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MIT Speakers Call for Examining Centre’s Role in Creating Divisions

Discussion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyses the Indian government’s ‘role in communalism’.
Kerala's Political Groups, JNU Union Announce Screening of BBC Documentary; HCU Students Screen Film on Campus

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The Boston South Asian Coalition (BSAC) and the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) recently organised an event titled ‘An Analysis of BBC Documentary and Panel Discussion on  Political Economy of Religious Violence and People’s Resistance’ at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

During the discussion, which was streamed live on Facebook and is also available on YouTube, the speakers agreed to the need for continuing to critically examine the State’s role in furthering religious conflicts and violence and understand who loses and benefits from these divisions.

Religious violence/communal violence serves the interest of the ruling elite that uses its control over the State apparatus to prepare, instigate and sustain the violence to divide people and thus to achieve its different objectives,” said Arif, one of the speakers, after a few excerpts of the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question were shown.

An independent researcher on caste and religion, he listed some of the large-scale pogroms against Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in India from the middle of the 19th century to 2020 Delhi riots. Out of the total 53 people killed by rioters, 36 were Muslims. Senior administrative and police officers have said that large-scale violence, religious or otherwise, cannot sustain beyond a few hours without the State’s complicity.

The BBC documentary was aired in two parts in the UK in January. The first part looked at then-chief minister Narendra Modi’s role during the 2002 Gujarat riots and the second part examined his government’s record with Muslims in India post the 2019 general elections. 

The government quickly blocked the documentary from being aired, including snippets on social media. Ministry of external affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi called the documentary a piece of “propaganda” indicative of a “colonial mindset”.

Saeed, a human rights activist and community organiser, mentioned Bilkis Bano, who was gang-raped and seven members of her family members, including her three-year-old daughter, killed by rioters during the Gujarat riots.

Eleven men were convicted of rape and murder in 2008, six years after they committed the horrific crimes. On August 15, 2022, the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, they were released with a BJP leader shockingly calling them “cultured Brahmins”.

One of speakers discussed the politics around the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Assam’s situation. “The state is both anti-Muslim and anti-indigenous,” said Upasana, from University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It is tragic that the indigenous cause has been co-opted by right-wing forces in Assam and is being used now to target Muslims.”

Both indigenous and Bengal-origin Muslim communities have been affected by land erosion and floods. “Eviction of both communities is occurring with the state appropriating land for the elite and corporations using the spectre/excuse of the illegal immigrant,” she added.

Speakers also mentioned struggles like the Shaheen Bagh protest and the farmer movement against the farm laws, which was an example of unified resistance across religions and castes.

Ram-Rahimnagar, a slum in Behrampura, Ahmedabad, where both Hindus and Muslims have lived together for decades, is a striking example of harmony. On February 25, in Sachal, Guwahati, more than 1,000 people who were displaced and evicted across community and ethnic lines gathered to protest the Assam government’s policies of handing over land to corporations.

Pratyush, a management researcher, talked about the significant accumulation of wealth by industrialists close to the ruling establishment. Summarising the Hindenburg Research report on the Adani Group, he said, “The key listed firms of the Group made exponential gains in the stock price during the pandemic.”

In a 2014 report, the comptroller and auditor general of India highlighted irregularities amounting to Rs 25,000 crore that included undue benefits to Reliance Petroleum and Adani Power during Modi’s tenure as CM.

Oxfam India’ report on inequality released in January said that 5% of Indians own more than 60% of India’s wealth. The number of billionaires in India went up to a staggering 166 in 2022 from 102 in 2020.

An Ambedkar activist from Telangana said that besides the “police action that killed many Muslims in Telangana in 1948-1951, the Army killed many communists who had bravely fought against feudal landlords and the Nizam at the time. Therefore, it is not just a Hindu-Muslim binary”. 

Another anti-caste activist spoke about the “correct terminology we need to use”. “It is largely Brahmins and other upper castes who have resisted anti-caste legislation in the US. The term ‘Hindus’ can lead to a lot of confusion as many Dalits and other oppressed communities also come under it even though only some identify themselves as Hindu.”

The writer is based in the United States.

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