The harassment of four women, including two nuns, in a train passing through Uttar Pradesh is confirmation, if any were needed, that the political weaponisation of religion has licensed an alarming bigotry in social life. But it also reveals that institutions — in this case, the railways as well as the Uttar Pradesh police — are guilty of abjectly surrendering to vigilante groups, when they should be upholding the law.
Two 19-year-olds training for a life in a Catholic order were on their way home to Odisha when a group of ABVP workers accused the nuns accompanying them of forced religious conversion — and called the cops on them. Despite the young women’s protestations that they were in no need of rescuing, all four were heckled and forced off the train at the Jhansi railway station by their co-passengers, with help from officials of the Government Railway Police. While the men needed nothing more to trigger their suspicion than the presence of women in a nun’s habit, it is alarming that officials pandered to their paranoia, rather than do their job of ascertaining facts. As it turns out, there is no evidence that anyone was being coerced into joining a religion. For the railways, which misses no opportunity in its digital avatars to showcase a new-found passenger-friendly face, by responding to tweets seeking help or other sundry grievances, the failure of its officials to protect ordinary passengers must prompt soul-searching — and accountability. Officials of the UP police, which has an unenviable record when it comes to capitulating to the dog-whistle of communal politics, have plenty to answer for as well.
A politics of sustained otherisation of minorities has unleashed dangerous divisions in public life. It has emboldened self-styled protectors of Hinduism to pick on fellow citizens and intrude into their personal choices (whether it is religion or marriage) with impunity — sometimes with the backing of law, as in the anti-conversion laws in force in several BJP-ruled states. It has eroded the faith of minorities in the even-handedness of state institutions. Institutions tasked to uphold constitutional rights cannot only use gathering clouds of hate as an alibi for their failure. The Union home minister’s assurance of an investigation into the incident is welcome. It must be followed through by making railway and police officials accountable.
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