Feature: ‘Hindutva ecosystem’ has a new anti-Muslim narrative,this time street vendors are the target

(The Wire)

In Delhi’s Uttam Nagar, Hindutva activists are resorting to strong-arm tactics while their leaders have begun advocating a boycott of Muslim businesses and vendors.

 

The activists are from various radical Hindutva groups but local leaders from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are involved in this communal campaign, as is at least one television news channel, the Noida-based Sudarshan TV. This, despite the information and broadcasting ministry having recently tightened its oversight mechanism for violations of the code of ethics for broadcast media.

On June 18, 2021, a Muslim fruit vendor was brutally beaten in Uttam Nagar, New Delhi by unidentified men who were shouting ‘Jai Sri Ram’. Two days later, on June 20, Hindutva activists blocked a busy road  in the area to protest against what they said was violence and encroachment by ‘jihadi’ fruit sellers. The activists raised anti-Muslim slogans and gathered with lathis to send a “strong message” to the mostly Muslim vendors that they were not welcome in the neighbourhood. Later, in the evening, activists and local shopkeepers recited the Hanuman Chalisa in the middle of the road in a display of ‘Hindu unity.’

Hindutva activists rallied with lathis arrive to protest against the ‘encroachment’ of fruit sellers in Uttar Nagar, New Delhi. Photo: Author provided.

According to locals, the immediate cause of the current tension is a scuffle which had taken place a week before in which a local shopkeeper was allegedly attacked by one or more fruit sellers. In a live video streamed from Uttam Nagar on June 20, unidentified men said on camera that they had driven out Muslim vendors from the area. A Hindutva activist said all street vendors were Muslim. He alleged that they cheat customers and were a “walking cancer”.

‘The terror of street vendor jihad in Delhi, Hanuman Chalisa will read’, the text on the thumbnail of a video posted by CyberSipahi YouTube channel on June 20, 2021, reads.

Disputes between street vendors and shopkeepers are a staple of urban India, with the absence of civic planning and livelihood opportunities fuelling tension. In Uttam Nagar, however, a review of social media posts and online comments from April 2021 indicates a deliberate and concerted effort has been made by right-wing activists to promote a communal angle to the dispute in the area.

A protest organised by Hindutva activists against the encroachment of fruit sellers in Uttar Nagar, New Delhi. Photo: author provided.

‘Communalising a civic menace’

Bordered by Janakpuri to the east and Najafgarh to the west, the Uttam Nagar area is a dense residential colony on the western edge of Delhi with a heavy presence of daily wagers.

The road between the Milap Nagar tiles market in Uttam Nagar and Dwarka Pass has suffered from acute traffic jams for the past two decades, partly because of encroachment by fruit sellers and e-rickshaws. The mushrooming of coaching centres in the area has compounded the problem, as students park their vehicles on the roads.  Dainik Jagran and the Times of India have reported on how the residents and shopkeepers of the area have complained several times about the lackadaisical attitude of the administration and police in clearing encroachments.

Instead of demanding action by the authorities or going to court to compel the municipality and police to act, however, local Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and various Hindutva organisations have taken the route of vigilantism. But apart from threatening to evict Muslim fruit sellers from the area by force, but the activists who descended on June 20 also called upon Hindus to stop doing business with Muslims.

Sudarshan News, a far-right TV channel often accused of broadcasting hatred against Muslims, reported the Uttam Nagar protest in an extremely inflammatory manner. Throughout the show, Sudarshan reporter Sagar Kumar and anchor Shubham Tripathi referred to Muslims as “jihadis” and used other derogatory terms.

Also read: Under Modi, Politics of Polarisation Takes over Development Narrative During Pandemic

“For the first time Hindus have come out so aggressively with lathis in Uttam Nagar against jihadis,” Shubham said.

“Today, Hanuman Chalisa will be recited at Uttam Nagar and calls to boycott jihadis will be made. Sudarshan News has been advocating the economic boycott of jihadis for a long time,” added Sagar Kumar.

Abhay Pratap, a columnist for Sudarshan News, wrote: “We have even received information that most of these Muslim vendors are Rohingyas who have committed violence in the past.”

Pulkit Sharma, the BJP’s Najafgarh district vice-president, said during the Uttam Nagar protest: “Customers who complain about their habit of cheating are threatened with knives. We will wait for some time but if we don’t get a solution then we will launch a chakka jam here…” In a video uploaded on his Facebook page that day, Sharma said that there was nothing communal about the protest. But he shared videos with provocative and communal sloganeering that belied his words.

Brutal beating

Two days before this show of strength,  a Muslim vendor named Rizwan was assaulted by unidentified Hindutva activists.

“It started because of a petty fight between a fruit vendor and shopkeeper. However, many anti-social elements got involved and communalised this matter. Later, one of our vendors named Rizwan was targeted by a mob armed with sticks and rods. He was grievously injured and admitted to Deen Dayal Upadhyay hospital. Instead of arresting the criminals, the police are harassing the street vendors now,” Ajay Singh, the leader of the fruit vendors in west Delhi told The Wire on Sunday.

“Around 9 PM on June 18 2021, I was pulling my fruit cart away from the market. An angry mob of 10 to 15 people attacked me. They said nothing but rained blows. I don’t know who they are,” Rizwan told The Wire. While Rizwan was reluctant to speak about the matter and wanted to move on, the FIR registered by the Bunda Pur police station in Delhi’s Dwarka on June 19 notes that he was accosted by a group of men shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’, asked to give his name and then brutally assaulted when he said it was ‘Rizwan’. They told him he should no longer bring his cart to the area.

Though Rizwan sustained serious injuries and the FIR describes an attack which is clearly communal in nature, Delhi Police did not invoke the relevant – and more serious – IPC sections (i.e. 153, 295 or 505) and instead limited the case to one of ordinary assault.

His claim is also supported by the fact that there have been multiple incendiary videos and social media posts by Hindutva activists targeting Muslim vendors for more than a year.

While the Hindutva activists are presenting this boycott as a reaction to the recent conflict in Uttam Nagar, The Wire found photographs of at least four fruit vendors with the banner of Sudarshan Vahini after Vinod Sharma’’s India Gate protest calling for the economic boycott of Muslims in March 2020.

We also found inflammatory videos promoting anti-Muslim violence on Hindutva social media networks in which all the Muslim fruit vendors in Delhi were declared as Rohingyas. Present with Vinod and Pulkit Sharma was another prominent protestor, who featured in many videos, Himashu Yadav, a prominent local BJP local leader in Najafgarh. “Some people will say that 90% of these people are Rohingyas. I believe that all of them are Rohingyas. They send juveniles and women forward to attack and murder people.” Yadav has posted photos of himself with Union home minister Amit Shah and BJP MP Parvesh Sahib Singh Verma on his Facebook page.

BJP leader from Najafgarh Himanshu Yadav with Union home minister Amit Shah (right) and BJP MP Parvesh Sahib Singh Verma (left). Photos: Facebook

On June 25, he also shared photos of paramilitary personnel in the area, claiming that the DCP has sent them on his request to protect “us from Jihadis (sic).” “If any Jihadis so much as look at our Hindu shopkeeper brothers, the consequences would be really bad,” he wrote.

After the violent protests in West Delhi, Suresh Chavhanke  broadcast a video on Sudarshan TV of a group of Hindutva activists forcing a Muslim street vendor in Yamunanagar to paint over the word ‘Gupta’ on the cart he uses to sell burgers. Chavhanke also tweeted the same inflammatory video. “Miyan was selling burgers using the name Gupta for 18 years,” he wrote, using a common slur for a Muslim. “People removed it. Wake up Wake up.”

After posters bearing the Bajrang Dal’s name and calling for an economic boycott of Muslims went viral on social media this weekend, the DCP Dwarka tweeted on Sunday that the local police have been directed to investigate the matter.

A systematic hate campaign

The communalisation of protests by local shopkeepers in Uttam Nagar is in line with a long-run Hindutva campaign that has gained some prominence since March 2020. Right after the anti-Muslim violence in Northeast Delhi in February 2020, Sudarshan News editor Suresh Chavhanke called for a protest at India Gate on March 4, 2020. This protest was preceded by a week of TV debates on the channel calling for an economic boycott of “rioters”. Chavhanke did not mention who these “rioters” were, but gave strong cues through the graphics and narration on his channel that he was referring to Muslims.

“If you want to stop them from slitting your throat, then you have to stop donating your money in their ‘green chadar’ now,” Chavhanke said on his channel, when he had organised the protests in the first week of March. He went on to describe the “rioters”: “They get even more money than our army. If these rioters get more money than the army, then what will they do? Even barbers have an economy of 11,000 crore! … If you make a list of the professions of the rioters, then there are many professionals like barbers, carpenters, puncture fixers, fruit vendors and most importantly, the meat businesses.”

On June 17, 2021, in an interview to a Hindutva YouTube channel called Satya Sanatan, BJP leader Kapil Mishra, while discussing an alternative to the “Halal economy”, said, “The Hindu ecosystem is working to ensure that our food is served by people who don’t spit in it.”

Last year, the BJP had distanced itself from statements like this and even reprimanded its leaders for targeting Muslims. But Mishra and his “Hindu ecosystem” continue to peddle the “thook (spit) jihad” bogey, a conspiracy theory that Muslim cooks and vendors spit in the food they make and sell in order to spread disease.

Hindutva activists marking the carts of Hindu vendors with saffron flags in 2020.

In the interview with the Satya Sanatan channel, Mishra went on to say that Hindu youths have been systematically removed from certain jobs. “Hindus are being robbed of economic opportunities in a planned and phased manner. It is very hard to find a Hindu barber to get a haircut these days. In new jobs, they [Muslims] dominate home delivery. We have to change that. To resolve this issue, the Hindu ecosystem will work towards training the members of the ecosystem.”

The thoughts of Mishra and Chavhanke on the subject of Muslim domination of certain informal job segments are echoed by Vinod Sharma of Sudarshan Vahini, another right-wing Hindu organisation. Sharma was one of the prominent activists at the protest in Uttam Nagar on June 20 and is an ardent proponent of the economic boycott of Muslim businesses. Last year, he had joined Mishra his pro-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests.

Sharma live-streamed the “redi jihad” protest on YouTube on June 20 and can also be spotted in several videos with Hindutva leader Ragini Tiwari and Sudarshan News’s Suresh Chavhanke. The Wire profiled Sudarshan Vahini and its involvement in violent protests in a series of investigative reports. Sharma had also joined Chavhanke’s protest at India Gate, calling for the economic boycott of Muslims.

“We want to support all Hindu brothers who want to get into the business of fruit-selling, hairdressing or tyre fixing. Everyone knows the problem, we are working on the solution. Suppose we tell you, don’t get a haircut from ‘them’ [Muslims] then we have to give options… if we want to remove ‘them’ from these businesses then we need to have our own men,” Sharma had said last March at the India Gate protest. His speech was recorded in a video that went viral.

Saraswati featured as a panelist in CyberSipahi’s YouTube live video from Uttam Nagar and listened carefully as another speaker suggested that Muslims in India have created a parallel economy worth $3.4 trillion.

The validity of this claim can be judged by the fact that  India’s GDP stood at $2.71 trillionin  2020-21.But Suresh Chavhanke as well as Hindutva organisations like Hindu Jagriti have made similar accusations in the past about Muslims conspiring to create a “parallel economy”. They describe this as the “economic jihad” route to the Islamisation of India.

Vinod Sharma with Kapil Mishra.

The goal of the Hindutva groups’  ‘redi jihad’ campaign is to cripple Muslims economically and drive them out of informal trade and social life in India. To achieve this goal, right-wing activists spread the fear that India’s Muslims are conspiring to take over Hindu livelihood and employment opportunities. However, the campaign is not limited only to the fringe elements of the Hindutva movement. It gained more currency after the media trial of the Tablighi Jamaat in 2020 when BJP MLAs and right-wing leaders obstructed the entry of Muslim hawkers in their neighbourhoods, sticking up boards outside villages that banned the entry of Muslims and marking the carts of Hindu vendors with saffron flags.

A boards reading ‘Muslims are banned in this village for the purpose of any business.’

In April 2020, the Hawkers Federation of India issued a statement on the discrimination against Muslim vendors during the lockdown. “They [the hawkers] are being profiled and surveilled, stopped and harassed, and heckled and beaten up by vigilante groups who are acting with complete impunity. These incidents seem to have been spurred by a maelstrom of disinformation and propaganda campaigns being run by motivated agents and spread amongst people through social media [platforms] like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and WhatsApp,” the statement said.

Hindutva activists marking the carts of Hindu vendors with saffron flags.

Effect of shrinking informal economy

Ghazala Jamil, assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and author of the 2017 book Accumulation by Segregation: Muslim Localities in Delhi, explained the politics and economics behind the militant Hindutva campaign targeting Muslim livelihoods.

Also read: ‘I’m Scared to Tell You I Saved a Muslim’: Hindu Man Who Rescued His Friend in Delhi Riots

“Labour market segments in the informal sector in India are organised largely around caste and kinship networks. This is why you will see only people of certain castes and regions working in certain occupations. Muslims are known to be segregated into certain sectors. For example, the term ‘puncture wala’ is used as a slur for Muslims because a lot of automobile mechanics are Muslims,” she told The Wire.

“Through complicated processes that include subtle discrimination, open hostility, targeted violence and caste-based notions of pollution and purity, Muslims tend to be segregated into segments that contain the worst jobs, marked by low wages, thin profit margins, low on dignity too, but high on hardships. They are able to take up space in these segments because these jobs are either not desired by others or are out of bounds for others. Street vending is one of these segments,” Jamil added.

She believes that the large-scale shrinkage in the informal economy due to the lengthy lockdown in 2020 to control the COVID-19 pandemic is catalysing these campaigns. The ever-present anti-Muslim prejudices are merely being refashioned as fear-mongering related to COVID-19 infections or economic attacks on Hindu livelihood, she said.

“They want to push Muslims out of more labour segments. The boycott might be successful in edging many Muslims out of the fruit- and vegetable-selling business on the streets, but only so far, as not many [Hindu] workers are willing to work in this segment,” Jamil explained.

One thing is certain: public places have become more hostile towards Muslims in the last few years; not only to those who are visibly Muslim, but even to Muslims who are working hard to somehow earn a livelihood. The Hindutva vigilante drive has made their lives even more precarious.

‘Road to genocide’

In the ten stages of genocide described by Gregory Stanton, founding president and chairman of the international NGO Genocide Watch, discrimination through boycotts occupies the third position.

In January 2021, addressing a “Hindu Panchayat” in Meerut, controversial anti-Muslim preacher Swami Anand Swaroop explained the rationale of these campaigns in clear words: “My argument is that if you [Muslims] want to remain associated with us, you should first stop reading the Quran and stop offering namaz.” Then he offered a solution to Hindus: “You decide that you will not buy anything from a Muslim. If you destroy them socially, politically and economically, they will begin converting to Hinduism from Islam.”

Security forces patrolling a market in Uttam Nagar. Photo: Facebook

In the past, majoritarian economic boycott campaigns against minorities eventually led to mass violence. Just like Chavhanke and his associates today, the Nazis manufactured and propagated conspiracy theories that claimed Jews had too much influence on the economy and then made it their mission to remove this ‘extreme Jewish influence’ from the economy. This “Judenboykott” (Jewish boycott), launched in 1933, was not particularly successful as ordinary Germans ignored the Nazi call, but five years later, in 1938, the Nazis took matters directly to hand in the Kristallnacht pogrom.

In India, boycott campaigns via inflammatory pamphlets distributed by right-wing groups led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were employed in Gujarat during the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002. More recently in Asia, Myanmar’s ultra conservative Buddhist nationalist Ashin Virathu’s 969 movement that boycotted Muslim businesses was one of the ingredients in the genocide of the Rohingya.

‘Violation of basic human rights’

After the ‘protest’ by Hindutva activists against the Muslim vendors in Uttam Nagar on June 20, 2021, The Wire spoke with Anas Tanvir, Supreme Court advocate and founder of the Indian Civil Liberties Union.

Tanvir said, “Protesting with lathis or any other weapon and openly advocating the boycott of a community is a criminal offence. It violates several sections of the Indian Penal Code and promotes enmity amongst Hindus and Muslims. Shockingly, it’s happening with no action from the police.”

“Enacting an unambiguous law on inter-community boycott is not only urgently required in India, it will also bring India in accordance with its legal obligations under the United Nations Convention on Genocide,” he wrote. Courtesy The Wire