The process of creating a Hindu mirror image of radical Islam is underway. India’s shrinking space for syncretism will struggle to resist its growth
This is a story I have narrated, but it bears repeating. Not 50 metres from the Hajee Sir Ismail Sait mosque in my east Bangalore neighbourhood of Richards Town is the Lusitania cold storage. You can buy pork chops, ox tongue, roast beef and a variety of other meat products. The homes behind Lusitania are overwhelmingly inhabited by Muslims, with a reasonable scattering of Hindus and Christians.
So it is all across Bangalore’s old cantonment areas. Pork shops are close to mosques, restaurants with beef on their menu are next to Hindu homes – and no one has ever cared. There are no religious riots, although religion is very much a public affair. The maximum anxiety appears to sprout at admission time, when parents of vastly different religions, classes and languages – among those spoken here, Kannada, Tamil, Dakhni, Telugu, Malayalam, English and Hindi – throng the area’s numerous schools seeking admission and aspiration (Reminder: The aspirations that Narendra Modi was elected to address). It is why I live here, fortunate that I can raise my five-year-old to understand and coexist with other traditions and practices.
Richards Town is not all harmony and light. Scratch the surface, and prejudice and regressive behaviour is evident. Many Muslim girls are forced behind veils, and some families only associate with others Muslims. A Christian neighbour once complained: Muslims are buying up all the flats. This was natural, I explained, since education had spread, incomes had risen and there could be no better development for a community commonly stereotyped with illiteracy and poverty. “Yes,” she grumbled, “But why next to us?”
Yet, coexistence is widespread and easy, especially during Diwali, Eid and Christmas. My first Diwali here was organised by a Muslim family. It was a nerve-wracking affair – not because it was an exclusively Muslim lane but because we burst fire crackers next to fuel-filled cars and scooters. Passing neighbours smiled tolerantly, and children streamed down to join in. During Eid, iftar on the teeming streets caters almost entirely to Hindus and Christians before 6 pm. Muslims join in only after prayers.
I am aware that my neighbourhood is an island in a state that, between 2010 and 2014, witnessed the most religious conflicts as a proportion of population, according to data tabled in Parliament. Run by the Congress, and before that the BJP, Karnataka is a good illustration of the ugly turn that Hindu society is beginning to take. A series of riots and hate crimes were reported this year, all sparked by either trivial or deliberate acts of insensitivity or hatred.
Last week, a bunch of goons in a downtown Bangalore restaurant menaced Mathew Gordon, an Australian tourist, for having a tatoo of the goddess Yellamma on his shin. In India’s new offence-taking culture – emboldened by a feeling of impunity, if you happen to be Hindu – a group of 25 men threatened to “skin” Gordon, the Deccan Chronicle reported. The police detained the 21-year-old and forced him to write a letter of apology. “This is India,” an officer said in justification. On his Facebook page, Gordon wrote that “it is apparently acceptable to be harrassed, threatened and mobbed”.
Indeed, it is, the perversion of a Hindu culture rapidly taking on the hues of radical Islam. Slights are imagined, conspiracies alleged, harm threatened and murder justified by quoting, or misquoting, ancient scripture. Those who commit or support these acts believe Hinduism is infallible. Uttar Pradesh, the state with the most religious conflict, is full of angry young Hindu men, mobilised through social media into dark organisations with beliefs that make the RSS appear like a congenial kitty party. Some assertions: Disenfranchise Muslims, rape or convert their women, hang beef-eaters. Even among more urbane hate-mongers, to the assertion that a secular democracy should not ban beef, the response I get is, would you dare eat pork in Dubai or Saudi Arabia (both Islamic kingdoms)? The reasonable answer: In Dubai you can, and India should never want to become a Hindu Arabia. But India has started down that road, and reason is a futile response.
As suppressed hatreds burst forth, the space for syncretism shrinks, and friends lose friends. It’s happened with me and almost everyone I know. “Muslims r (sic) getting what they deserve…serves them right,” said a response on the Facebook page of former colleague Pranav Dixit after the Dadri lynching. Taken aback at the bigotry displayed by such “friends”, he proceeded to “un-friend” a whole bunch.
One argument is that none of this – the killings, the beatings, the threats – is new. That is true. While the current BJP government provides an obvious refuge to Hindu hate-mongers, Congress rule, specifically the 1980s, saw the slow filling of the reservoir of hate: Egregious pandering to sectarian Muslim demands (disallowing maintenance to Muslim women in 1985; banning Salman Rushie’s Satanic Verses 1988, even before Ayotallah Khomeini’s Iran), the opportunistic use of Hindu discontent (unlocking the gates of the Babri Masjid, 1986) and presiding over a decade of particularly bloody riots (Nellie 1983; Delhi 1984; Meerut 1987).
What is new is that after Modi’s coming, the BJP’s fringe has rapidly gone mainstream, dangerously widening the cracks in the dam. If the home minister declares his government will use all its “might” to ban cow slaughter nationally, it is no surprise that a sectarian murder with no justification becomes, variously, a minor incident, a spontaneous act, an accident. With a Prime Minister who has, in the past, mocked minorities, silence or reluctant censure is not a surprising reaction.
The only sense came from Goa, where BJP chief minister Laxmikant Parsikar told the Indian Express last week that “people of a community” – he meant Christians – do not eat beef to hurt others’ sentiments. “It is part of their cuisine…and we also accept the fact.” Millions of Indians still accept facts like these. Allow hate to flood out fact, and there is only Hindrabia ahead.