Does India face tyranny of the majority?

Bajrang Dal members during a bike rally in Jammu, India | Photo: Hindustan Times

Hindus and especially Muslims in India have to make efforts to acknowledge the luggage of the past few centuries which is a mix of good, bad and ugly. There is no glitter and glory in the immediate past nor in ancient India and in the same vein everything is not true of what is being perpetuated as the horrors of medieval India. The society at large has to decide its future course of action and being silent or reminiscing about the past glory is not a pleasant idea to have peace and harmony in the society, which is interwoven with both majority and minority communities.

Mushtaque Rahamat |

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All too will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression – Thomas Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address.

On August 10 this year, “Hindustan mein rehna hai to Jai Shri Ram Kahna hoga (To live in India you must chant Jai Shri Ram) slogans were raised in the heart of Indian capital New Delhi just a few hundred meters from the Indian Parliament. Ironically, this event was organised by the lawyer Ashwani Choubey of India’s Supreme Court who is a prominent face of the BJP’s Delhi unit. Being a lawyer, he was supposed to interpret the law, but he allowed others to take the law in their hands and an unruly crowd chanted “Jab mulle kate jayenge, Ram Ram chillayenge (They (Muslims) will chant Ram Ram when they will be killed.)” All this happened in the presence of police personnel. A few days later, a poor hapless Muslim rickshaw driver was beaten, paraded in public and forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram” for no fault of his.

Since 2014, the year Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed governments at the centre, incidents of lynching, killings of Muslims and Dalits have become a norm. ‘Jai Sri Ram’ has become a battle cry and also a tool to demonise Muslims. This slogan — which means “Praise Lord Ram,” a Hindu god — has long been known as a prayer. Now the slogan is used as an incitement to mob violence against India’s minorities. As of February 2019, Human Rights Watch reported at least 44 such murders between May 2015 and December 2018. The lynching victims are overwhelmingly Muslims followed by Dalits and most of the perpetrators are Hindus. Although the government is not directly involved, its Ministers on different occasions have encouraged the perpetrators by arranging legal remedies. One of the ministers welcomed and received one such group accused of violence against minorities after they got bail from the court. On another occasion, the dead body of a perpetrator, who died of health complications, was draped in the national flag – a signature reserved for highly respected individuals especially for soldiers who die in the line of duty. This is one of the ways society pays homage to its heroes.

In India’s federal structure, it is the states which are responsible for ‘law and order’ and it is the responsibility of the state to ensure justice. Most cases of lynching went unresolved, the culprits were let scot-free leaving victim families high and dry. Such callous attitude and sloppy investigation and prosecution on part of the executives and judiciary emboldened the perpetrators of lynching.

In India, the Hindu-Muslim relationship has been tumultuous since the partition. Indian Muslims were blamed for the partitioning of India by some sections of Indian society and politicians. There have been many instances of Hindu-Muslim violence with scores of lives lost of both communities and livelihood destroyed. Muslims, in general, have been at the receiving end since the issue of Babri Masjid came up in the wake of the Shah Bano case; a case pertaining to Muslin Personal Law. Muslims across India protested against the Supreme Court decision favouring alimony to the divorced Shah Bano. The Indian Parliament succumbed to these protests and enacted a law forcing the Supreme Court of India to retract its earlier decision. Coincidentally, around the same time, the administration of Ayodhya allowed Hindu prayer to be held in the hitherto locked Babri Masjid since the idol was placed inside the mosque on the night of 23 December 1949.

The RSS, BJP, VHP and its numerous cohorts took the issue of Babri Masjid-Ram Janam Bhoomi to the street and flamed sentiments of Hindus across India and the rest is history. India has seen some of the worst communal carnages, especially in Maharashtra in rioting instigated and abetted by then Shiv Sena chief Balasahab Thakre in the wake of the demolition of Babri Masjid at the hands of kar sevaks who had gathered from across India at the behest of VHP, Bajrang Dal and BJP. In 2002 in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Modi who was then the chief minister of the state and under whose watch around 2000 Muslims were butchered and innumerable remain homeless even today. It is said by keeping quiet he let the mob run amok the city of Godhra to avenge the killings of kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya who died in a fire incident inside a train compartment which was reportedly locked from outside and set on fire by a Muslim mob. To this date, this version remains doubtful. However, the administration allowed, against the provision of law, VHP members to carry the dead bodies of victims and let them parade in Godhara arousing anger and passion which led to violence against Muslims in Godhara.

None of the culprits of the demolition of Babri Masjid was punished as if no one had demolished the historical structure. Not even the leaders who actively or tacitly exhorted the kar sevaks gathered in Ayodhya at the now-demolished Babri Masjid where a grand Ram Temple is under construction after the unexpected judgement from the Supreme Court of India. A legal expert Faizan Mustafa termed part of this judgement as laughable. If the destruction of Bari Masjid was not the event that changed India forever and took away its secular shine and the country gravitated to Hindu Rashtra and majoritarianism, the later failure of investigative agencies and the judiciary to punish those who helped and abetted demolition surely did.

In the 2014 general election and later in 2019, the Hindu nationalist party BJP secured more than enough Parliamentary seats to form the governments at the centre and by March 2018 BJP formed the government on its own or with its allies in 21 states. The BJP, though, not elected on the Hinduism agenda, did not waste time in enacting and acting laws and ordinances inimical to Indian Muslims without much discussion in the Parliament, advancing the Hindutva agenda. BJP knew from the beginning it can’t win a majority of Parliament seats unless all Hindus are united as a single identity and vote as one block.

The actions of executives and some of the judgements of the judiciary were all but the manifestation of majority rule and an indication of how the government is going to treat minorities of the country. RSS and BJP didn’t want to leave anything to chance in the pursuit of consolidating the Hindu vote bank. Therefore, RSS and BJP chose a firebrand Hindu monk to lead the most populous Indian state of Uttar Pradesh which incidentally has a history of acrimonious relations between Hindu and Muslims. Yogi, as he called himself, led the firebrand Hindu Yuva Vahini which is known for anti-Muslim campaigns. Yogi Adityanath, as he is known popularly, has been accused of hate speech and had court cases pending against him which he got overthrown as soon as he came to power.

The triple talaq, a genuine and abhorrent practice among some sections of Muslims of India, was one of the pet projects of the Hindutva forces cleverly devised to drive a wedge between Muslim men and women. They claimed to champion the emancipation of Muslim women from the tyranny of their menfolk who, as per their narrative, divorce them at their whims and fancies by just saying “ talaq” three times. BJP along with its numerous cohorts aided by pliant media made a big issue of triple talaq. They were equally supported by the misadventure of the Muslim Personal Law Board who was representing Muslims in the Supreme Court, unreasonable and somewhat irresponsible defence of the not-so-common issue of triple talaq. The BJP government made sure to criminalize a civil act for one community only i.e. Muslims on the recommendation of the Supreme Court of India. Criminalizing this civil action needed deeper debate on the floor of the parliament. But the government didn’t have the welfare of the community in mind, instead, they wanted to demonize Muslim men. Consequently, India has two divorce laws – one for Muslims in which men pronouncing ‘talaq’ will be jailed and on the other hand men from other religions can still pursue divorce without inviting jail terms.

Similarly, the BJP government enacted CAA and NRC and the Home Minister made no bones about it when he tried to explain in an election rally its chronology and implication for the Indian Muslims. The people who protested against CAA and NRC were detained and booked under draconian UAPA law. Students, social activists and lawyers were put behind bars for months without bail. Uttar Pradesh promulgated ‘The Private Property Ordinance, 2020’ in a hurry, forgetting that there is already a procedure laid down to punish those in the state agitating against CAA and NRC, by attaching or confiscating their property to compensate for the damage done to public property during political protests and riots.

On August 5, 2019, the government of India unilaterally withdrew the special status given in the constitution to Jammu and Kashmir through articles 370 and 35 (A). Jammu and Kashmir with an overwhelming majority of Muslim population has, since 1947, been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan. Observers have noted that Modi’s decision to do away with Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy was to feed his Hindu vote bank. Besides BJP, many political parties in Parliament voted in its favour. It is important to note that the BJP would have passed its Bill even without the support of others owing to its absolute majority in the Parliament.

There have been numerous instances of legislation that target Muslims like the bogus ‘Love-Jihad’ law. A false and vicious campaign was built around the narrative that Muslims deliberately and by design marry Hindu women to convert them to Islam. Most of the BJP ruled states enacted laws apparently to combat inter-faith marriage. This is despite the fact that the constitution of India has guaranteed the fundamental right for its citizens to profess, practice and spread his/her faith without fear and intimidation. Many court judgements have upheld the rights of consenting individuals to choose their life partners irrespective of faith.

Another majoritarian project in India is to change the name of the towns and places from Muslim resemblance to new names, which according to RSS and BJP conform to ancient Indian civilization. Under this idea, Allahabad was changed to Prayagraj, a railway station with the name of Mughal Sarai (an obvious reference to Mughals, whom RSS and BJP loathe as foreigners) was changed to Deendayal Upadhyay, a thinker of right-wing Hindutva ideology espoused by RSS, and Faizabad was changed to Ayodhya. These all nomenclature exercises are aimed to erase the vestige of Muslim sounding names of places to appease the majority’s thirst for dominance. This is one more way to create “others”; a “US vs. They” narrative. The danger of majority tyranny doesn’t need to be unconstitutional and illegal as the changing of the name of cities, railway stations and of roads are perfectly legal. However, these actions by the majority subtly give a message to the minority of not being accepted, their history not being respected and that they are not a part of the country’s social fabric.

The cow vigilante in India has lately been notorious for checking Muslim houses for supposedly storing or consuming beef. In most parts of India, the trading, slaughtering and consumption of cow meat is illegal. Muslims are engaged in good numbers in the cattle trade both as traders and as meat sellers. Since the BJP came to power, cow-vigilante groups have mushroomed across North India, so have the cases of lynching. There have been cases of Muslims who were killed just on suspicion of carrying cow meat. Wherever these incidents happened, the government of the state either turned their eyes away or did little to prosecute the perpetrators of lynching. Bizarre as it may sound, in some cases the victims of lynching were slapped with court cases.

El Gaili, says in “Federalism and the tyranny of religious majorities”, from the perspective of democracy, the tyranny of the majority is undemocratic since it is a “systematic deprivation of both positive (participatory) and negative (protective) democratic rights by denying minorities the right to participate in governance and subjecting them to the whims of the majority”. This was exactly reflected in the state assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh when the BJP, the largest political party of India didn’t feel the need to field any Muslim candidate. Out of 403, the BJP has 306 members of the legislative assembly but there is not a single member from the Muslim population of the state. This goes to show that the BJP didn’t feel the need to represent 19% of the state’s population. The story is no different at the federal level, the BJP is the only party not to have a single Muslim Member of Parliament (MP). Incidentally, Muslims are 15.5% as of the last census of India’s 1.3 billion population. Currently, out of the 543 members in the lower house of India’s bicameral parliament, only 27 (less than 4 per cent) of its members are Muslims – a gain of four seats compared to the 2014 elections, which was the lowest in 40 years. According to one estimate, there are more than 100 Parliament seats that have a considerable presence and Muslims can win if they vote en-masse and strategically. Few of these seats are reserved either for Dalits or for women and therefore making these seats unavailable for Muslims.

Muslims, especially, for the last few decades have been booked in bogus terror-related cases and most of such cases are overthrown by the various courts across India but this relief normally comes not before they have spent, in some cases, more than 20 years in jails.

A 2018 study by a non-profit organization Common Cause and Lokniti, a research initiative by the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), found that a sense of being discriminated against by police in India is the strongest among Muslims.

The study said more than 47 per cent of Indian Muslims fear being falsely accused of terrorist activities.

Another report by Lokniti in 2019, titled ‘Status of Policing in India: Police Adequacy and Working Conditions,’ found that police in India display “significant bias against Muslims”, with half of the police personnel saying Muslims are “naturally prone towards committing crimes”.

As per JS Mill, who articulated the tyranny of the majority in his essay “On Liberty”, democracy is government by discussion. The present ruling dispensation is for all but discussion and debate in the parliament. Prime Minister Modi, though fond of lengthy speeches in the parliament rarely answers questions pertaining to the ministries held by him. Therefore this doesn’t come as surprise when according to one source, “in 14th Lok Sabha, 60% of Bills were referred to a parliamentary committee and the 15th Lok Sabha, 71% of them were referred. But, under the first Modi government, only 26% of the Bills were sent for scrutiny; and the current Lok Sabha has passed 14 bills without sending any of them to the parliamentary committees.”

Media has since long been regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy. However, in India, the media has tended to play into the hands of the ruling dispensation. Since 2014, more and more media houses and primetime TV channels have carried the majoritarian and communal agenda. Television has the uncanny ability to reach, influence and shape public opinion. Instead of asking questions and raising the concern of the general public, most television channels have opted to advance the agenda of the BJP by dumbing down the real issues pertaining to governance, health and economy. The journalists and social activists critical of governments’ handling of a pandemic have been arrested and put behind bars.

Social media has been a great equalizer and democratising enterprise by enabling free sharing and exchanges of news and views without the boundary of class, creed, haves, have-nots and geography. It is this very nature coupled with the algorithmic calculation behind the scene of the social media companies that make it a place of vitriolic and toxic-free speech leading to hate speech and violence. Social media has repeatedly been asked to regulate content shared on their platforms which they, usually, shrugged off, by claiming that they are a mere platform and not original creators of the content. Offering an analysis of social media content, Maya Mirchandani writes, “In India, these spaces provide both tacit and overt sanction for rising incidents of majoritarian violence as identity-based, populist politics dominate the country’s landscape.”

Her study further reveals “that religion and ‘religion-cultural practices related to food and dress, were the most explicit basis for hate as expressed in Indian social media: they accounted for a rise from 19 to 30 per cent of the incidents over the one-year timeframe of the study. Most of the comments incited bodily harm or violence against people belonging to India’s Muslim community who comprise about 180 million of the country’s 1.2-billion-strong population. Subjects that evoked hate speech ranged from opposition to interfaith marriage between Hindus and Muslims, positions on universal human rights, and the contentious issues of cow protection and beef consumption.”

“Proportional representation” could be one of the solutions to counter the tyranny of the majority as proposed by Ward Berenschot in his famous book ‘Riot Politics: Hindu Muslim Violence and the Indian State,’ in the context of communal riots in the state of Gujarat. As per him, it is the mediated state where the populace depends on politicians to gain access to the state resources. Resources being scarce and limited in supply, its distribution is not determined by the sense of justice or necessity but rather by the connection and the prospect of securing and consolidation of votes. Such considerations are, in most cases, determined by identity; in the case of Gujarat, it was religion and caste. Balloting is by its very nature creates vote block, with the competitive politics at play it is easy for the politicians to create ‘Us vs They’ narrative propagated by pliant media, perpetuated by foot soldiers; enabler of required vote and handyman in fomenting trouble if necessary to keep the cauldron of identity politics boiling.

Hindus and especially Muslims in India have to make efforts to acknowledge the luggage of the past few centuries which is a mix of good, bad and ugly. There is no glitter and glory in the immediate past nor in ancient India and in the same vein everything is not true of what is being perpetuated as the horrors of medieval India. The society at large has to decide its future course of action and being silent or reminiscing about the past glory is not a pleasant idea to have peace and harmony in the society, which is interwoven with both majority and minority communities.

As Maya Mirchandani puts it, “India needs to bell the proverbial cat, and accept the potential dangers of growing majoritarian violence in order to address it and preserve the country’s fundamental freedoms.”

Mushtaque Rahamat has a post-graduation in History (1991-1993) from Aligarh Muslim University, India. He is currently based in Australia. He tweets at @MushtaueR