It is of secondary importance that 25-year-old B. Nagaraju, who was brutally hacked to death in Hyderabad’s Saroornagar area, was a Hindu or that his alleged murderers were Muslim. In another tragic episode many years ago, a Muslim, a 30-year-old computer graphics trainer called Rizwanur Rahman was driven to suicide in Kolkata, apparently by his Hindu in-laws. The disturbing communal angle only compounds the wider ominous implications of institutional hypocrisy and what it says about India and Indians.
Clearly, such barbarities would never have taken place if violence had not always simmered just beneath the surface in the land of Gautama Buddha, the post-Kalinga War Emperor Ashoka and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The party in power at any particular time might aggravate things but the violence exists irrespective of it, erupting in the killings of Mahatma Gandhi, Pratap Singh Kairon, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and others, as well as the communal bloodbaths like the Muslim League’s Direct Action Day in 1946. Outright brutality, as among some Afghan tribes for whom feuding is a way of life, might have evoked less revulsion than targeted murders reflecting ancient prejudice or a stubborn refusal to rise above sectarian fanaticism. The recent lynching in Madhya Pradesh’s Seoni district of two tribal men accused of killing a cow was reportedly the handiwork of some Bajrang Dal activists. It bore too close a resemblance to similar atrocities in Jharkhand and Haryana not to prompt suspicions of an emerging pattern and official connivance. That the traditional lifestyle of the victims in these cases — Muslims, dalits or adivasis — is markedly different from the classic Hindu pattern indicates an intolerant insistence on uniformity.
Since the authorities claim no responsibility for other controversies over wearing the hijab, blaring loudspeakers or the so-called “love jihad” to which the Hyderabad and Kolkata outrages may well be attributed, one cannot say if there is a long-term official strategy to reserve India only for Hindus. I am told that the play, The Muslim Vanishes, by my one-time colleague, Saeed Naqvi, attempts with wit and perspicacity to answer the question of what India would be like without its more than 200 million followers of the Prophet. I am more curious about how a country can be purged of so many people, if that is indeed the grim aim. European precedents — the events of St. Bartholomew’s Day in France in 1572 when Catholics were advised to wear a distinguishing white scarf, or the yellow star identifying Jews in German-controlled territory before and during the Second World War — are surely too extreme for the India that we know. But no student of history can ever commit the reckless folly of uttering those fateful words: “It can’t happen here!”
Drifting towards bigotry and blinkers, we must bear in mind that there is a domestic as well as an international dimension to these trends. Domestically, it indicates the gradual withering of the universalism that was always a feature of the Sanatan Dharma, so that even while urban Indians are giddily wallowing in the cosmopolitan pleasures of rampant capitalism, their mental horizons and cultural vision might be shrinking to those of their medieval ancestors. So far as the international dimension is concerned, of course India, warts and all, will always be courted because it promises a huge market as well as abundant raw materials and because 1.3 crore Indians living abroad (to say nothing of a vast ethnic Indian diaspora) occupy positions of importance in the countries they live in. But whether we like it or not, Karel van Oosterom, Dutch ambassador to the United Nations, recently provided a glimpse of foreign distaste for certain Indian foreign policy positions. India’s permanent representative at the UN, T.S. Tirumurti, shot him down, but the distaste itself goes back to Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-alignment.
Many eulogised India’s first Prime Minister as the “apostle of peace”; many others viewed him (although less openly) as a calculating opportunist. His disapproval of military solutions did not extend to Kashmir, Hyderabad, Junagadh, Nagaland, Mizoram and other trouble spots where the national interest was affected, yet he sent only an Army medical unit to the Korean War which enjoyed the UN’s blessings. That legacy persists. Successive Indian governments since then have taken a saintly stand on international disputes, urging contestants to abjure force and rely only on “dialogue and diplomacy”. Only Chandra Shekhar, in the hot seat for a mere four months and another four as a caretaker Prime Minister, was honest enough to spurn cant, and declare that Desert Storm was not a UN enterprise like the Korean War, and frankly admit: “We can’t protect our own borders, why should we go to protect other people’s borders?”
Casuistry hasn’t improved the national image. India’s human rights record is held against it. So is the media’s declining independence. The recent shenanigans over arresting the Delhi BJP spokesman, Tajinder Singh Bagga, for allegedly delivering “hate speeches” cannot but prompt questions about police methods and the quality of justice. Yet, only governments that replace sanctimonious rhetoric with constructive action can hope to counter the endemic violence that explodes every so often in some form of communal antagonism. It was common in old-style American Western movies to plant a baddie in the sheriff’s office so that he, too, could claim the power of “legal guns” to wreak his lawless mischief. The same purpose is achieved today by changing the rules and placing cronies in key positions. That blurring of roles in real life accounts for many of today’s troubles. As even Singapore’s affable and well-disposed Lee Hsien Loong felt constrained to point out, with nearly half the members of the Lok Sabha facing criminal charges, India can hardly sustain the brave new world Nehru had promised.
Wanton arrests, refusal to grant bail, draconian laws, frivolous sedition charges, harsh sentences and — above all — what looks like the persecution of selected groups by the establishment’s unofficial foot soldiers can also only encourage further contempt for the law.
That means more lynchings in the cause of faith and more gruesome killings. Nagaraju may not have been murdered, nor Rizwanur Rahman driven to take his own life, in a civilised law-abiding society that regards all men as equal, as the Constitution enjoins. A ruling party that isn’t directly to blame for this inherent violence is all the better placed to take steps to curb it.