India’s religious minorities and Dalits weep alone

By John Dayal,

India’s several religious minorities weep alone when they are in pain. So to do the Dalits and the Indigenous people, called Tribals or Adivasis.

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There are a few vibrant human rights groups, who organize factfinding missions, go to the media and demonstrate before parliament. But there has seldom been a national outrage, cutting across ethnicities, languages and caste barriers, which would force policy and judicial reforms, or change the mindset that has fueled so much violence since independence.

File Photo of a relief camp in Muzaffarnagar that saw communal clashes in September, 2013.

The most terrible single episode in this tortured history was the massacre of almost 5,000 Sikhs, 3,500 of them in the national capital Delhi, in October 1984.

The chain of events began when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent the Army into the Golden Temple, holy to the Sikhs, to neutralize a group of armed extremists. The Army killed the leader of the group, Bhindranwale, and destroyed the Akal Takht, the seat of supreme command of the faith.

Two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards shot her dead in retaliation. Subsequently Hindu mobs, and a few others, armed with weapons and cans of gasoline, caught and burned alive any man they could see on the road who had a beard and wore a turban. The city burned for three days.

A few newspapers recorded the tragedy for posterity, but there was no protest worth the name. In fact, there was an undercurrent of condoning the violence as a reaction to Gandhi’s murder. Her son and successor as prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, said: “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes a little.”

Three decades later, the victims live with their memories. The widows and their families fight lonely legal battles in the courts. But the media barely covers recent developments. The country has moved on, fleetingly referring to the carnage when there are elections in the Punjab, which has a Sikh majority.

India’s Muslims, estimated at 150 million or more in a population of 1.25 billion, have suffered several such massacres in the tens of thousands of “communal riots” of mass violence involving them and Hindus since independence.

Some of the major ones have been in Ahmedabad in 1969, Bhagalpur in 1989, Mumbai in 1992–3, and the infamous Gujarat pogroms of 2002. Barring the few social activists who made a noise, it was left to Muslims to bandage their own wounds and rebuild their burned houses.

There was very little justice and no closure. And, as with the massacre of Sikhs in 1984, there has been that underlying murmur that justifies the killings and arson.

In 2008, Christians in Kandhamal in Orissa and Mangalore in Karnataka suffered violence at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups. In the aftermath they, too, were left to fend for themselves in terms of relief, rehabilitation, and the long and expensive struggle for justice.

An effort to mobilize national support for justice on the sixth anniversary of the violence has elicited almost no response. For the Dalits, the former Untouchables, this is something they have long understood: they will have to fight their own battles, expecting and demanding nothing from the upper and middle castes of the social hierarchy.

In recent years, cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore have seen major protests against the rape of women, but there has been no such mobilization when the victim has been a Dalit. It is for sociologists and social psychologists to explain such large-scale apathy. It will not do to blame just the lunatic fringe that is visible and voluble on social media, or the so-called cultural groups, which have been responsible for the rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

They have played a role, but they have fed on something deeper, and nurtured the religious and cultural divides that today polarize the national polity.

The impact on the minority communities has been the consolidation of a dangerous insularity. It is not that they actually want to live in ghettoes for a sense of security.

There seem to be other reasons. Perhaps it is fatalism.

Despite frequent attacks on house churches and pastors in rural and tribal areas, Christians are not as stressed as Muslims, who have developed a deep distrust of the police and criminal justice systems. But they are no different in their collective responses to the pain of others.

In a situation so emotionally and psychologically fragile, the communities have turned inwards, closing their eyes and ears to happenings in their neighborhood to other minorities.

The Church has not been seen as a defender of the human rights of Muslims. And it is only recently that it has aligned itself with the Dalits and tribals. The government’s recent use of its intelligence agencies to monitor church and other voluntary groups has for now effectively silenced even these protests.

One would think this insularity is the reason why the Church in India has been so quiet regarding the aggression shown by Israel to eliminate Hamas from Gaza, with its collateral damage in the deaths of civilian men, women and children. In fact, a large section of the Christian community has been openly supportive of Israel, upholding it as the Chosen People of God.

The Muslim community organized protests in support of the people of Gaza, but the average Indian has followed the government’s lead of supporting Israel’s “right of self defence”. Christians have not organized a single demonstration, or even issued a statement from the leadership.

A section of concerned Christian intellectuals have expressed anxiety at the community’s insularity, and the perceived failure of the Church to come out of its shell and speak out against violence, and for human rights and justice, especially in the Middle East.

It will not do for the community to wake up only when some of its own people are affected. Compassion cannot be sectarian, and concern for human rights and justice has to transcend self interest.

(John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council. )