Before this week, Gujarat’s Kheda was perhaps best known as the site of the third major satyagraha launched by Gandhi against the colonial government. For Gandhi, satyagraha was first and foremost an exercise in political education. It was meant to raise both the political and moral consciousness of the peasantry, to resist oppression while also affirming a shared humanity. Even as the British administration ratcheted up the repression, Gandhi implored the villagers to develop “an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.”
The villagers of Kheda today display an entirely different source of political education. As a group of Muslim men, accused of pelting stones, are tied one by one to an electric pole and flogged by the police, they exult and clap and chant “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”. It’s a telling, theatrical enactment of Hindutva—the State and society fused as one body by the bonds of majoritarian solidarity, participating in the extra-constitutional punishment of the “Muslim Other”.
Equally revealing, if predictable, was the discourse around the “viral video”.
Talibanisation or Hindutvaisation?
There were broadly two sets of responses. The first was a celebration of the torture, on Right-wing and Hindutva social media circles as well as at least one mainstream news channel. Anchor Aman Chopra of News18, owned by India’s largest industrial house, enjoined his viewers to carefully watch Gujarat police’s “dandiya”, and directed his crew to ramp up the volume and show these visuals with “full ambience”. The only bit of surprise is that other news channels did not join in the celebration, though this probably has less to do with their anchors being not bigoted or their audience having a higher degree of moral sophistication, and more to do with the fact that torture is still illegal under Indian law. If only the spectacle could be remotely draped with the authority of the law, à la bulldozers on Muslim homes, News18 wouldn’t have been the only channel revelling in the emotional release of majoritarian “tough” justice.
The first set of responses is so cartoonish in its depravity that one can immediately recognise why it is wrong.
It is the second set of responses that is more interesting because it reveals why Hindutva violence against Muslims has become so normalised and endemic in India, and why it receives so little pushback.
These responses do not justify the outrage but erase, to varying degrees, its political context. A refusal to call the wrong by its name is more a sin of omission than commission, but also perpetuates the same moral corrosion by insidiously obfuscating its nature.
In the current case, one form this obfuscation took was the frequent recourse of the trope of “Talibanisation” of society. Ritual flogging as punishment is, after all, unknown to the pious land of Bharatvarsha and hence the pressing urge to borrow metaphors from a neighbouring (preferably Muslim) country. If only these commentators could have somehow bent the arch of their moral denunciation slightly inwards, they could have remembered the public flogging of a Dalit family in the Gujarati city of Una barely six years ago. The use of ritual, public humiliation as a tool to keep the marginalised ‘Other’ in its place and maintain social order is, after all, as deeply rooted and age-old as any custom of the country.
That Una became a prominent political issue, to the extent of impelling Prime Minister Narendra Modi to condemn gau rakshaks and plead with society to protect and respect Dalits, testifies to the gains made in the political culture over the decades. These gains were made possible through the painstaking work of Dalit activists (in the Una case, Dalits organised state-wide rallies and blocked a highway), as well as the evolving consensus among political parties that violence against Dalits was unacceptable in modern India. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was forced not just to take action against the perpetrators but also to undertake a high-profile damage control exercise because other parties had ganged up on it.
Yet, in the case of Muslims, the political culture is becoming more toxic almost every passing day, undergirded by a new political consensus, informed by Hindutva. It is not the ‘Talibanisation of India’ but the almost complete ‘Hindutvaisation of India’.
Society is complicit
In the Kheda video, the nature of this political consensus can be gleaned from two facets of the episode.
The first facet is State inaction. The policemen are not yet suspended despite there being clear, videographic evidence of their crime. The Minister of State for Home Harsh Sanghavi refused to condemn the police action because he was still to “check all the details”, but made sure to denounce the “gang of anti-social elements” who had been beaten up. Sure, an inquiry has been ordered as some acknowledgment of a constitutional order, but it is hard to bet on any action being taken against the officers. In Uttar Pradesh, where a similar viral video showed the custodial torture of alleged Muslim protestors in Saharanpur, the results of the ordered inquiry are still unknown, four months on. The last one heard was that the administration was still verifying the location of the police station, even after the publication in the media of the identities of the victims.
Thus, the media framing of the flogging as an isolated incident of police excess, for which an inquiry has been already ordered, explains away the first crucial facet of State inaction.
The second facet is societal complicity. To what extent is the wider Gujarati Hindu society approving or disapproving of the public flogging? One can divine a simple test. A sentiment of public disapproval around a widely circulated event can be expected to immediately register in the feverish political radar of Gujarat, with opposition parties desperately foraging for ammunition to corner the BJP government. The police brutality in Kheda has produced nothing of that sort. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is careful not to utter a word of condemnation. Except for two Muslim MLAs who said that the police action was wrong, the Congress state unit has been crouching in silence.
It is, of course, easy to blame political parties, and cynicism around politics is the preferred route taken by the more liberal sections of the media to explain away societal complicity. But the AAP and the Congress are hardly wrong in their estimation that it would be an act of political foolishness to raise this issue, in election season, in a state where the BJP won its largest-ever mandate in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots. That was as close to a popular verdict on the violence aimed at keeping Muslims in check as possible. When asked about the Kheda video, a BJP spokeswoman from Gujarat resorted to the ‘action-reaction’ theory, a reprise of the then CM Modi’s infamous characterisation of the 2002 riots while it was taking place.
The shock-imbued responses of media commentators that “such an incident could take place in India” are strangely innocent of the trajectory of Gujarati society of the last three decades, as well as Indian society of the last decade. The ‘This is not who we are’ response of shifting all blame on the policemen and the cheering mob is but another way of laundering societal complicity, when everything points in the direction of ‘This is exactly who we are’. More damagingly, it closes the door towards the sort of honest, introspective societal reckoning with the bigotry within that is an essential precondition to stem the tide of anti-Muslim violence.
The riot laundry
The role of the media in obfuscating the nature of anti-Muslim violence in India was most famously theorised by political scientist Paul Brass. Brass advanced the scholarship of Hindu-Muslim riots by studying it as a theatrical production. Among the three parts of the Act— preparation, activation, interpretation—it was the last that made riots such a perpetual phenomenon.
Brass insisted that the interpreters of the riots, the politicians and the press, were as much a participant in the system of riot production as the vandals on the street. This included the English language media, which loudly abhorred the riots but also simultaneously indulged in a game of “blame displacement.”
According to Brass, the media deflects responsibility away from the actual planners and organisers of riots, and explains it away as a spontaneous eruption of mob fury. Even when the media names militant Hindu organisations behind riots, it hastens to “blame both sides equally”, to give the “appearance of even handedness”, thus dispersing the blame to a generalised “public”.
By the time the third stage of the Act is finished, no one remains responsible for the riots, except the direct participants in the mob. This post-riot laundering machine, Brass argued, ensured that riots remained a tolerated, perpetual part of Indian politics.
When Brass passed away recently, the English language media rightly noted his legacy as a stalwart academic interpreter of Indian politics. It might do well to learn a lesson or two from his work. The advancing stream of anti-Muslim violence will not be stanched unless the wider society (at least the non-Hindutva sections) develops the honesty to describe it accurately, the decency to embrace responsibility, and the courage to demand accountability. Until then, it can howl “Talibanisation”, shrug its shoulders and move on to the next atrocity.
Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist. He tweets @AsimAli6. Views are personal.