Sowing the whirlwind in India

Who’s sowing the seeds of hatred in India in the name of its marginalized Muslims?

By Aijaz Zaka Syed,

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Insanity in individuals is something rare, suggested Nietzsche, but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it’s the rule. The world didn’t have to wait long to see the wisdom of the German philosopher in action in his own homeland. And shades of the same madness are seen in India these days. Indeed, this appears to be the season of mass hysteria. A strange, unprecedented panic has seized the great republic. As the New York Times memorably put it, like a fever, fear has spread across the country, from big cities like Bangalore to smaller places like Mysore, a contagion fueling a message: Run. Head home. Flee.

And that is what thousands of economic migrants from the country’s lately troubled Northeast are doing in what is being termed as the biggest exodus since the 1947 Partition. Tens of thousands of workers quietly earning their bread in melting pots like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai have been swarming railway stations and airports in their desperation to get out, totally baffling the authorities and just about everyone else. The collective panic was ostensibly sparked by some mysterious email and text messages warning of massive reprisals for the recent attacks on Assamese Muslims.

The crisis acquired such epic proportions that several additional trains had to be pressed into service to deal with the rising sea of spooked humanity even as ministers and senior government officials went about reassuring and promising security. The administration has also banned the bulk email and text messages to check the 50-paise terror, as a newspaper put it, radiating fear and panic although it was a classic case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

This Eid day, when I tried to text my friends, I got the following message in typical officialese: “As per Govt direction, only 5 SMS per day is allowed, till 31-Aug. You have sent 5 SMS today. SMS service will resume tmrw. Regret the inconvenience.”

It was indeed an ‘inconvenience’ but was apparently necessary to quell the “rumor-mongering by miscreants,” as the minister put it. Social media and the blessings of technology have clearly made the job of merchants of hatred a lot easier and exciting.

No one knows what and who started it all. The most perplexed have been the people on whose behalf the madness was seemingly started. Nonetheless, the Muslims in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai have responded to the crisis quickly, going out of their way to support and plead with the panicked lot to stay on.

A befuddled government has been quick to blame social media and the ubiquitous foreign hand for the phenomenon. Websites based in Pakistan have been accused of fanning the firestorm by spreading the “morphed images” of violence in Myanmar as those of Assam. Maybe there’s some truth in there. There have been reports of some overzealous sympathizers posting on Facebook pictures of Asian tsunami victims as those from Myanmar.

What happened in Assam is not the invention of a feverish imagination; it’s a reality that has been reported by India’s mainstream media. Right now at least 400,000 people, who fled the violence last month, are living in relief camps in appalling conditions even as there are reports of continuing violence.

Even if some websites are responsible for those morphed images, what explains those text messages and emails? Who started those? Who’s sowing the seeds of hatred in the name of Muslims in Assam and elsewhere in the country and why?

Harsh Mander, a member of National Advisory Council known for his peace efforts in Gujarat, explains in his Hindustan Times piece: “The country is once again dangerously adrift in a stormy sea of competitive hate politics. The signs are both ominous and familiar—the systematic creation of hatred against people because of their ethnicity or religion; rumors and hate propaganda choking the internet; the public moral justification of violence against targeted communities on grounds of ‘larger’ alleged wrongs; and weak-kneed State action against people and organizations which preach hate and organize slaughter and arson.

“In districts and towns in which I have worked, I observed during the 1980s how dedicated communal organizations skillfully spread rumors, which manufacture hatred locally and provoke communal attacks. Hate propagandists are today equipped with sleek new vehicles of cyberspace and mobile phone technology, which they deploy to transport provocative falsehoods, rumors and emotive messages of hate across the country. These recast people of different ethnic or religious identities as the dangerous ‘other’, and foment suspicion, dread and loathing against them. Even more hazardous is the creation of an alternative moral universe in which violent attacks on people of specified communities is accepted as defensible, even justified.”

Mander isn’t alone in his conclusions. Hindustan Times and The Telegraph, two of the most respected, establishment papers, have warned of the Hindutva parties “fishing in Assam’s troubled waters” to fuel a communal divide across the country ahead of the crucial 2014 poll battle, supposed to be fought between the Congress’ Rahul Gandhi and Gujarat’s Modi. The threats to the Northeastern people are being portrayed as “anti-national” forces siding with the “foreigner,” says a HT report by Vikas Pathak (August 17 ).

In another report, Radhika Ramaseshan of The Telegraph says that the Hindutva groups are using the Assam violence and exodus of Northeasterners to try and rebuild its base. She says: “Repeating a familiar strategy, the RSS and VHP are overtly talking of a Hindu-Muslim divide in Assam while the BJP has confined itself to the more politically correct illegal immigrants issue, targeting the Congress for treating them as “vote banks. The collective objective is the same: driving a wedge between Hindus and Muslims and projecting the BJP as the sole “savior” of the former.”

Painting all Bengali-speaking Muslims, living for generations in Assam, as Bangladeshi infiltrators and warning of the ‘coming Islamic invasion’, RSS-VHP-BJP rabble rousers are trying hard to raise a perfect storm of communal frenzy as they did in the 80s and 90s. The “Muslims are coming” is the new mantra of the Sangh and its allies.

The massive show of strength and hate fest in Mumbai by Raj Thackeray, the nephew and inheritor of Bal Thackeray’s toxic legacy, this week would have made Hitler proud with his antics and rhetoric egging on the Hindus and Marathas against the “traitors and infiltrators.” No wonder social activist and Planning Commission member Dr Syeda Hameed, sees a grand design and agenda to “destroy the secular fabric (of the country) which has held us together for centuries.”

Coming days and weeks could be critical for India and for its minorities. The Muslims are bracing themselves for the coming storm after years of relative calm since the Gujarat pogrom a decade ago. A dispossessed and voiceless community languishing on the margins of society which cannot protect itself has been transformed into a ‘clear and present danger’ to the great republic and its 800 million Hindus. Knives are being sharpened once again in the shadows. It’s time to move in for the kill. A clueless, callous government quietly bleeding itself to death doesn’t help. It seems the end is nigh. In Yeats’ evocative words:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

*Aijaz Zaka Syed is a widely published writer. Write him at [email protected]