The lynching of Tabrez Ansari on the 22 June rekindled outrage and fear among Muslims in India. Activist Umar Khalid speaks on rising hate crimes against minorities, a government showing fascist tendencies, and an opposition and a media that has given it a free pass:
You coordinated nationwide protests following Tabrez’s death. Can protests make the government acknowledge how common lyching has become in India?
I am under no illusion that by doing daylong protests things will change, but the challenge is for the citizens of this country to force even this government, which is not being guided by Constitutional values, but rather their own fascist vision which the RSS espouses, to follow the Constitution. No, it cannot be done in a day, but this is the beginning of an everyday battle against this kind of mentality that divides people on the basis of religion and caste. RSS, with its various outfits, have set up an extensive network across the country – on the ground and online – where hate is being spread and a distorted version of India’s history is being presented to people. Muslims are being shown as aggressive and Hindus as being under siege by the minorities for thousands of years till today. This is not just seen on social media but also on mainstream media by the way news debates are being framed and the way representatives of the ruling party behave with spokespersons of other parties, especially if they come from a minority community. For example, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra heckling a Muslim panellist on TV a few years ago by calling him ‘maulana’, ‘mulla’ and such things. When a spokesperson behaves like that, it sends a message to their goons that they can also behave like that on the streets, and on the streets it’s much more crude. Given the extensive network they have built, we have to build a counter-network everywhere to counter this entire ideology because it affects each citizen of this country.
What is emboldening lynch mobs?
Data shows that lynching has increased manifold after BJP came to power in 2014. A majority of the victims are Muslims and Dalits, and there have been more lynchings in BJP-ruled states. Also visible in Tabrez’s case is the complicity in the local administration. Rather than hospitalizing him and arresting the accused, the police sent Tabrez to jail, where he was denied healthcare and died within four days. This pattern is evident everywhere – police have tried to cover up cases of lynching by not reaching on time, reaching after it had happened, etc. There is an ideology that is in power which does not believe in equal citizenship of everyone irrespective of religion and caste. We have even seen high-profile ministers going and garlanding people who have been convicted of lynching. I’m referring to Jayant Sinha garlanding Alimuddin Ansari’s lyncher in Jharkhand. All of this creates an environment which emboldens lynch mobs. Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of the largest state of the country, is facing cases over hate speeches; Sadhvi Pragya, who is facing a terror case, was given an election ticket; other hatemongers like Sakshi Maharaj have been promoted – the anti-minority agenda of this regime is very blatant. They don’t even try to hide it.
Is ‘Jai Shree Ram’ being used to heckle minorities?
It’s not about ‘Jai Shree Ram’, it’s not about love and devotion for Lord Ram – it’s about hatred for minorities. During the entire election BJP made this a central slogan of their campaign. One saw it very clearly in West Bengal, and then it followed up in Parliament, where minority-community MPs were heckled while taking oath, especially Asaduddin Owaisi. If today it’s ‘Jai Shree Ram’, yesterday it was cow slaughter, the day before that it was ‘love jihad’, before that it was ‘ghar wapsi’ – they find new tropes to attack minorities every year. I know a lot of practising Hindus who worship Lord Ram but they do not share this kind of feeling. There is a very clear difference between Hinduism of devotion that people practise in their everyday lives, and Hindutva, which is a political ideology based on capturing power by using religion, and I think there cannot be a greater perversion of religion than that.
What is your analysis of the election results and what does it say about the people of India?
We are witnessing a majoritarian shift in the country at large and it is the characteristic of fascism – like in Nazi Germany – to convince people of its ideology. One remembers Hitler for concentration camps but one should not forget that Hitler was also very popular during his time. Germans went to his rallies and they admired him. There are visible signs of a shift in that direction in India today, but I would not want to reduce the election simply to that. Questions of unemployment and farm distress were drowned out by the raising of national-security issue by the BJP, and the way the Election Commission gave numerous clean chits to the Prime Minister during his election speeches is a quite clear violation of poll codes. The election result also shows the opposition’s lack of imagination and the lack of an alternative. If one looks back, this is the worst government (2014-2019) we’ve ever had in independent India. We are facing a 45-year-old unemployment high, farm distress is at an unprecedented level, healthcare is in a shambles, policies like demonetization and GST shattered small businesses, one saw hate crimes all across the country – we lacked an opposition to actively intervene in these issues. None of Modi’s promises before 2014 have been fulfilled, be it bringing back black money, 2 crore jobs every year, or ‘achhe din’ (better days) for farmers – but where was the opposition in all this? They were never on the streets – it was students, it was farmers who were coming out. Opposition leaders would simply come towards the end of the programme, give their speeches and go back. As much as the hate and majoritarianism is a reality, it is also a reality that the opposition has succumbed to the onslaught by the BJP. Even in Tabrez’s case, it took a week for Rahul Gandhi to even tweet on this issue. It took many days for other parties to speak on this issue. Many parties have still not spoken out. If there was a majoritarian shift, it was possible because no one was opposing that shift. Many parties feel that if they take on the communal hate-mongering they will lose Hindu votes and be dubbed as pro-Muslim, and thereby, anti-Hindu by the BJP, and they will not be able to win elections. It is very clear that soft Hindutva has not worked.
You had campaigned for CPI in West Bengal but it didn’t win a single seat, and Kanhaiya Kumar could not win the Begusarai seat despite many hoping he would be the one to usher in change. What is the reason for the decline of India’s Left?
The Left has to go back to the basics. From a long-term perspective, I don’t hold the Right responsible for the present-day isolation of the Left – I hold the Left itself responsible for that. The Left, over the years, especially in West Bengal, abandoned the very idea of ‘Left’ despite claiming themselves to be so and implemented anti-Left, anti-farmer, and anti-worker policies. In Bihar, where Kanhaiya was contesting, I don’t see it as his loss; in fact he increased the vote percentage of CPI compared to last time. I think the organizational weakness of the CPI for not being able to back strong candidates like Kanhaiya, despite their best efforts, lies in the Left’s inability to engage with the question of caste, and the steady erosion of their support to parties that emerged on the plank of social justice like the RJD. I sincerely believe that it is very important for the Left to rise up right now because there is a completely uneven balance of powers in favour of the Right. You see the government right now not only having a very strong anti-minority plan but a clear-cut pro-corporate plan. Without being bothered about what will happen in the election, the Left needs to talk about farm distress, communal hate-mongering, etc.
Is Modi trying to rule out the need for accountability by not addressing press conferences?
What are you saying? Modi gave so many interviews – to Zee News, Times Now, and renowned journalist Akshay Kumar. Modi is a reflection of what the system in India has become today. Rather than raising people’s concerns and making the government accountable, the media is ensuring that the government’s narratives go to the people unquestioned. We have seen so many institutions that maintain checks and balances being captured by the ruling establishment. So, what Modi does instead of addressing press conferences is give completely scripted interviews. Without accountability, democracy is dead. It’s not even about one person becoming a dictator – tomorrow that person may not be there, but if the system becomes like this, we will only have dictatorial governments, irrespective of who comes to power.
Your activism has even led to an attempt on your life. Does it scare you into backing down?
I don’t think we have an option to back down. Yes, there’s an overall environment of fear, but does backing down mean you’re safe? Nobody is safe in India right now. You have the example of Najeeb Ahmed, who was not an activist or vocal on issues. He was just a student who had joined JNU with dreams of becoming a scientist, but he was attacked and is missing for almost three years now. Even Tabrez – he just belonged to a particular identity for which he was targeted, and I cannot do anything about the fact that I belong to the same identity. So, there’s no option of backing down, and why should we? This is our country. We are not doing anything illegal or unconstitutional. We have as much right to say what we believe in.
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