The past weeks have seen many Indians’ worst fears about their country come true. It was almost as if the ruling dispensation was waiting for the first sign of resistance to reveal their real plans for India’s future. Ayodhya, 370, lynchings all went by without any real murmurs of dissent. But the NRC/CAA/NPR imbroglio struck many people, of all faiths and none, as being an assault on the very nature of Indian-ness. In some places, protests were violent -- though not as much as many other protests in the past. In most places, the protests have been peaceful.
The reaction, however, has been as if every peaceful crowd was an angry mob carrying Kalashnikovs. In one BJP-ruled state after another, the police have cracked down on the crowds using excessive force. But the real punishment -- the 'revenge', in the words of its chief minister -- has been saved for Uttar Pradesh. The stories of mass arrest and torture that have emerged from that state, which is under lockdown and intermittent internet blackouts, are harrowing. Children are among those who speak of being beaten mercilessly. Videos show policemen indulging in vandalism, and it has been reported that entire neighbourhoods have been raided by violent police posses. What this revenge is for is not clear. Perhaps for a sense of majoritarian victimhood that will never be satisfied.
This is what UP Chief Minister Adityanath was selected to do. He rose to prominence in east UP’s politics as the leader of the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), a fundamentalist militia that focused on intimidation of and violence against Muslims. It has been tragically easy to turn the UP police into an extension of the HYV. Since the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, ghettoisation in India’s largest state has accelerated. Ever more distinct boundaries have formed between Muslim and Hindu areas in even small towns; and so the police can go into the kasbas and do what they like with impunity, safe in the knowledge that no Hindu is being inconvenienced. The media will not report it -- in one chilling video that has emerged, you can hear one member of the media tell another, “turn off the cameras, they [the police] are loading their guns”. The UP police have claimed hundreds of country-made shells have been recovered from “protest sites”. They are yet to tell us how many of those were fired, and how many rounds they fired in response.
In many parts of north India, this scourging of Muslim neighbourhoods is likely to be extremely popular. The reaction on social media to the Huffington Post’s reporting of the alleged torture of children in the Nagina area of Bijnor in UP was revealing of this new India. Many responded with congratulations to the UP police for showing Muslims their place. The rhetoric developed for Kashmiris being blinded by pellet guns -- they are all stone-pelters, they deserve what they get -- is now being deployed against the Muslim children of UP.
The public, political and media culture in much of north India has rotted away. The media responds to public bloodthirstiness by exaggerating the violence of protests; politicians send the police in against the defenceless. It is important to understand the narrative that is being created, and not to live in denial about what it is or where it will lead. It runs as follows: Muslims, even the youngest, are dangerous and violent, each one of them a potential rioter. They are not to be trusted, and must be penned into ghettoes that are regularly scourged. Economic blockades and boycotts of these troublemakers are moral acts. Restraint is folly, and human rights are a Western construct. Any act of resistance is seditious. Collective punishment is acceptable.
It is futile to say that this is not the India many of us grew up in, or one we recognise, or that such a narrative has no place in a liberal democracy. Things have gone too far from that. All those who made excuses for the current dispensation, who created the narrative in 2013-14 that brought them to power, who believed that liberal institutions would constrain its actions, who argued that there was no alternative, or who drew false equivalences between various political parties have blood on their hands.
The question is what can be done now. The first step is to recognise the danger that India is in. The product of these actions is inevitable. It is further ghettoisation and stigmatisation of India’s largest religious minority. It is increasing radicalisation within these communities. It is the crowded, poor Muslim enclaves deprived of civic amenities or market access in large parts of north India, which will become convenient punching bags for politicians and eventually incubators of violence, crime and extremism. Once we accept that this is the road we have chosen to walk down, we can then consider how it is we could turn around.