Something which was bound to happen has happened. At the time of writing this piece, 42 people have lost their lives. The fear and hatred, long circulated as jokes and memes in the ‘private’ space of group messages, has transformed into acts of public violence. The barrage of believable fake information has led to a breach in trust along religious lines. The shrills of newsroom anchors have resulted in the cries of victims and their families. What ‘we’ relished as ‘debates’ on TV screens in our living rooms has manifested itself in slogans of frenzy, hatred, and intimidation on the streets. What we often believed to be the work of ‘outsiders’ – wielding stick and guns – is identifiably committed by someone from within the networks of friends, families, and acquaintances.
New norms of new India
The politics as understood as a remote arena of power-play among higher echelons and actors has folded and collapsed into the everyday social life of shared workplace, neighbourhoods, and zones of erstwhile resoluble differences. In comparison to 20-30 years ago, when ‘aspirational India’ gave rise to a sizeable section of ‘apolitical’ youth, the new India of masked voters has inscribed politics over its soul and body. The hyper-voluble nation has found an image-loving leader who prefers to selectively speak but not to listen. The image-loving leader in turn has created millions of invisible faces wearing his mask. To appear similar, to sound akin, to think alike – this is the new norm of new India.
Two things are pretty clear in terms of how messages and their users have changed. One particular chant – Jai Shri Ram – has undergone a tectonic transformation. From being a simple phrase of greeting that it used to be – Jai Siya Ram – it has become a deadly weapon of fear to scare off the ‘other’. The change in message and its meaning characterizes the change in social relationships.
The second change is in the notion of the collective. The territory – the space of the nation state – has become the article of faith. This is nothing new – nationalism has always required allegiance to territory. What appears to be new is the wilful branding of political opponents as territorial enemies. One ideology – Hindutva – has engulfed the space of both emotion and territory, through religion and politics, to monopolise the claims over nationalism. Invoking Pakistan, another state-territory, for branding political dissidents and opponents in India is a prime example of how this equation of a political critic with a territorial enemy has been achieved in contemporary political speeches and debates. Sambit Patra is a gold medallist of this one-player match. The BJP is the umpire who has written the rules of this game. And the godi media is the referee which plays this illusionary game of giving space to every view every night in their studios.
Riots and mob
Riots symbolise the active and sinister use of past divisions. They consolidate differences in the collective memory of communities for the future. And they also open up spaces for reconciliation in the present. Some reports have pointed out how the bhaichara of communities forged across religions came to rescue individuals and groups in a neighbourhood.
However, the language of ‘riot’ creates a specific kind of a collective out of the people. It is called ‘mob’. Various insightful opinions on the recent Delhi riot have used this word. Some have used the word ‘thugs’. The victims and survivors have also used this word to both identify and distance themselves from those who came into their neighbourhoods – which was a mob. The mob perpetrates the violence; the riot leaves us with dead bodies and grieving survivors.
The mob becomes a pre-given collective which works either at instigation or at provocation. It does its work and then disappears. What remains behind is the material presence of mob violence – burnt houses and cars, injured bodies and destroyed shops and places of worship.
In new India, as long as we keep referring to this collective as mob, we will keep deceiving ourselves of acknowledging the change. The word mob is an illusion. It is a fiction of our ways to find some rationale in the madness of violence; it reflects our empathy to normalise the abnormal. It is the logic of the ‘riot’ that creates this illusion. Mob has not created the Delhi riots; riots in hindsight have fictitiously created the mob.
In the build-up to the recent events, two main categories were at play – the protesters against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the supporters of the CAA. It is another matter that the supporters were the protesters of the protesters. Otherwise their support to the Act, from the passing of which the government made it clear it won’t budge an inch, practically meant nothing. But the recent act of violence – riots – opened up a new semantic space in which protesters and supporters have disappeared. We are now left with the mob and its instigators.
Riots, in a post-facto way, then allow to individualise the blame for violence and its origin because the mob, being ephemeral, has dissipated. The law by necessity is required to identify individuals. Violence and suffering happen collectively, its retribution individually. But under the current government, the impartiality of law itself is under compromise. While Sharjeel Islam was promptly arrested, Komal Sharma has receded into the horizon of selective national amnesia.
This smokescreen of competitive mob – people from both sides killed and got killed – and individually identifiable culprit – because mob worked on the instigation of an individual – puts a thin layer of sinister normalcy on what is evidently a structural imbalance.
In the last six years, politics has been reduced to a perpetual machinery of aggressive and unethical electioneering. Governance has been replaced by catchy abbreviated sloganeering. Supporters have been turned into troll-believers and dissenters into anti-nationals. The result of this is that there is no mob left to be carved out of the people. Majoritarianism has already turned the populace into an ever-ready mob – to collect and lynch. The middle-class are the fence-sitters of this mob, the young subalterns are its ground warriors.
Social faultlines and their limitations
Howsoever society looks divided and fractious between ‘us’ and ‘they’, between Hindus and Muslims, and howsoever gloatingly the leaders profess to teach ‘lessons’ based on hatred and violence to each other, it is evident that both the perpetrator and the victim share the common space of ‘us’ and ‘we’. Mob is an intrinsic part of us. ‘They’ don’t come from nowhere; the politics of populism and majoritarianism has produced it and kept it ready. It is the deformity of the ‘we’ that we need to be scared of; in its erosion, the nation needs moral and political healing, which the current dispensation is unable and unwilling to provide.
For, the irony of the recent political messaging of hatred and divisiveness, stretching out from the streets to that of the Parliament, which calls for the fracturing of the ‘we’, often sneaks up through the cracks of civilizational codes of ‘assimilative differences’ through which communities have lived: the intellectual dud of a young BJP MP who raised the fear of the return of Mughal India if the majority community fails to remain vigilant simply needs to be posited against the gaiety with which the Indian state brought the head of the US to a monument built in Mughal times.
The romance of modern democracy unfurled, as it does quite often, in the manicured lawns of Mughal India. Hugs and handshakes are ritualised in the collonaded corridors of British Raj. History and historical periods are often tried to be crushed under the weight of implied uniformity – Hindu ‘golden’ age; Muslim ‘barbaric’ phase. Hindutva politics is the main medium of imposing such a uniformity. Alternative politics might then also be the only medium to resist it.
For what it seems, the year 2020 has earned a new signpost in the future history of India. Vikas and vishwaas might colour the pages of the newspapers and the tweets of official handles. They might also appear as the most prominent slogan-features of our lives, but the manufactured uniformity of these phrases might not erase the traces and smell of fumes and flames that gutted the lives and property in Delhi. The year – 2020 – might just have earned itself the honour of standing next to 1984 and 2002, though the scale of riot was comparatively smaller (in hindsight) but the potential of pogrom was dangerously similar (the lived experience of three days). And worst of all, this year might still unleash a new beginning of unbridgeable social and religious faultlines in the coming one. But that, only the future will tell.
Search for origins
As all histories normally ask, so will the future ask about 2020: what was the cause behind this, what led to this? The industry of whataboutery, particularly on social media, is trying hard to pin down the events of three days, which Delhi witnessed, to the moment of origin. Who was the instigator of all this? Where would the collective hunt of blame find its cul-de-sac? What was the original act of instigation? And where would the buck stop? These are valid questions also for a genuine search for verified information, for understanding what happened, and for emotional closure for those who lost friends and families. They will be more relevant to those who got injured in the event of three days only to live with scars for the rest of their lives.
Was it the law itself – the CAA – or its counter-mobilisation at the site of Shaheen Bagh, which has attained a metaphorical status of peaceful dissent? Was it the surprising result of the NRC in Assam, in which more Hindus were discovered as ‘illegal’ than Muslims – which surprised those who semantically have reduced a community to ‘termites’ and ‘infiltrators’? Was it the polarising campaign of Delhi elections built upon the realisation that protest and protesters can be identified through their dress and food? The indirect allegories of appearance and habits were meant to invoke direct hatred. The instigation provided by a minister to his listeners and followers to shoot the ‘traitors’ actually convinced a young man to pick up the gun.
However, now, when the dust on the active violence seems to have settled down (may be only for a moment) the logic of riot will acquire its full capacity to identify individuals. The inciting speeches of Anurag Thakur and Kapil Mishra will be pitched against the controversial calls of Waris Pathan and Sharjeel Islam.
It should be clear to everyone that this is hogwash aimed to shift the attention from the structural weight of political power to individual acts. This is why a statement made by an Anurag Thakur or a Kapil Mishra is qualitatively different than, howsoever problematic it may appear, of certain individuals from the ‘other’ side. The Thakurs and Mishras speak with a confidence of impunity. They threaten the police in front of the police. They abuse their power because the same power protects them. Any equalisation of statements made by the wielders of power with those of its critical dissenters is a ploy to shield the powerful.
The current government has perfected this art: it will raise the pitch of divisive religious mobilisation to such an extent that some individuals will end up saying provocative things in retaliation and then the trained shrill makers of the government would use such statements to claim victimhood on the part of the whole majority community (now equated with the territory of the nation state). The victimhood will be conveyed in different ways – from a direct appeal to shoot the ‘traitors’ to that of identifying them from their clothes. A section of us, which has turned into a mob through this process of escalation, would unleash the violence. The counter-violence will provide the fodder to play the game of equalisation on TV channels: who said what first.
The views and counterviews of people seeing those channels are already as polarised as the politics itself is. The choices of villainy follow the article of faith – the faith that is at once deeply political and divisive, which claims to practice nationalism through exclusion and suspicion. We are living in times when Hindus in India are by default nationalists and Muslims have to prove themselves to become nationalistic.
This distinction is premised upon a fundamental structural shift in which politics and political discourse has moved. There is a global resonance of this shift. We are witnessing the globalisation of populism. The nation state has made a return in this global phase, which ideally was meant to lead to the shrinkage of the world by breaking down barriers. This is the nation state of populism and majoritarianism. The boundary of the nation state within which homogenisation has to be attained has itself become the rallying point of global populism. Borders are being defined everywhere. At one place, such as in the US, it is happening through pushing the idea of a wall, at another as in India, by tying the idea of citizenship to the identity based on religion. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall had come down, the boundaries of European nation states were redrawn. The ‘refugee crisis’ and Brexit has brought back the idea of borders. There is a return to the same point in the circle. People had rejoiced at the fall of the wall. Today, people cherish the idea of making a wall. The current Modi government is making a divisive wall in Indian society.
Nitin Sinha is a senior research fellow at ZMO (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies), Berlin.