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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 8 New Delhi February 9, 2019

Communal Frenzy and Abuse of Religion

Sunday 10 February 2019

by Nilofar Suhrawardy

Naseeruddin Shah has his right to entertain the reservations he has expressed regarding the “fear” entertained about their religious identity by certain Muslims. In his words, he feels “anxious” for his children, for “if tomorrow a mob surrounds them and asks them are you Hindu or Muslim?, they will have no answer.” But it would be wrong to assume that this “fear” prevails among the entire community of Indian Muslims. In fact, the probability of it prevailing amongst members of the Bollywood community is hardly visible. If it did, the Khans would not have dominated this world as they are doing today. But if this fear really prevails in Bollywood too, that too behind the screens, Shah certainly has a point to deliberate on.

However, Shah’s key concern is about “communalism”, apparently anti-Muslim sentiments among “mobs”. Yes, there are sections of Right-wing elements still bent on targeting Muslims. Incidents of cow-lynching and similar cases may be viewed as a testimony to their communal activities. But it would be unfair to view these as representatives of the entire Hindu community. Considering the manner in which secular policemen have recently not been spared by similar elements, it would be more appropriate to label such criminals as “goondas” than tag any religious label to this identity of theirs.

Perhaps, it is time that great consideration was given to avoid excessive use of religious labels at various levels, particularly linked to the creation of social tension and conflict. The basic fundamental doctrine of each and every religion is humanitarianism. When social tension is deliberately created in the name of religion, with innocent lives being targeted, it really amounts to abuse of actual religious values. Why should indulgence in criminal activity of any nature be viewed as religious, whether extremist, moderate, minimal or any other? Let us accept it, this trend amounts to justifying criminal activities in the name of religion for a considerable section. The section that is keen on propagating communal drive in the name of religion, by exploiting and also abusing it (religion). And this, tragically, over a period of time has added aggressive zeal to elements bent on continuing their communal drive in the name of religion.

A change has to begin, at least in keeping with the ethics of the Indian Constitution that the right to religious practices does not promote and/or justify violence of any kind targeting property and/or people. It is feared that if this trend is not checked right now, it may assume dangerous proportions. Undeniably, to a degree, this point can be countered by taking note of opinions and demonstrations voiced against incidents targeting minorities. Also, “mob-frenzy” visible earlier no longer has the same appeal now. Analytically, even “mob-frenzy”, linked to communal riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and also the Gujarat-carnage would probably not have created as much disturbance as they did without the involvement of some strong political elements. Involvement refers to their being backed politically. This in itself is a strong pointer to “religion” being intentionally used for political reasons.

The fear lies not in the religious leanings and/or beliefs of people but in the manner in which the same may be exploited by elements for their electoral gains. Clearly, de-linking religion and politics is not an easy task. It may be viewed as practically impossible. From this angle, it is not without reason that Naseeruddin Shah has expressed his concern. At the same time, it cannot be ignored that the recent past has been a witness to the common people refusing to be brain-washed by the hype raised about controversial religious issues, including Ayodhya, by certain leaders as well as extremist elements. Some importance also needs to be given to the number of persons engaged in cow-lynching and similar cases targeting minorities. In most, practically all, the number does not add up to their being described as a mob. And this is a strong indicator of their not being the result of any mob frenzy, which usually is impromptu aggressive outburst of a fairly large number of people against any person, other groups, property and so forth.

Indian society has come a long way since the period when its sections could be provoked and/or excited to any stage of frenzy on particularly politico-religious issues. As suggested earlier, the number of persons allegedly involved in cow-lynching and other cases, is from no longer angle suggestive of their participating in any mob-frenzy. In fact, research pursued by this writer indicates that even when most parts of the nation faced communal violence following Indira Gandhi’s assassination and also the Babri Masjid’s demolition, each and every Hindu did not fall a victim to any mob frenzy targeting Sikhs and Muslims, respectively. There have been reports of Hindu families going overboard to hide their non-Hindu friends in several areas rocked by communal violence.

Yes, one cannot ignore horrendous cases of the manner in which Sikhs and Muslims were targeted during both these phases. But why should the entire Hindu community and their religion be blamed for what they cannot be held responsible? Besides, as is well known, Hinduism is not understood and practised similarly by all members of this community. In fact, this can be said about all religions. With respect to India, religious practises and beliefs are also considerably influenced by cultural norms practised in different regions. Also, the large population of the country bears its own importance. In this case, one needs to speculate several times before deciding on whether even a crowd of around several thousand can be viewed as representative of the majority religious community. They don’t add up to even a percentage of this community’s population.

Yes, the power of provoking mob frenzy in the name of religion has almost ceased. But the use of religious labels should not blind or bind us towards disrespect and also abuse of religion. All religions demand respect. Why should “goondas” and similar criminals, allegedly responsible for targeting weaker persons, be accorded a religious label? This is equivalent to adding “religious credibility” to their moves which in essence is desired by them. Consider cow-lynching cases from yet another angle. Primarily, economically and socially weak persons have been targeted. The socio-economic weakness of the targeted persons cannot be sidelined. Nor can the socio-economic stature of the ones who have indulged in such criminal activities. However, if we view these activities only through “religious” lens, then all of us, including secular Indians, are falling in traps laid by the communal elements. Give it a thought, “secular” lens will have limited importance till a “religious” label is accorded to criminal activities indulged in the name of religion. It is likely to encourage goonda elements, backed by the political wings, to continue their communal drive in the name of religion and maybe sow seeds of fear as well as tension.

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist. She has come out with two books: Ayodhya Without Communal Stamp: In the Name of Indian Secularism and Image and Substance: Modi’s First Year in Office.

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