The Hindu right is using the language of democracy to undermine democracy
For decades now, America’s Christian right has run a campaign against such generally accepted scientific understandings as evolutionary theory and the Big Bang. What is interesting to note is the language in which such opposition is mounted. The irony is that the religionists find they need the vocabulary science provides to make their garbled conjecture somewhat plausible, at least semi-coherent. This is why you have such ex post facto theorising as intelligent design.
In much the same way, and this has become clear in the wake of the lynching and murder of Mohammad Akhlaq, Hindu fundamentalists in India utilise a language alien to their own principles to spread their brand of malice and violence — they use the language of democracy. Those who support Hindu fundamentalism mangle the most cherished norms of democratic society — liberty, equality before law, justice — to give even such a horrifying misdeed a democratic veneer.
Even an ideology like Hindu fundamentalism, premised on the inherent superiority of one religion over others, fits within the democratic spectrum. When such supremacism manifests in a relatively benign manner — say in the championing of certain histories — its votaries have no qualms about publicly embracing the ideology. It is when the ideology spawns the kind of violence we saw in Dadri that its supporters resort to democratic doublespeak.
The aftermath on social media has been enlightening. There were many who openly celebrated the lynching. Let’s call them the loonies. A more interesting reaction among rightwing Twitter accounts was to enlist the extent of cattle-slaughter in India, as if to say, look how much freedom we already give you Muslims, and look how much we have given up. This is a deeply democratic concern. The claim that Muslims control the entire trade is erroneous, of course. But the visceral reaction on social media indicated the anxiety that Hindu fundamentalism has with what are seen as minority freedoms. Note the sequence: A horrific crime is committed, any conscionable citizen cannot justify it, shift the goalposts so you are now discussing majoritarian largesse and minority freedom in India. The mistake many mainstream commentators made was to allow the fundamentalist right to shift the terms of the debate.
This crime had little to do with the cattle-slaughter trade.
The statement of Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma offers another example. He argued that “people should not play politics” and the incident “should not be given a communal twist”, reasoning that the mob did not exterminate all the other Muslims they could possibly have got their hands on. Ignore that a group of Hindus was incited about a decidedly religious matter by an announcement at a temple. Because all Muslims in the vicinity were not murdered in their homes, this is not a communal conflagration in the manner of the largescale riot we’ve come to recognise. It is vital for Sharma to engage in this linguistic subterfuge, to be in fact the one “playing politics”. He is telling us one story, yes, but he is also telling a story to aggrieved Hindu youth. To be communal, in the Indian understanding, is to move beyond acceptable norms. By soothing the mob about its motivation, he is expanding the range of democratic action.
Then there are the straight untruths propagated by the BJP’s UP MLA Sangeet Som. Forget the threats, the police is looking into those. Look at how he rouses emotion. In a whiny diatribe, he argues that the culpable mob was the true victim — of a government electorally beholden to Muslims, of democracy.
This is an age-old Hindu fundamentalist tactic. He argued that Hindu women in the village were now being harassed by Muslims and the police, the agents of this Muslim state government. That Muslims would be compensated by the government while affected Hindus would not. These claims are easily debunked, but that is not the point. What is notable is that Som is making a very democratic plea. Where is the equality we were promised? Why is this Muslim family being treated well by the government when you are not?
Far away from Bisara and Dadri, the statements of these politicians will sound immediately hollow to many ears. But they play a particularly useful role when it comes to winning elections.
The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Words drained of meaning’)
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