massacres and victims numbering in multiple thousands (around four-digit).
The second phase (from 1983 to 2002) revealed a pattern where deaths ranged less than three digits in each incident, in stark contrast to the former. During this period and the next, the RSS and other right-wing extremist organizations realized the diplomatic cost of large-scale massacres.

And so, the third phase which lasted from 2002 to 2014, had fewer casualties (around two digit) but was marked by massive displacement of people, exemplified in the cases of Kandhamal (2008), Kokrajhar (2012), and Muzaffarnagar (2013). Post-2014, the focus shifted from engineering large-scale riots to strategic lynching of a limited number of victims (limited to one digit).

Elaborating on lynching, Mander discussed how lynching has been normalized in the larger public sphere. In most cases of lynching Muslims, including Dalits, have been killed by cow vigilante groups. He highlighted that there is a difference between communal riots and lynching. In riots, it is often seen that large-scale killings and destruction of properties have taken place, but in the cases of lynching, although the number of deaths is smaller, their impact is dramatically different from communal riots. The impact of riots used to be confined and limited to particular geographical locations, but lynching has created deep fissures in our society and an enormous impact in terms of inter-community relationships in everyday life, as expressed by Mander. For instance, members of the Muslim community are now routinely targeted by vigilant groups only on mere suspicion that they are eating beef and having religious markers such as beards and skullcaps in public spaces. While citing stories of lynching that took place in North America (against the indigenous people), Mander tries to explain that lynching has now become part of majoritarian common sense and is legitimized both by the state and the society. Those who are implicated and found guilty in cases of lynching rarely get punished by the criminal justice system. Instead, the state and ruling dispensation reward them (by garlanding in the public) and give political patronage.

Mander shared his firsthand experiences in handling riots in Madhya Pradesh (when he was deployed as a Deputy Commissioner in 1984) and argued that riots can be controlled if the public authorities are committed. He discussed why riots took place and what the difference is between riots and state-supported violence. In this respect, Mander spoke about the theoretical framework adopted by noted scholars writing on communal riots, namely Ashutosh Varshney and Paul Brass. Varshney’s central thesis explores how riots often occurred in the aftermath of the breaking down of socio-economic cultural and civic engagement in society. However, while agreeing with Brass, Mander argues that riots were conducted with the help of state machinery and the dissemination of propaganda. Finally, he discussed potential remedies to curb a recurring phenomenon of riots. Illustrating the example of the Communal Violence Bill (drafted by Mander and Farha Naqvi) during the Congress government in 2005, Mander emphasized that it is crucial to hold public authority accountable for neglecting constitutional duties during riots to effectively control violence. In short, communal riots can be controlled if public officials are committed to perform their duties honestly and uphold constitutional morality.

 In another session, Mander has spoken about the foundational idea of India, as envisioned by Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Azad, including Bhagat Singh, during the course of the freedom movement.  The foundational idea of India is under threat after the recent rise and growth of the Hindutva forces in the larger public sphere. While reminding the relevance of defending the idea of India, Dr. Mander said that the anti-CAA-NRC protests were a crucial moment in independent India’s history; it is the largest non-violent protest which happened nation-wide and brought citizens together in defense of the foundational idea of India, as enshrined in our constitution. Gandhi and Ambedkar differed on numerous things but were invoked together in defense of this idea during anti-CAA-NRC protests. All such protest gatherings began with public reading of the Preamble of the Constitution along with recitation of the National Anthem, which became the icon of this movement, underlined by the speaker.

The battle Indian people are fighting today is one that began over a century ago. Gandhi, on returning to India in 1914, took leadership of our freedom struggle. It was Gandhi who converted the elite movement for independence into a mass movement and taught Indians the instruments of non-violence and civil disobedience, reminded by the speaker. The civil disobedience was based on 3 ingredients: a duty to disobey unjust laws, a duty to do so publicly, and a duty to demand punishment for breach of the law, noted by the speaker. According to Gandhi, the freedom struggle was not just about freedom from the British. Rather, the struggle to decide the kind of country Indians wanted for themselves. Regardless of colour, caste, creed, sex, race, or religion, everyone would be an equal citizen of equal worth, dignity, and rights, with equal citizenship. However, it is sad that today, with the open violence against Muslims in India, one observes the echoes of Nazi Germany, bemoaned by the speaker.

 There were numerous streams in the freedom struggle in India; Bhagat Singh’s extreme Left, Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, and Dr. Ambedkar’s fought for dalit liberation. Each of these differed from Gandhi’s choice of resistance but agreed on the kind of India they wanted to found, based on an idea of equal belonging for all, reminded by Mander. Maulana Azad’s assertion of choosing Hindu-Muslim unity over independence for India. For him, if Swaraj suffers and gets delayed, only Indians will suffer, but if Hindu-Muslim unity suffers, entire humanity would suffer. This is a civilisational heritage which can’t be taken lightly, noted by speakers.

The RSS’s veneration of Hitler’s ideals makes it driven towards an idea of India, which is very different from the foundational idea of India, reminded by the speaker. According to this ideology (as noted by V.D. Savarkar, in his book, Hindutva, 1923), the motherland and the sacred land for Hindus converge in India. For all non-Hindu groups, their sacred land is outside India’s geography. If they wish to live on the Hindus’ sacred land, they must live with a second-class citizenship while respecting majority religious sentiments and culture. So, while dejure India is a secular country of equal citizens, the de facto situation is one of a second-class citizenship unfolding for non-Hindus, especially Muslims. This is evident in the Ayodhya judgement of the Supreme Court, the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the abrogation of Article 370, underlined by the speaker. The pre-independence assertion of the Hindu Mahasabha that caste Hindus own this country is proven true. The demand for caste censuses across the country and the recent findings from Bihar suggest that an overwhelmingly small minority owns all major institutions, added by speaker.

We owe today’s India to Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, and Azad. Pakistan may have been established on religious lines, but India belongs to all. As Azad and Gandhi pleaded with Muslims to not leave India, this country has been everyone’s from the start, added by speaker.

Gandhi played a proactive role in combating communal violence with the idea of promoting “radical love” not hatred. On his last fast, he placed 3 demands for which thousands of citizens came to the streets in his support. First, to give a share of India’s treasury to Pakistan without which it would go bankrupt. Second, Hindus must return dargahs and mosques to Muslims for no true place of worship can be built on another religious site. Third, Hindus must leave homes from where Muslims were forcefully cleared out, and return to relief camps themselves, the points raised by the speaker. While citing the example of Bangladesh (when Bangla Muslim themselves identified as Bangla first than Muslim), Mander reminded about the failure of the two-nation theory, as propagated by Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

 While concluding his views on the stated theme, finally the speaker has said that the idea of India rests on the difficulty of finding sameness a virtue. This idea is in battle today, and that battle has reached a decisive stage. This is the very continuation of our freedom struggle, and young people are called upon now to be freedom fighters, as seen during anti -CAA nation-wide protests.

The next speaker, Ghazala Wahab shared her grief and experiences and underlined how a larger communal narrative has been constructed against the Muslim community. Initially, Wahab noted that for other communities’ secularism is luxury but for Indian Muslims, it has become necessary. She also talked about how majoritarian culture dominates in several spheres of lives including schools and corporate sectors. For instance, in deciding food habits, majoritarian culture has become a defining feature. Mostly, it has now been exceedingly difficult for Muslims to get a residence in a quarter where the majority are Hindus. However, Muslims are not supposed to live in a ghetto, it is better to live in mixed cultures and interact with a larger community to dispel the myth and prejudice propagated by communal forces and corporate media houses, underlined by the speaker. While debunking the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) myth of a non-violent and passive Hindu, as compared to the violent Muslims, Wahab said that RSS is the biggest internal security threat for the nation and we are witnessing increasing radicalization of Hindus in the public domain. She also pointed out myth has been propagated through distortions and recasting Indian history on lines of religion. In doing so, violence against Muslims (through politicization of religion) is being normalized in everyday life.

 While underlining the reason for the political marginalization of Indian Muslim, she said that there is no such thing as a Muslim vote bank, but only one, indispensable Hindu vote bank. To splinter Muslims’ vote and hinder the winnability of Muslim candidates, the BJP used to give tickets to so many Muslims dummy candidates so that they could not win elections. She also discussed the biased and communal approach of the police, judiciary and administration vis-à-vis the Muslim community. She held that the mainstream media is now propagating a majoritarian agenda in the public domain. However, Wahab asserted that even amidst despair we should not lose our hope and as citizens, it is our responsibility to fight and raise questions and articulate our voices in the larger public sphere.

The next speaker, Zeyad Masroor Khan, who recently wrote a book (titled, City on Fire 2023) on growing up in Aligarh in a Muslim ghetto which has witnessed several instances of communal violence. After expressing his gratitude for being invited to speak at the event, Zeyad talked about the setting of the book; his home which is situated in the middle of a Hindu and a Muslim ghetto in Aligarh. The author talked about how violence was normalized, especially post-1992 when riots had become a common occurrence. People had become desensitized and detached from the violence; someone would die, and the rest would soon move on from the experience. He attributed it to the human tendency to distance oneself from some trauma or violence that one cannot stop witnessing. Referring to lynchings, Zeyad recounted how initially there were a lot of discussions on the topic but with time, people began to adjust to the new normal. So, lynchings and mob-violence against minorities especially Muslims has been now eerily normalized in the public domain.

Zeyad emphasized that his experience growing up was not unique to him but rather it was the story of every Muslim in his mohalla. Interestingly, in his experience, this hostility towards Muslim ghettos is not limited to other faiths, even other Muslims from more affluent neighborhoods harbor the same views. So, when something happens, these places which are already perceived as full of criminals, happen to be the sites where the worst and most state-sanctioned violence takes place. In this session, young Muslims Mohammad Amir Khan, Emadul Hasan, Imroz Alam, Omair Khan, Badre Alam, and Minal Saeed Khan shared their personal stories and how Muslims felt they experienced in their respective lives.

Mohammad Amir Khan shared his personal narrative, reflecting on the transformation of his 1980s Old Delhi neighborhood from a harmonious, mixed community to a divided area with Hindus on one side and Muslims on the other. He lamented the loss of the peaceful coexistence he experienced in his childhood and expressed concern for future generations. Describing the gradual exodus of Hindus starting in the late 1980s, he emphasized the stark divide today, with a police picket separating the communities. Khan highlighted the burden placed on Muslims to prove their allegiance, discussing the criminalization of ghettos and targeted attacks, including his own experience of abduction, torture, and false imprisonment. Despite witnessing violence and hardship, he remains hopeful that India can address these issues in alignment with its constitutional vision. Khan was falsely implicated in terrorism charges and spent 14-years of his youth in jail and was later acquitted and found not guilty.

Imaad ul Hasan’s works focus on documenting the issues of hate speech and hate crimes, engaging with victims, and delving into their struggles. He highlighted the alarming impact of widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in mainstream and social media on people’s mental health, affecting academics and careers. While documenting hate speech in Maharashtra, he recalls how these experiences affected him personally. Despite recognizing the harm from public discourse, he asserted that the state and its agencies pose the most significant threat to Muslims in contemporary India. Drawing on his experiences, he highlighted the organized nature of mobs attacking Muslims, imams, and minorities, with direct support from the state. Coupled with economic boycotts, this exacerbates the already precarious livelihoods of poorer Muslims.

Omair Khan reflected on his early days growing up in Odisha, noting the absence of direct violence in his diverse neighborhood but acknowledging cultural prejudice, especially after the 9/11 attacks. He shared instances of derogatory remarks and questions about allegiance based on his Muslim identity, echoing the experiences of many Muslims in India. Drawing on John Galtung’s concept of cultural violence, he emphasized the BJP’s effective exploitation of existing biases against Muslims, reinforcing prejudices through various mediums. Stressing the importance of resisting cultural violence for lasting peace, Mr. Khan, drawing from his peace and conflict studies background, asserted that while laws are crucial, combating cultural violence is the most significant avenue for establishing enduring peace.

Originally concerned with the issues of caste and social justice discourse in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Badre Alam’s exposure to religious violence began in 2005 during a visit to Gujarat and a meeting with survivors and victims of the 2002 riots. After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the center in 2014, he observed a shift in eastern UP, with politicization of religion overshadowing caste issues to some extent if not entirely. While acknowledging the persistence of caste politics, he highlighted the changing political landscape due to increased religious politicization. He emphasized that the politicization of religious identities contributes to communal tensions. Mr. Alam advocated for positive responses through dialogue and expressed hope that by cherishing constitutional principles and recognizing India’s history of mixed communities, the communalization of politics and society can be thwarted.

Advocate Imroz Alam addressed the multifaceted impact of lynchings on Muslims and other minorities, emphasizing the need for documentation of such violence. He recounted an incident in Aligarh, his hometown, highlighting the manipulation of information about Muslim youth shot in 1991, underscoring the absence of sustained public attention to such atrocities. Discussing the normalization of lynchings, he noted the decreasing focus in the media over time, citing the Pehlu Khan incident as an example that had warranted ample media coverage, but the latter instances which were now more frequent, did not get much coverage by the media. The immediate and enduring effects on the collective psyche and social lives of Muslims were illustrated by instances such as his family avoiding carrying meat while traveling due to fears of being targeted.

Moreover, critiquing the justice system, Alam highlighted the disproportionate representation of Muslims in cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). He noticed an evolving trend in the portrayal of Muslims in India that has been contributing to suspicion and categorization. Despite these challenges, he concluded with a hopeful note, citing instances where dissenting voices and law-abiding figures have averted potential massacres, expressing optimism for positive change.
 Minal Saeed Khan, sharing a connection with Zeyad’s work, particularly appreciated the portrayal of neighborhoods and elders holding onto a sense of the past. She recounted a personal anecdote about her father’s waning enthusiasm for Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations due to the negative portrayals of Muslims on television, sensing betrayal and hostility. Reflecting on her work documenting lynching incidents, she highlighted the alarming pattern of victims being denied water and how she grapples with the emotional toll of sifting through distressing videos. While others express hope for change, she admitted finding it challenging to see hope in the current circumstances, where justice seems elusive.

In concluding remarks, Masroor Khan observed a pervasive sense of hopelessness among individuals of his age, irrespective of diverse backgrounds, rooted in the common experience of being primarily seen through their religious identity, overshadowing other aspects of their personality. He emphasized the contrast between love and hate, highlighting that love enables a nuanced understanding, while hate reduces individuals to negative stereotypes. Illustrating this, he pointed out the contradictory ideas often associated with Muslims, portraying them as both unpatriotic and lecherous, untrustworthy, and prone to engaging in activities like “love jihad”.

 Another speaker and senior journalist Ziya Us Salam has also noted that Muslims are facing discrimination because of having an ostensible religious identity such as a beard and skullcap. While sharing his own experiences, Salam recalled that he has faced humiliation and discrimination in public spaces especially because of “looking like a Muslim”.

 In a similar way, advocate Shahrukh Alam explained the concept of ‘bare life’, as propounded by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. While explaining the incidences of bare life, she cited the examples of Jewish in concentration camps (Germany), Muslims in Gaza (Palestine), and fate of migrant labour after lockdown during Covid-19 in India. Alam has underlined that now Indian Muslims are forced to live in a “state of exception,” outside the purview of the rule of law, even as newer spheres of ‘states of exception’ are being celebrated by a government with a majoritarian politics. She further highlighted the need to acknowledge hate speech as a problem of breakdown of the constitutional promise of equality and not merely a problem of law and order; the present state of affairs makes powerless minority groups worse off. She highlighted the historical evolution of ‘Lynch Laws’ in South America and traced it to the present state of creation of bare lives in modern India through instances of lynchings of Muslims.  

On legal justice, another speaker, advocate Suroor Mander, reflected on the interplay of communal violence and the rule of law. Further, she highlighted that civil society organizations have been delegitimized by the state, and the reports published by the organizations have been systematically ignored. The opposition in the Indian political landscape has also suffered the same fate of delegitimization, including criminalization. Majoritarianism in all spheres has stifled all alternative thought, leaving no room for dissent.

To summarize the major points of the two-day workshop, we would like to underline that minorities, especially Indian Muslims have been facing huge challenges since the time of the Partition. Earlier, communal strains took the shape of riots which were temporally and geographically limited. When the numbers of affected individuals were large, these cases also caught large media and global attention. However, with the emergence of lynching as a form of violence, the bounds of temporality and geography are broken so that a deep-seated, pervasive fear is instilled in non-Hindu groups, much more despite the numerically few instances of such crimes. 

After the Partition, only two countries (namely, India and Pakistan) were separated from each other. Today, we are witnessing millions of partitions in our hearts, as reminded by Harsh Mander. Most speakers, including the audience, have argued that although we are living in the age of despair and witnessing darkest times now, however, we, the people of India must not lose hope and need to come forward to defend the idea of India (as noticed during anti-CAA protest), championed by the founding fathers of our nation, during freedom movement and enshrined in our democratic Constitution.

(Authors: Swati Draik, Badre Alam Khan, and Sumit Kumar Gupta, are currently associated with Karwan-e-Mohabbat, a people’s campaign for a secular, just, and human world led by Harsh Mander and civil society activists. We are grateful to interns namely Saeb Rahman Farooqui and Pallavi Singh (who are currently students of Azim Premji University, Bangalore) for helping and providing assistance.)  

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