SEEMA MUSTAFA | 7 AUGUST, 2017
NEW DELHI: Before the information revolution, it took hard work to create a communal riot. The cadres of fundamentalist outfits had to work in the targeted areas, spreading rumours for several days through a well crafted whisper campaign, and then ensuring the timing for the trigger that lit the flames.
When plunged into the field of what a former Chief of Bureau Kewal Verma described as the “worst decade of violence” in India through the 1980’s into the 1990’s, a first education was that to cover a communal violence do not look for the inefficiencies of the administration -- they are at worst pawns in the game. Look out for the political machinations; piece that together. And so one did, riot after riot, and found the same story each and every single time -- the only variables being the place, the deaths, the reasons.
It almost seemed as if the Hindu and Muslim (also very active at the time) fundamentalist organisations were in cahoots, the bonding coming from the fact that communal violence helped each consolidate. Take a relatively small riot in Aligarh in terms of lives lost, but not in intensity and long term economic impact. Incidentally, communal violence is always related to economics, to either help some prosper, or to ensure the complete financial annihilation of the other.
For days in Aligarh before the violence, the Muslim and Hindu mohallas were filled with rumours of a person from the community being kidnapped, a dead body being found, a girl being abducted and raped. There was then, as now, little to no attempt by a compromised administration to counter the rumours vigorously. Both sides of the fence were taut with anger, fear, hostility. In the midst of this, in a seemingly unrelated incident, there was an altercation between a stall owner selling food and a customer over the quantity. One was a Hindu, the other the Muslim. And within minutes the argument converted into a full fledged, raging communal war in which lives were destroyed, homes gutted, dividing the people, perhaps irreconcilably at one level.
What was specific to this incident was not the rumours -- the basis for all such violence -- but the fact that Aligarh’s indigenous lock industry was destroyed, and even though it later revived, this was the beginning of the end with the big lock manufacturers taking over. And what many did not know, but the locals did, was that the final lock was assembled through the hard work of both the Muslim and the Hindu workers in their mohallas. Each community made a different part of the lock, and as the sane voices on both sides told us even then, we cannot complete a lock without each other.
Today the broad pattern being followed by the right wing is similar -- far more sophisticated and on a far larger scale of course -- but broadly the same. In that rumours provide the basis for all violence.
Take Muzaffarnagar on the eve of the general elections: To love jihad, to ghar wapsi, to beef, to black magic now. All based on rumours -- that are now not spread by humans on the ground but behind mobile phones and computers, sending out whatsapp messages, posting fake vidoes, morphed videos, indulging in hate rhetoric, spreading lies and through millions of repetitions turning the dirt into perceived truth. The mobs thus are being primed with a reach now that is immense, and in the absence of a counter from the state (quite the contrary really) these spread like wildfire. The media, or sections of it, helps -- with the heavy dose of hate, war, anger, conflict and lies being peddled as respectable news on a daily basis.
Some are of course being trained to disseminate hate. Some do not even know they are now like robots, primed to attack. So when the trigger is pulled, the mob appears. And the composition of the mob is of course predictable. In Muzaffarnagar, the mob became the local villagers who attacked their own Muslim neighbours on the basis of rumours that had been spread over the smartphones and physically as well all over the area; of deliberate political interventions such as the maha-panchayats; and of course then the violence that killed many, displaced thousands, and traumatised the entire region driving a wedge into what had till then been cordial communal relations.
For the other Hindutva campaigns, the politics is visible in the strategy and orchestration of the campaign where a deliberate locally acceptable flavour is given to it. Again social media is used to spread hatred and turn even the bystander into a mob. Fear too is a key component that keeps those outside the mob from intervening with even the cops fearful of taking action lest they be transferred or suspended for dereliction of the duty that now involves protecting the assailants, and not the victims. And finally, the no-arrests policy that actually is endorsed again by the Muzaffarnagar experience where legislators openly recognised as exhorting violence were felicitated with garlands and tickets by the local BJP.
The beef attacks across the northern belt targeted Muslims, and Dalits, with instigators visible in the crowds to ensure that they were moved into a frenzy of action. A mob hesitates until it is shown the way, and professional cheerleaders as it were are required to build on the hysteria, and ensure the unemployed youth who are constituting virtual private armies for these agendas are pushed into action. Once the frenzy takes over, as the videos of all the crimes till now show over and over again, there is no stopping the crowd, with the instigators of course standing by to make sure that abject pleas from the victims do not impede the action. There are videos of such attacks in remote areas, without a mob, by just a few of the motivated men -- one recording the incident -- where instructions are audible to hit the hapless victim with a repeated, “do not hit on the face.” The abdomen remains the favourite part of the body, and the head.
The black magic attacks have killed a Dalit, and targeted a Muslim. Interesting coincidence? Or then perhaps it is not a coincidence as it fits into the pattern being seen over these months. How is it that the attack even here is on a Dalit woman and a Muslim man in two different states? Surely, those ‘ghosts’ snipping off the braids of women in the death of night do not have a caste or religious identity? Or do they? Even if the murder of the Dalit woman was a case of serious mistaken identity by neighbours buying into the black magic rumours as is being made out by the police in Agra, the Muslim youth stopped by a mob and beaten mercilessly was a passer by, driving through Sikri on his motorcycle, when the mob accosted him. Others must have passed by too -- how come he, of all the hundreds passing on that road, was beaten?
The Muslim has been cast into the mould of the ‘other’ with the rumours turning him into a monster whose annihilation is essential to the well being of the nation. This sums up the message being sent out with of course varying arguments that are being sold as poison, and being consumed into hate. To the point where Indians are being divided rather rapidly into three categories: one, who become the mob; two, who watch from a slight distance but do little to help; and three, who do not want to discuss the issue at all.
Delhi’s elite hovers between the last two options. The media between the first two, with some anchors becoming the mob, and others watching from a distance without taking an editorial position on the subversion of democracy in the country. The Opposition too between the last two options, with most political leaders averse to bridging the distance. Any number this writer has spoken to listen, shake their heads as if in sorrow, and change the subject almost immediately. Silence encourages mobs, and soon those who are silent become the mob. This because of the weak, and disorganised counter narrative that is unable to acquire the much-needed sword like efficacy.
Is this happening to India?