Processions bloodying communal politics
Surprisingly, neither the Centre nor the states have the count of temples, mosques, churches and gurudwaras built on public land.
Calcutta 1911. “After a day or two spent collecting the necessary kit for my life up country, I set off by train for Jessore in the evening. The great Moslem festival of Mohurrum was then being celebrated, and the route to the station lay through Sealdah Square, which the police had made the turning-place for rival processions that reached that nodal point from all directions. Unfortunately, the police arrangements had broken down somehow, and the various processions had got mixed up and started fighting.” Sir Arthur Lothian, a one-time British Resident at Hyderabad.
Calcutta 1897. The Maharaja Sir Jatindramahon Tagore acquired a plot of land through a court decree just outside Calcutta’s northern limit. A small hut stood on the property, which Muslims claimed was a mosque. When the Tagore’s party reached to take possession of the land, a Muslim mob attacked them. The goons were dispersed by the police, but violence spread to other parts of Calcutta, causing the 1897 Bengal riots.
History is an indulgent parent. It doesn’t differentiate between the children of any community ravaging each other in the name of religion. In India, communalism had two fathers: the Islamic invasions and the British divide-and-rule policy, where they pitted one faith against the other. The practice continues. Religious processions have, now at Nuh, Haryana and previously through centuries in other bloody spots, sparked death and destruction, egged on by slogans that revere one god or the other.
However, keeping economic factors in mind, the numbers of communal clashes are down, but their intensity proves the widening rift between various religious communities. The pattern hasn’t changed, though. In Bombay in 1874, as Dadabhai Naoroji and Pherozeshah Mehta watched, a series of riots between Hindu and Muslim subjects of the Nawab of Janjira in Raigad, present-day Maharashtra, led to bloodshed.
Aurangzeb, the numerous Viceroys and Rajput warrior kings, are now dust. Old empires and little countries like Janjira are extinct. India seems to have two sides of light and night: 75 years of rising prosperity and communal hatred and mayhem in places like Haryana, West Bengal, UP, and Manipur. What is worse is that the weaponisation of religion has forged a political hatchet to invade and appropriate power and space. Even roads and streets have become borders between communities. Armed processions and land grabbing are part of a newly developed tool kit.
Last week, five innocent persons were murdered by a violent mob during a ‘Brij Mandal Jalabhishek Yatra’ started by BJP Gurugram district president Gargi Kakkar. Coincidentally, it was just after Muharram: a sensitive festival, when the muscular demonstration of Islam happens. There was no police escort at the Yatra just a day after Moharam. Today, Nuh has become the template for expanding the blueprint of communal warfare. Tragically, life doesn’t matter in politics; only votes matter. The political masters of both communities didn’t restrain their followers from holding provocative demonstrations even after the carnage.
The Gurugram mayhem has become another grim footnote in the dark tome of religious violence. The previous week, a Tazia procession in Nangloi, outer Delhi, deviated from its prescribed route and started pelting stones at the police. They were lathi-charged, injuring bystanders and cops. A few days afterwards, a radicalised member of the Railway Police shot not just his boss but selectively executed three Muslim men. A new form of violence, as experts warn, is often carried out by lone wolves.
The incidents mentioned above have escalated hatred, previously hidden under the veneer of social normalcy. None of the transgressors had a communal track record; instead, they exemplify the young new torch-bearers of an aggressive faith. For them worshipping in peace isn’t enough. Slaughtering their religious rivals is an article of faith. They thrive not on the number of prayers they have recited but on the obituaries they have written in the blood of other Indians. The anti-national trope is applied to anyone who challenges their writ, Hindu or Muslim.
A postmortem of history to diagnose previous injuries to faith has become a popular hobby of religious champions. In the past few years, there is hardly a city in which the history of a mosque or a mandir hasn’t faced scrutiny or litigation. Long-forgotten relics of the Mughal Empire are being excavated for hidden idols while new structures are being raised with impunity. Over 200 illegal religious buildings have come up on railway land nationwide. The Delhi PWD recently demolished an unapproved temple in East Delhi.
The Gujarat government cleared a road project by razing various ancient temples. However, almost all the states have ignored the Supreme Court’s repeated directives to demolish illegal religious structures. According to published reports, over 5,000 acres of government land have been encroached upon by various religious bodies. The land-owning agencies are toothless. When Urban and Housing Minister Jagmohan in the Vajpayee government demolished an old temple near Minto Road in New Delhi to develop a park, he was admonished, and the temple was restored.
Surprisingly, neither the Centre nor the states have the count of temples, mosques, churches and gurudwaras built on public land. There is no data about approved religious processions, whose number is rising faster than new converts to any faith. Officially, over a million religious structures stand on public land. Over 10,000 processions happen yearly year. India is the only country where faith flowers on illegal real estate. Political leaders patronise babas, maulvis and faquirs who have grabbed huge parcels of land; these godmen are unpunished because they are electoral influencers and fund collectors. On the contrary, no Muslim country permits the construction of mosques without approval nor allows any religious processions.
Politics is the culprit of culpability. In 1990, Prime Minister V P Singh advised me to move a resolution in a meeting of the National Integration Council, of which I was a member, calling upon all chief ministers and party chiefs to stop the construction of illegal religious buildings, use of loudspeakers and holding processions on public roads.
I drafted a four para resolution and took it to the late Comrade Harkishan Singh Surjeet for seconding it. He not only refused but tore up the paper. No leader, including from the BJP, supported me, and the resolution was killed. From then on, mocking the judiciary’s power, political thugs in the garb of religious activists and propagandists are violating the blessing of Amrit Kaal with the blood of their fellow men. If god is in the details, religion is retail with blood money as the price.