November 07, 2015

India: When the Fringe goes Mainstream (Radha Kumar)

The Wire, 7 November 2015

When the Fringe goes Mainstream
By Radha Kumar

RSS members marching through the streets of Ghaziabad on their founding day. Credit: Shoma Basu

On Sardar Patel’s birth anniversary on October 31, Narendra Modi flagged off a rally for national unity, saying that Sardar’s message was that the nation would ‘sacrifice anything for its unity.’ He was an ‘Iron Man’ because he brought all the princely states into India, the prime minister added.

Patel’s achievement in bringing over 500 princely states to merge with India was indeed staggering, and that he did so within months is especially staggering. But he had to pay a price which saddened and worried him – to allow law and order to be a state subject rather than a central one. Patel was saddened that the princes sought their pound of flesh instead of joining in the visionary project of a new nation and he worried that leaving law and order to the states would impede the development of a sense of unity based on common rights and citizenship across the country. He and his cabinet colleagues hoped that this agreement would be temporary and would gradually erode. Instead it has remained and today we have a situation in which citizens have differentiated rights based on which state they live in.

Sardar’s fears appear to be alarmingly borne out by the present situation where the murder of three Rationalists and the lynching of three Muslims has become a matter of the state and Central governments passing the buck to each other rather than working together to bring the murderers to justice and – equally importantly – to prevent any further such crimes being committed.

This brings me to the second significant point about Sardar Patel. At a time when communal killings were sweeping the country, our founding fathers believed it was essential to reassure the minorities, especially the Muslim minority which was being targeted on our side of the border just as Sikhs and Hindus were being targeted in the new Pakistan.

Attempts to polarise

It is the failure to reassure all those who have recently been targeted that prompted our writers, academics and public figures to speak out. Instead of seeking to tarnish them with absurd and for the most part factually incorrect allegations, our policymakers could consider the issues raised by their protests: are we facing a growing breakdown of the rule of law in which we fear for our rights as citizens? Are our political parties dividing this country rather than addressing the economic, social and political needs of its people?

Charges have yet to be filed against the suspects in the Dabholkar murder, which was committed over two years ago, or in the Pansare murder eight months ago. No arrests have been made in the murder of Kalburgi, killed two months ago – the suspects may have taken shelter in another state. While public outcry by the media led to the arrest of suspects in the Dadri and Udhampur lynchings, none have been arrested for the Himachal lynching, whose suspects again may be sheltering in a neighbouring state. Is the Union Home Ministry working with the state governments to arrest and prosecute the culprits? And what about the larger question – if each state government is free to administer or violate my rights as they choose, what makes me an Indian rather than, or as well as, a Gujarati or Maharashtrian or Tamil?

Turning to the other question that more and more Indians are asking – is this country being polarised? The increasingly abusive political rhetoric of the past year can leave no one in doubt that the answer is yes. But action is more important than rhetoric, and when the rhetoric begins to be matched by action then we have reason to be alarmed.

In all of these six murders, the suspects are either members or supporters of Hindu extremist groups, which were neither banned by the Congress nor by the BJP. In UP, the Dadri lynching was first justified and then explained away by a BJP MLA, while an office-bearer of the state BJP demanded that the charges be reduced from murder to culpable homicide. Neither has been expelled. We can only hope against all evidence that it will not take the BJP over a decade to sideline these leaders, as it took the Congress with leaders accused of instigating or justifying the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

High price to pay

Ten years ago, such Hindu extremist groups were the most minuscule fringe. Today, they are growing but are still small. They need to be tackled before they expand further – by the rule of law, and not by generating a Hindu versus Muslim narrative. Neither the extremists nor the few hate-spewing MPs that we see on television represent the majority of Hindus of this country and it is time they are firmly told so.

In most democracies, religious denominations are self-regulated in coordination with their government. Preachers undergo rigorous training and vetting by a board of religious scholars before they are allowed to preach, and they are accountable to the law of their land. In our country, self-appointed religious representatives can not only preach, they can stand for and win elections under their self-given titles – and they seem to be immune from the law.

The stakes for India are great. We could well see the growth of Hindu extremism and a new movement of reactive Muslim extremism, as we faced during the 1990s. We clawed our way back to internal peace in the 13 years since 2002, during which period our economy grew and we developed our infrastructure. As our industrialists, writers and artists warn, dragging the country back into a politics of hate endangers our hard-won gains. It also demeans the greater traditions of Hinduism, such as sarva dharma sambhava, and the wonderful knowledge it once produced.

Radha Kumar is Director-General of the Delhi Policy Group.