Fraternity and a Caravan of Love in India

Guest article by Harsh Mander[1]

The challenge

India as we know it is fast being unmade, with hatred and bigotry becoming the new normal. Hate-mongering, led powerfully and charismatically from the top - a kind of ‘command bigotry’ - creates an enabling environment for people to articulate their bigotry and act out their hate freely and publicly.

The people of India are not alone as they grapple with these turbulent times. These are indeed times of global disquiet as gales of hatred and bigotry are sweeping country after country around the world. Country after country is throwing up - and people are often choosing - leaders who are authoritarian, chauvinistic, indifferent to the poor and hostile to immigrants, minorities and Islam. Authoritarian dictators are giving way to authoritarian leaders supported by sufficient sections of the electorate to allow such leaders to either assume power or, as in France, come credibly close to getting elected. Citizens of most countries with a Muslim majority population tend to live under authoritarian regimes that are intolerant of political and religious dissent and of minorities. The world’s two largest democracies, India and the USA - and indeed large parts of Europe - are increasingly becoming hostile, threatening places to live in for people with a Muslim name. Today, in too many countries around the globe, being born a Muslim carries with it often intolerable and unjust burdens of stigma, discrimination, segregation, stereotyping, exclusion and an ever-lurking fear of violence.

As the Indian people came together 70 years ago and forged a compact of egalitarian unity as a pluralist, humane and inclusive democratic nation, we tried to thrust behind us our history of cruelty and segregation against browbeaten, subjugated, humiliated castes and women, and claim instead that part of our civilisational history that was comfortable in diversity and religious and cultural pluralism. The promise embedded in the constitution that we the people gave to ourselves was that this nation would belong equally to all people who are born into or choose it, regardless of their faith, caste, gender and class. This equitable, democratic and compassionate political order would protect all people equally without discrimination, and would ensure fair and just life chances to all people born here and those who choose to live here.

But in India today, Muslim and Christian people are at risk of being reduced to second-class citizens. Everywhere - on the streets, in workplaces, in living rooms, in neighbourhoods, in television studios and on the internet - a permissive environment for hate speech and mob violence today most of all labels and targets Muslims, and also Dalits, Adivasis (indigenous peoples), Christians, women, people of colour, ethnic minorities from India’s north east, leftists and liberals. A fearsome climate of everyday, mostly unspoken, dread has mounted, fuelled by the reckless stoking of the embers of recurrent, divisive, considered and provocative hate speech, threats, incitement and assaults. These together seek to coerce, by intimidation, a single way of living on all Indians - a homogenised faith system and set of cultural practices, with violently coercive prohibitions on what you can eat, what you can wear, what work you can do, who you can love and what you can think.

We witness in India today the systematic erosion of equal citizenship of Muslim, Christian and many Dalit people. That this erosion and subversion of India’s constitutional assurances was accomplished without adequate resistance by India’s political and state institutions, courts and the media, and by ordinary Indians, causes me intense disquiet and grief. In all of this, I see around us massive failures of fraternity and solidarity. I do recognise that although this battle within has reached a dangerous and decisive phase, it has long been in the making, with the so-called ‘secular’ parties carrying a great part of the responsibility for where the Indian people find themselves today. For these political parties, secular and egalitarian democracy has too long been an instrument of opportunism, electoral calculation and consolidation, rather than a core ethical principle.

I worry about the powerful rise in recent years of a polarising political leadership in India with, similar to those claiming power in so many countries, a leadership that does not heal or bridge divides but instead legitimises hatred and bigotry. However through all of this, I worry even more that the voices of public protest across India have been far too muted and few. In recent years of mounting organised hate-mongering against Muslims and Christians, I worry that although the majority of us did not join these campaigns to scapegoat, stigmatise and target their neighbours, we also did too little to resist these.

We allowed cow vigilantes - and in the states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh uniformed policepersons - to attack Muslim and Dalit people for rumours that they eat cow meat. Fifty thousand Muslims were expelled from their villages in Muzaffarnagar by hate violence, and the only opposition we heard was from Hindus protesting that their relocation worsened crime because Muslims spell trouble wherever they go. There are reports from many parts of the country that many Muslims are too frightened to perform their annual ritual animal sacrifice on Bakra-Eid because they fear that they will be attacked for cow slaughter. Muslim young men continue to be detained for years on false charges of terror-related violence and no one can return to them the years stolen from their lives by bigotry, but people believe that the state is justified in suspecting Muslim men of terror crimes even if they are innocent. Eight Muslim young people jailed in a high-security jail in Bhopal were killed at close range in the winter of 2016 after claims that they crafted keys from toothbrushes and a knife from a spoon, yet there were no protests. In the autumn of 2016, the country’s security forces responded to stone throwing by students in mass protests in Kashmir with pellet guns that blinded and maimed hundreds of teenagers. This muscular militarism against youthful civilian protest was applauded as patriotism. There is a vigorous campaign under way in Gurgaon, in India’s National Capital Region, against Muslims offering Friday prayers in the open, although this has been a practice that has met with no resistance for the past decades as Muslim migrant workers increasingly moved to the city.

Philosopher and economist Amartya Sen has voiced his worry that this fear being faced by the minority communities in India cannot be seen as the cultivation of fraternity. Indeed, we observe today severe contestations of many constitutional principles, but none more than fraternity. The centrality of fraternity in nurturing and sustaining democracy is one of the many profound and precious insights of Babasaheb Ambedkar, who led the drafting of India’s Constitution. The word used in the Constitution in Hindi is bandhuta, which evokes vividly ideas of comradeship and mutual belonging. It tells us that regardless of our bewildering, almost boundless multitudes of differences - of faith, caste, class, gender, language, of the ways we dress and eat, love, marry, divorce, celebrate, quarrel and mourn - we are in the end one people, because we belong to and with each other.

The journey

Attempting love, atonement, conscience and justice, in the autumn of 2017, we organised a Caravan of Love, or Karwane Mohabbat. This Caravan intersected India from east to west, traversing Assam, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Delhi, Western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The landscape changed - paddy fields, areca nut groves, sugarcane fields, millet farms, arid wastelands. But the stories we heard in state after state after state were frighteningly similar.

The harrowing journey of our caravan of love laid bare a country both divided and devoid of compassion. People are compelled to live with fear and hate, and a hostile state, as normalised elements of everyday living. An old farmer in Uttar Pradesh lost his son, who was transporting cattle, to a lynch mob. The police did not even register this as a lynch killing. The killers are untraced, and he has not even seen his son’s post-mortem report. He said to us, his face lined with sorrow, “Maine sabar kar liya”: I have learned to endure.

We found widows, mothers, fathers and children, numbed with incomprehension at the ferocity of loathing and violence that had snatched from them their loved ones. How could parents of two boys in Nagaon, Assam come to terms with the lynching of their sons by a mob from their neighbouring village, accusing them of being cow thieves? Why would they gouge their eyes out and cut off their ears? Why would complete strangers stab a Hindu man, Harish Pujari, 14 times near Mangalore, pulling out his intestines, only because they mistook him for a Muslim when he was riding pillion behind his Muslim friend?

Dalits are viciously attacked by upper caste neighbours to crush any attempts to assert themselves. Single women remain vulnerable to incredible medieval cruelty by family and neighbours, branded as witches. Christians in tribal regions are subjugated by violence that targets their priests, nuns and places of worship, and by laws criminalising religious conversions. But the foremost targets of hate violence by lynching and police killings are Muslims, and it is they who have most abandoned hope.

Against Muslims, the hate weapon of choice is public lynching. We read of lynching of black people in America as public spectacles, watched by white families having picnics. In today’s India, this same objective of lynching as public performance and entertainment is accomplished with the video camera. Most lynch attacks are filmed by the attackers, with images of their victims humiliated, cringing, begging for their lives. In a particularly horrifying incident in Jharkhand, in a busy market square in Ramgarh, a mob stops the car of a Muslim man. A huge pile of red meat - the size of the body of a full cow - appears on the street, the mob claiming that they ‘seized’ this from the car. The main is filmed as they beat him to death. Laughing faces of attackers appear in the video. They upload the videos even as they lynch the man and torch his car. His young son receives the video of his father being lynched on his mobile even as the lynching is underway.

We found that lynch videos are widely and avidly shared among young Hindutva - Hindu supremacist - activists. As evidence of what they see as their valorous exploits. As proof that the state will protect them. As public exhibitions of the humiliation of their enemy communities. And as a way of drafting new recruits to Hindu supremacist armed militias like the Hindu Yuva Vahini, founded by the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath.

We found families that were bereaved by hate violence bereft of hope of either protection or justice from the state. For almost all of the 50 families we met during our travels in eight states, the police registered criminal charges against the victims, and treated the accused with kid gloves, not opposing their bail, or erasing their crime altogether. A lynch mob, for instance, attacks a vehicle transporting cattle, killing some of the transporters. The police register criminal cases of illegal cow smuggling, animal cruelty and careless driving against the victims. It obliterates completely the fact that the men were lynched. Or in other cases it mentions anonymous mobs who are never caught. The families of people attacked by lynch mobs sometimes do not even file a complaint with the police, because far from getting justice, the police would register criminal charges against them.

Even more worrying, we found that in Haryana for the past two years, and in Western Uttar Pradesh since Adityanath became chief minister, the police have increasingly taken on the work of the lynch mob. There are tens of instances in both states in which the police themselves have killed Muslim men, charging them with being cattle smugglers or dangerous criminals, and claiming that they fired at the police. In Gujarat, policemen publicly lynched an Adivasi man charged with cow slaughter on two market squares until he soiled his clothes with his excreta and then died. And unlike lynching, targeted killings by the police have barely registered in the national conscience.

Dalits homes were gutted and women and men attacked by their Rajput neighbours in Shabirpur of Saharanpur district, only because they had the temerity to plan to install a five-foot statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar on their own community land. People could not accept that the statue on a raised platform would display Ambedkar pointing his finger at the public street on which they walked. In Dangawas in Rajasthan, six men were crushed under tractors because they dared to demand their land back after their claims had been validated by every court. In Anand district in Gujarat, the only crime of a young Dalit person was to seek a dry portion of the village commons that was not a swamp on which to skin a cow.

But hearteningly, we found that the Dalits in all three states were angry, proud, organised and fiercely determined to fight back. In Shabbirpur, the Dalits have converted en masse to Buddhism, immersing their Hindu idols in the village ponds. “Jai Bhim,” the call used by followers of Babasaheb Ambedkar, was their resounding slogan everywhere.

This was in stark contrast to the Muslims, who are today crushed, isolated and despairing. And we found in all these local communities profound and pervasive failures of compassion. We encountered very little acknowledgment, regret or remorse among the upper-caste Hindu communities in any of the states we travelled. They remain convinced that somehow their Muslim and Dalit neighbours deserved their cruel deaths at the hands of lynch mobs or police bullets.

For the survivors, our journey of solidarity helped heal their soul wounds. For the rest of India, we made a call of conscience. We found a gathering darkness in our land, less and less penetrated by the light of compassion and solidarity. As India is fast mutating into a republic of hate, we asked - why do we just watch from the sidelines?

In Nuh in Haryana, a young Muslim man said, “A poisonous wind is blowing through our country. I feel a stranger in my own homeland.”


[1] This article draws from my published writing, including columns in the Indian Express.