Communal violence: The government must emerge out of the shadows and give a stern message before it is too late - The Probe

Communal violence: The government must emerge out of the shadows and give a stern message before it is too late

How often have we seen the head of the government or for that matter key ministers warn stern action against miscreants who indulge in acts that divide people and polarise our society? Why are opposition parties using these instances of violence for political mileage? Politicians are wary of taking steps that might cost them votes. The result is there for all to see.

The Knotted Gun sculpture at UN Headquarters in New York is a universal symbol of non-violence | Pic courtesy: @UN

When the founding fathers of the Indian republic gave the country a constitution in 1950, they probably knew that Indian society was not yet fully ready for it. However, they went for a progressive constitution realising that Indians would be goaded into accepting these principles, ultimately making the country resonate with contemporary times. But has this happened? The answer could be yes and no.

Human rights activist and Chair of Board for Amnesty International India Aakar Patel on the recent spate of violence in India | Video courtesy: Kingshuk Nag

In many ways, nearly seventy-five years after India adopted its Constitution, the Indian republic is modern and progressive, but in many ways, not yet. The killing of a Hindu tailor in Udaipur by two Muslims because the former tweeted in favour of Nupur Sharma (who had made some questionable statements on Prophet Mohammed on national television) demonstrates how the ideals of our Constitution, rather the spirit of it is not reflecting in the society that we live in and in equal measure the government of the day is not making efforts to enforce the scruples of the Constitution.

According to newspaper reports, the two offenders had visited Pakistan recently – thereby suggesting that terror elements inducted and indoctrinated them in that country. Although the relatives of the deceased have now said that tweets had got mixed up and that he had not tweeted what he was accused of, the fact remains that the offenders were incensed by accusations made against their religion. In fact, they were so incensed that they left behind their identity in the form of video tapes where they recorded the violent incident and their reasons for wreaking this violence. The two made no effort to hide their identity: as a result, the offenders were easily captured by the police within a day of the incident.

It is incumbent on the government – whether it is the government at the centre or the government in Rajasthan – to ensure such things don’t happen. Between 1926 and 1986, only seven such cases were registered in India and Pakistan. In 1986, Zia criminalised this and introduced punishment of life and death for blasphemy. After that, more than a thousand cases were filed against the minorities. You take the case of the beef lynchings. Two BJP states in India passed laws which criminalised beef possession, and then the violence began. So, a lot of it comes because of the stand the government takes.
Aakar Patel, human rights activist and Chair of Board,
Amnesty International India

Other similar incidents have happened in different parts of the country in recent times. About eight months ago, when the farmers’ agitation was at its peak, Lakhbir Singh, a Dalit Sikh from Tarn Taran in Punjab, was killed by a Nihang Sikh as he suspected the former of desecrating the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. The book was at a gurudwara on the Singhu border, where the agitators were parked at that time. The Nihang had been so enraged that the deceased had been hanged and his left hand chopped off. Several videos of the incident had also been circulated – that served as a strict warning to everyone else.

In another incident of similar nature in December 2021, another man was lynched to death for allegedly committing sacrilege at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. An angry crowd surrounded the man at the temple, he was dragged to the SGPC (Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee) office, and his body was later found in the gurudwara precincts suggesting that instant justice had been delivered.

A few years ago, in 2010, the hand of a professor of Malayalam, TJ Joseph, had been chopped off at the wrist by representatives of the Popular Front of India, an Islamic organisation. The ‘punishment’ was meted out to the professor – who taught in a minority-run college in Kerala on allegations of blasphemy. Reports suggested that the professor had asked a question in the examination, which allegedly resulted in insulting Prophet Muhammad. Joseph, however, denied the charge arguing that the Muhammad named in the paper was Kunju Muhammad, a Malayalam film director whose piece he had asked the students to edit. So upset was the college management that, in a bid to advertise that they could not be blamed, they suspended the injured professor (with little regard for the punishment wreaked on him). It’s a different matter that the professor’s wife, unable to take the double blow on her husband, later committed suicide.

If you look at the sequence of events in the Nupur Sharma case, the government spokeswoman said these things on TV, which went unchecked. Five days later, a BJP spokesman tweeted something similar. Ten days after that, the government quickly took three actions. Firstly, it distanced itself from what was said. Secondly, it suspended them from the party. Thirdly, it got the person who made the statements to withdraw her statement. But why did they wait for ten days? We should not wait for the external world to put pressure on us knowing that these things can cause trouble.
Aakar Patel, human rights activist and Chair of Board,
Amnesty International India

Numerous such incidents occur across the country, too numerous to be recounted. But this only proves that the march of modernity in India has been stunted and is not yet complete by any yardstick. Why is it so? Maybe because the laws enacted are modern, but the thinking of a large segment of the population is still rooted in traditions and antiquated notions. Many are beyond fear of retribution, and they behave as they deem fit as our country still has a political system that wins elections based on pandering to people’s religion and caste and not exactly on the issue of governance or development.

In September 1987, a young Rajput girl Roop Kunwar, only 18 at that time, committed Sati by jumping on the pyre of her husband Maal Singh Shekhawat in the Sikar district of Rajasthan. The husband, just 24, had passed away only the previous day and the marriage was just a few months old. Thousands had gathered at the spot and were cheering, saying that the girl was a Sati Mata (the pure one). Some prominent politicians also supported the young girl.

The incident brought severe recriminations in urban India, not because of the gruesome nature of the event but because Sati had been outlawed in the country since 1829 due to the efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. The social reformer had travelled to Great Britain because the British then ruled the country. The British were averse to social change in India, but Roy’s advocacy forced their hands. In the Roop Kanwar case, after many arrests, nobody was ultimately punished at the case trial, which went up to 2004. Anybody who knows the Indian system well is aware that such things happen when the prosecution does not bring forward credible information that would result in the conviction of the accused. However, the government was forced to enact a law again so that loopholes in the already existing rules were plugged. The Commission of Sati (Prevention Act) 1987 came on the statute books as a result.

The moot point in all this is that in an ancient country such as India, with a surfeit of history and deeply ingrained traditions, folks are moved by what is perceived as an assault on their religious beliefs like nothing else. While in such a situation, it becomes incumbent on politicians in power and the leaders of the society to exercise caution and restraint to see to it that they don’t add fuel to the fire and widen the gulf between sections of society. In fact, we expect the government of the day and the politicians to be proactive and denounce all such instances of violence, and promote peace and communal harmony between opposing groups. But is that the case?

How often have we seen the head of the government or for that matter key ministers warn stern action against miscreants who indulge in acts that divide people and polarise our society? Why are opposition parties using these instances of violence for political mileage? Politicians are wary of taking steps that might cost them votes. The result is there for all to see.

Kingshuk Nag is a senior journalist who spent about 25 years reporting for The Times of India across various locations. He is also the author of around ten best-selling works on politics and business. In a career spanning over four decades, Nag has reported on politics and the economy. He is a recipient of the Prem Bhatia award.

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