15 January 2014
‘Melancholy are the sounds on this winter’s nights.’ The bitter cold, the cruel dark, the inevitable exile, the indifferent gaze have all returned. This time, to Muzaffarnagar. We are yet again in the wake of a violent communal conflict in India, only a decade after the Gujarat carnage. For Harsh Mander, such events are primarily orchestrated, through various movements, from the intentional manufacture of hatred to the complicity of the State. Only a Communal Violence Bill, he argues, could bring some sense of justice at the heart of the tragedy. Ananya Rao, in her response, reformulates the problem in philosophical terms, and suggests that overarching identities tend to ignite confrontations. Supportive of the legal solution proposed by Harsh Mander, she nonetheless ponders the risks of misuses.
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Facing the Other
It appears today that refugees from hate in Muzaffarnagar district (UP) have little to look forward to, except a long and lonely winter of continued exile. A hate campaign led to violent murderous attacks in September on Muslim settlements, mainly of poor agricultural workers. Some fifty thousand people fled in fear, and took refuge in Muslim majority villages, mostly in the grounds of madrassas and mosques; belatedly the state commenced food supplies to these camps.
A people who have never fought each other in history are today bitterly estranged, fearful and angry. ‘Not even during the Partition riots of 1947 did a drop of blood flow in our villages‘, they repeatedly told us, when we met them. And today, some fifty lie dead, and fifty thousand have fled their homes in terror. Cramped into makeshift camps in madrassas and mosques, many resolve never to return to the land of their ancestors. The Muzzafarnagar countryside in Western Uttar Pradesh is reeling under the gravest communal clash the country has witnessed since the Gujarat carnage in 2002.
People of diverse faiths who live together do not spontaneously turn upon each other. There are three essential requisites for mass communal violence to occur. The first is the deliberate creation of hatred. The second is the manufacture of a ‘riot’. The third is a complicit state: no riot can continue beyond a few hours unless the state actively wishes that it does so. I visited Muzzafarnagar and was deeply dismayed to find striking evidence of each of these elements, combining to violently divide communities which have lived and worked together peacefully through generations.
The administration took no steps to quell the rumours, arrest those stoking hatred, or prohibit the maha-panchayat. Once violence broke out, the police forces mostly stood watching, as the crowds attacked Muslim settlements, without using force or firing to disperse the furious mobs. They did not rescue the escaping people; instead, survivors depended on wealthy Muslim landowners to protect them as they fled. The administration did not establish relief camps; these were organised by the victimised community in Muslim majority villages. We found little presence of the state in these camps: it did not organise sanitation, health care, child care or police outposts to record people’s complaints.
After Gujarat and Kandhamal, Muzaffarnagar demonstrates how easily communal organisations and parties can still manufacture both hatred and a riot, even between communities with no history of violence or animosities. They also remind us how opportunistic and unreliable the convictions of ‘secular’ parties can be.
As the winter cold descends, this year, on Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in Western UP, some twenty thousand people will stay in makeshift unofficial camps, amidst squalor and official neglect, or survive in small rented tenements or with relatives – exiles from the villages of their birth. Four months after one of the grimmest communal outbreaks in more than a decade, the dominant mood among the survivors is still one of fear and despair, amidst a persisting climate of orchestrated hatred.
The confidence of survivors to return to homes is further shaken because of the very low numbers of arrests. For around 540 FIRs registered in connection with the violence, involving more than 6000 accused persons, as few as 208 arrests have been made so far. Even the Sadhvi who instigated violence with her hate speeches in the September 7 mahapanchayat was arrested only on the day of our visit, on 2 December. This reflects regrettably low political and administrative will to ensure legal action against those who indulged in hate mass violence in last September.
As we met them, the police repeatedly blamed the communities’ resistance to collaborate, to explain the low number of arrestations. This shows how the burden was shifted to prove the crime, onto the shoulders of the battered and displaced survivors. It has been our experience from many riots that it is unusual for survivors to lodge false and malicious complaints after communal carnages. It is therefore unreasonable for the police to presume that many complaints may have been filed to settle personal enmities.
In many riots I have seen in the past, the surge of hate violence was almost always followed, shortly after, by elders and women of both communities reaching out to each other, by which some social healing and recon-ciliation would set in. Gujarat, Assam and now Muzaffarnagar represent a new dangerous phase in communal relations in India, in which hatred is actively fostered not just in the heat of the actual violence but equally in its aftermath. Survivors are actively blocked from rebuilding their livelihoods through systematically organised social and economic boycott. They are discouraged from returning to their homes.
There were no riots in the Muzaffarnagar countryside during Partition or the Babri demolition, but today it is being divided on communal lines, perhaps permanently. If communal organisations succeed in preventing mixed settlements of Hindus and Muslims, new generations will grow up knowing little about each other, with no bonds of understanding and friendship. This will be the beginning of the end for the idea of a pluralist and tolerant India.
To effectively prevent identity-based targeted hate violence in India, the central pillar of the Communal Violence Bill must be to make state administrations legally accountable to prevent communal violence, and to control it effectively and in the shortest possible time. The law must create a new crime of ‘dereliction of duty by public officials’, which makes it a crime if they act – or deliberately do not act – in ways that allow or foster communal violence. Through ‘Command responsibility’, not only the officer on the spot but also the general level from which commands emerged, become criminally liable if they did not control hate violence. If such a law was in place, we would not have witnessed the criminal abdication by officers to prevent communal carnages in 1984 in Delhi, 1992-3 in Mumbai, 2002 in Gujarat and in 2013 in Muzaffarnagar.
Other critical pillars of the proposed law include protecting the victims’ rights to justice, and setting mandatory standards of relief and rehabilitation in the aftermath of communal violence. The importance of these is highlighted when we observe even an administration such as that currently in power in Uttar Pradesh, which, while claiming to be secular, has failed to establish and run relief camps, to provide effective support to rebuild destroyed livelihoods and homes, or to facilitate legal justice to the survivors.
I worry. But, before the general elections, we can still try to bring everyone from the right to the left of the political spectrum to come together. We must rapidly build consensus on a law that would make state administrations legally accountable to prevent and control communal violence, and to ensure survivors’ rights to reparation and justice. India could not afford once again the hate, the suffering and the social fractures that have marked Muzaffarnagar.
The violence that occurred in Muzaffar-nagar in September 2013 is another example of vote-bank politics, divi-ding the Indian population and instigating violence between communities. The strategic formation of the ‘other’ by political parties and its demonization has been the cause of rising tensions between religious communities, only further cementing the division. The demonization of the ‘other’ in Uttar Pradesh has led to the death of hundreds and the exile of thousands, which has further contributed to dividing the Hindu and Muslim populations.
Harsh Mander lists the creation of hatred, the manufacture of riots and the role of a complicit state as the three essential characteristics that cause the occurrence of communal violence between otherwise peacefully coexisting communities in India. In my response, I will try to elucidate each of these characteristics and the manner in which they contributed to the violence in Muzaffarnagar. But before that, I shall briefly explore the possible roots of this kind of tragic situation. Various philosophers have done pioneering works to help us understand inter-subjectivity, ethics and politics in our epoch.
The creation of hatred is made possible due to a manipulation of identities. An opposition must be set, between myself and my community on the one hand, and another individual and her community, on the other. It is an inevitable mechanism, when it comes to instigating violence. The thought of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas could help us understand this process. Levinas used the phenomenological method and expanded it to questions of inter-subjectivity: he tried to make sense of the manner in which the other is created, and, how we, as humans, come to interact with this other. For Levinas, the everyday experience of coming across another human person already contains the mystery that may, in certain situations, provoke massive outlets of violence. Levinas argued that the individual is able to make sense of the other by recognising her ‘face’. The individual recognises the other by associating his ideas and notions about the other, to the face of the other. The face is the substratum that permits these associations to be made.
But the face does not capture the other in its totality. It provides a static image of the other that does not represent its diverse aspects. The subjective ‘I’ is governed by its own self-interest, affecting the way in which it understands the face of the other. The other is tacitly conceived for the subject’s interests. If the ‘I’ feels like its self-interest is threatened, it will form a negative picture of the other. It is probably this sort of event that occurred in Muzaffarnagar, with each community making the other suffer the consequences of the sudden threats felt internally.
Religious identities play a dominant role in the private and public spheres of most individuals. These identities are deliberately used by political parties to consolidate their votes and form vote-banks. They present a situation where the subjective ‘I’ feels threatened, a situation that encourages a negatively tainted formation of the face of the other. Customs of each religion, which may only be followed by a few, become the face of this religious community; they structure the way the religion is looked at from the outside. The diverse aspects of each religious community are reduced to a few characteristics that cannot be applied to all the members of the community.
Amartya Sen argues that those general, overarching identities are the cause of violence between communities, because they are prioritized at a higher level than any other identity. Rather than prioritising their identity as speakers of a particular language, or members of a geographically defined population, individuals place a higher value on their religious identity, which, in turn, legitimises the use of violence against other religious communities.
The Muzaffarnagar riots began with the rumours of a Muslim youth harassing a young Jat girl. The brothers of the girl killed the Muslim boy and were, in reaction, killed by avenging members of the Muslim boy’s family. While such events occur frequently in Uttar Pradesh, those particular incidents led to the occurrence of a large scale communal riot, killing hundreds and rendering thousands homeless. Not only did the state not act to curb the increasing rumours regarding violence between Hindu and Muslim communities, but it capitalised on them. The rumours were used by political activists to fuel hate against the other and instigate violence. Despite a ban on public gatherings, a large meeting was held on the 30th of August 2013, with many state and district level Muslim leaders delivering inflammatory speeches. At the same time, a rumoured video capturing the death of two Jat boys was released, which resulted in a large-scale protest by the Hindu mahapanchayat, contributing to rising communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Rather than trying to pacify communities and reduce tensions between groups, political parties encouraged violent reactions, only escalating towards communal violence.
The role of political parties in instigating violence between reli-gious communities has led to the state’s complicity in its own internal violence. In cases such as the Delhi riots in 1984 and the Gujarat carnage in 2002, the state not only allowed communal violence to occur but also provided the means for rioters to wreak havoc on specific religious communities.
The individuals responsible for those events were not in-vestigated or tried for their role in the violence, and were allowed to continue working in the political arena with impunity. While a few members of the state police force as well as civil servants have been held responsible for not preventing the ensuing violence, the masterminds that orchestrated the violence and mobilised populations against each other have not been held accountable. State legislators are allowed to function with impunity, which gives a sense of security to other political party leaders who would seek to capitalise on differences between the various religious identities. Not only is it essential to hold the police force and the civil servants responsible, but the law must also penalise administrators involved in instigating the riots. There must be an investigative board that would review the actions of state legislators, leading up to and during the occurrence of the violence.
With Harsh Mander, I believe that there is a need for a Communal Violence Bill, to ensure that the perpetrators of violence, in theory and practice, are brought to justice. However, we must define, and reflect upon the nature of communal violence and its particular characteristics. Communal violence should not be confused with riots by dissidents. The lawmakers must ensure that the bill is not used negatively to weaken specific governments, and render the state authorities unstable, through manufactured claims of organised violence. We must make certain that the law does not become a tool in the hands of the perpetrators of violence, but a tool truly operating against the occurrence of communal violence in India.
The bill should ensure that communal violence has no place in the Indian community, and that members instigating such violence will always be penalised. Communalism should be rooted out of every sphere, social and political, public and private, religious and secular, to make way for greater collaboration between all communities in the future.
Harsh Mander is a social worker and writer. He works with marginalized people, from survivors of mass violence to bonded workers and victims of hunger. He has authored a number of books and writes columns for The Hindu and Hindustan Times.
Ananya Rao is a student of Philosophy at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities. She is particularly interested in feminist studies. Ananya recently authored a study on the role of identity in instances of communal violence in India.
Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. LILA Inter-actions will not be responsible for the views presented.
The images and the videos used are only intended to provide multiple perspectives on the fields under discussion
Images courtesy: India Resists | AFP for NDTV | AP for Firstpost | PTI for Tehelka | Sandeep Saxena for The Hindu | Indian Express | PTI for Tehelka | Raj K Raj for Hindustan Times | Bracha L. Ettinger
Video courtesy: Newsclick
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