Are we seeing a return to those terrible days of communal politics in India, where sectarian violence polarised us and compassion and good sense were lost or are events of the last few days just a shadow mimicking an evil past?
Ever since the conflict between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam began a few weeks ago, discussion is being edged towards the Hindu-Muslim divide, last seen with full vicious intensity during the 2002 riots in Gujarat.
There is, as always, a political slant to the Hindu-Muslim debate. The Congress — seen by some as the protector of Muslims, by others as “appeasers” — is clearly wilting under the pressure of having to provide governance. The Bharatiya Janata Party — the chief baiter of Muslims in India under the able guardianship of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — until now struggling with its internal contradictions has found a little strength for a little fight.
But the BJP knows that its communal politics cost it an election in 2004 as well as some crucial allies. So it is weaving its way along, not saying a lot but saying enough to increase tension. Its antipathy to Muslims this time is couched in dislike of foreign infiltration — a clear reference to fears that Bangladeshis are over-running the North-East of India. The images of angry Muslim youths in Mumbai destroying public property and attacking the police have added fuel to their scare-mongering. All those who try to argue that many of the Muslim settlers in Assam moved there pre-Partition or indeed are Bengali (rather than all of being Bangladeshi) are promptly dubbed anti-national. Nor is anyone discussing why it is justified for Bodos to kill anyone — Bengali Muslims or Bangladeshis.
The national versus anti-national argument is of course a leftover from Partition and clearly 65 years have not been enough to settle it. Hatred or fear of the other continues to work in insidious ways. The past 10 years have shown a louder Muslim voice, wanting to be part of the mainstream and the India story and most importantly, wanting to move away from the stranglehold of religious bigots within Indian Islam. Politicians, with their own selfish compulsions, continue to pander to religious organisations to the detriment of the people. The Congress is the guiltiest here and has been so for a number of years, especially since it claims to be secular. The BJP is overtly pro-Hindu so there are no surprises in its anti-minority rhetoric.
Some of the fear undoubtedly has come from public discourse. Technology has been used to spread hate messages and threats, particularly against North East Indians. One devout “nationalist” tweeted to a journalist who has done extensive work on Census figures in Assam that he was covering the truth with facts. Make of that what you will. Those “Hindu Indians” who do not buy into the BJP rhetoric are “anti-national” of course! Yet after the violence in Mumbai, many Muslim intellectuals, scholars and religious leaders have spoken out against the violence, against the organisers of the protest and against the tendency of Muslims to equate themselves with atrocities being committed on Muslims in other countries. Many Muslims have also said that they are tired of being constantly associated with Pakistan. After the 2008 terror attacks, the call for war with Pakistan was the loudest from Mumbai’s Muslims.
However, in spite of everything that has happened and in spite of the incipient political desire to sully the peace, in spite of the fears of the people from the North East and the lack of compassion for people living in refugee camps in Assam, all is not yet lost.
The people of India still have the choice to decide how far they want this current conflagration to go. The government too, instead of deflecting attention from what had gone wrong by targeting social media and the internet, can look again at the problems caused by flawed policies and vote bank politics. The BJP is definitely being opportunistic, hoping this argument will turn the focus away from its own inadequacies — which is why it is not allowing Parliament to function.
The road to 2014 doesn’t have to take this direction as long as we can see through what’s happening.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona