March 02, 2016

India: What an attack on civil society in Rajasthan teaches us about multiculturalism in India

scroll.in [2 March 2016]

What an attack on civil society in Rajasthan teaches us about multiculturalism in India

What an attack on civil society in Rajasthan teaches us about multiculturalism in India
As a mob attacked a group seeking a strong accountability law, bystanders wondered if we activists were 'Muslims from outside'.
Rajat Kumar

The harassment faced by Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad Central University and by Kanhaiya Kumar in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University have left young students across India with a worrying conundrum: should they get involved in issues relating to the future of India, given the considerable costs? Just how much harm can be unleashed by politicians became clear to me recently, as a group I was a part of came under attack in Rajasthan. Although the assault with bricks and batons was frightening enough, what was really stunning was the realisation that all the talk of tolerance in India is a myth.

Let me start from the beginning. Ever since finishing my master’s degree in December last year, I have been on the road on a 100-day Jawabdehi Yatra with a large team. This is a unique caravan of about 100 people travelling through Rajasthan, spending three days in each district and working to drum up support for the passage of a strong accountability law in the state. Using puppetry, folksongs and street plays, the members of the yatra have been connecting contemporary issues of development and democratic governance with the law and constitution in India.

Just over a month ago, in Aklera in Jhalawar district, our caravan came under an unprovoked and premeditated assault from a mob armed with lathis and bricks. Leading the mob was Kanwar Lal Meena, the sitting MLA from the constituency of Manohar Thana. It was on that day that my perception of a tolerant and multicultural India lay shattered.

Deep communalisation

As taught to us, the importance of multiculturalism is not just the co-existence of different communities, but their sensitivity towards one another’s culture – especially of numerically, economically or socially marginalised communities.

We celebrate India’s diversity, which is enshrined in the Constitution through Articles 25, 27, 28 guaranteeing religious freedom. Articles 14, 15 (1), 29 (2) guarantee us equality of citizenship. Article 29 allows minorities to preserve their language and culture. And Article 30 (1) says that all minorities based on religion or language shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.

So why am I talking about India’s tolerance in the context of the Aklera attack?

As lathis and bricks landed on us, locals stood around and watched. “Ye bahar se aayein hue Mohammaden lagte hai (They look like Muslims from outside),” were the words used by some. I don’t understand: how can anyone use religion as justification for an assault? The police too remained mute spectators, making us wonder if communalisation has seeped deep into the state.

Meena has not been arrested till today despite a video showing him beating people with a lathi. This protection and shielding of political leaders by the state machinery establishes the bias of the government. In our case, the target was a civil society seeking accountability. However, in cases where the target is a community, it kills multiculturalism.

Need for harmony

Since the assault, a Right to Information query has revealed the litany of criminal charges against Meena, including attempts to provoke communal disharmony. “With so many cases against him, the MLA should have been named a history-sheeter,” said human rights campaigner Aruna Roy. “Instead, he was given a ticket by the party [BJP] to contest the elections.”

As I watch the interference of political leaders in Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, I understand why Kanwar Lal Meena has not been arrested yet. I also understand the fears stirred by the attacks on students. More than ever, I feel the need to build harmony after Aklera.

There are villages in Jhalawar today with boards proclaiming “Hindu Rashtra mein aapka swagat hai” (Welcome to Hindu Nation). In an environment like this, where our secular fabric is being openly challenged, the minority community is bound to feel constantly threatened. The attack on Jawabdehi Yatra demonstrated dramatically how, anyone can be the next target in such a situation. A place where a community’s basic rights are not safeguarded, multiculturalism is a myth.