Do you really care if someone who is not a Hindu eats mutton biryani during the Navratras? Does it make a great deal of difference to you if products are labelled ‘halal’? Or if a schoolgirl wears a headscarf?
I am guessing that the answer is, ‘no, not really’. Nobody is forcing you to eat the mutton biryani or watch other people eat it. You don’t even understand what the halal certification actually means. And it makes no real difference to your life if a girl wears a headscarf while going to school any more than it does when a young Sikh student wears a turban.
And yet, what fascinates me is how much these issues – and others like them – seem to dominate the discourse in India these days. The pattern is usually the same. Some joker who you have never heard of (a minor political figure, usually) makes an outrageous remark about how offensive it is that a meat shop should be open during a Hindu festival/how headscarves challenge the concept of a school uniform/how our national identity is being threatened by halal certification, etc.
At first, you pay no attention thinking it is just some nut trying to earn a few inches of column space for himself. Then, these demands are repeated and amplified on social media. A full-fledged, if entirely orchestrated, debate develops on Twitter and Facebook. It begins with sock puppets and control room bots but eventually, it breaks out to include the general public. Positions are taken, battlelines are drawn. News TV, the illegitimate child of Twitter, takes up the issue.
And then, because these seem like pressing social concerns, serious politicians enter the fray. Headscarves are prohibited in schools. Meat shops are forced to close. The whole halal issue is to be officially examined. And so on.
In the beginning, when all of this started, I used to wonder why we were being so stupid and losing ourselves in debates about non-issues. Surely, we had more important things to worry about? I may or may not think that a headscarf should not be allowed as part of a social uniform. But it is hardly the sort of thing that obsesses me. Likewise with halal. I know the difference (in broad terms) between various ways of slaughtering animals but my first reaction, each time I bite into a seekh kabab is not, “is the meat jhatka or halal?”
Dimwit that I am, it has only been over the last couple of years that I have worked out that these debates and controversies are entirely orchestrated. Politicians want us to argue about these issues. They want us to regard them as more important than say the rate of inflation, or the daily hikes in the price of petrol and diesel.
The message is for Hindus, not Muslims
When I finally worked it out, I believed that the motivation was to slap down the Muslim minority. Make Muslims feel that their practices are an anathema to Hindu society and that we will either not tolerate them at all or tolerate them on sufferance.
The message was: This is not their country any longer. They would be allowed to do certain things. But only with the permission of the Hindu majority. Because India has now become a Hindu Rashtra.
I am sure there is something to this view. But the more I think about it, the more unsatisfactory it seems. Muslims know that their position as equal citizens in a secular country is now under attack. Except for the odd, morally empty, politically ambitious person, most Muslims do not want to have much to do with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), let alone vote for it. So, who gains from the repeated targeting of Muslims and their practices?
It is only recently that I have come to the conclusion that the targets of those controversies and debates are not Muslims at all, but Hindus. As I have often said, this avatar of the BJP has succeeded because it has weaponised Hinduism as a vote-winner. It is not difficult to make minorities vote only on the basis of identity. But it is much harder to do that with Hindus who constitute 80 per cent of the population and are richer and better educated than Muslims. How do you convince them that they need to vote as Hindus first and treat all other concerns as secondary?
The short answer is, you keep the communal temperature high. You fill the environment with religious controversies. You turn everything into a Hindu-Muslim issue.
Hindu victimhood to triumph
In the beginning, the narrative was about Hindu victimhood. Right from the time L.K. Advani clambered onto the Toyota rath with out-of-work actors dressed up as characters from the Ramayana and told Hindus that they were a minority in their own country, the idea of the Hindu as a second-class citizen has been an important part of the BJP platform.
That narrative still survives, but frankly, in the age of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath, it is now wearing a bit thin. Which Hindu can believe he or she is being discriminated against in today’s India? So, it is gradually being replaced with a new narrative. The old ‘secular’ governments, it is suggested, gave Muslims enormous privileges. Now that Hindus are firmly in charge, it is time to re-examine and then withdraw those privileges. Why should Muslims be allowed to send their daughters to school wearing headscarves? Don’t they realise that they are living in Hindu India, not Saudi Arabia?
Or: Why should an overwhelmingly Hindu country have to tolerate such Islamic practices as halal? Or: Do those fellows think they can eat their biryanis when we are observing a religious period of vegetarianism? Not at all. This is a Hindu country. Our feelings and practices must be respected. Or even those last resorts of unimaginative politicians: Why should Muslims have the right to blare the call to namaz on loudspeakers? Don’t they know it disturbs us Hindus? This is not Pakistan. Or: How can Muslims cause traffic jams by gathering in the open for Friday prayers? Is this an Islamic country? How can they be allowed to inconvenience us in this way?
Slowly but surely, the narrative is moving away from Hindu victimhood to Hindu triumphalism. The message is: We have reclaimed our country now and all the privileges that were granted to you Muslims by so-called secular politicians who wanted your vote bank, will go, one by one.
Keeping hate on a simmer
Not all Hindus buy this. Hinduism is, by nature, a tolerant and peaceful religion. So, it is not easy to turn Hindus against Muslims in the absence of any real provocation. But even if that does not happen, and Hindus do not turn against children in headscarves or halal certification, the people who raise these issues would have still won.
The very fact that we are discussing them, that every two weeks or so, a new Hindu-Muslim controversy is being raised, means that the discourse is dominated by communal issues. Everything is about Hindu-Muslim controversies. The way the issues are framed, it is Muslims who offend – by halal, by hijab, by the call to namaz, etc. It is up to Hindus to decide whether to tolerate this or not.
So Hindu communalists take subjects that have been around for years (that there is no compulsion to be vegetarian during Navratri, that meat is often slaughtered using the halal method, etc.) and act as if these are new issues. Liberals then fall into the trap of having to defend Muslims on these subjects. In the process, the communalists set the agenda.
The danger with communalising the atmosphere is that it is all too easy for issues to spill out of the sphere of debate and onto the streets. Today’s controversy is often tomorrow’s riot. And the BJP does not want a situation where riots break out. One of its claims is that there have been fewer riots in India since this government took over.
So — and this is the masterly bit — the controversy is never allowed to overheat or boil over into rioting. Instead, the communal temperature is kept at a steady simmer. It is warm enough to dominate discourse and keep it focused on Hindu-Muslim issues. But rarely does it get so hot that Hindus feel that law and order are at risk.
It is a difficult balance and I don’t know if it can last forever. In Uttar Pradesh, the anti-beef campaign descended into murder and lynching to the extent that the BJP pulled back and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself spoke out against it. Since then, the campaigns have been more tightly controlled. And yet it is hard to see how they can remain non-violent forever.
But that is the India we now live in. Over seven decades after Independence and Partition, we ignore the challenges of the present to reopen the wounds of the past. Where India should triumph, it is sectarian politics that triumphs. And instead of going ahead, we go round and round in ever-decreasing circles.
Vir Sanghvi is an Indian print and television journalist, author, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal. — Courtesy The Print