The Wrath of Delhi : deadly pogrom exposes the majoritarian shift in Indian democracy

 

19.04.2020

 

– Shahzaman Haque

 

Delhi, known poetically as the Rome of Asia, was destroyed seven times and rebuilt seven times. Until recently, no one from the current generation of Indians had seen or could have even imagined the actual destruction of the city, but the three days of devastation, destruction and death that began on 23rd February 2020 and were broadcast live—to the shock and horror of not only Indians of moral conscience but of thinking people all around the world—have changed that. Whole neighbourhoods took on a ghostly, apocalyptic appearance, with burnt buildings and vehicles, churned earth, and grey smoke set against a pale sky. As I write this piece, many gruesome stories have been shared, even more left untold, particularly from the Muslim victims’ families. Besides hundreds of seriously injured, some critically, at least 53 people died, mostly Muslims, but some Hindus, too. Some bodies were still unidentified weeks after the violence.

A chasm of ignorance, despair, and hate has divided Indians against each other and the country against itself. Indeed, unrest had been spreading throughout the nation for months as the government pushed its divisive new anti-Muslim citizenship law, and protests about this very issue immediately preceded and led into the pogrom in Delhi.

Delhi’s orchestrated pogrom against the Muslim community is a glimpse of the potential genocide which is lurking in our society. The three-day attack on Muslim neighbourhoods, mosques, and shrines—with security forces watching passively or even participating—has finally sealed the fate of Indian Muslims, turning them from second-class citizens to full pariahs. As noted by Irfan Ahmad in his poignant essay in The Polis Project (28 March 2020), “what happened in Delhi was purposive and in no way spontaneous,” and many international media openly reported the brazen implications of police and state authorities abetting and shielding Hindu nationalist mobs. The longstanding anti-Muslim rhetoric and political program of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now simply manifesting itself physically.

Hierarchies of hate speech and bigotry

Indian Muslims are subjected to different hierarchies of hate and bigotry in their daily lives. Muslims cannot rent a house in a Hindu neighbourhood. The American Uber, apparently infected by the ideology of hate, mostly cancels rides for Muslim clients. In some of Delhi’s Metro stations, and on its streets, one casually hears “shoot the traitors,” referencing you-know-which minority. A recent hate video taken in the Shastri Nagar neighbourhood of Delhi on 5th April 2020 calls for banning Muslims and boycotting Muslim vendors.

At the top of the pyramid is the government machinery. Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party gained 303 of the 542 Parliament seats in the General Election of May 2019, largely based on its Islamophobic stance.

The middle level includes the bulk of the morally corrupt Indian media. They act as magnifiers and mouthpieces of the government machinery targeting the Muslim community, inciting hatred towards them and creating a war-like atmosphere. A New York Times article, “Under Modi, India’s press is not so free anymore” published on April 2, 2020 reports the curbs on press freedom in India.

Not all the media, though, submits so easily; two TV channels, Mediaone and AsiaNet News, broadcast unbiased, unfiltered reports of the Delhi pogrom, coming down heavily on the suspicious role of the Delhi police and administration. They were banned for 48 hours by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

At the lowest level, there are Orwellian-indoctrinated youth from all strata of life, castes, and socioeconomic statuses, united by irrational hate for Muslims. They harbour a dangerous potential for violence, spurred on by stories fabricated by WhatsApp groups targeting the Indian Muslim community, or by hate speeches from the BJP and its affiliated organs and mouthpieces.

The judiciary, the ultimate bastion of a functional democracy, seems to have collapsed or be on a ventilator. Neither the Delhi High Court nor the Indian Supreme Court has taken any independent initiative on the Delhi pogrom. Delhi High Court Justice, S. Murlidhar, who ordered the Delhi police to file a complaint against the instigators of the riot, was transferred within 24 hours to another State.

During the three days and nights when the dance of carnage was in full swing in North East Delhi, Delhi Police received thousands of calls, mostly from Muslim families, demanding protection. Almost none were protected. Over fifteen days, many Muslim men and boys were picked up by the Delhi police, merely on “suspicion” of involvement in the riots. An article published in The Wire on 4th April 2020, reported that Delhi Minorities Commission issued notice to the Commissioner of Delhi police claiming Muslim boys had been randomly arrested for February’s violence in Northeast Delhi.

Nowadays, no Muslim can say with certainty that he or she is safe anywhere in India. I, personally, do not feel safe for a minute in India: I am not a practicing Muslim, but “Muslim-enough to be killed,” as famously summarised by the Urdu writer, Saadat Hassan Manto, who left for Pakistan in 1947.

Majority versus minority dynamics

On the dynamics of majority versus minority, Arjun Appudarai asserts in his book, The Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, that “numerical majorities become predatory and ethnocidal with regard to small numbers …”.

The chain of violence, hate, and bigotry against Muslims has constantly intensified in India. There is something extremely disturbing about the rioters’ fetishization of violence. Victims were shot, lynched, stabbed, and burnt. The ages ranged from children under 5 years old to an 85-year-old woman. Pictures and videos have shown frenzied Indian urban youth enacting gory scenes of horror on the streets of Delhi. To paraphrase Karl Marx’s phrase, “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” it seems a “dictatorship of majoritarian” is looming over us.

Recasting the whole country into a “Hindu nation” seems to be a cherished agenda in the 21st century, especially promoted by the BJP. The idea of India as a secular democracy and a tolerant one, core to its foundation and imbibed by successive generations of Hindus and Muslims living together, is breathing its last breaths. The Delhi pogrom has ruptured the legacies of brotherhood and secularism cultivated through a hundred years of collective sacrifices, going back to the unity of Hindus and Muslims against British rule to form the modern Indian state. Only a sadist in the majority or a masochist in the minority can fail to be concerned at the majoritarian subversion of democracy, and I do not wish Indians, especially Indian Muslims to adopt such traits in addition to their many long-standing burdens and woes, especially after Delhi.

The Delhi pogrom seems a turning point in the nature of Indian democracy, and only Indians of both Hindu and Muslim faiths, willing to stand side-by-side against BJP bigotry can save India’s democracy and restore it, as we knew it, before the wrath of Delhi. In unison, we must demand together that Prime Minister Modi hold his own government and party accountable, to halt and reverse India’s majoritarian lurch. If he does not, a united front must vote him and his party out of office.

Shahzaman Haque is the Co-director of the Department of South Asia and Himalaya at National Institute of Languages and Civilisations (INALCO), Paris. Follow him on Twitter @shahzamanhaque

Kashmir’s potential language war in India: time to rightfully recognize Urdu

Previously published at India Resists on 16.11.2019

Shahzaman HAQUE

War and occupation can be destructive in ways that go beyond the headlines, and one such way is how normally important issues can be ignored and pushed aside or just receive a fraction of the attention they should. In other words, one war can hide another one. This seems to be happening in the Indian part of Kashmir. While the mass arrests and physical and human rights abuses are, rightfully, front and center, what is being lost is how right-wing politicians and officials in India may use this crisis to marginalize within Indian Kashmir the Urdu language, important for numerous reasons to even non-native Urdu speakers. And indications are that this actually is the plan for those in power who are hostile to Urdu.

On August 5, 2019, the government of India by presidential order repealed Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, and, just like that, Indian Kashmir lost its autonomy. Hundred days have passed since the region entered an unprecedented state of restriction and curfew, with a total shutdown of the Internet. Schools are still closed and landline telephone connections and post-paid mobile phones were only restored just recently. Twenty-three European parliamentarians mostly from far-right political parties arrived in Kashmir on 29th October to observe the situation, but no Indian lawmakers from opposition parties were allowed to visit Kashmir.

With these unfortunate developments in the region, the question about Urdu as the official language in Kashmir has resurfaced. Everyone speaks Urdu as a second language. But what is troubling is that Urdu, the favored language of Muslims in Kashmir, is emerging as a language of resistance. Azaadi, the Urdu word for independence, has long been a treasured word in the minds of the people of Kashmir. It has reverberated loudly on many university campuses in India, particularly at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, but the word is labelled as “anti-Indian” by India’s far-right groups.

The Indian nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been in power for more than five years now, and in May, 2019, it won a second consecutive mandate. If Urdu has so far not been explicitly and intensely targeted by the central government, one may ask if such central government-initiated suppression is now the beginning in Kashmir. Urdu has, though, been the official language of Kashmir since 1889, thanks to the Hindu kingdom of Dogra.

The importance of Urdu in Indian Kashmir

Urdu does not resemble any of the roughly 30 other languages spoken in the Jammu and Kashmir region, but it found its place smoothly even with only 0.13% the population being native speakers (Census India 2011). It was, in fact, precisely its alienness to the region that allowed it to carve out its place.

Of Indian origin myself, I did not even understand during my childhood how Urdu could become the official language of this region, where Kashmiri is spoken by 6.5 million persons, followed by Dogri, which has 2.5 million speakers (Census India 2011). The answer is very simple: if these two local languages had been recognized as official languages, speakers of other linguistic communities would have felt betrayed and excluded. This also explains why Hindi, with over 322 million speakers (Census India 2011), has not so far been accepted as a national language in India.

Urdu is considered a lingua franca in the entire region of Indian Kashmir. In the oral form, it serves as a linking language between the Kashmir & Indian administrations, for which capacity it is modified into a slightly Hindi-influenced version understood by leaders in Delhi. It is spoken in various forms, not only by Muslims but also by high-caste Hindus and also Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, and people from other religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Javaid Rahi, renowned scholar of Gujari in Kashmir, mentions in his book Tribal groups of Jammu and Kashmir and its languages (2015) that “many of Kashmir’s and Ladakh’s ethnic groups, like Gujjars, Balti, Dards, Beda, Mon, Gara, and Changpa, use the same Persian-Arabic script of Urdu to write their own languages.” Many words of Urdu have also been borrowed by these languages, making Urdu accessible and transcendental while also being inclusive, preserving much of indigenous cultures in the region.

Urdu enjoys particular prestige and status among both Muslims and Hindus in the Kashmir Valley. Muslim parents want their children to speak Urdu rather than Kashmiri, their mother tongue. Tellingly, the generation born after 1990 prefer to converse among themselves in Urdu to facilitate assimilation into India in terms of both education and employment, according to Mehdi Khawja, author of the article “How Kashmiris are resisting linguistic exclusion” in The Caravan.

The claim for the Kashmiri language

Members of the BJP and more extreme supporters of their agenda have recently claimed that Urdu should no longer be the official language of the region. In addition, they want the Kashmiri language to be stripped of the Persian-Arabic alphabet, which is also used for Urdu; rather, they want to revive the Sharada script, used in ancient religious writing dating back to the 8th century.

The Kashmiri language is perceived differently by Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Hindus. Muslim Kashmiris generally have a poor image in the media and everyday life for them is relatively hard in Indian-administered Kashmir. The problem for Muslim Kashmiris is not the Kashmiri language per se. The problem is, rather, their religion, Islam; the main religion of Pakistan, the enemy and rival of India. “The Kashmiri language has become, for them, a marker of humiliation,” says a young student of Kashmiri origin in New Delhi. “With Urdu, close to Hindi, they can show their willingness to integrate into the Indian system,” says another young Kashmiri, an engineer looking for work in Rajasthan. His heavily Kashmiri-accented Hindi cost him his first job after just fifteen days. The switch to another language has become, in their eyes, a question of survival.

Hindu Kashmiris fled their homeland in 1989, under the pressure of terrorism and Muslim-instigated militants of the liberation movement. They, on the other hand, can claim the Kashmiri language with a lot of pride. Their loyalty to India cannot be doubted.

The time now is felt by some to be propitious to settle the language issue in Kashmir in order to align with ideas of forced integration, especially if one considers the remarks of a high-ranking Indian officer, reported by the Indian Express daily paper on September 4, 2019: he asserted specifically that “Hindi is the national language, so it would be an official language of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Urdu will also be given its due place.” In reality, there is no national language in India, though Hindi is the official language of the Union of India, but the comment of the officer implies that Urdu might lose its official status in Kashmir, perhaps in favour of Hindi.

This language crisis may seem insignificant in the face of the major geopolitical crises that are shaking the region. However, let us not forget that India has been, since its independence, a cradle of linguistic conflicts even while it is supposed to be an example the promise of a non-Western nation practicing multiparty democracy with an ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse population. The last is not indicated to be least: several States have been created on a linguistic basis and language-related riots and deaths have occurred repeatedly. For many, language is a matter of life and death, of economic and social identity and survival.

Considering all this, the removal of Urdu from the Kashmiri linguistic landscape is likely to provoke an uproar among its many Urdu speakers and other speakers of lesser known languages hoping to use Urdu as a way of advancement. This possible disaster could erupt while Kashmiris are already suffering deeply because of the overall situation there and recent drastic actions taken by the Indian government. Is it really an appropriate time to throw boiling oil on these deep wounds through a language debate whose risks are not sufficiently measured? The answer is no, and no decision on language should be taken lightly or without respect for the many views and many languages that have defined India since even before independence.

Finally, it must be recognized that, as Urdu is a force that brings people together across divides—including bridging the leaders in Delhi with the people living on the ground in Kashmir—and that any effort to push aside, minimize, or delegitimize Urdu will only lead to more unrest, strife, and violence in the very troubled region of Kashmir, increasing the terrorism risk and even war with Pakistan.

It is high time that Indian leaders, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his BJP associates rightfully recognize Urdu as the unifying factor it has been for centuries. Doing so could be an important step forward for defusing Kashmiri and regional tensions and even for advancing the cause of peace.

Shahzaman Haque is the Co-director of the Department of South Asia and Himalaya at INALCO in Paris. He can be joined at @shahzamanhaque
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search