Ram Navami violence: We need to see its similarity across India and interpret the signs clearly

Hindu groups carry flags during a Ram Navami procession in New Delhi on 10 April. The violence around Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti processions this year crossed a line. Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times
06 May, 2022

In 1978, a neo-Nazi group insisted on marching through predominantly Jewish areas in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago. They were set on carrying placards that read “We are Coming” and on waving the swastika in an area inhabited by Holocaust survivors. The march did not eventually take place in that suburb—it happened in Chicago instead. But it is a reminder that such provocative marches, purposely carried out in sensitive areas, are not an invention of 2022; they are part of an old global playbook of hate, of which India is now firmly a part. 

 Riots have traditionally involved processions taken out deliberately to where religious and ethnic minorities live, not only as a show of strength but also to mark them out and hope to use their reaction as instigation. Even in India, this is not the first time that religious processions have been used to foment violence and the deepening of inter-community fault lines. But, while India has previously seen such “religious processions” heading towards mosques, bearing weapons, including sharp swords, and uttering loud abuse as slogans, even rioting, this most recent spate is different.

 The violence around Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti processions this year crossed a line. That may appear to be a difficult claim to make in the raucous and fractious democracy that India has been since 1947. But the violence we witnessed these past months has been across several states. This makes it important to focus on the similarities of what is happening across India and interpret the signs clearly.

 Groups in several states have felt encouraged to fully and confidently vent their hate, exuding impunity. The violence is encouraged by the calculated and loud silence of the country’s top leadership, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, from whom there has not been a single call for harmony or peace. A ceremony presided by Modi to valorise the sacrifice of the Sikh guru Teg Bahadur at the Red Fort served to further isolate Indian Muslims and falsely tag the martyrdom of Teg Bahadur as an anti-Muslim event. The Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhism, issued a statement directly criticising Modi’s speech, reiterating that Teg Bahadur had martyred himself for freedom of all religions and not just Hindus. These incidents have made it clear that it is naïve to think of polarisation simply as a ruse to win elections or to distract from the chaotic mess the economy has been thrown into. Rather, it is the other way round. Every electoral victory is used to whip up bitterness and serve as fuel to be poured on the exercise of dividing the country and marginalising Muslims, a macabre and literal enactment of the slogan, “ghar-ghar Modi”—Modi in every house. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s recent wins in four out of five states were swiftly used to ramp up hate and further the cause of moulding India into only a nation-for-Hindus.

 There have been ruptures in India’s journey since Independence; there is a shorthand list of when the project of making a Hindu nation has clashed with the idea of Indian nationhood. The murder of Gandhi, in 1948, was the first. Sadhus laying siege to the gates of Parliament for cow protection, in 1966, can be seen as the next moment. In 1992, the idea of being Indian was sought to be conflated with being Hindu, when the Babri Masjid was pulled down. The Gujarat pogroms of 2002 was the fourth most egregious set of events in this black calendar, putting to shame the idea that India was over the rioting that defined the 1990s. It was this millennium’s first theatre of hate, resulting in the killings of ordinary Muslims, which were allowed to go on as the state watched. The idea of “collective punishment” found its nadir here in the unapologetic way it was carried out.

 The Ram Navami violence in 2022 is the most recent in the league of these markers. Twenty years after the Gujarat pogroms, it is no coincidence that the Gujarat chief minister then now holds the post of prime minister. As Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman argue in their book Spin Dictators, it is wrong to think of the authoritarians of the twenty-first century as having substituted brute force by spin alone and turned “pacifist.” The Gujarat Model was tom-tommed only because it underlined that the so-called “development” is to sequentially follow the process of showing Muslims “their place.” Now, that model is brazenly in play in India as a permanent majority is sought to be created. It is not about “riots” occurring and soon subsiding. It is not a “riot” at all.

 The sentiment that was earlier seen as social conservatism, which meant harbouring regressive ideas about food, a conviction about who should marry whom or other things seen as “private matters,” is now sought to be extended into the public sphere and, more dangerously, morphing into hating the other. What started out as an acceptance of differences between communities stands weaponised into sharp fissures, which help keep the hate centre stage, making elected leaderships immune to accountability and keeping a large, young and largely unemployed demographic in a permanent state of boil and rage. Many factors coming together have enabled this to come to a head: what ruling party leaders say or do not say, there being no institutional challenge to the ideas of the ruling party and a drip-feed flood of hate on much of mainstream and social media.

 When Adityanath headed the Hindu Yuva Vahini in Uttar Pradesh, a ruckus was created deliberately about everything that drew Hindus and Muslims together in a routine way in regular life. Each node at which communities converged was rendered into a point of rupture and dispute: mixed romances, business ties, sharing food, shared places of worship. Now that Adityanath is an elected official, this is everyday communalism, bending the state to fulfil the aims of a Hindu Rashtra. In March 2022, bulldozers were displayed at election rallies in Uttar Pradesh. The election verdict can be seen as citizens endorsing the demolition of Muslim homes. Inspired by Uttar Pradesh, the bulldozer now serves as a visual spectacle in at least three more states, to be broadcast on cheering television stations. The state and administration are only assisting in vitiating the atmosphere after weapon-carrying processions have done their job. They are ensuring that the destruction of Muslim lives and livelihoods takes place, and brazenly so. In the emblem of the bulldozer, we can see the transition India is making quickly and visibly: the use of the law to complement the job of lawless mobs. The muscular mob is sought to be fused with the state.

 To turn Hinduism, earlier projected as a capacious and “tolerant” faith, to something that sees at its heart an anti-Muslim sentiment, does grave injury to Hinduism’s soul. Gandhi resolutely and successfully resisted the narrowing of Hinduism to Hindutva as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the godfather of Hindutva, would have wanted it. But, in the 2022 reading by Hindutva bhakts, violence must replace the idea of non-violence, which explains their love for Nathuram Godse, blown up as a counter to the man he assassinated. Promoting Hinduism as something that is defined by being anti-Muslim damages the conception of the Hindu faith as much as the damage it inflicts on what India is about. As hate and violence have leapt out of the closet, there is no pushing back the genie. Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has invoked “Akhand Bharat”—the capture of areas lying outside India’s geographic boundaries—as being the next steps, to be achieved in the next ten to fifteen years. Bhagwat spoke of India wielding “a stick” from now on, as the “world only understands power.”

 The historian Romila Thapar recently spoke to the Financial Times about “the outdated ‘two-nation’ theory, first proposed by British colonial historians before being adopted by religious nationalists, which portrays the subcontinent as a land of perpetual Hindu-Muslim conflict.” Thapar elaborated that such theories “have found new champions in Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party, which sees India as a once-mighty Hindu civilisation degraded by Islamic invaders and then British rule.” Such a misreading of history, she added, “is used by the BJP to justify divisive policies and rhetoric that critics say target, harass and marginalise India’s 14 per cent Muslim minority.” The portrayal of India’s medieval past as one of India being in permanent conflict between Hindus and Muslims is not only about damaging history books but ends up shrinking India and what makes it unique. Where several countries routinely slipped into prejudiced, ethnic nationalism of varying degrees, India’s Constitution, in 1950, envisaged a blueprint that became the envy of the world. It enabled India to thrive and not just survive, despite all odds. Tearing apart and distorting its plural reality in a quest for Hindu purity will only diminish it in ways that will be very hard to recover from. As the experience of Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar, Rwanda, Germany or Italy make it abundantly clear, there are no winners in this self-inflicted war. India and Indians cannot say they were not forewarned.