by Saba Naqvi
If Bihar BJP candidate Giriraj Singh’s vision of India were to prevail, then the author of this article would have to be writing it in Karachi. And if VHP leader Pravin Togadia’s move to cleanse mixed localities of Muslims is taken up seriously by his cohorts and followers, then many of our homes and lives would be in danger.
But hey, the BJP has offered a condemnation of such utterances and Narendra Modi has tweeted that he is against such irresponsible statements. But these condemnations came about halfway through a general election in a nation that was born in the midst of a bloodbath as populations transferred across new borders, and India and Pakistan were created.
So a slap in the face, followed by an apology, should be adequate. Till there is another slap, another apology, perhaps a third slap, an even more eloquent apology. It is all apparently par for the course when India is in the throes of what has been described as a battle for the soul of the nation. So if BJP general secretary Amit Shah, in charge of Uttar Pradesh, first says in riot-affected western UP that this election is about “revenge” and then says he is sorry, the BJP argues that it should all be forgotten as harmless over-enthusiasm.
Author Arundhati Roy says that “such hate speeches are designed to create a majoritarian constituency and override differences of caste, which is actually impossible to do. Even if Modi were to be careful in the future with his own words, what will happen were he to come to power is that the lumpen elements on the ground would be emboldened. And eventually competition for resources is so great that future skirmishes would be so one-sided that they would create deep resentments”.
One must also not forget the “action-reaction” theory of Indian politics. There are also the characters from the “other side” of the hate divide, practising their own brand of communalism and soldiering on in the name of “secularism”, harming the community they claim to be protecting. “We will chop Modi into pieces,” is one such war cry raised in battleground Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is seen as a growing force. The other utterance from the same state is the now-famous statement made by the SP’s Azam Khan that it was the “Muslim soldiers” who “cried Allah-o-Akbar and went on to save the peaks of Kargil”.
Such a statement would be in the category of rhetoric from the pulpit, designed to enthuse the congregation with a certain machismo and false bravado. Akbaruddin Owaisi of the MIM was indulging in an even more extreme brand of this sort of rhetoric in Hyderabad in 2013. Such utterances too feed into the dangerous stereotype of Muslims being an angry, violent community prone to acts of aggression. It’s the sort of rhetoric that actually feeds into the Hindutva projection of what Muslims are like. Giriraj no doubt would tell them all to go and live in Pakistan. As would the Shiv Sena in Bombay.
But why have such utterances vitiated the air of Elections 2014, one that was meant to be about governance issues alone? You could argue that all the latent and patent communal tendencies are on display because Narendra Modi is the central figure of the national campaign and he is popular because of the 2002 riots and not in spite of it. He is quintessentially the strongman who does not indulge in what the BJP, since the days of L.K. Advani, has called minority appeasement. Muslims know their place in his Gujarat and some have come along to make peace with Modi on his terms. If he is indeed offering a gloved hand of friendship to the minority community, he does so with an iron fist inside.
There are many avatars of Shankar bhagwan, as the faithful say in Varanasi amid cries of Har Har Modi. He descends in many forms across the nation in different headgear, but he does not wear a skull cap. From a certain perspective, he can even be admired for not wavering from that position, now articulated in several interviews. The governance and development man persona is the next layer to his personality. The symbolism around Modi’s entry into Varanasi is totally Hindu. They made an effort to get Bismillah Khan’s family to propose his name as they are the descendants of a revered figure in Benaras but the family refused because the community can see through real and false commitments. So such a huge minority population, but no Muslim proposer. Although the BJP’s Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was prominently displayed during Modi’s roadshow, the stark fact is that Modi’s ruled Gujarat for 13 years without a single representative from the minority community.
Yet Bihar has not been entirely free of communal troubles since the Nitish Kumar government severed ties with its 17-year-old ally. Suddenly there were several communal skirmishes in places such as Jamui, Khagaria, Bettiah, Nawada. Nawada is the hometown of Giriraj Singh and Modi has addressed a rally there. Besides, there were also the blasts at Modi’s Patna rally. Once the BJP was unleashed from the responsibility of government, another agenda apparently unfolded. Yet again this is designed to create an identity that surmounts caste, as the numbers of the Bhumihars and other upper castes are numerically less than in UP. In the nation’s largest state, Hindu mobilisation has clicked on the ground in recent contemporary history with greater success than in Bihar. A good performance in the 120 Lok Sabha seats of these two states is essential for the Modi project to succeed. A good show would be 70 of the 120.
Yet it appears that the situation on the ground in both states crystalised as the election moved from phase to phase. As the BJP appeared to be in the ascendant in Bihar, Akhtarul Iman, the JD(U) candidate from Kishanganj, took the unilateral action of withdrawing from the race because he says he did not want minority votes scattered and wasted. Kishanganj is one of the highest Muslim density seats in the country (70 per cent of the electorate). Iman says that “in 1999 because of vote divisions, the BJP won. Since then, the RSS has been active in Kishanganj. I believe we don’t know who is behind the blasts and skirmishes between communities. I took the action because my conscience told me that a triangular contest would benefit forces that are dangerous.” The seat has been allotted to the Congress in its tie-up with the RJD and currently people in Bihar say “it’s safer than Amethi!”
What is clear is that when it comes to heartland politics, all the familiar buttons are pressed, not just by the footsoldiers but even the BJP top leadership that has used standard Hindutva rhetoric in Bihar. At a rally in the state on April 21, BJP president Rajnath Singh said that if they come to power in Delhi, they would locate all the infiltrators who have entered India since 1971 and drive them out. And it was at the April 2 Nawada rally that Modi yet again spoke of the “pink revolution”. This is a phrase he used throughout his campaign to retain the chief ministership in Gujarat in 2012. He has used it only twice during the LS campaign, once in Bihar and on another occasion in Assam. The “pink revolution” refers to the alleged promotion of meat exports and slaughterhouses by the UPA regime. At Nawada, Modi said the government does not give a subsidy to those who keep cows but readily promotes those who set up a slaughterhouse.
Wajahat Habibullah, ex-chairman of the Minorities Commission, says even communal riots and polarisations need to be understood beyond the Hindu-Muslim vortex. “The recent Muzaffarnagar riots that have impacted politics in west UP were between Jats and Muslims while the Gopalgarh riots in Rajasthan in 2012 were between Meo Muslims and Gujjars.” It apparently takes a systematic orchestration and some culpability of the ruling dispensation and police for a riot to fully develop and overwhelm the politics of a state or region. When that is not possible, little skirmishes and hate speeches are a familiar fall-back option.