What language was last added in the Indian constitution
Feelings of historical humiliation
What did you experience on December 6, 1992?
I was twelve years old and lucky enough to survive. My family is muslim. Because of rising tensions, many of our Muslim neighbors had already fled, but my father believed in the secular state system. It wasn't until the beginning of the riot that he realized we had to run away. I carried a baby - my little brother - and was separated from my family. We were reunited with her only hours later in a safe refugee camp. This night of horror overshadows my entire life.
There were riots across India. Many Muslims must have had similar experiences.
Yes, I published an article with memories of it and then got a lot of emails in which others shared their experiences with me. Violence also raged in Pakistan and Bangladesh, but there were attacks on Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities. By then, Indian Muslims had trusted the constitution, which forbids religious discrimination. We believed India was on the way to development and prosperity. Since then we have known that Hindu chauvinists have a very different vision of India as a country for Hindus and are prone to violence.
Before Ayodhya, there was the trauma of division. In 1947 colonial rule ended and British India was divided into India and Pakistan. There was mass exodus and gruesome massacres on both sides. Did that continue in 1992?
The problems are even older, as religious differences slowed the independence movement in the 1920s and 30s. According to the motto “divide and rule”, the British incited the major religious communities against each other. Nevertheless, Indian Muslims believed that the question of identity had been finally resolved because they had made a conscious decision in favor of India - also because Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, promised a secular restart.
There was also violence after 1992 - for example in Gujarat in 2002, where Narendra Modi was Prime Minister at the time. Today he is prime minister. In 2002, Hindu chauvinists launched the pogrom after Hindu pilgrims perished on a burning train, which the fanatics accused of “Muslim arsonists”.
Despite the horror, we thought things would change for the better in the long run. State institutions basically continued to advocate secularism. There was mistrust between Muslims and Hindus, but at the local level they lived together peacefully. This is still the case in many places, but since Modi has been Prime Minister it has become more and more difficult. His party, the BJP, belongs to the network of Hindu chauvinist organizations around the RSS. The RSS is an authoritarian cadre organization whose ideology states that India must be a Hindu nation. Modi is an RSS member. His government is following a tough line, and it has been more open and aggressive since its re-election in 2019. The BJP did not even win 40 percent of the vote, but it did win an absolute parliamentary majority because its candidates were ahead in many constituencies.
Modi claims to make India strong, but he does not bring the country any more prestige. Indeed, the international influence of governments diminishes when they operate under the motto "my country first". This also applies to Donald Trump and the USA.
The general public in India does not have a deep understanding of international relations. Our country is huge. Few people are well educated. The dominant narrative in each case carries people's thinking. Slogans of “national strength” resonate with an alarming number of people who are unaware of how the chauvinists are redefining religion. Historically, Hinduism is characterized by tolerance, non-violence and syncretism, i.e. the acceptance of other religious practices and belief systems as spiritually valuable. The Hindu chauvinists turn religion into an instrument of exclusion.
Because of the colonial past, do you long to compensate for feelings of inferiority by exercising power?
I think that matters, but fascinatingly, they never refer to the British Empire as "Christian". In contrast, they call the Mughal Empire Muslim. That affects people's thinking.
Does it not matter that India was never a unified Hindu state? The Ashoka empire was Buddhist. Later there were many different kingdoms whose rulers belonged to different faiths - including various forms of Hinduism. In fact, “Hinduism” is a term used by outsiders to summarize all religions that had anything to do with the Vedas, the holy Brahmin scriptures. However, many Hindu customs and traditions have only a loose reference to Vedanta, the Vedic teaching.
Unfortunately, Hindu chauvinists are far more interested in Hindutva, the dominance of Hinduism, than in Vedanta. They describe everyone who contradicts her as "anti-national". It is oppressive today that even some members of the lowest castes feel this way. Hindutva agitation cultivates feelings of historical humiliation and disadvantage and promises to heal these wounds. It may run counter to logic, but today's Muslims are supposed to be liable for what Mughal emperors did or did not do centuries ago.
Vengeance is of little help in solving current problems. Modi has promised economic reforms several times, but is barely making any headway.
That's true. Economic growth has slowed since he was in power. He has promised, but not delivered, millions of new jobs. Nevertheless, he managed to be re-elected, helped by the weak opposition that offered no credible alternative.
Last winter there were suddenly unusually broad civil society protests against him. Masses of people spoke out against a new citizenship law that discriminated against Muslims. To what extent was that a Muslim movement?
The critical mass was made up of Muslims, but many others joined in - including Hindus, who want secular democracy. Indeed, it is in the interests of all Indian minorities to protect the constitution. Hindutva aggression is particularly directed against Muslims. It was also very disappointing that India's independent Supreme Court ruled in the fall that a Hindu temple should actually be built on the site of the Babri Mosque. Before that, the legal dispute hung in the balance for decades. The shocking verdict showed that judges are now also being influenced by what they call “collective consciousness”. Perhaps by that you mean the mood in the largest section of the population.
The Covid-19 pandemic put an end to the opposition movement, because demonstrations and protest camps became impossible due to the curfew. Can the Movement Resurrect?
I have doubts. The Modi government and its supporters expanded their position of power during the lockdown. A powerful narrative has been created in the media that the Islamic community deliberately spread the virus. The time was also used to arrest leaders of civil society protest. Significantly, however, there were no steps against prominent Hindu chauvinists who had made a name for themselves with anti-Muslim hate rhetoric shortly before the deadly riots in Delhi at the end of February.
Most of the victims were Muslim. Mosques were set on fire, but no temples. Still, Hindu chauvinists claim that Muslims started the riots, which in retrospect resemble an anti-Islamic pogrom. The prominent Indian expert and political scientist Paul R. Brass has argued for decades that such violence does not arise spontaneously. Was it an organized pogrom?
I can't prove it myself. The Delhi Minorities Commission ruled that the violence was "one-sided and well planned". This commission is subordinate to the state government of Delhi, which is not controlled by the BJP. I also find it remarkable that the rioters set buildings on fire with gas cylinders. This is not easy and shows that the perpetrators were well equipped and technically savvy. Shockingly, however, the Covid-19 lockdown turned out to be an even more effective instrument of repression. The terrible truth is that some Indian Hindus have to some extent accepted the message that they must see Muslims suffer in order to feel strong about themselves.
Arfa Khanum Sherwani is the executive editor of the independent website TheWire.
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