So many Kasganjs: Prolonged intimidation of Muslims will shred the social and political fabric of India
Listing the books on Xi Jinping’s desk during his annual New Year telecast has become an internet meme. This year, among other books, netizens noticed The Gray Rhino, a bestseller by Michele Wucker, whose theme is the need to recognise and act against dangers – fiscal, social or political – that are in plain sight in front of us, but often ignored.
A major danger confronting this country these days is the fraught communal situation. The violence in Kasganj should alert us to the consequences of using political polarisation for winning elections. In this case, a rally by a group of young men triggered the violence which, the senior BJP leader and governor of Uttar Pradesh Ram Naik has termed as “shameful” and a “blot” on the state. In a Facebook note (since removed) Raghavendra Vikram Singh, the district magistrate of Bareilly, observed a “strange trend” where people entered areas dominated by Muslims and raised slogans against Pakistan. The intention, he implied, was clearly to provoke.
Provocation has taken many forms. On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan on their alleged failure to comply with an earlier court order to check instances of vigilante violence over cow protection. It does not take a genius to figure out that these actions are linked to the politics of our times, call them majoritarian or communal or whatever. People are, of course, free to choose their politics, but they and their leaders urgently need to consider the dangers that are now increasingly manifest.
The partition of the country in 1947 was a Black Swan event. Many of its actors, including some say Jinnah himself, did not believe that it would actually happen. Populist politicians think they are in control of the narrative and one day we discover that they have taken us over the brink. Today, despite the obvious train wreck we confront, there is a strange silence at the apex of the government. Though senior leaders like Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu obliquely, and Ram Naik directly, have raised the alarm.
In 1947, millions were displaced and hundreds of thousands killed. India has not yet recovered from that trauma. A communal breakdown today would result in an entirely different kind of a disaster. Across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and into Bengal and Assam, Muslims constitute 10-30% of the population with some districts in western UP, east Bihar and Bengal going even higher. These 80 million or so are simply too many to be “sent to Pakistan”. Prolonged violence, intimidation and vigilantism against them would eventually lead to counter-violence. Given their numbers they would not prevail, but the ensuing conflict would surely shred the social and political fabric of the nation.
What is unfortunate here is that India has had one of the most peaceable Muslim populations anywhere. In the past decades, as the high tide of Islamist radicalism lashed the world, Indian Muslims stood out for their moderation born, no doubt, from the environment in which they lived. There were none found in the multi-national Guantanamo prison; the figure of those with IS are less than 10. Taking into account those involved in the Bombay blasts of 1993 and Indian Mujahideen strikes, the number of those killed or convicted for acts of terrorism in the past three decades does not probably exceed 200, an astonishing figure considering our Muslim population is around 176 million. Terrorism here has largely been a state-sponsored event run by Pakistan.
India cannot say it has not been warned. As recently as December 2017, former President Barack Obama called on India to cherish and nurture its well-integrated Muslim population. The Gray Rhino is standing in the middle of the road to our future. It’s up to us to avoid him, or bear the consequences of the crash.