The irony was palpable: US President Donald Trump was at Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, during his India visit, a sort of a perfunctory pilgrimage for visiting foreign dignitaries to the apostle of non-violence and truth, while the capital city of Delhi was being incinerated in a violent communal conflagration.
India’s catastrophic descent from being a personification of inclusive democracy with a syncretic culture towards dystopian darkness, manifested in unparalleled sectarian hate, is unfathomable. But on closer scrutiny, perhaps not as surprising.
Ever since Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party became prime minister in May 2014 the public discourse has had one constant: Hindu-Muslim conflict.
This binary has been repeatedly escalated, especially during central and federal state elections, by the BJP with extraordinary results: the BJP despite a wretched economy, record unemployment, agrarian distress and pathetic governance romped home in the Lok Sabha elections in May 2019 by winning 303 seats, and despite losing a few assembly elections since has not witnessed significant vote-share shrinkage.
The bullet-proof algorithm of religious divisiveness guarantees them an electoral windfall in a polarized contest (Hindus are 79% of India’s population).
In Delhi, the BJP had just suffered an ignominious rout in the recent state elections and one of their defeated candidates, Kapil Mishra, had threatened retaliation on the protesting members of the minority Muslim community who were anxious and apprehensive about the Modi government’s proposed prejudiced–against-Muslims citizenship law.
But what followed on February 23, 2020 was not a spontaneous communal riot triggered by an accidental episode, but an orchestrated splintering of a peaceful society for a malevolent objective. It was political retribution with a macabre mask.
At last count 42 were killed, 70 suffering from gunshot wounds, and over 200 injured. India has slipped at least temporarily into a dark abyss.
At first it appeared as if they were fake videos of a rogue psychopath salivating on gory bloodshed, seeking cheap popularity on social media. It soon transpired that the dastardly attacks happening in North-East Delhi were in fact real, including the horrendous image of bruised and battered young men being forced to sing the national anthem by fearsome policemen.
There were innumerable incidents of unspeakable horror, of virulent mobs thirsting for bloody revenge, their insatiable appetite for slaying the object of hate rising with every passing hour. The police force, supposed guardians of the city, were either inanimate spectators to the ugly spectacle or a willing accessory to the incendiary madness.
Journalists were attacked and threatened and some had to establish their religious credentials for survival. A police constable was murdered even as religious shrines were ransacked. Both religious communities exacerbated the tension, but it is apparent that the Muslims were at the disproportionate receiving end of the marauding mobs.
The Home Minister of India, Amit Shah, who is also the prime minister’s Man Friday responsible for internal security was extraordinarily mute: no public denunciation, no immediate interventionist call for peace, not even a banal twitter post with a boilerplate condemnation.
Silence is often the most formidable instrument that has weaponized savagery. Old women, children, innocent bystanders were in the meanwhile being massacred.
Mr Modi, of course, had the convenient pretext of courting Trump and ensuring the broccoli samosa was found palatable by the Anglo-Saxon taste-buds. India has become not just the theatre of the absurd but an auditorium of seething abhorrence. Gandhi must be restless in heaven.
By the time Trump boarded Air Force One to return home, Delhi was making global headlines for its death toll and an incapacitated state, wilfully impotent amidst the mayhem.
The world’s largest democracy was burning, but the world’s oldest democracy nonchalantly looked away.
Non-state actors succeed because of a non-acting state; that’s why the unhinged crowds could indulge in wild vandalism. Inflammatory speeches by BJP leaders added substantial vitriol and encouraged the hoodlums, but till the time of writing none of the agent provocateurs has been arrested.
The BJP has been checkmated by the grand old Muslim ladies of Shaheen Bagh whose democratic Gandhian remonstrance against the brazen anti-Muslim citizenship laws has made that nondescript address both the fountainhead of a secular movement as well as a celebrity hotspot.
Shaheen Bagh has become the epicentre of India’s national voice against state tyranny bordering on authoritarian fascism.
That India has mainstreamed violence as an instant remedy to redress political grievances under the BJP must worry its 130-crore-plus citizens; this is a sure shot recipe for a banana republic in the making.
The constitutional democracy and liberal society that the country once took pride in stands thoroughly pulverized.
The media which should have been at the vanguard of India’s fragile democracy, a bulwark against state oppression, has frequently been a pusillanimous underling of the establishment, espousing its sectarian agenda. The last hope for India is its judiciary which of late has appeared effete and comatose in the face of daylight human rights violations.
India has seen state-sponsored pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. Modi was then the chief minister of the state. On February 27, 2020 it will be the 18th anniversary of that gruesome memory where over a thousand people (mostly Muslims) were butchered.
But industrialization of hate does put some political careers onto the fast-track escalator. That is India’s tragedy.
Disclaimer: The author is the National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Yahoo or Verizon Media.