Maverick Citizen Op-ed
Modi’s Madness: India’s secularism on trial
Under the leadership of Hindu-nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is facing challenges to the foundations of its 1947 Constitution. Secularism and religious tolerance is being replaced with religious bigotry and discrimination. Freedom of expression is systematically under attack and the police have started rounding up activists for daring to speak out. One of those possibly facing charges writes for Maverick Citizen about the background to the deepening crisis of democracy.
In February Delhi was shaken by violence. It started in the north-eastern part of Delhi on 24 February and continued for three days, leaving 53 people dead. Hundreds of houses and business establishments burnt, damaged or destroyed. Massive displacement of people took place. While 40 of those killed were Muslims, 13 were Hindus.
One particular feature of the violence helps us understand its biased nature.
Mosques of the area were targeted, desecrated and destroyed. The police were either indifferent or reluctant to intervene: when they did, the officers joined the mobs to attack Muslims. The High Court of Delhi had to intervene at midnight on 25 February to ask the police to allow ambulances passage. The violence was anti-Muslim and the bias of the police against Muslims was evident.
It surprised people that the police, who are directly under the union home ministry, allowed the violence to continue for three days in the national capital, especially during the US president’s visit. The violence needs to be investigated.
On the second day, the home minister, citing professional assessment, called the violence spontaneous. But he took a different line in the parliament.
On March 11, 2020, a “Group of Intellectuals and Academicians (GIA)” comprising Supreme Court advocate Monika Arora and others submitted their 48-page report titled ‘Delhi Riots 2020: Report from Ground Zero – The Shaheen Bagh Model in North-East Delhi: From Dharna to Danga’ to the union minister of state for home affairs, G. Kishen Reddy, in Delhi. It portrayed the arson, looting and bloodletting in north-east Delhi as the handiwork of an ‘Urban-Naxal-Jihadi’ network’ (a term coined by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to discredit dissenters and civil society/academia, but which has no basis in reality.)
This report conveniently concluded that:
“The Delhi Riots were pre-planned. There are evidences of a ‘Left-Jihadi model of revolution’ that has been executed in Delhi and is sought to be replicated at other places.
“The Delhi riots are not genocide or a pogrom targeted at any community. They are a tragic outcome of a planned and systematic radicalisation of the minorities by a far left-Urban Naxal network operating in universities in Delhi.” [paras 1 & 2, p.1]
Conveniently, the home minister adopted this theory and states that there was a conspiracy behind the violence in Delhi and that those involved in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) had planned and executed it. He specifically mentioned Umar Khalid, a young scholar of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a founding member of United Against Hate, an organisation working against hate crime. He also pointed fingers at the critics of the government, including opposition leaders like Sonia Gandhi.
Delhi police started investigating this “conspiracy” and Umar Khalid was the last of the 23 persons arrested who are being blamed for being part of the violence. Most of the arrested are under the age of 30, and all are Muslims barring two women, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita .
The police have now submitted their charge sheet to the court. It tries to substantiate their theory by portraying the violence as part of a well thought out conspiracy that started just after the general elections in 2019.
“From the day that the results of the 2019 parliamentary elections were declared, the tone and tenor of the public utterances of the key conspirators of the present case has shown a clear streak of affinity towards violence, which had started playing out in their minds.”
It claims that: “they (conspirators) aimed at bringing the government of India to its knees and enforcing the withdrawal of CAA by timing the execution of their conspiracy with the visit of the US President, thereby hitting two birds with a single stone”.
The report concludes that the “end objective of all the conspirators was to uproot a lawfully elected government by sheer use of engineered, vicious and visceral communal violence.”
The police claim that the “conspirators, by their ingenuity and criminality of thoughts, presented an entirely new dimension to the meaning of ‘hate speech’ — theirs was covered in the sugarcoat of nationalism which hit the sour and sordid truth that it was in fact a well thought out attempt at igniting and reinforcing a pan-Islamic identity.”
In other words, the violence which was aimed at Muslims is being painted as anti-Hindu and part of forging pan-Islamic identity.
The new citizenship law
It is important to understand the protest against the new citizenship law and why the government and its agencies are trying to criminalize it. In December 2019, the BJP, using its majority in parliament, had secured approval for the CAA, which created a pathway for Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Parsi, Jain and Buddhist refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to obtain Indian citizenship on grounds of religious persecution.
Muslims were excluded.
This move was preceded by a long ideological campaign by the leaders of the ruling party who kept threatening to throw out “Bangladeshis” who had allegedly entered the country illegally. It was not difficult for anyone to understand that the term “Bangladeshi” was code for Muslims in general.
The passage of the new law introduced an element of religion in defining citizenship. It went against the secular principles of the Indian constitution. It was designed to insult Muslims.
The Muslim community felt hurt and humiliated and started protesting against this discriminatory law. Demonstrations were held in various places and by different communities, including in universities such as Jamia Millia Islamia, which was raided by police on December 15.
Meanwhile, a unique protest started taking shape in a dense, predominantly Muslim area, known as Shaheen Bagh, in southern Delhi. Women of the neighbourhood came out and started occupying a section of the road close to them. The protest soon spread to other parts of Delhi and was joined by many Muslims and some non-Muslims, especially students and the youth.
People (like myself) who have been long critical of the sectarian turn of the ruling establishment in India felt enthused about these protests. We felt that they might give strength to the opposition and help it find its voice.
Not only was there no response from the government, but instead BJP functionaries started actively inciting anti-Muslim sentiments ahead of the local elections in Delhi in February. They gave a communal twist to a protest that sought to restore the secular principle of equal citizenship. The air was thick with wild theories. A whisper campaign to tarnish the secular image of the protests succeeded in turning Hindus against the protesters.
Despite this hate campaign, the BJP lost the assembly election. Its frustration grew and it continued with its vilification campaign.
Eventually, on February 22, some female protesters started coming out on the main roads and blocking traffic — a tactic many acts of civil disobedience have used before. The difference was that the government did not treat these protesters as citizens of India. Its leaders portrayed them as “enemies”. Shortly after, BJP leaders announced they would take law into their own hands if the demonstrations did not disperse.
Violence breaks out
On February 24, as Donald Trump started his official visit to India, violence broke out and the police did little to stop it. In the following days, the high court asked the police about its reluctance to act against BJP functionaries inciting violence and directed it to facilitate the safe passage of ambulances carrying injured people and ensure the protection of victims.
I, along with members of civil society, went to the areas where violence had taken place, observed it first-hand, and talked to Hindus and Muslims. My understanding is that it was pre-planned violence. I talked to members of the security forces and could see a distinct hostility among them regarding Muslims.
I saw the apathy of the Delhi government in arranging relief for the victims, again mostly Muslims. It took a lot of noise from civil society to move the state government to set up a relief camp for displaced victims.
Then the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March made any kind of movement impossible. Relief and rehabilitation efforts took a hit. Many of us who supported the anti-CAA protests tried to help the victims by organising the distribution of food, clothes, medicines and so forth and helping the injured receive medical attention. We somehow managed to keep the relief operation going.
It was in the midst of all this that I learned that investigative agencies had started to weave a narrative of a “conspiracy” allegedly aimed at defaming and embarrassing the government while Trump was in town. It is worthwhile to note that this so-called “conspiracy” is not an offence in itself — it is not a crime to organise and peacefully protest even if it embarrasses the government.
Nevertheless, the police, while framing charge sheets, wrote about a drawn-out conspiracy going back to the Jamia protests. It even tried to implicate a well-known peace activist like Harsh Mander — who had petitioned the Supreme Court to look into the BJP’s hate speech — in inciting street violence. It claimed that those protesting against the citizenship law and their supporters had a nefarious anti-government agenda and the February violence was part of it. The political narrative, and now the legal case, seem to assume that the peaceful street protest was sufficient reason for retaliatory violence by state-backed mobs.
Young Muslim women and men who were involved in the protests were getting arrested even before the February violence. Two young non-Muslim female activists were also detained. Notices from police started reaching the homes of students who moved to their hometowns during the national lockdown.
The investigation is trying desperately to find evidence of a crime that never happened: they claim that gullible Muslims were misled about the new law, provoked to protest and brought to the roads, which, in turn, provoked the Hindus to become violent.
Targeting writers and intellectuals, who were active in these protests, is a clear design to set an example and give a warning that the act of dissent would be treated as a crime and that “non-Muslims should not dare to come out in the support of Muslims”.
On August 3, I was interrogated by the police after which I issued a statement:
“While cooperating and respecting the right of police authorities to conduct a full, fair and thorough investigation, one can only hope that the probe would focus on the real instigators and perpetrators of the violence against a peaceful citizens’ protest and the people of northeast Delhi. It should not lead to further harassment and victimisation of the protesters and their supporters, who asserted their democratic rights through constitutional means.”
The statement was widely circulated by the media. The Times of India, a leading mainstream daily, wrote an editorial criticising the line of investigation. It wrote: “Delhi University professor Apoorvanand’s interrogation, purportedly over support for the anti-NRC-CAA protests that long preceded the riots, spins a deceptive narrative. If a false equivalence is sought to be drawn between dissent and rioting, nothing could be more absurd and self-defeating. Dissent makes democracy meaningful and representative.”
The police reacted to this editorial by issuing a statement, saying: “criminal jurisprudence treats the act of conspiring to commit a crime as ‘a distinct evil’ from the crime itself.”
This rebuttal was rapidly followed by a series of “exposés” by a section of the media known to be closely aligned to the ruling establishment.
On August 10, Zee News claimed that Gulfisha Fatima — a young activist involved in the anti-CAA protests who, like many other young protesters, is in jail on charges of inciting, planning and participating in the violence — had confessed to the Delhi police that I had held many secret meetings with her and other activists to instigate and plan the riots.
Similar reports were carried by other media outlets, like Aaj Tak, DNA, TV9, OpIndia and others. These exposés have been followed by more alleged “disclosures” made by people who have been in jail for a long time. They claim to expose other aspects of the “conspiracy” the investigative agency has been talking about.
It needs to be noted that the law specifically says that custodial confessions cannot be treated as evidence. Also, the high court of Delhi in a ruling restrained the police from sharing any information regarding a person who is in jail while being investigated for the February violence lest it becomes a media trial against the person.
I have not heard back from the police since my interrogation. But I am only one of the characters in this Orwellian script. The police are busy collecting testimonies and evidence against people it seeks to paint as conspirators behind the violence. And they are, in the eyes of the investigative agencies, obviously those who had supported and participated in the anti-CAA protests.
It is clear now that the establishment is using state agencies and a pliable media to spread hate against minorities, especially Muslims and liberal intellectuals, writers and academics who have been speaking up for the rights of minorities.
By arresting highly educated and articulate young Muslim women and men under the draconian anti-terror law — the unlawful Activities Prevention Act — the government is sending out a clear message to Muslim people that they have no right to protest; they do not have political agency and any political action by them would be dubbed as a “pan Islamic conspiracy”.
India, at the time of its independence from colonial rule in 1947, despite all its problems, promised to be a unique experiment in imagining a secular nationhood. It assured equality to all the faith based groups irrespective of their numerical strength. The probe into the Delhi violence shows that the new political dispensation has turned its back on this promise.
It bodes ill for the present and future of India. DM/MC
Apoorvanand is professor at the Hindi Department, Faculty of Arts, University of Delhi. He is also a regular columnist and political commentator.
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