In the name of religion

Ranjona BanerjiThere’s plenty of political finger-pointing going on over the riots in Uttar Pradesh; meanwhile the most recent clashes leaving at least 31 dead. But surely to any observer, all the political parties involved the Samajwadi Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress must share responsibility. The Samajwadi Party stands for the rights of Other Backward Castes and Muslims, with its founder Mulayam Singh Yadav being called “Maulana Mulayam” and believed to have a strong grasp on the Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh.

Yet communal riots have increased in UP on their watch. The BJP and its founders have militant Hindu nationalism as their most abiding credo; whatever flip-flopping they may do on other subjects like the economy or foreign affairs: exclusion of “the other” lies at the bottom of everything. The Congress in its all things to all people mantra has encouraged sectarian violence as much as it swears by secularism.

The army was called in after the police failed to control the situation in Muzaffarnagar. Pic/AFP

Now all three, with their wavering secular credentials, seem to have a hand in the current riots either by enflaming them or allowing them or not doing enough to stop them. What started out as a fight between Jats and Muslims over one incident has become a communal riot, with death, injury, mayhem and destruction following. Undoubtedly somewhere, you get the feeling, some political strategists, are licking their chops and counting votes.

What is immediately apparent is that the state machinery cannot do anything to stop these explosions. Or can they? All research points to the fact that riots cannot spread without state complicity look at Delhi in 1984 or Bombay in 1992-93 or Gujarat in 2002. Again and again in India, things reach such a point that the armed forces have to be called in. The job of the armed forces however is not to protect Indian citizens from each other: It is to protect us from the outside threat. But what happens when we are a bigger threat to ourselves than anyone else?

The cynical manipulation of human weaknesses is perhaps the easiest way for politicians who want to get elected. How stupid we are to be thus manipulated is another matter. Some people have pointed out that the Jats and Muslims in the Muzaffarnagar area of Uttar Pradesh do not have a confrontational past and indeed have worked and voted together. This information gives these riots an even more sinister colour.

Was a fake video circulated by a BJP MLA responsible for worsening the situation? What about the four BJP MLAs supposedly involved? What was the former Congress MP named in the first information report up to? Why did the Samajwadi Party government delay controlling the violence?

Part of the problem is the feudal mindset that still prevails in India. The first instinct is therefore to run to the local politician who has replaced the zamindar or dominant landowner of old but operates more like an underworld don for all practical purposes. This will happen when the state machinery is non-existent or weak. The UP government only recently transferred a bureaucrat for breaking a wall of a mosque ostensibly because it would cause “communal tension”. Yet it is slow to act when communal tension leads to death and destruction.

The bigger problem is that we never learn. We have managed to keep the fires of Hindu-Muslim hatred burning and by doing so we have diminished our humanity. All these riots are fought in the name of religion. In which case religion is found most wanting in the one thing that religion claims to supply: compassion.

The word “secular” has most happily become an insult where in fact a separation of religion and politics is the only way to reduce this kind of hatred. Our politicians and their advisers find it hard to admit that because of their policies and practices, human beings have died, that Indians have died regardless of their religion or caste. Instead, we remain slaves to mere tokenism: Wearing skull caps and going to Iftar parties or lighting lamps and bathing in the Ganga. What difference is all that going to make?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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