The Mob within Indian Democracy

When the editors of Communalism Combat asked us to write for the re-launch of their portal, we unhesitatingly said yes, since we were probably among the first few to contribute to the very early editions of this brave venture which has been in the vanguard of the struggle against deepening communalism in India. The task became a particularly challenging enterprise and after several false starts, we raced to meet another deadline.

This is perhaps because we are attempting to do the impossible: trying to capture in the space of an article a much larger canvas. At one level we have been overtaken by earth shattering global events that are dictating predictable reactions post Paris. The global ‘war on terror’ is back with a fury which is both primitive and dangerous as it ignores the complex and layered, reality and history, of the Wests’ engagement with countries of the Middle East.

Coming closer home, within this broader canvas, we are trying to situate and analyse the equally complex picture of events and trends in our own country – the political upheavals, the cultural and ideological battles; and above all the sense of [deliberately manufactured?] growing intolerance. In all this atmosphere of gloom, if there is one event which restores one’s faith in the intrinsic wisdom, good sense and secular roots of our people, it has been the election results from Bihar where people have delivered a resounding verdict of NO to communal politics.

We note the symbiotic relationship between the global, the regional and the national scenarios. The seeming ease with which corporate, military, economic and political interests are able to cynically exploit race, ethnicities, linguistic and religious differences into violence of such a scale, it would certainly have Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mandela turning in their graves. It is as if there is an unwritten sanction for violent responses, enhanced a hundred times because of the fearsome way in which such an extent of modern science, technology and finance has been converted into a terrifying dance of death and destruction. An eye for an eye indeed – and we are all rapidly turning blind.

Unfortunately the media is playing its own powerful and not necessarily or always ethical or constructive role in all of this. Today – be it print, electronic and especially the very recent phenomena of social media – it is compulsively caught up in a race to be the first to bring the sound bytes, the shocking, heartbreaking and provocative visuals, i.e. in short BREAKING NEWS. Here too, the march of technology has been a double edged weapon which we must use with care and caution. But given the varying compulsions at play, there is lesser time for dialogue, thought or reflection about the consequences of those actions.

The Role of Watchdogs in Civil Society
So what is the significance of an agency like Communalism Combat which completes 22 years of existence despite all odds about which enough has been said and written. Interestingly there is a shared history and synergy between CC and our move from a typical urban, services environment into a totally unfamiliar and tough rural reality – completing 22 years this September.

For many of us, coming from the experience of some decades of work in civil society and peoples’ movements, it has been increasingly apparent that we have moved far away from many of the original values, principles and concepts about the nature of our society and polity as was enshrined in the Constitution of India. The politics of vote banks, especially the cynical cultivation of religious and sectarian groups for electoral purposes, was started by Congress soon after the heady days of independence and then taken to further lethal practices by many political parties – national and regional. What we term as “communalisation” has been happening over a period of time. Indira Gandhi’s assassination followed by the pogrom against Sikhs represented the tragic consequences of communal politics played in the Punjab.

We have truly reached the nadir in terms of public discourse and tolerance of differing points of view.

For many of those intimately involved with relief, rehabilitation after the carnage against the Sikhs, this was the first real eye opener to the ugly face of the state and its leadership. It was also to bring home to a large number of citizens the dangers of the relative ease with which it was possible to manipulate mob frenzy and anger around issues of religion, caste and community. The first large scale civil society mobilisation around the issue of communalisation began already in 1984 as can be seen in the brief overview of the Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan below.

“A Brief History of the Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan (1984-1993)
1.  The Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan (SVA), or Movement Against Communalism, was founded by some of the activists working in the relief camps in Delhi in November 1984. Its original concept was to engage in systematic activity designed to pre-empt communal violence, rather than merely react to its consequences. One of the first acts of the group was to help organise (along with certain political groups and unions outside the established left parties), a protest demonstration on November 24, 1984. Participants still consider this one of the most memorable demonstrations in Delhi in many years, despite the abstention of the national Opposition. Students and professors; butchers and auto-rickshaw drivers; workers, political activists, women's groups, all took part with great enthusiasm in a march lasting nearly four hours, and comprising some four to five thousand people. Citizens belonging to virtually every national community were present. ‘Bhai-bhai’ slogans were not raised – the focus was quite simply, the demand for punishment to the guilty. Significantly, the demonstration was given little or no coverage in the media, barring an editorial page article in The Statesman some days later that stated that “thousands of Sikhs” had marched in Delhi crying for vengeance – a classic case of distortion.
In 1986 we submitted a memorandum to the National Integration Council, which focussed on the need to implement the criminal law with respect to the Delhi carnage. This document we believe, is the only public statement drawing attention to the communal nature of the Rajiv Gandhi-Longowal accord of 1985 for its presumption that the Akali Party had the natural right to take up the matter of the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi.
We argued that the government was constitutionally bound to identify and punish the guilty, regardless of the religious affiliation of the victims, and that the investigation of the allegation of conspiracy (as undertaken in the Accord) was a red herring which left this duty unattended. The SVA's predictions in this matter have unfortunately, been proven correct.
An important aside especially important to record in view of vicious abuse and accusations of treason directed at the Admiral following the open letter that he recently wrote to the President and the Prime Minister (Vijayadashmi, 2015).

***NB Admiral Ramdas was very much still in service, and was commanding the Eastern Fleet based in Visakhapatnam at the time. It was Lalita Ramdas who was living in Delhi, and who was  deeply involved in justice and reparation, post 1984 pogrom, over a nearly three year period. It was a full time commitment, along with hundreds of young and old people from very different social and political backgrounds. Under the umbrella of Nagrik Ekta Manch, we co-ordinated work in Nanaksar, Farsh Bazaar and other relief camps. Volunteers sat up night after night, collating first person testimonies from survivors. We interacted with the police and Delhi administration demanding that FIRs be registered, and necessary action be taken.

Our reports became part of the seminal report published by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), Who are the Guilty? And several of us testified before the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission.

We remember vividly the conversation that preceded the decision that Lalita would testify before the commission – especially since advice from the admiral’s colleagues was that this would go against Ramu’s service career. His position and words to his wife were clear and unambiguous. “You must follow your conscience. If your conscience tells you to testify, just go ahead. And if that affects my service career – that’s too bad. I am ready to put in my papers at any time.”

Interrogation, Dissent and Democracy
Across print, web journals and social media, it has been a shock for us to be at the receiving end of such ill-informed and vicious attacks – where it is clear that it is not dissent that has been manufactured as was famously said recently by a senior minister in the government. These are personal, slanderous attacks which are carefully manufactured, synchronised and propagated through the network of both the party and others who call the shots. We have truly reached the nadir in terms of public discourse and tolerance of differing points of view.

The blind loyalty to an individual, a political party and an ideology has been deliberately bred and encouraged over the decades – a natural feature of our continuing feudal mindsets. Political parties are encouraging caste, community and religion based identity politics in today’s India. And it is for this reason that any discussion on combating communalism must also be located within a rigorous critique of what is understood by democracy and democratic governance.

The true value of what the initiatives like Communalism Combat represent can be best evaluated when examined within the political and social contexts of the time. Just as much as 1984 provided a kind of watershed experience for citizens; the events leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1993 was to alter the discourse on communal politics as encouraged by the BJP. This entire narrative was reinforced and underpinned ever more strongly by the members of the extended sangh parivar.

It is with remarkable insight that both Teesta and Javed – two far sighted journalists – could look ahead into a future which most of us discarded, realise the kind of horrors that were likely to surface, and who then went on to make it their life’s mission to perform the function of efficient and committed watchdogs to anticipate and eventually to book and prosecute those who were guilty of the most unspeakable crimes against humanity. This requires the courage of conviction to act according to the diktats of one’s conscience.

From the Archives of Communalism Combat
In the course of charting the focus for this article, we spent time visiting the archives of Communalism Combat – at least those that have been uploaded from 1998 to 2012. It is a veritable store-house of important milestones – especially in this period between the genocide of 1984 – to the genocide of 2002. While majoritarian communal behaviour comes in for considerable scrutiny CC has not spared minority communal patterns of behaviour. The range and span of essays and reports from some of the finest minds provide a critical source and access to serious analysis and perspectives which help in contextualising both historically and ideologically, the course of events which have brought us to where we are today.

In particular it is most important to understand the thin but critical dividing line between religious fundamentalism and communalism.
The Contradictions About Conversions
Rajeev Dhavan, in a former issue of CC terms India’s anti conversion legislation as one which has caused lasting damage and endless repercussions.
“India’s present controversies over ‘conversions’ have little meaning outside the politics of Hindutva. An anxious and vindictive sangh parivar’s stance – that no conversions of Hindus should take place – is clearly that conversions out of Hinduism are bad but reconversions back into Hinduism are welcome. What is flaunted as a policy against all conversions has been tailored to suit Hindutva’s needs. There are therefore clear contradictions in the Hindutva standpoint. According to this view, conversions must stop but reconversions are to be encouraged. People should move into Hinduism but not out of Hinduism.

The sangh parivar’s stance on conversion and reconversion is mired in communal fundamentalism. No argument on conversion exists in a vacuum, and the sangh parivar’s policies on conversion are also part of a communal policy of persecution of Christians and Muslims. Unlike fundamentalism which consists of a diehard belief in one’s own faith, communalism goes further to pursue a policy of persecution towards other faiths through legal and illegal coercive methods. Fundamentalism and communalism may feed each other. A fundamentalist is entitled to cling to his orthodoxy but a communalist is as menacing as his persecution. Proselytism is not communal per se. Many faiths claim to seek to convert others, just as present-day Hindus seek to ‘reconvert’ non-Hindus.”

Not only has this theme of conversions and Ghar Wapsi been widely used by the present regime, today in 2015 we find ourselves at a moment where those who were guilty in 1984 have been displaced and replaced, without being punished, by those who were responsible for and who turned a blind eye towards the guilty of 2002. And it is this party and this power which is presiding over the destinies of the people of India today as they continue to target Muslims and to a lesser extent, Christians, for not being the true inheritors of the soul of India.

Singling Out The Muslim in India
Quoting from a January 1998 issue of Communalism Combat:
“Similarly, the hatred directed at Indian Muslims by a certain political tendency has tended to produce a post-facto justification for the two-nation theory of Jinnah upon which the Partition was based. In turn, that hatred appeared to those possessed by it as a consequence of the “separatism” of Muslims in general and retribution for the pain and trauma suffered by Hindu and Sikh refugees in 1947. Who is to blame? This is a question fraught with ambivalence. But for those who have succumbed to communal ideology, it is a very simple question indeed, and the easy answer is always – They…”

And again in 2012 they point out:
“The sangh parivar is not just a sick organisation suffering from a blind and incurable hatred of Muslims and Christians. It is far worse than that. There is a method in the murder and mayhem that it promotes and perpetrates, which clearly points to an evil genius at work.

‘Go Back to Pakistan’
Recent statements by many levels of functionaries – both of the party and the parivar – have pointedly asked all those who criticise either the party, the prime minister, or the sangh and its policies, to “go to Pakistan”. This reveals a frightening mindset which has been systematically propagated, refined, polished and presented in increasingly sophisticated forms over several decades. At the level of the mobs and the lumpen elements, it manifests itself in blind fury which will not stop at brutal violence that we have seen time and again. It is dangerous because it is also marketed and sold as defending the faith and the nation.

We are also seeing that this product in its modernised version, has found traction with large numbers of urban, educated, middle class – NRIs and  upwardly mobile youth – seduced by the same rhetoric of this being the essence of India, and herein lies the protection and the promotion of both religion and nationalism. The message is brilliant, while also frightening in its simplicity – the essential soul of India is Hindu; Hindutva is the sword arm which will restore India to its glory and deserved place in the sun; all those who would live here, especially those who follow the book like Muslims and Christians, can only do so under terms dictated by the majority. By extension of this logic, the creation of a Hindu Rashtra is our political goal.

The concerted attacks on the country’s minorities have been possible thanks to the failure of the custodians of law to fulfil their primary obligation of protecting the life and property of all citizens, irrespective of community, caste or gender.

Analysts have consistently pointed out that the foundations of project ‘Hindu Rashtra’ were indeed laid several decades ago – and in many ways Babri Masjid followed by Gujarat were part of the trial run whereby the religious-cultural units were either deployed by the political leadership, or the members of the parivar/sangh were the ones who set the agenda and drove the political engine.

Communalism Combat from October 1998 carries an unforgettable headline¸ Welcome to Hindu Rashtra

“Over forty incidents, of arson, assault, loot, demolition (remember the ‘kar sevaks’ in Ayodhya?) and forcible evictions have taken place in the past six months in Gujarat, the land of Gandhi’s birth. The targets: the state’s Christians and Muslims. 
As a social activist from Gujarat put it, "lived fascism is a grim reality in Gujarat today." Those who are putting up a brave resistance in Gujarat today experience a chilling isolation from the rest of the country.

The concerted attacks on the country’s minorities have been possible thanks to the failure of the custodians of law to fulfil their primary obligation of protecting the life and property of all citizens, irrespective of community, caste or gender. The murderers and assailants have functioned with utter impunity before the guardians of the law, either browbeating the administration into inaction or engineering complicity from within its ranks. This bodes ill for the health of Indian democracy.”

This graphic account of the modus operandi of the foot soldiers of the sangh parivar should be borne in mind as we switch gears to move fast forward to the overwhelming victory of the BJP in the general elections of 2014 – and the mounting evidence of a number of similar attacks on minorities in the past eighteen months since the BJP government came to power. The agenda is clear, put in place in all key positions from national to local, those who are loyalists of RSS and the Sangh Parivar – and they will take forward the Project of intimidation of the minorities and dalits, as also building the edifice of a Hindu Rashtra.

Public memory is notoriously short – and once again we are reminded by this quote in CC by the novelist Milan Kundera, when he wrote, “The struggle for power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

To make people forget, the template of popular memory requires reworking. The circumstances are propitious – the BJP is in power again and Rajnath Singh is the Home Minister. LK Advani has metamorphosed into a voice of moderation, even an elderly statesman.
From Personal to Political

In the final analysis, the measure of any effort to confront, interrogate and combat the kind of elements and forces we have tried to describe above will be the extent and intensity to which these are experienced at the personal level. Our earliest contributions to Communalism Combat, one was titled SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, and the other THE FIRE NEXT TIME described in detail some challenging and tough situations and decisions made at a personal level – which in turn has influenced so many of the public or political decisions we have taken.

To make people forget, the template of popular memory requires reworking. The circumstances are propitious – the BJP is in power again and Rajnath Singh is the Home Minister. LK Advani has metamorphosed into a voice of moderation, even an elderly statesman.

A Letter to Our Leaders From a Former Head of service
Here are a few extracts from a recent open letter from Admiral Ramdas as a former head of service, sent to the President and the Prime Minister of India.  This letter clearly resonated with large numbers, it was translated into several languages – and we have received calls and messages of appreciation from across the world.

“It is with a heavy heart, that I write this open letter to you at a time when our beloved country and people are facing severe challenges and threats to our shared heritage.

I have served in the Armed Forces of India – joining soon after Independence as a 14 year old, to end up 45 years later Chief of the Indian Navy [1990 to 1993] I have witnessed many transitions in India – from the horrors of partition in 1947 to the very different world of digital connectivity that we see today. 

Today, as a veteran in my eighties, I am forced to hang my head in shame as I witness a series of incidents and assaults on our fellow citizens, especially minorities and dalits. Our armed forces which I have had the honour to serve for 45 years, have been an exemplar of India’s secular ethos. Be it in ships and submarines, or in planes and battle formations, we do not discriminate on the basis of caste or religion – we train, we fight, we live, we eat and we die together.”

It appears that certain communities are being singled out for special attention – for instance Muslims.

There seems to be a systematic and well orchestrated attempt to impose a majoritarian single point agenda of creating a Hindu Rashtra in India – led by the RSS and their network of groups, which is disturbing to say the least.

Most shocking of all is the fact there has been no unambiguous condemnation of such actions and behaviour by those at the helm of affairs in the country.

I do not need to point out to the top leadership today, that this is playing with fire in a nation where minorities – especially Muslims and Christians, as also dalits and adivasis, are already feeling discriminated and marginalised.

The violence visited upon vulnerable sections reinforces the image of India as an imperfect democracy where all forms of dissent are discouraged and human rights trampled upon with impunity.

The Prime Minister and his ministers in the government are sworn in by the President of India, and they take an oath pledging to uphold the Indian Constitution.T heir failure to do so, as evidenced in the foregoing, is a serious matter and does not augur well either for national security or national integrity. The Central and State Governments must act swiftly, unequivocally condemn all such incidents and ensure that justice will be done and the guilty are punished. 

The violence visited upon vulnerable sections reinforces the image of India as an imperfect democracy where all forms of dissent are discouraged and human rights trampled upon with impunity.

It is our bounden duty that the elected Government of this nation must honour the rights of every citizen of this land as amply spelled out in the Preamble of the Constitution and further elaborated in the Directive Principles of State Policy. As Supreme Commander and the Chief Executive – this is what you must ensure and implement by all the powers vested in you by the people of India.

If we do not stem the rot now – it might be too late. Indeed we the people of India look to you to take all steps necessary to restore faith in our democracy and in the promise of bringing dignity, fraternity and equality to each of our citizens.
—  Admiral Ramdas

And in conclusion – as we also dealt with a barrage of abuse and accusations of treasonable conduct, with demands that not just we, but the family needed to be publicly hung, here is what Lalita Ramdas wrote and sent out on social media summing up where we are coming from.
“Is the soul and idea of India just Hindu? Says who? And which history- or religious text tells us that?

For me, and for many like me, it is the layered magnificence of five thousand years which has placed in its core for all manner of -isms ……..animism – for the five elements we have always revered; for tribal deities of the original inhabitants; for Buddha and Mahavira; for the Vedas and the Upanishads and million other interpretations and practice of Hinduism, for Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Judaism, for Islam, for Sikhism and Bahais – for socialism, secularism, and even capitalism; for believers and non believers, for atheists and agnostics – for dark skinned and fair and lovely – for sufis and dervishes – for devis and devatas – for gods and goddesses – for the many languages and dialects, for all the versions of the Ramayana – for LGBTs – and ardha narishwara, for the most bewildering expressions and creativity and fusion in art, architecture, food, our textiles, our music our poetry and literature and languages… for debate, and argument and dissent and as many opinions as there are people.

We worship rivers, mountains, and animals, the sun, the moon, the wind and fire… we worship learning, we worship people, but do not tell us to worship only in one way.

And as for Hindutva ? There is no such thing – except for a ‘manufactured’ and ugly distortion of all that was wise and good in one of the many many faiths of our fore mothers and fore fathers!

My mother in law – a devout Tamil Brahmin – accepted me, a girl whom her son decided to marry – even though according to the hierarchy of caste – I came from a Bangle seller Naidu clan! She did not care about her daughter in law being an OBC – she was my best friend and ally – and she had no problems in cooking beef in the one and only pressure cooker in her tiny kitchen for their beloved dog – sammy!

It was her who convinced my own cosmopolitan mother [and widely travelled Naval wife], that it was fine to bring in a Muslim daughter in law into the family. Her gutsy stance helped another cousin in his decision to marry the beauteous Nargis from Orissa.

Years later these intrepid ladies happily welcomed their Muslim – Pakistani/American son in law into the family with arathi and mithai and slokas!

And as time went by, and our daughters and their cousins, studied and travelled – we now have a mini UN community in the family – a burly African American Baptist who has a PIO card which our Pakistani/American son in law can never get! Another niece is married to a Sri Lankan Tamil – and yet another to a wonderful, brilliant young man from the UK. The next generation is already making choices – from Kashmiri pandit to a Dutch-New Zealander!

Our children speak in many tongues and are at home in many countries – but they all come back happily to India and feel comfortably at home. This is the genuine Ghar Wapsi – the glory and the wonder that is India – let no one take this away.

So who were the original dwellers?  Our forest dwellers who are under siege like never before – victims of unrelenting corporate development – the adivasis – and they were never Hindus – until they were forcibly inducted into the fold.

Let us celebrate, not desecrate and distort, this marvellous diversity – this creative anarchy – possibly not to be found anywhere else on this planet except this South Asian land mass.

Good people are agonising today at what is happening, and it is time for each one of us to speak out and speak up about the ugly face of our country which seems to be on the rising. 

This and only this can be the way forward – and yes the idea of India in its magnificent diversity – will surely overcome and survive.                



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