Vinod Mubayi

A new phenomenon is now manifesting itself in jurisdictions under BJP rule. Hitherto, over the last 7 or 8 years since Modi became PM, one had witnessed the rise of private lynch mobs consisting of Hindutva goondas terrorizing minorities (mostly Muslims but, on occasion, Christians and Dalits too), beating them up and sometimes killing them on one flimsy pretext or another. The police would either look the other way or, if the perpetrators happened to be politically connected to the BJP or one of its sister organizations of the Sangh Parivar, they would arrest one or more of the victims, usually a hapless Muslim on some fraudulent charges. Literally hundreds if not thousands of such incidents have occurred in the last 8 years. The top BJP leadership notably Modi either stays silent or utters some meaningless platitudes when pressed by the media.

In the last few months, however, especially after the BJPs victory in the elections in UP last month, a new phenomenon has surfaced. The state itself through its various agencies such as the police and municipal authorities has begun to act like a lynch mob. What happened in the last few weeks in places like the town of Khargone in Madhya Pradesh state, the town of Khambat in Gujarat state or in the Jahangirpuri locality in Delhi shows a frightening pattern of the state acting in complete defiance, if not contempt, of the law. In all cases, local civic bodies with the help of the police and a nod from the politicians running the state government have demolished structures belonging to the Muslim minority, residential, business, and religious, on the allegation that stones had been thrown from there on a Hindu religious procession. The allegation of stone throwing as a pretext for demolishing building structures was further weaponized in all cases by asserting that the structures being demolished were “illegal” or “unauthorized.”

The events were so similar and occurred in such close succession that there is a prima facie case for suspecting that they were planned and coordinated at some level. When state agencies begin to act in such blatant arbitrary and communal fashion, it sends an unmistakable signal to the rest of society about what the boundaries of “acceptable” behavior are. We are now on the cusp of re-enacting in India the majoritarian violence wreaked on minorities in Nazi Germany. What steps can be taken to forestall and prevent this calamity need to be urgently considered by all concerned people, whether located in India, in the Indian diaspora or worldwide.

In Khargone, a Hindu religious festival of Ram Navami was being celebrated by a large procession of Hindus that allegedly was met by stone throwing in a Muslim area. The sequence of events and the basic facts of who did what and when remains to be investigated. But the local police filed an FIR, arrested a number of Muslims and the civil authorities in the town with a nod from the state chief minister sent bulldozers to demolish Muslim properties on the grounds that they were “unauthorized”. Senior Supreme Court and Bombay High Court Advocate Mihir Desai emphasized that the demolitions of the property of Muslims in Khargone violated fundamental principles of the Indian Constitution “one. presumption of innocence, two, rule of law; and three, separation of powers between the three wings of the government.” The government arrogated to itself the roles of judge, jury and executioner, in other words it functioned exactly as a lynch mob does.

In analyzing these events, Mihir Desai indicated that “To begin with, whether a stone was actually thrown from a house has to be proved for any legal action to be taken against the structure or its owner. In this case, only FIRs have been filed. Investigations have barely even begun. After that a charge sheet will be filed followed by a trial which may or may not lead to conviction. Even if a person is convicted of stone throwing, he will either be punished with fine or imprisonment. The [demolition of the] house [or other building] will not come into the picture even after the conviction.” Desai also asserted that “destruction of houses for stone throwing does not find any place under civil or criminal law. The only law which allows destruction of a house or structure in such situations is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which deals with terrorism. Even under this law, the power to destroy a structure is given only in limited situations such as a large number of dangerous arms being hoarded in a structure or militants firing from a structure and refusing to surrender.” Furthermore, the charge of unauthorized or illegal construction cannot be simply used to demolish a structure; a legal process has to be followed in which a notice is served on the owners who have to be given the chance to prove the legality of the structure. As Desai indicates “The argument that the houses in Khargone were destroyed because these were illegal structures is also suspect. Many of these structures were decades old. Right from the 1983 decision of the Supreme Court in Olga Tellis followed by similar decisions in the cases of Chameli Singh and Nawab Khan it has been laid down that the owners of illegal structures require to be given adequate notices before any action is taken. No such notice seemed to have been given in Khargone.”

What happened in Khargone was repeated almost identically in Khambhat town of Anand district of Gujarat state. A Hindu religious procession on the same occasion of Ram Navami was allegedly subjected to stone throwing in a part of the town that was Muslim majority area. Again, the local administration and police followed the script of arresting Muslims and sending bulldozers to demolish their properties on the grounds that they were “encroachments.” The processes of law were ignored as they were in Madhya Pradesh. Legislators belonging to the opposition Congress party protested that the demolitions were carried out without following the due process of law that would entail serving notices to the owners to show documents to prove legality of construction. But these complaints were ignored as the state again acted in the style of a lynch mob.

However, the state seems to have taken the lynch mob mentality to a wholly new level in the Jahangirpuri locality in Delhi when the state represented by the Delhi police and the municipal authorities defied an order of the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court. The background was the same: allegation of stone throwing by Muslims on a procession organized by the fanatic right-wing Hindutva outfit Bajrang Dal on April 16 on Hanuman Jayanti that had committed various provocations including hoisting a saffron flag on a local mosque. Most of those arrested in the communal violence were Muslims. Two days later, the BJP ruled municipal corporation acting, it is said, on the orders of a local BJP leader requisitioned several hundred policemen and bulldozers to carry out what was claimed to be removal of “encroachments,” in other words, demolition of “unauthorized” structures whether places of worship, like mosques, residences, or shops, designated as illegal. Lawyers for the affected parties rushed to the Supreme Court and obtained a stay on this action on the part of the municipality pending further hearings before the court. Despite the court order, bulldozers continued demolition including the gate of a mosque and stopped only after the Chief Justice of India intervened. This defiance raised the lynch mob mentality exhibited by an agency of the state to a hitherto unbeknownst level. Retired Justice A.P. Shah, former Chief Justice of the Delhi and Madras High Courts, asserted emphatically in an interview with Karan Thapar for the Wire, that the police and municipal officials who ordered the demolition despite the order of the Supreme Court should be severely punished with jail and fines and restitution made to those whose homes and shops were demolished. Whether this will happen is anybody’s guess.

The most disturbing and frightening aspect of the lynch mob mentality displayed by the state itself against the minorities, in particular Muslims, is that it not only tends to normalize the criminal behavior of the violent elements of Hindutva against Muslims, which results in either approval or indifference of the wider public to such despicable acts, but it also opens the floodgates to something far worse. As Dr Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch stated in testimony to the US Congress a few months ago, following the blood curdling speeches calling for mass killings of hundreds of thousands of minority Muslims made by Hindu religious figures at a “Dharam Sansad” (religious gathering) last December, India is the second most likely country where a genocide could occur. Dr Stanton pointed out that a potential genocide of minorities in India would not resemble the genocide of Jews by Nazi Germany during the second world war but would be more like the genocide in Rwanda over three months in 1994 where killings of the minority was carried out by mobs aided by members of the militia. In fact, during several months in 1947, undivided India in the final months of British rule and in the first few months of the two states that emerged after Partition, witnessed what amounted to a genocide in all but name especially in the Punjab where a figure of one million deaths is commonly cited among the 12-14 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who were forced to abandon their ancestral homes to flee to safety on the “other” side.

The situation in India seems to be becoming so dire that well-known mainstream commentators have begun to express bewilderment and fear about where the country is headed in the age of Modi. Pratap Bhanu Mehta writing in the Indian Express a few days ago expressed this most vividly: “Almost all the preconditions for widespread pogrom-type violence are now in place in India. You almost dread the thought that India has reached a point where the question is not “if” but “when.” What else would you call the widespread acceptance of vile prejudice, the dismantling of any semblance of conscience, the alignment of the state with majoritarian power, the complete effacement of the individual by imposed communal identification, the self-justification of the majority that has cloaked itself as the victim, the total contempt for rights, the glorification of violence, the search for the slightest pretext for revenge, and the radical othering of minorities?”

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