By Shahzaman Haque
Delhi, known poetically as the Rome of Asia, was destroyed seven times and rebuilt seven times. Until recently, no one from the current generation of Indians had seen or could have even imagined the actual destruction of the city, but the three days of devastation, destruction and death that began on 23rd February 2020 and were broadcast live—to the shock and horror of not only Indians of moral conscience but of thinking people all around the world—have changed that. Whole neighbourhoods took on a ghostly, apocalyptic appearance, with burnt buildings and vehicles, churned earth, and grey smoke set against a pale sky. As I write this piece, many gruesome stories have been shared, even more left untold, particularly from the Muslim victims’ families. Besides hundreds of seriously injured, some critically, at least 53 people died, mostly Muslims, but some Hindus, too. Some bodies were still unidentified weeks after the violence.
A chasm of ignorance, despair, and hate has divided Indians against each other and the country against itself. Indeed, unrest had been spreading throughout the nation for months as the government pushed its divisive new anti-Muslim citizenship law, and protests about this very issue immediately preceded and led into the pogrom in Delhi.
The wrath of Delhi could be contagious. While half of the world is battling the Covid-19 pandemic, the peddling of hatred against Muslims does not seem to be slowing down but, in fact, has surged, accusing them of responsibility for the spread of Coronavirus in India, reports Rana Ayyub in her article in The Washington Post, April 6th 2020.
Delhi’s orchestrated pogrom against the Muslim community is a glimpse of the potential genocide which is lurking in our society. The three-day attack on Muslim neighbourhoods, mosques, and shrines—with security forces watching passively or even participating—has finally sealed the fate of Indian Muslims, turning them from second-class citizens to full pariahs. As noted by Irfan Ahmad in his poignant essay in The Polis Project (28 March 2020), “what happened in Delhi was purposive and in no way spontaneous,” and many international media openly reported the brazen implications of police and state authorities abetting and shielding Hindu nationalist mobs. The longstanding anti-Muslim rhetoric and political program of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now simply manifesting itself physically.
Hierarchies of hate speech and bigotry
Indian Muslims are subjected to different hierarchies of hate and bigotry in their daily lives. Muslims cannot rent a house in a Hindu neighbourhood. The American Uber, apparently infected by the ideology of hate, mostly cancels rides for Muslim clients. In some of Delhi’s Metro stations, and on its streets, one casually hears “shoot the traitors,” referencing you-know-which minority. A recent hate video taken in the Shastri Nagar neighbourhood of Delhi on 5th April 2020 calls for banning Muslims and boycotting Muslim vendors.
At the top of the pyramid is the government machinery. Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party gained 303 of the 542 Parliament seats in the General Election of May 2019, largely based on its Islamophobic stance.
The middle level includes the bulk of the morally corrupt Indian media. They act as magnifiers and mouthpieces of the government machinery targeting the Muslim community, inciting hatred towards them and creating a war-like atmosphere. A New York Times article, “Under Modi, India’s press is not so free anymore” published on April 2, 2020 reports the curbs on press freedom in India.
Not all the media, though, submits so easily; two TV channels, Mediaone and AsiaNet News, broadcast unbiased, unfiltered reports of the Delhi pogrom, coming down heavily on the suspicious role of the Delhi police and administration. They were banned for 48 hours by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
At the lowest level, there are Orwellian-indoctrinated youth from all strata of life, castes, and socioeconomic statuses, united by irrational hate for Muslims. They harbour a dangerous potential for violence, spurred on by stories fabricated by WhatsApp groups targeting the Indian Muslim community, or by hate speeches from the BJP and its affiliated organs and mouthpieces.
The judiciary, the ultimate bastion of a functional democracy, seems to have collapsed or be on a ventilator. Neither the Delhi High Court nor the Indian Supreme Court has taken any independent initiative on the Delhi pogrom. Delhi High Court Justice, S. Murlidhar, who ordered the Delhi police to file a complaint against the instigators of the riot, was transferred within 24 hours to another State.
During the three days and nights when the dance of carnage was in full swing in North East Delhi, Delhi Police received thousands of calls, mostly from Muslim families, demanding protection. Almost none were protected. Over fifteen days, many Muslim men and boys were picked up by the Delhi police, merely on “suspicion” of involvement in the riots. An article published in The Wire on 4th April 2020, reported that Delhi Minorities Commission issued notice to the Commissioner of Delhi police claiming Muslim boys had been randomly arrested for February’s violence in Northeast Delhi.
Nowadays, no Muslim can say with certainty that he or she is safe anywhere in India. I, personally, do not feel safe for a minute in India: I am not a practicing Muslim, but “Muslim-enough to be killed,” as famously summarised by the Urdu writer, Saadat Hassan Manto, who left for Pakistan in 1947.
Majority versus minority dynamics
On the dynamics of majority versus minority, Arjun Appudarai asserts in his book, The Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, that “numerical majorities become predatory and ethnocidal with regard to small numbers …”.
The chain of violence, hate, and bigotry against Muslims has constantly intensified in India. There is something extremely disturbing about the rioters’ fetishization of violence. Victims were shot, lynched, stabbed, and burnt. The ages ranged from children under 5 years old to an 85-year-old woman. Pictures and videos have shown frenzied Indian urban youth enacting gory scenes of horror on the streets of Delhi. To paraphrase Karl Marx’s phrase, “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” it seems a “dictatorship of majoritarian” is looming over us.
Recasting the whole country into a “Hindu nation” seems to be a cherished agenda in the 21st century, especially promoted by the BJP. The idea of India as a secular democracy and a tolerant one, core to its foundation and imbibed by successive generations of Hindus and Muslims living together, is breathing its last breaths. The Delhi pogrom has ruptured the legacies of brotherhood and secularism cultivated through a hundred years of collective sacrifices, going back to the unity of Hindus and Muslims against British rule to form the modern Indian state. Only a sadist in the majority or a masochist in the minority can fail to be concerned at the majoritarian subversion of democracy, and I do not wish Indians, especially Indian Muslims to adopt such traits in addition to their many long-standing burdens and woes, especially after Delhi.
The Delhi pogrom seems a turning point in the nature of Indian democracy, and only Indians of both Hindu and Muslim faiths, willing to stand side-by-side against BJP bigotry can save India’s democracy and restore it, as we knew it, before the wrath of Delhi. In unison, we must demand together that Prime Minister Modi hold his own government and party accountable, to halt and reverse India’s majoritarian lurch. If he does not, a united front must vote him and his party out of office.
Shahzaman Haque is the Co-director of the Department of South Asia and Himalaya at National Institute of Languages and Civilisations (INALCO), Paris. Follow him on Twitter @shahzamanhaque