Tears for fears

Nilanjana Bhowmick on the routine communal violence that is a state-sponsored blot on India’s democracy.

Scraps of torched cars left in Shiv Vihar from the 2020 Delhi riots.
Credit: Banswalhemant

Communal violence is rarely out of the headlines in India. In the period 11-20 April, which coincided with two major Hindu festivals – Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti – there were clashes between Hindus and Muslims in several states. These days, Hindu hardliners treat major festivals as a spur to bait Muslims. The fighting could have been organic or orchestrated, but only one community paid the price: Muslims.

After one such confrontation on 11 April in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh, local authorities demolished mostly Muslim-owned properties and homes – alleging their involvement in the riot. On 16 April, during a Hanuman Jayanti procession, Hindus and Muslims reportedly came to blows again in Jahangirpuri, Delhi. A few days later, the authorities entered the area with excavators to demolish what they called ‘illegal encroachments’ – otherwise known as Muslim homes and businesses. Amnesty International said the demolitions were carried out without any notice or ‘other due process requirements’. A Supreme Court order did not stop the bulldozers.

Communal clashes remain a blot on our cumbersome, diverse and multicultural democracy. Indian politicians down the ages have exploited the Hindu-Muslim binary for political gain – but ever since 2014, when the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in a landslide victory, it has been weaponized to an unprecedented degree.

What is new is not the communal clashes – but their frequency and predictability, especially surrounding Hindu festivals. Never before has the state been so conspicuous in its silence and indirect complicity. This violence is purposeful, serving to create and sustain a culture of fear – of each other and, for Muslims and their allies, of the state. It is also a means of channelling and fanning the anger of the ordinary Indian – both Hindu and Muslim. This anger is now on autopilot.

India is now ruled by strongman politicians who are experts at exploiting the country’s various religious and caste-based triggers by creating uncertainties and anxieties. Research has shown that such conditions can cause people to become radical in their religious beliefs – more pronounced among those who ‘felt most hopeless about their daily goals in life’.

Ordinary citizens have been hopeless about their lives for decades; they have been failed by successive governments. They were sitting ducks to this majoritarian indoctrination. How else would you explain its widespread acceptance?

The demolitions and various other controversies (for example, threats to mass rape Muslim women made by a Hindu ‘seer’), all point towards 2024, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi will seek to renew his mandate. By that time, the administration will seek to muddle the memory of the deadly second wave of Covid-19 that killed thousands with religious polarization and chaos. The BJP’s vote share has been known to go up when riots precede an election year. Following the government’s monumental failure in handling the second wave, the PM’s popularity took a beating. Since April, it’s soaring again.

We know what to expect for the next two years – more organized anger and calculated chaos.