Anis Kidwai, who lost her husband as he fought to save lives in a communal riot in 1947, went to Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi offering her services for the survivors of Partition. In great sadness, Gandhiji spoke to her of the fires of hate that burned around him. Until a Muslim child is able to walk outside without fear, he said to her, he could not leave Delhi. One of Gandhiji’s tests of the country that we must build was simply this, of a Muslim child living here without fear. Apply this to the India of 2019.
The BJP’s election campaign makes it abundantly clear that it has declared war on a segment of India’s citizens. Since the Constitution assures equal citizenship to all regardless of their faith and caste, this is also a war on the Constitution. It is war against the ethos of the freedom struggle, and against what is finest in India’s civilisational legacy — its pluralism, its accommodation of diversity.
The 2014 general elections were crafted by the BJP to render India’s Muslims politically irrelevant by welding disadvantaged Hindu castes with privileged castes— and in India’s Northeast even with Christians — against the constructed common enemy, India’s Muslims. The state elections which succeeded saw the growing political invisibalisation of the Muslim, with even opposition parties reluctant to raise issues of concern to Muslims or field Muslim candidates.
In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led from the front. He taunts his political adversary, Rahul Gandhi, for fighting elections in a seat in which “the minority is the majority”, insinuating that this is somehow an insult both to Hindus and the nation. Since Hindus are 48 per cent of the population of this constituency, Rahul can win only by asking for votes also from Muslim and Christian residents. How is this illegitimate, unless we believe that Muslims are lesser citizens?
These lines are drawn even more unambiguously by Amit Shah. Shah pledges to extend the National Register of Citizens, currently restricted to Assam, to all of India. In Assam, this process is interrogating the citizenship of four million people, creating potential statelessness on a scale unmatched anywhere in the world. He also promises to ensure Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. He describes Muslims and Christians, mainly the former, as infiltrators and “termites”. This belligerent language is at its most crass in the speeches of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who founded a Hindu youth militia which has still not been disbanded. He rages about his party’s crusade against the “green virus”. He pits “our” Bajrang Bali against “their” Ali.
Through PM Modi’s stewardship of the country, there has been a surge in hate speech and lynching. NDTV found an exponential increase in hate speech in Modi’s government compared to the five years of UPA rule that preceded it. And 88 per cent of these hate speeches were by BJP leaders.
This period also saw a massive rise in hate-lynching, which mainly targeted Muslims and Dalits. IndiaSpend found that between 2010 and 2017, 97 per cent cow-related violence occurred after PM Modi came to power, and 86 per cent of the fatalities were of Muslims. In many journeys of the Karwan e Mohabbat to families hit by lynching, we have found them isolated and in fear, unsupported by the state administration, which instead mostly criminalises the victims. In fact, the lynch mobs are not just protected from punishment, they are valourised as heroes. One Union minister garlands men convicted of lynching; another wraps the body of a lynching accused who dies in jail in the national flag.
India’s criminal justice system has long reflected a communalised institutional bias. This touched a new low in the Modi years. Mayaben Kodnani, the first senior political leader convicted for instigating and leading the most brutal massacre in Gujarat in 2002, was given bail soon after Modi assumed office and subsequently acquitted of all charges. Criminal cases which accused Amit Shah, now BJP president, and many senior police officers of extra-judicial killings were all discharged. People accused of Sangh terror crime have one by one been acquitted, mostly on grounds that the prosecution did not martial even the evidence which was available to them. The clearest signal yet of this declaration of war against Muslims was when Pragya Thakur, accused (and not still discharged) of being one of the key conspirators of a series of terror attacks targeting Muslims, was hand-picked as the BJP candidate to Parliament from Bhopal.
A Muslim child in Gurugram is attacked for playing cricket, while a mob attacks his home, smashing windows and beating everyone at home. After the police registers criminal cases against his family, they surrender, resolving not to pursue the case against their attackers. These are the only terms on which they would be allowed to continue to live and work in Gurugram.
I think wistfully of Gandhiji’s longing for an India in which a Muslim child can walk without fear. We travelled far from the India of Gandhiji’s imagination.
This article first appeared in the May 4, 2019 print edition under the title ‘When children walk with fear’. Mander is a human rights worker and writer.