It has been hard to write about the calculated murder of three Muslims by the Railway Protection Force (RPF) constable Chetan Singh, more so because we do not have a way to understand it in the India that was – the one that promised itself that it would be one created by “We, the people of India”.
For too many, especially in the wake of the violence against the Muslims of Nuh, and the perpetual stoking of violence and hate against Muslims over the last decade, it is a story of the fear of minorities in a state that will not keep them safe. This is a superficial reading, and one that mistakes the gravity of the crime.
Muslims have never felt safe in India, but then that is also true of most minorities anywhere in the country. Ask any Sikh family. The memories and stories of what happened to them or their loved ones during the violence of the 80s – not just the cataclysmic killings after the assassination of Indira Gandhi – are not that far away. Ask Dalit families who have seen their community members murdered, tortured, raped, or socially sanctioned, and how those crimes have been covered up or ritually ignored, and you will learn a new measure of shame. Talk to those we call ‘tribal’ people who have been, and still are being, written away from the land that they have inhabited from time immemorial, and you question exactly who are “We, the people of India”.
In 2005, I recall talking to a patriarch of a Kashmiri Hindu family in Mattan, in the district official maps label Anantnag and locals often refer to as Islamabad, who had just been elected in the J&K municipal elections. The state had bucked a trend, electing far more minorities than their actual percentage, a thing unheard of in India, or most first-past-the-post electoral democracies. His family were the four Hindu people in that municipality and yet he had won. He had been dismissive of the soldiers around the temple and the multiple abandoned houses in the neighbourhood. “It isn’t them that keep me safe, it is my neighbours, who elected me, that do,” he had said. I had wondered if his family made the same brave statement, but did not have the courage to ask.
The promise of safety for those in the numerical or political minority anywhere across India has been observed more in the breach than in the honouring of it. There has never been a guarantee of safety. We have lived with each other, loved each other, fought and reconciled with each other, kept our deep hurts and tried to keep going, despite all of that.
The murder of people simply for the sake of their identity, however grotesque, is sadly – grievously – nothing new in a country with tens of millions of “missing women” – girl children never allowed to live simply because of their sex.
What makes Chetan Singh’s murders stand out is his invocation of Narendra Modi and Adityanath afterward. This is the crux of the matter. And if we turn to the US to learn about bigotry and lynchings, we must turn to China to learn of murders in the name of a paramount leader.
In 1966, and for a decade later – until his death – Mao rode on the storms of the Cultural Revolution, one of the single greatest self-destructive acts a country has committed in modern history. Feeling his control slip over the Communist Party of China, Mao turned to young men and women of the nation, suggesting that parts of the remaining ‘counter-revolutionary bourgeoise elite’ were still in positions of power. Bands of young Chinese were allowed to form Red Guards, quoting Mao’s maxims from his Little Red Book, they were allowed free rein by the police, and could attack anybody. Schoolchildren accused, humiliated and attacked their teachers. Zhou Enlai had to warn members of the foreign service from stepping out for fear of being kidnapped or killed. In certain Chinese embassies around the world, the lower-ranking officers overthrew ambassadors and punished them for not being revolutionary enough. Tibetan monks were forced to destroy their own monasteries. Anything and everything was allowed in attacking the Four Olds – old customs, culture, ideas, and habits, all in the name of Mao.
Nobody has an exact measure of how many died in the massacres of this time, though estimates range from hundreds of thousands to millions. The cultural toll was extreme, so much so that one of the reasons that a character loses hope for humans in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem – the most famous science fiction novel written by a Chinese person – is the Cultural Revolution.
All of this was acceptable to Mao. He was the Supreme Leader. He was building a New China. He was above any constitution or law, and his followers – the Red Guards – were thus empowered.
The Cultural Revolution was one of the greatest tragedies the world has faced, and it is hard to face its horrors even by association, but what Chetan Singh did was what Mao’s Red Guards would have done, repeatedly, because they thought they were empowered by their supreme leader.
The key difference, though, is that the Chinese state in 1966 was largely a state created by Mao himself. Chinese society, too, was deeply in his control. Whatever the Great Leader did was surely correct, most Chinese thought.
The Indian state has never been a creation of one man. If it bears deep imprints, it does so of people like Ambedkar who shaped its constitution, and Nehru who put much of that constitution into practice, as well as millions of Indians who have tried to live up to it, despite the failure of the state to often live up to its promises.
The real question is how much of that India remains, and whether it can withstand the New India and its murderous obsession to destroy all that preceded it.
Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.