Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on "normalization." This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as "the way things are done." There is usually a division of labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable, with the direct brutalizing and killing done by one set of individuals; others keeping the machinery of death…in order; still others producing the implements of killing, or working on improving technology…It is the function of defense intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public.
--Prof. Edward S. Herman
The well-regarded American academic quoted above was writing in context with several unsavoury incidents that occurred in Western countries. But his observations also accurately describe the predicament of Indian society three years after Narendra Modi’s rule. For, the project of normalising what was unthinkable until not very long ago – near absolute domination of the Indian state and society by Hindutva politics – has progressed at an unprecedented pace and does not appear to lose momentum anytime soon.
The manifestations of this process are many. In the dominant discourse, the word ‘communal’ now no longer carries the same sting as it once did, just as the word ‘secular’ and those using it don’t really give the same reassuring feeling to India’s minorities, which the latter banked upon. The Communal Versus Secular discourse is, at least for the moment, completely sidelined and overwhelmed by a set of new euphemisms like: Gau Rakshaks; Ghar Wapsi; Anti-Romeo squad, India First, among others.
These words and phrases force their way into the dominant discourse with increasing frequency, typically after an incident of violence by Hindutva-inspired groups against a member of the minority community who most often tends to be Muslim. An acrimonious controversy in media and elsewhere ensues. In response, government spokespersons, if they are of the tactful kind, repeat the claim made ad nauseam during the past three years: Modi government believes in ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’. If they are among the less tactful ones, the response goes: “We do not support this, but….”
Members of the wider Sangh Parivar add to it by crude statements and the arms of the state, typically the police and local bureaucracy, deliberately fail in their duty of protecting the life and limb of citizens and administering immediate relief. To add insult to injury, the apparatus of Hindutva propaganda involving shrill sections of the news media, pro-establishment commentators with some standing in polite society, social media “warriors” and ruling Bharatiya Janata Party spokespersons all converge to push a narrative which waters down the seriousness of the controversial incidents or policies. Outrage soon withers away and, in popular memory, the issue does not become one of attack on minorities but of something concerning Hindutva.
Whether it is the recent murderous assault on dairy farmer Pehlu Khan in Rajasthan or last year’s attack on Dalits in Gujarat’s Una or the year before last’s lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri, the process of normalising the unthinkable can be witnessed in the aftermath of each episode.
In late 2016, the increasing violence against Muslims by vigilante groups prompted the then Chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities, Naseem Ahmed, to write to the Home Minister Rajnath Singh. He wrote, “We wish to bring to your kind notice the increasing violence against the Muslims by the so-called vigilante groups and the fear that this is creating across the country. This commission has been receiving petitions and has prepared reports on some of these incidents. Victims, in some cases, have also cited police apathy…All of this is vitiating the social fabric of the country and is bound to disturb the overall climate of co-existence amongst communities. In particular, it is creating an atmosphere of extreme insecurity and suspicions among the Muslims across the country and a deteriorating communal amity amongst communities that have traditionally lived together in peace and harmony. We believe that there is a need for a very strong statement from the highest levels of the government stating that such outlandish behaviour will neither be tolerated nor can it go unpunished and that the secular credentials of India will be protected by the state at all costs.” This letter was written a month after Modi publicly condemned the self-styled Gau Rakshaks for the attack on Dalits in Una. However, Muslim votes were obviously not as important for Modi in the soon-to-be-held Uttar Pradesh elections. Consequently, no statement from “highest levels of the government” came in condemnation of the attacks on Muslims.
In fact, the RSS propaganda apparatus explains away the attacks by taking refuge in data. The number of communal incidents has not increased drastically in Modi’s India, they argue, and so, the criticism about fear felt by minorities is a motivated claim. However, as the data put out by the Ministry of Home Affairs (see below) shows, there is a general increasing trend and definitely no decline in recorded communal incidents.
But, these are only those violent incidents that are registered by police authorities. There are thousands of other “smaller” incidents of intimidation, beatings, damage to property, including damage to religious places, etc. that are now happening, perpetrated by fanatics from the Sangh parivar on members of minority communities. Mostly, these go unrecorded as “communal” and hence don’t make it into home ministry reports.
Several factors which elude the bounds of data have converged to contribute to a state of fear and panic among the minorities, particularly Muslims of several regions in the country. These include the license given to the so-called protectors of Mother Cow to indulge in targeted violence against Muslim farmers or cattle traders, although it may spill over to beatings and even killings of Hindu farmers some times. A related issue, raised by the Sangh parivar affiliated hooligans is that of beef eating which has been extended to all meat eating in UP after BJP’s electoral victory. Various religious occasions are being utilised to take out provocative and armed processions. In fact, in both Bihar and UP, the Sangh parivar has undertaken massive campaigns like “Shiv Charcha” and “Ram Katha Paath” to spread its propaganda amongst naïve people in the name of religious observances. All these activities have a dual purpose: the short term one is to help in electoral gains, but the long term goal is to hammer the diversity of this country’s people into a narrow, brahmanical version of Hinduism based on hatred and false pride.
In the intensely polarised Assembly election campaign in Uttar Pradesh in early 2017, the BJP opened up the whole armoury of its poisonous weapons, backed by an unlimited budget. Modi himself set the communal tone for the election campaign in February by bringing up the issue of Muslims graveyards and Hindu cremation grounds as well as provision of uninterrupted power supply during Diwali and Ramzan. Lower down in the BJP hierarchy, this was seen as a signal for a no-holds barred poisonous campaign targeting Muslims. The BJP did not have a single Muslim candidate in a state where about 18% of the population is Muslim.
Electoral victory has further emboldened this politics as reflected in the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. It is certainly a critical factor in political consolidation of Hindutva and consequently, a state of panic and fear among Muslims. His early actions including a campaign against “illegal slaughterhouses” and watering down a case of hate speech against Muslims in his former avatar as Gorakhpur Member of Parliament serve as helpful indicators of the future of communal amity in India under Modi. That the Supreme Court, within days of Adityanath’s appointment as Chief Minister, offered to set up a mechanism for out of court settlement of the contentious Ram Mandir issue should also serve as reminder to all democratic and secular sections about the limitations of India’s highest constitutional bodies in the current political climate. The Mandir issue continues to simmer below the surface, but is useful enough to be brought back to the centre stage any time it is needed.
Another aspect of how the Sangh parivar’s parochial and hate based ideology is being spread by the Modi government is the use of pseudo-nationalism and militarism to foster a “pride” in the country’s armed and paramilitary forces. While failing to curb terrorist attacks, the Modi government and the Sangh parivar, helped by a sycophantic media, is glorifying state violence. This too has a hidden agenda: it targets often Muslims and Pakistan, and urges an erroneous identification of the “nation” with Hindus only.
With the grip of Hindutva getting even more firm by the passing day on Indian polity, the critical relevance of the widest mobilisation of all sections of people to fight back communal forces cannot be further emphasised. An effective opposition which reaches out to the people with a coherent counter narrative and message is an urgent necessity today.