Forty-nine writers, historians and known figures from other walks of life, have written an open letter to the Prime Minster to draw his attention to atrocities against dalits, mob lynching and violence in the name of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, and other such developments. What is surprising is that they were immediately countered by 62 other personalities, who accused the first group of being selective, one-sided, politically-motivated and bent upon defaming India and Modi.
In this letter-writing contest, literary and culture giants, including filmmakers Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aparna Sen and historian Ramchandra Guha were countered by another set of well-known personalities, including Prasoon Joshi, Kangana Ranaut, Madhur Bhandarkar and Sonal Mansingh.
The counter-letter says that the exodus of Hindus from Kairana, a district in Uttar Pradesh, was ignored by the 49 writers in 2016. They say that “atrocities” against Hindus in Basirhat, West Bengal, in 2017, were also ignored. So was the recent desecration of a temple in Chandni Chowk in Delhi. They accuse Benegal and the others of silence during separatist calls for violence in Kashmir. The say that the 49 condone violence by Naxals in adivasi areas. The other charge is that the so-called ‘tukde-tukde’ gang was not opposed by the 49 people.
It is good that Joshi, who is a noted ad-film maker, and his august friends have brought these incidents to fore once again through their letter. This is because each of them requires a proper analysis.
That said, what the 62 letter-writers say is inaccurate on several counts. Such critical voices and writings against violations of human rights of the weaker sections of society are not new to India. The exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley and the genocide of Sikhs in 1984, were resoundingly criticised and still generate copious critical writing and protests from the secular sections of society.
The eminent personalities cite a number of incidents, such as the exodus of Hindus from Kairana, which the local police itself has debunked. The Chandni Chowk incident unfolded after a dispute over parking a scooter, and a local Aman, or peace, Committee, in which Muslim citizens took the lead, have already re-established the temple. Furthermore, in a step that can be regarded as a model for any future disputes, they organised an inter-community meal to bridge the distance that had grown between the Hindus and the Muslims of the area.
Democratic people and movements have always opposed the violence of Naxalite groups as well. The ‘tukde-tukde gang’ is a clever formulation to defame anybody critical of the ruling party and its policies, but it is no more than that—a clever ploy to defame.
The irony is that what Benegal and the others criticise in their letter caught up with the writers of the counter-letter. On the same day, yet another instance of the misuse of the name of the Hindu god Rama emerged when the BJP’s Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), CP Singh, who is also a minister in Jharkhand, forced his Congress counterpart in the Assembly, Irfan Ansari, to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ while cameras were rolling.
In fact, all that the 49 signatories are doing is to highlight a trend in the last few years—which clearly has escalated during the last few months—of targeted violence against dalits, minorities and others, particularly in the name of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. Their letter is based on statistics from impeccable sources. The National Crime Records Bureau data, which is available until 2016, tells us that atrocities against dalits rose tremendously, to 840 cases, while the rate of conviction dropped drastically.
The data from the Citizen’s Religious and Hate Crime Watch, they point out that during last nine years, 90% of lynching took place after 2014. In these cases, also 62% of victims are Muslims, whereas their percentage in the population is 14.23, and 12% are Christians, whereas their share in the population is 2.30%.
There is also a growing number of incidents in which Muslims are caught hold of when they are alone, on some pretext or other, and forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’. Even then, many of them are done to death. They correctly point out that as long as Ram was invoked as Jai Ram, Jai Siya Ram and Ram-Ram, there was no issue, but now ‘Jai Shri Ram’ is being used as a tool to heckle—as was done in Parliament by BJP lawmakers, when Muslim and Opposition MPs (of the Trinamool Congress) were taking oath.
These clearly discernible trends are no doubt a result of the affiliate organisations of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS feeling emboldened now that “their” government is in power. They clearly seem to believe that they can get away with whatever they think is right.
This perception is ratified in popular memory when those involved in lynching incidents are seen getting honoured by ministers and other leaders of the ruling party. It is not just in the case of Akhlaq’s lynching in Bisada village of Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. In that case, the accused Ravi Sisodia, died of causes unrelated to his crime in police custody, was draped in the Tricolor by the villagers of Bisada, in the presence of BJP leader Mahesh Sharma, who was a central minister at the time (2016 October).
In another case, a year ago, those accused of mob lynching in Jharkhand were garlanded by the now former BJP Minster, Jayant Sinha.
The deeper question that needs to be addressed is that hate against minorities is on the rise, due to which such incidents are unfolding. This hate has been constructed around the holiness of cows, the consumption of beef, by a communal interpretation of history and this entire project is built around Hindu nationalism. Criticising the ruling dispensation is not anti-nationalism. It does not defame the country—though actions that make minorities insecure, which convert an affectionate ‘Jai Ram’ into an aggressive Jai Shri Ram, do throw poor light on us. The worry is not that the government is being criticised. The worry is how we can rectify the social ethos so that incidents that polarise communities come to a halt. Eminent citizens need to show a mirror to the rulers, not act as their courtiers.
The United States passed a law against lynching in 2018, an effort that can be seen as a right earnest effort. The issue is, how is fraternity to be promoted in India. A growing religious divide does not bode well for our democracy.