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Communalism History

1992-2022 How Indian State & Society have both been targeted and transformed

Teesta Setalvad 06 Dec 2022

Babri Demolition

The first attack through bullets hit and killed Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948. This attack was a declaration of intent[1] against India’s proud defiance of communal mobilisation and violence, and its adherence, despite the blood and pain of Partition to fashion itself into a secular, socialist, constitutional republic. Another body blow was dealt on December 6, 1992. Three decades down and counting, India has seen a steady downfall into an electorally driven majoritarian abyss.

Between the years, 1946-1950, the 299-day long debates of the Constituent Assembly –including the utter consensus on the Preamble and Fundamental Rights –were and are testimony to the grounded values outlined in India’s Constitution. The chapter III (Fundamental Rights) and Chapter IV (Directive Principles of State Policy) were brought in not just by the 1931 Karachi Resolution passed by the Indian National Congress (INC) but by a centuries long dialectic between the Brahman-Shraman exemplified in the birth and spread of Buddhism, the powerful Sufi-Bhakti poets and sants, the figures of Eknath, Namdeo, Basavannah, Tukaram, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Narayan Guru, Periyar, Phule –Savitribai and Jyotiba –and Ambedkar. Each and all of these, had from times immemorial challenged the hierarchies and exclusion of caste, gender and community insisting on a lived politics of emancipation. This rich tradition, marshalled by modern day –Indian and international --articulations and struggles like those of Bhagat Singh and Ambdekar, Adivasis, Forest Dwellers, Workers, further powered by international struggles and victories made up the Indian national movement that commanded a people’s document, the Constitution.

All that and more was frontally attacked on December 6, 1992 when, in full public view, while 3,000 police and paramilitary men watched, a place of worship –yes, a 400 year old Mosque-- was demolished by a large, organised mob mobilised and trained to reach their destination by senior political leaders and provoked to undertake the illegal and unconstitutional act. Not only has this crime gone unpunished, but the public hate-letting, stigmatising and demonising of a section of our own people, Muslims has grown, unchecked. Since 2014 especially this hate-letting is, powerfully, if not officially sanctioned discourse.

Accounting for this time-frame of three decades needs appreciation of the manner and fashion in which both society and state have transformed into such a deeply driven discriminatory framework.

In the 1980s we saw how target blood-letting against minority populations be it Assam, Delhi, Aligarh, Muradabad, Maliana-Hashimpura, Bhagalpur, Ahmedabad, Bombay, Bhiwandi was eased and made possible by two factors, a brazen complicity of men and women in uniform and the sinister role played by hate speech and hate writing. The former phenomenon allowed crimes to erupt mostly unchecked, and the latter facilitated a climate that easily made possible a section among us to be made scapegoat and victim while the majority of us remained silent.

The assault on the Babri Masjid, exactly 30 years ago, was preceded by a politically driven astute campaign of firing up large sections of the Indian population. As LK Advani’s infamous rath yatra wound its way across India, violence broke out in its wake. The messaging was to build a temple to a beloved God, the actions were starkly contradictory: violent and crude, an othering of those meant to be confined to the margins of the citizenry. The lives and properties of thousands of Indian Muslims and Sikhs even (1984) fell to this onslaught of electorally driven majoritarianism.

If, until the 1980s a syncretic civility and some inclusion graced Indian public life and discourse, the build up to 1992 and its three decade long fall out has ushered in an aggressive alternative: a weaponised and militaristic faith-driven political language that has necessitated consistent use of threat, intimidation, rigidity and exclusion. Along with brutalisation of Indian minority populations, the past decades have also seen debasing levels of violence against Indian women and children. It is this version of a majoritarian faith that is now mired and legitimised within the echelons of state power as proponents of an ideology that found the Mahatma’s notions of syncretic and composite nationhood a threat –and assassinated him -- now occupy seats of governance. Their books and their icons proudly state that the aim is to overthrown the Indian Constitution, to bring back a 2022 version of the Manu Smriti and to ensure that within this newly born Hindu-tva nation, the enemies are loudly proclaimed: the Muslim, the Christian, the communist (dissenter, journalist, independent thinker). It is on this precipice that India stands today.

Society, or a shrilly vocal side of Indian society, sits comfortably with this discriminatory hatred. Media driven by commercial-corporate-ideological considerations has bowed to dance to the master’s voice. India in the streets and in villages and neighbourhoods exists still as it once and always did, calm and inclusive, but how long will this be allowed to rest? The imminence of an all India NPR-NRC on the back of the application of a discriminatory CAA 2019 threatens social harmony and will bring uncontrollable turmoil. Are opposition spaces, political and social geared to the task of facing such an all-out onslaught and challenge?

How do we, will we, crawl back out of this abyss?

Hate is today a State Project in India where the political formation in power, its vigilante organisations & brown shirts are mentally and physically armed through hate propaganda to violently harm religious minorities, women, Dalits as targets.  Prejudiced Ideas, Acts of Prejudice, Discrimination, Violence –4 stages prior to Genocide—have been breached.  To act against this systemic hate is of course one step, given how persistent hate-spreading, like a virus weakens the wider community into a complicit silence.

Should actions be driven from the bottom or at the visible top? A multi-pronged strategy may be in order. Committed, gritty peace workers on the ground, armed with the Constitution –and an unshakeable conviction that its ideals are home bred, home grown and non-negotiable can and will strengthen efforts to reclaim lost ground from the top.

Our jurisprudence on hate letting has evolved too slowly. In the 1980s and 1990s courts a slew of election petitions filed in the Bombay High Court drew out path-breaking verdicts in three four cases. [2] Candidates and campaigners were de-barred from voting. The Supreme Court of India however overturned most or all these verdicts and the trend to hate-let, to discriminate, to stigmatise and demonise continued, unabated. Political leaders continued with this dangerous and heady mix of lacing public discourse with the pernicious poison of hate. Only of late has the Supreme Court of India made some sharper interventions.

The problem is not that there is a shortage of laws, alone. The problem is the complete absence of political will in these being effectively executed or effectively implemented. [3]

How does 2022 India effectively then implement constitutional principles, laws against hate speech? When you have in power adherents to a politics not of constitutionalism but of authoritarian majoritarianism? Are verdicts from the courts the only method out of an all-consuming hysteria? Or are sustained social and political campaigns against hate speech necessary? Where we make the viable and necessary distinction between the right to Free Speech (Article 19) and the right to live in equality and without discrimination (Articles 14, 15, 16 and 21) and underscrore –as a non-negotiable –that these are congruous rights, each with their own weight and footing. That one man (or woman’s) free speech cannot snatch away another’s right to a life with dignity and equality before the law.

In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the district administration in Tamil Nadu disallowing the entry of Praveen Togadia, then international general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, not an outfit known for any sobriety. In 2018, in the Tehseen Poonawala case[4], the Supreme Court quoting from the 2017 Law Commission report recommended that the Indian parliament amend the IPC and insert these sections: new section 153C (Prohibiting incitement to hatred) and section 505A (Causing fear, alarm, or provocation of violence in certain cases). Before this, in 2014, was the seminal judgement that made a breakthrough in jurisprudence –understanding the phenomenon of hate speech was/is the Pravasi Bhalai Sanghatana[5] case in which a three member bench of justices B.S. Chauhan, M.Y. Eqbal, A.K. Sikri made a seminal breakthrough when they observed,

“Hate speech is an effort to marginalise individuals based on their membership in a group. Using expression that exposes the group to hatred, hate speech seeks to delegitimise group members in the eyes of the majority, reducing their social standing and acceptance within society. Hate speech, therefore, rises beyond causing distress to individual group members. It can have a societal impact. Hate speech lays the groundwork for later, broad attacks on vulnerable that can range from discrimination, to ostracism, segregation, deportation, violence and, in the most extreme cases, to genocide. Hate speech also impacts a protected group’s ability to respond to the substantive ideas under debate, thereby placing a serious barrier to their full participation in our democracy.”

Meaning that, the Supreme Court has clearly said, and this is important, that hate speech can lead to discrimination, it can lead to ostracism, it can lead to segregation, it can lead to deportation, it can lead to violence. And then the Supreme Court even went on to say that in extreme cases, it can lead to genocide. Yet the phenomenon continues unabated, as the battle between constitutional democracy and an electoral mob-ocracy continues, every day, unabated.

It is this war that is being waged between a governance structures – of state and society—premised on principles of equality, justice and non-discrimination and one –that has captured state power presently --that has no use for such niceties. There is no knowing how this battle will end, or when. This much is certain, however. The human cost has already been too heavy and is being paid, tragically, with every passing day.


[1] Beyond Doubt, Teesta Setalvad, a Dossier on Gandhi’s assassination

[2] Teesta Setalvad, Hate Speech and the Courts, ILS, Pune

[3] Some of the sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), for example, Section 153a. Then there is the Protection of Civil Rights Act, you have the Representation of the People Act, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

[4] 2018, Kodungallur Film Society v. UoITehseen Poonawalla v. UoI and Shakti Vahini v. UoI

1992-2022 How Indian State & Society have both been targeted and transformed

Babri Demolition

The first attack through bullets hit and killed Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948. This attack was a declaration of intent[1] against India’s proud defiance of communal mobilisation and violence, and its adherence, despite the blood and pain of Partition to fashion itself into a secular, socialist, constitutional republic. Another body blow was dealt on December 6, 1992. Three decades down and counting, India has seen a steady downfall into an electorally driven majoritarian abyss.

Between the years, 1946-1950, the 299-day long debates of the Constituent Assembly –including the utter consensus on the Preamble and Fundamental Rights –were and are testimony to the grounded values outlined in India’s Constitution. The chapter III (Fundamental Rights) and Chapter IV (Directive Principles of State Policy) were brought in not just by the 1931 Karachi Resolution passed by the Indian National Congress (INC) but by a centuries long dialectic between the Brahman-Shraman exemplified in the birth and spread of Buddhism, the powerful Sufi-Bhakti poets and sants, the figures of Eknath, Namdeo, Basavannah, Tukaram, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Narayan Guru, Periyar, Phule –Savitribai and Jyotiba –and Ambedkar. Each and all of these, had from times immemorial challenged the hierarchies and exclusion of caste, gender and community insisting on a lived politics of emancipation. This rich tradition, marshalled by modern day –Indian and international --articulations and struggles like those of Bhagat Singh and Ambdekar, Adivasis, Forest Dwellers, Workers, further powered by international struggles and victories made up the Indian national movement that commanded a people’s document, the Constitution.

All that and more was frontally attacked on December 6, 1992 when, in full public view, while 3,000 police and paramilitary men watched, a place of worship –yes, a 400 year old Mosque-- was demolished by a large, organised mob mobilised and trained to reach their destination by senior political leaders and provoked to undertake the illegal and unconstitutional act. Not only has this crime gone unpunished, but the public hate-letting, stigmatising and demonising of a section of our own people, Muslims has grown, unchecked. Since 2014 especially this hate-letting is, powerfully, if not officially sanctioned discourse.

Accounting for this time-frame of three decades needs appreciation of the manner and fashion in which both society and state have transformed into such a deeply driven discriminatory framework.

In the 1980s we saw how target blood-letting against minority populations be it Assam, Delhi, Aligarh, Muradabad, Maliana-Hashimpura, Bhagalpur, Ahmedabad, Bombay, Bhiwandi was eased and made possible by two factors, a brazen complicity of men and women in uniform and the sinister role played by hate speech and hate writing. The former phenomenon allowed crimes to erupt mostly unchecked, and the latter facilitated a climate that easily made possible a section among us to be made scapegoat and victim while the majority of us remained silent.

The assault on the Babri Masjid, exactly 30 years ago, was preceded by a politically driven astute campaign of firing up large sections of the Indian population. As LK Advani’s infamous rath yatra wound its way across India, violence broke out in its wake. The messaging was to build a temple to a beloved God, the actions were starkly contradictory: violent and crude, an othering of those meant to be confined to the margins of the citizenry. The lives and properties of thousands of Indian Muslims and Sikhs even (1984) fell to this onslaught of electorally driven majoritarianism.

If, until the 1980s a syncretic civility and some inclusion graced Indian public life and discourse, the build up to 1992 and its three decade long fall out has ushered in an aggressive alternative: a weaponised and militaristic faith-driven political language that has necessitated consistent use of threat, intimidation, rigidity and exclusion. Along with brutalisation of Indian minority populations, the past decades have also seen debasing levels of violence against Indian women and children. It is this version of a majoritarian faith that is now mired and legitimised within the echelons of state power as proponents of an ideology that found the Mahatma’s notions of syncretic and composite nationhood a threat –and assassinated him -- now occupy seats of governance. Their books and their icons proudly state that the aim is to overthrown the Indian Constitution, to bring back a 2022 version of the Manu Smriti and to ensure that within this newly born Hindu-tva nation, the enemies are loudly proclaimed: the Muslim, the Christian, the communist (dissenter, journalist, independent thinker). It is on this precipice that India stands today.

Society, or a shrilly vocal side of Indian society, sits comfortably with this discriminatory hatred. Media driven by commercial-corporate-ideological considerations has bowed to dance to the master’s voice. India in the streets and in villages and neighbourhoods exists still as it once and always did, calm and inclusive, but how long will this be allowed to rest? The imminence of an all India NPR-NRC on the back of the application of a discriminatory CAA 2019 threatens social harmony and will bring uncontrollable turmoil. Are opposition spaces, political and social geared to the task of facing such an all-out onslaught and challenge?

How do we, will we, crawl back out of this abyss?

Hate is today a State Project in India where the political formation in power, its vigilante organisations & brown shirts are mentally and physically armed through hate propaganda to violently harm religious minorities, women, Dalits as targets.  Prejudiced Ideas, Acts of Prejudice, Discrimination, Violence –4 stages prior to Genocide—have been breached.  To act against this systemic hate is of course one step, given how persistent hate-spreading, like a virus weakens the wider community into a complicit silence.

Should actions be driven from the bottom or at the visible top? A multi-pronged strategy may be in order. Committed, gritty peace workers on the ground, armed with the Constitution –and an unshakeable conviction that its ideals are home bred, home grown and non-negotiable can and will strengthen efforts to reclaim lost ground from the top.

Our jurisprudence on hate letting has evolved too slowly. In the 1980s and 1990s courts a slew of election petitions filed in the Bombay High Court drew out path-breaking verdicts in three four cases. [2] Candidates and campaigners were de-barred from voting. The Supreme Court of India however overturned most or all these verdicts and the trend to hate-let, to discriminate, to stigmatise and demonise continued, unabated. Political leaders continued with this dangerous and heady mix of lacing public discourse with the pernicious poison of hate. Only of late has the Supreme Court of India made some sharper interventions.

The problem is not that there is a shortage of laws, alone. The problem is the complete absence of political will in these being effectively executed or effectively implemented. [3]

How does 2022 India effectively then implement constitutional principles, laws against hate speech? When you have in power adherents to a politics not of constitutionalism but of authoritarian majoritarianism? Are verdicts from the courts the only method out of an all-consuming hysteria? Or are sustained social and political campaigns against hate speech necessary? Where we make the viable and necessary distinction between the right to Free Speech (Article 19) and the right to live in equality and without discrimination (Articles 14, 15, 16 and 21) and underscrore –as a non-negotiable –that these are congruous rights, each with their own weight and footing. That one man (or woman’s) free speech cannot snatch away another’s right to a life with dignity and equality before the law.

In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the district administration in Tamil Nadu disallowing the entry of Praveen Togadia, then international general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, not an outfit known for any sobriety. In 2018, in the Tehseen Poonawala case[4], the Supreme Court quoting from the 2017 Law Commission report recommended that the Indian parliament amend the IPC and insert these sections: new section 153C (Prohibiting incitement to hatred) and section 505A (Causing fear, alarm, or provocation of violence in certain cases). Before this, in 2014, was the seminal judgement that made a breakthrough in jurisprudence –understanding the phenomenon of hate speech was/is the Pravasi Bhalai Sanghatana[5] case in which a three member bench of justices B.S. Chauhan, M.Y. Eqbal, A.K. Sikri made a seminal breakthrough when they observed,

“Hate speech is an effort to marginalise individuals based on their membership in a group. Using expression that exposes the group to hatred, hate speech seeks to delegitimise group members in the eyes of the majority, reducing their social standing and acceptance within society. Hate speech, therefore, rises beyond causing distress to individual group members. It can have a societal impact. Hate speech lays the groundwork for later, broad attacks on vulnerable that can range from discrimination, to ostracism, segregation, deportation, violence and, in the most extreme cases, to genocide. Hate speech also impacts a protected group’s ability to respond to the substantive ideas under debate, thereby placing a serious barrier to their full participation in our democracy.”

Meaning that, the Supreme Court has clearly said, and this is important, that hate speech can lead to discrimination, it can lead to ostracism, it can lead to segregation, it can lead to deportation, it can lead to violence. And then the Supreme Court even went on to say that in extreme cases, it can lead to genocide. Yet the phenomenon continues unabated, as the battle between constitutional democracy and an electoral mob-ocracy continues, every day, unabated.

It is this war that is being waged between a governance structures – of state and society—premised on principles of equality, justice and non-discrimination and one –that has captured state power presently --that has no use for such niceties. There is no knowing how this battle will end, or when. This much is certain, however. The human cost has already been too heavy and is being paid, tragically, with every passing day.


[1] Beyond Doubt, Teesta Setalvad, a Dossier on Gandhi’s assassination

[2] Teesta Setalvad, Hate Speech and the Courts, ILS, Pune

[3] Some of the sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), for example, Section 153a. Then there is the Protection of Civil Rights Act, you have the Representation of the People Act, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

[4] 2018, Kodungallur Film Society v. UoITehseen Poonawalla v. UoI and Shakti Vahini v. UoI

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