Does Indian pluralism have a future?
“This isn’t apartheid?” On October 12, journalist Kashif Kakvi posted that question on Twitter alongside a short, sordid video from Madhya Pradesh where, he said “Indore Police booked 4 Muslims for attending #Garbha_Nights on Sunday on opposition of R/W groups.”
Kakvi then posted another video of the uncle of one of those arrested, asking perfectly reasonably: “Can’t a Muslim student participate in his college’s event?”
The event in Indore was at the unironically named Oxford International College, one of innumerable private institutions that are mushrooming across India to meet unstoppable demand (41% of the population is under 18).
There’s nothing special about it, which is precisely why we need to pay attention. What’s happening there is also happening everywhere. Another India is emerging under constrictions that contradict the constitution and its accompanying social compacts.
Thus, it’s outrageous that two of those arrested under Section 151 of the criminal code -- which pertains to preventing crime -- were actually students of the college who were helping out as volunteers. Even more unbelievable, the main trouble-maker, Tarun Devda of the Bajrang Dal, persuaded the police that the college was criminally culpable because Muslims were present at the garbha (which celebrate a Hindu festival, but are generally happy events for everyone). This is why some hapless administrator was duly booked alongside the kids.
It turned out the extremist fringe in MP had been putting up threatening signs at garbha venues for days, unilaterally declaring that the events were only for Hindus
That is when lawyer/author -- and founder and executive director of the Polis Project (www.thepolisproject.com) -- Suchitra Vijayan tweeted: “’No Non-Hindus’ Posters by VHP at Garba Venues in MP -- existing exclusionary practices will create more segregated spaces. History teaches us what happens to societies that have enacted apartheid laws. Does not help that even history has been exiled to segregated spaces.”
Vijayan has deep perspective on these issues, after working for the UN war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and also co-founding the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in Cairo, which gives legal aid to Iraqi refugees. Her new book Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India is one of the great non-fiction achievements of our times, with its “series of encounters” exploring the processes of inclusion and exclusion.
When I emailed to ask why she used that loaded Dutch-Afrikaans word from South Africa to describe what happened in MP, Vijayan responded with great precision: Apartheid is fundamental to authoritarian regimes -- it’s a process of dividing, separating, and segregating people through targeted institutional, political, and legal policies and procedures. It is also normalizing the practices of everyday exclusion and bigotry.”
She explained: “India already has a series of legislation like cow slaughter laws, CAA/ NRC, and ‘love-jihad’ laws targeting minority communities. This is accompanied by discrimination and everyday violence. RSS/BJP’s goal is to alienate and exile Muslims and other communities to silos. It’s also a form of erasure that dismantles what has always been a syncretic cultural tradition.”
Caste practices and communal bigotry “always played a crucial role” in the way resources are shared and denied in the sub-continent, says Vijayan.
However, “The politics of space is crucial to RSS/ BJP, for example, the claims over Ayodhya. We need to place this in the larger context of how violence is enacted in India. As I travelled across the country to write my book, I saw this: Systematically targeted violence leads to the ghettoization of communities. You see this after every riot, pogrom, and state-enabled violence. But it’s also creating a republic of fear: No place should feel safe to the ‘other.’”
Vijayan says: “The consistent act of re-writing the history of the Indian republic and its founding principles of secular, pluralistic statehood as envisioned by the constitution is the key. The right-wing view of history posits Hindus and Hinduism as constantly under siege while simultaneously asserting the idea of India as a Hindu nation. It’s bizarre -- how can we (Hindus) as a community that holds political power at once be under threat and the majority? This revisionist history demands nothing less than ‘revenge’ as a form of justice to right historical wrongs.” Thus, “not only are texts like AK Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas removed from the history syllabus of Delhi University, we now regularly have books that justify and whitewash the history of violence and bigotry. Yet, even as bodies pile up each day as proof of majoritarian terror, even amongst the most well-meaning people, there is a make-belief that we are tolerant and secular. We haven’t been either for a very long time. This is what I meant went when I said even history is exiled. I might add, that even our sense of truth and reality have been colonized.”
What is the future of Indian pluralism? Vijayan gave me this dismaying answer: “The coffin was nailed shut and buried a long time ago. The Hindu Rashtra is here. This is just the beginning of unimaginable horrors to come; when they are done with us, I am afraid there might not be much of India or anything else left.” The events playing out in MP don’t quite cohere with my own experiences of the state, which I have visited twice recently, blown away each time by its wonderful people and incredible cultural and natural riches (in my view, it has as many sites of global significance as the entirety of Europe).
But that’s obviously not all, as we saw this week in Indore, as well as the fact the (justifiably) famously enlightened city of Bhopal voted in the fringe extremist -- and accused terrorist -- Pragya Thakur as its member of parliament.
“The city I grew up in was inclusive -- celebrating festivals of all faiths equally and with great gusto,” says a prominent stakeholder, who spoke freely on the condition of remaining anonymous. “There was a mutual respect and admiration for all cultures and a feeling that our greatness came from this feeling of togetherness. In fact, Bhopal is still a peaceful and fair city to a large extent.” On the inside, however, “personal changes have been quite drastic: Where one could speak one’s mind about politics or political leaders, today to speak against our rulers is almost considered akin to treason. If you are Muslim and critical of the government, you may be told to go to Pakistan, if you are Hindu and critical of the government, you may be considered a sell-out. People who have grown up with Muslim friends, and been in and out of Muslim homes their entire lives, have switched to a hard liner anti-Muslim stance.”
As a result, “I find it safest to keep my opinions to myself as I am unsure how they will be received -- even by my closest friends. The change in the dynamic has been subtle, imperceptible, and initially impossible to grasp. As the years have progressed, however, certain realities have become quite clear.”
I asked my friend whether there was still hope our children might inherit an India with its greatest civilizational attributes restored to the degree that we ourselves enjoyed. Is what we see now reversible? He texted me back: “I don’t think so.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.