In the days ahead of Shab-e-Barat, a Muslim festival which is celebrated like Diwali and includes an all-night celebration, the lieutenant-governor of Delhi every year issues newspaper advertisements to caution Muslim youth against racing their bikes on the streets. The argument is that this ‘sport’ puts the general population of the city at risk. Let’s consider the stern tone of such notices:
“Shab-e-Barat is due to be celebrated on ……. It is an occasion for worship and respect to the departed. In the past years there has been a growing menace of bikers misusing the occasion to create mayhem, law & order and irresponsible behaviour on the streets of Delhi.
The Lieutenant Governor issues an appeal to parents to control their wards as also to the young men to desist from any irresponsible behaviour. Irrespective of age, the police have been instructed to strictly control miscreants. Bikers are warned that any misbehavior will be dealt with a heavy hand and the sole responsibility and repercussions will rest with them.
The Lieutenant Governor issues an appeal to parents to control their wards as also to the young men to desist from any irresponsible behaviour. Irrespective of age, the police have been instructed to strictly control miscreants. Bikers are warned that any misbehavior will be dealt with a heavy hand and the sole responsibility and repercussions will rest with them.”
Undoubtedly, the tone of the notice makes clear the LG’s no-nonsense approach.
For instance, consider phrases like ‘growing menace’ of bikers and ‘irresponsible behaviour’. The LG treats the bikers as juveniles and urges their parents to ‘control’ them. The notice expresses the firm resolve of the administration to ‘strictly control miscreants’. Any ‘misbehaviour’, the administration emphasises, will be dealt with ‘a heavy hand’.
The notice puts the onus of maintaining peace on the trouble-prone youth and their parents.
Who would disagree with such government caution? It is, of course, a different matter that while reporting about the notice, the media also draws attention to the people’s favourable response to such caution. In fact, it’s also reported that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has decided to extend a supporting hand to the administration by setting up helplines to prevent harassment of ordinary people by Muslim revellers.
Knowing well that the youth seldom listen to their elders, I scanned newspapers published the morning of Shab-e-Barat to find how many incidents of harm to the common people by the Muslim youth had been reported. Was there a rise in the number of such incidents? The answer was negative.
Yet, the advertisement keeps returning on every Shab-e-Barat, reinforcing the image of Muslim youth as troublemakers, prone to be unruly when they gather. They are portrayed as prone to irresponsible actions even on pious occasions – when they should be praying.
In sharp contrast, we read reports of unruly protesters disrupting the Friday namaz at certain places in Gurgaon four months ago. The police and administration started negotiations with the protesters who were shepherded by affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Rather than urge the elders to rein the youth in, the Haryana chief minister, his minsters and officials advised the Muslim worshippers to not use public spaces. They asked the community to perform their religious rituals in private spaces.
The administration, driven by “goodwill,” made many open plots out of bounds for Muslim worshippers, boxing them into select sites. Muslims had to perform namaz under strict police vigilance and under the threat of so-called nationalist organisations. But even while praying, Muslims were made to look suspicious. The were projected as part of a law and order problem.
The general public discussion and state response to a religious act of Muslims was rationalised. It was argued that the Muslims were using common spaces in violation of the secular principle of keeping such space free from religiosity. Public order was also invoked to justify the administration’s decision.
Against the contemporary background of suspicion, gatherings of Muslims are often perceived as providing cover for “miscreants”, even “terrorists” and “infiltrators”. Hence the need for the state to exercise strict vigil over the community.
Such incidents came to my mind when I came across the news of the administration serving notices to the villagers of Khelum in Uttar Pradesh on the occasion of the Kanwar Yatra. This is the village that faced violence in the month of Shravan last year. Stone-pelting and arson were reported. This year, as a “precautionary” measure, the police served ‘red cards’ to the villagers, asking them to give a ‘symbolic bond’ of Rs 5 lakh, which was to be recovered from them in case of any violence during the Kanwar Yatra.
The notice read, “We have secret information that during the Kanwar Yatra you might create trouble…with this red card we are informing you that if you create any trouble during the Kanwar Yatra, action will be taken against you. You will be held accountable.”
This notice would baffle only those who are unaware of political machinations. We know from past experience that it is the Kanwariyas who indulge in violence along the routes that they travel. And ordinary citizens, irrespective of religious identity, suffer at their hands. The most recent corroboration of such apprehensions coming from last week’s incident where a car was smashed by Kanwariyas in the heart of Delhi and in full public view. The video capturing the violence shows two policemen nonchalantly strolling nearby as the vandals go about wrecking the car.
Arrests have since been made, but the first reaction from the police suggested that the Kanwariyas were responding to provocation from the occupants of the car. Even when reporting the arrest, the police felt compelled to say that the car brushed past the Kanwariyas, spilling the sacred water, almost implying that the incident could have angered the Kanwariyas.
I come from Deoghar in Bihar, a favourite destination for the devotees of Shiva. Even the Pandas, who are supposed to help the Kanwariyas perform the rituals, have not been spared. Beating up Pandas, looting and indulging in violent acts have become a usual feature during the month of Shravan.
The Indian Express reported a police van being attacked in Bulandshahar recently. The SHO claimed Kanwariyas were involved in the attack, a claim promptly denied by senior police officers.
In the meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh administration is busy showering flowers on the Kanwariyas.
From the sociological perspective, we know that increasingly, youth from Dalit and OBC communities are joining the yatra. Several reasons – deprivation, economic and psychological – could be behind their participation. It could be that such show of strength makes the Kanwariyas feel empowered. But it may also be argued that the yatra, over the years, has become one more vehicle of propagating majoritarian politics in the guise of nationalism.
Four years ago, the tricolour made its appearance in the yatra. The number of Kanwariyas carrying the national flag has shot up in recent years. This year the tricolour can be seen in the hands of nearly every Kanwariya in the street. It may well be asked – is the national flag used to convey that alongside Shiva, the Kanwariyas are also devotees of Bharat Mata?
The criminal behaviour of Kanwariyas, violating traffic rules, three or four people riding a bike without wearing the mandatory helmet, openly moving around with hockey sticks and lathis, are all too evident. What are we going to see next? Swords and trishuls? After all, the trishul is the symbol of Shiva.
The mingling of the national flag with the saffron flag is a dangerous cocktail of politics. A new potion of nationalism is being brewed. If we continue to ignore such criminalisation of nationalism on Hindu religious occasions, we can only do so at our own peril.
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.