Fake news, populism and ethnic and religious hate crimes are not just a US problem. Indian activist and writer Mari Marcel Thekaekara laments the wave of hate engulfing her country, and celebrates some of those who are fighting back
A peace movement? The mere suggestion evokes pitying looks, even from friends. Been there, done that. In the seventies, actually. More accurately, I’m obsessed with an anti-hate movement. Because I receive regular reports of lynchings and gruesome murders from friends working on minority rights. Along with complaints that many major Indian newspapers are currently treading carefully when it comes to reporting hate crimes, primarily against Muslims, Christians and Dalits. Perhaps they are doing so because thugs claiming allegiance to the party in power can, and frequently do, come down violently on critics. Last month, Bangalore journalist Gauri Lankesh was gunned down for speaking unpleasant truth to power. She was the latest in a series of such murders.
Journalists publishing stories of hate crimes, are dubbed ‘presstitutes’ by the Hindutva lobby. Hindus protesting at the subversion of Hinduism are derided as ‘sickulars’. They have an army of trolls paid to rave, rant and abuse any writer who dares to criticise the current regime.
But it’s not only journalists and intellectuals challenging the ideology of the larger family of hate spewing organisations, called the Sangh Parivar, who are at risk. Muslims, Dalits, Christians and protesting Hindus are also targeted thanks to a growing climate of hate and the warped, alarming belief that if you are not Hindu, you are not Indian. Dalits who, though classified as Hindus, have been brutally murdered by mobs known as “cow vigilantes” – a euphemism for thugs and criminals strutting across India with impunity because they claim to be protecting the cow, sacred to many Hindus. These Dalit victims are condemned by the accident of their birth into a particular caste to remove all dead animals, from cats to cows. There is no choice, it’s a caste-designated job. They are paid to dispose of the animals. They skin the carcasses to sell to the leather industry. This is the “crime” for which many young dalit men have been brutalised and murdered.
It’s inevitable, given the history of Muslim conquests centuries ago, coupled with the horrors of partition, that hate and resentment will exist between many Hindus and Muslims in India. And sporadic riots are seen as just a part of life. I watched burning slums from our rooftop, as a child in Kolkata, in the sixties. And heard cries of ‘bachao’, ‘save me,’ from victims being beaten up, perhaps killed.
But for the most part, Hindus and Muslims learnt the art of peaceful co-existence. Communities mostly live separate social lives, but their livelihoods are often dependent on each other. People send each other sweets at festivals, work together amicably. Muslims fought fiercely for freedom in the Independence movement. They are Indians. They opted to remain in India during partition, because it’s where they were born and where their ancestors lived for centuries.
In the last two decades however, we’ve witnessed manufactured hate being spread around India, in a chillingly, systematic, venal process. There’s been a sustained slow release of poisonous lies, a disinformation campaign to win majority minds and hearts by instilling fear, fiddling with facts. Christians are converting illiterate, poor Hindus, they say. Fact? The Christian population has remained static at 2%. Neither two hundred years and the might of the British Empire, nor hordes of evangelising missionaries succeeded in seriously converting India.
Muslims have a dozen children each, funded by Saudi Arabia to change the demographics and make Hindus a minority in their own country is another claim. Fact? The decadal rate of population growth for Muslims is the lowest it has ever been in India’s history.
Sadly facts have little or no role to play when it comes to hate mongering. The shrillness has reached deafening decibels. But finally, more and more people are speaking out against this manufactured hate.
Harsh Mander, a former civil servant resigned in protest after the 2002 killing of over 2000 Muslims in Gujarat. Last month he led a pilgrimage to atone for the crimes against minorities. His ‘caravan’ travelled across India to visit families who’d had their loved ones brutally tortured, mutilated, then murdered. Of the 78 bovine-related (cows and buffalos) hate crimes since 2010, 97% occurred after Prime Minister Modi’s government came to power in 2014. In 46% of the cases, the police filed charges against the victims/survivors.
Hope comes too, when prominent author Nayantara Sahgal writes, ‘it is unbearable to watch my religion being transformed into what it was never meant to be by people who call themselves Hindus, but practice a brutal, militant creed of their own that drives them to lynch defenceless innocent Indians, pump bullets into those who question their creed, and enter a train armed with knives to stab to death a fifteen-year-old boy who is returning to his village after his Eid shopping in Delhi”.
Then there is Siddharth Varadarajan, the Founding Editor of India’s fast growing online newspaper The Wire. His paper has consistently spoken out against the hate campaign and against corruption in high places. His latest target, Jay Shah, the son of powerful politician Amit Shah, seen as many to be the force behind Modi’s throne, has earned him a £1.5million lawsuit for defamation.
I salute Harsh Mander, Nayantara Sahgal and Siddharth Varadarajan, who put their lives on the line to stand up for justice, for the idea of India.
Mander’s group seeks to begin a healing process. To form peace and reconciliation committees all over India so locals can intervene before violence starts. We need innovative, effective solutions to stop the hate campaign to prevent the disintegration of India. And we need all Indians to muster the kind of passion that emerges at an India-Pakistan cricket match, to stop the lies and the divisive disinformation that is tearing the country apart. Mander’s pilgrimage ended symbolically, in Porbandar, Gandhi’s birthplace. It was an immensely moving moment. As people sprinkled petals in the room Gandhi was born in, they said, ‘We are all Gandhi’. That, surely, is a good place to start reclaiming the idea of India, for which Gandhi lived and died.