Gauri Lankesh was shot to death on September 5, 2017. A consistent critic of Hindutva politics and right-wing Hindu extremism, the journalist-activist edited Gauri Lankesh Patrike her own weekly. She was not the first.
In August 2015, Malleshappo M. Kalburgi, a noted scholar who was opposed to superstition in Hinduism, was assassinated. Both Lankesh and Kalburgi were staunch proponents of the theory that their Lingayat religion was distinct from Hinduism.
Also in 2015, in February, it was Govind Pansare, a left-wing politician who also opposed religious superstitions (like, for example, the ritual to ensure a male child), and also lobbied vocally for the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Act. Then there was rationalist Narendra Achyut Dabholkar, who made debunking religious superstition and mysticism his life’s work. In August 2013, he was shot and killed as he took his morning walk. Following his death, the Anti-superstition act he had worked so hard without success to get through the Maharashtra state government was finally enacted.
The killings of three rationalists, i.e. atheists, and a strong dissenter have cast a pall. Voices are being stilled. There is much more as evidenced by the complicity of authorities in instances of mass killing, their mono-cultural narrow vision in a multicultural and multi-religious society, and insurgencies in many parts of the country.
Celebrating 70 years of independence last August 15, India has much to be proud of including strong economic growth. Yet in this new century India’s steps are clearly faltering given its darker side, and, while it tries to assume a role on the world stage, the state within is cause for some despair.
Last month on August 25th, following the rape conviction of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh — a former Sikh, styled the guru of bling for his flamboyant lifestyle — thousands of his Dera religious supporters ran amuck burning buildings, vehicles, railway stations and bringing life to a halt in the states of Haryana and Punjab, and even in parts of Delhi. More than 30 people died and a curfew was imposed.
Indeed gurus are popular: Mr. Modi has appointed a saffron-robed, Hindutva firebrand religious leader, Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. This was after local elections there in which communalism was an essential ingredient of his party’s victory.
Also on August 25th, activists across the country observed Kandhmal day in memory of the victims of an anti-Christian pogrom in 2008. Kandhmal is in the state of Orissa just southwest of Bengal and over a thousand miles east from Punjab.
A 2016 documentary directed by K. P. Sasi vividly illustrates this notorious incident. Titled Voices from the Ruins: Kandhmal in Search of Justice, it relates the story simply and without resort to emotion. The effect is devastating as the horror of pitiless violence unfolds. In this orgy of arson and bloodshed, the victims were Adivasi and Dalit Christians — converts continue to be remembered as Dalits in their communities. Dalits are the lowest caste of Hindus formerly known as untouchables. The Hindutva perpetrators destroyed over 350 churches and 6500 dwellings. Eight years later fear and intimidation still rule, and the more than 56,000 people who were displaced have not returned. Churches and homes remain the ruins they were after the pogrom.
Devastating as it was, it is an event not as well known as the 2002 Gujarat riots directed against another minority group, the Muslims, in which at least 1000 were killed. Gujarat is a 1000 miles south of Punjab. The geography of the three incidents is an indicator of how communal hatred has infected people across the nation.
Rana Ayyub, (author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up and a friend of Gauri Lankesh) is the journalist who, at tremendous personal risk, exposed administrative and police complicity through a sting operation sponsored by Tehelka magazine. She has just been honored in Vancouver with a Courage in Journalism Award. On her heels, the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) has secured the convictions of 119 individuals including a minister (Indira Jaising, Outlook magazine, March 2015). The founders of CJP are paying for their success: Several cases have been filed against them, including criminal charges for such transgressions as accepting about $290,000 over a ten year period from the Ford Foundation. Some use these cases to question their veracity; others say they are being subjected to a campaign of harassment in the courts.
The last twenty-five years have seen the delicate fabric of communal amity rent repeatedly for political gain by upper caste Hindu nationalist parties. For instance, Prime Minister Modi’s new laws against cattle slaughter not only affect a $10 billion industry employing mostly Dalits and Muslims, but added to the incendiary rhetoric his ruling party have fostered a climate of hate leading to tragic events. Attacks against Muslims and Dalits have intensified.
On June 22, 2017, three days before the Muslim holiday of Eid, four boys were returning home to Mathura on the train from Delhi following a shopping trip. Recognized as Muslims, they were taunted as beef eaters and then set upon. In a moving train with other travelers looking on, they were beaten severely and 16-year old Junaid Khan stabbed fatally. One should note that much of southern India eats beef as does the northeast, and of course Christians, Muslims and Sikhs. Kerala’s legislature protested the Modi slaughter restrictions by having a beef breakfast.
Gau rakshak or cow protectors, whose vigilante bands now number over 200 in Gujarat alone, are terrorizing innocents. Their attacks on meat-eating Dalits, who skin carcasses for sale to the leather tanneries, and on Muslims have led to several deaths hitting the headlines lately.
Thus on April 1st this year, a dairy farmer from Haryana was transporting cows purchased legitimately at a cattle fair in Rajasthan back to his home, when he was set upon by gau rakshaks. Beaten mercilessly, Pehlu Khan died from his injuries two days later. The police have done nothing so far to apprehend the suspects despite the man’s family traveling to the capital, New Delhi, and holding a vigil demanding justice.
Last year on September 13, 2016, two men again legally transporting a cow and a calf were attacked by a cow-protector gang and also severely beaten. One of the men, Mohammad Ayub, died from his injuries shortly thereafter at a hospital in Ahmedabad. The police first registered a case of attempted murder naming the vigilantes as Janak Ramesh Mistry, Ajay Sajar Rabari and Bharat Nag Rabari. But as Pratik Sinha, a human rights activist, reported in a Facebook post after Ayub’s death, the police filed a second case underlining India’s present-day reality. This time, instead of naming the assailants, they wrote down ‘unknown’. The license plates of the cars involved in the attacks are also known. Dalits and Muslims can expect little in the way of justice. Except for a belated word, Mr. Modi has remained notoriously silent on the issue.
Overall figures for minority communal violence according to official statistics are averaging 700 per year, leading to thousands of deaths. In such an environment of hate, it is not surprising some were celebrating Pakistan’s recent victory over India in the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy finals by a record margin. For this 15 celebrants were arrested in Madhya Pradesh and charged with sedition. When this farce could not be sustained, they were charged with disturbing ‘communal harmony’.
Legislators in the U.S. became concerned enough to send Indian Prime Minister Modi a letter. Dated February 25, 2017, it was signed by 26 congressmen and 8 senators and expressed grave concern over the ‘intolerance and violence’ against religious minorities. They specifically cited the killings of Hasmat Ali in Manipur, Mohammad Saif in Uttar Pradesh, and two Sikh men during demonstrations protesting the desecration of their holy book. Innocent Sikhs were also the target of revenge attacks after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh bodyguard. Almost 2000 were killed.
In the April 2015 issue of National Geographic, a magazine few would call political, an eye-popping map of India is displayed in its signature graphic style. A rusty, dried-blood light brown, mapped carefully adjacent to areas of government control, it reveals almost a quarter of the country where the Naxalite rebellion coupled with the Adivasi (another minority) struggle for land rights has taken hold. The area runs south from the Nepal border, to Kolkata (Calcutta), then along the Bay of Bengal almost to Chennai (Madras). Westwards, it approaches close to Varanasi (Benares) on the Ganges, then towards Nagpur in Central India and to Bangalore (India’s IT capital) in the south. Add the insurgencies in Assam, Manipur (minorities) and Kashmir (minority Muslim) which is bleeding again, and fully a third of the country is in strife. Figures vary but frequently quoted is 100,000 dead in Kashmir with no end in sight.
Post independence the promise of the first prime minister’s socialist secularism brought forth a focus on education and heavy-industry development. Flourishing first class technological institutes and rapid industrial growth was one result. Yet illiteracy proved stubborn, and the country mired by corruption and strife became bogged down in an inequality stasis with crushing poverty, where it still remains. Jawaharlal Nehru had fought for India’s independence, and as India’s first leader strongly emphasized a secular state. Wealthy and highest caste (Brahmin), educated at elite Harrow and Trinity College Cambridge before taking law and the bar exams through Inner Temple, he became a Fabian socialist. One wonders if he is turning over in his grave.