Ram Puniyani is the president of the Center for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. He is associated with various secular initiatives and has been a part of various investigation reports on violation of human rights of minorities. He has been conducting workshops and delivering lectures in different parts of the country on the themes related to threats to democracy, agenda of communal politics, myths about minorities and politics of terror, and the path to peace and justice.
He is also the author of Caste and Communalism, Indian Nationalism versus Hindu Nationalism, Communalism Explained, Religious Nationalism, etc. In this interview with Abhish K Bose, Puniyani dwells on themes such as Hindutva politics, rise in violence against minority communities, and the reasons behind the Bharatiya Janata Party's recent success in electoral politics. The text has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
You have conducted extensive field studies in northern India, especially in riot-torn places at the time of and after the Ram Janmabhumi mobilisation. What is your current assessment over the communal situation in those places?
The places that have witnessed communal violence have become very polarised and the physical and emotional walls have been erected between religious communities. While the majority community harbours the misconceptions of hate against the minority community, the minority community’s primary sentiment is that of fear and insecurity.
The joint celebrations at social and religious level have come to a total halt. The core values of nation and fraternity have suffered a severe jolt. The wounds of communal violence have mostly remained unhealed.
The major obstacles to this had been the failure on the part of the State to give justice and rehabilitate the victims of violence. The places that have suffered the violence may not see the repetition of violence in immediate future as the polarisation in these places is close to complete, and communal forces behind the violence do not achieve much by repeating this in the same place, by and large. But in the country overall the provocations needed to flare up the violence are many and easy to instigate. The hate against minorities is the dominant feature of the present political discourse.
Scholars have maintained that the Gujarat riots represented a distinctively new cultural moment in the long history of Indian communal violence similar to that of the 1984 Sikh massacre in which people were similarly targeted. Can you discuss the theoretical and evidentiary basis for the aptness of such a classification?
First of all, I would like to point out that the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 and Gujarat carnage and other acts of anti-Muslim violence are not comparable. The violence against the religious minorities can be broadly categorised into two groups. One is the anti-Sikh violence, which was a lone event and came up as a sort of insane political revenge against the hapless Sikh community. The other is a regular repetitive violence against Muslims and Christians, which is a part of the Hindu nationalist agenda.
What they share in common is the mechanism of violence against the innocents. The violence appears to be spontaneous, but there seems to be a planning behind it. Those in leadership generally get it organised in such a way that it appears to be spontaneous, ‘bottom-up’. This bottom-up is incited by the ground already prepared due to the hate spread against the minority communities.
In the case of anti-Sikh pogrom, it was a single event, orchestrated as revenge against the killing of Indira Gandhi, which in turn was due to Operation Blue Star, prompted by the occupation of Golden Temple by Khalistani elements. The Gujarat carnage was orchestrated on the pretext of Godhra train burning. The list of Muslim households and shops was ready, and people were incited by taking the burnt bodies in a procession from Godhra against the advice of then local collector of the city – Jayanti Ravi. The violence began with the blame on minority community that ‘they’ burnt the train; locals, particularly subalterns, were roped in to take ‘revenge’.
The anti-Muslim violence is regular and repetitive; it’s a part of Hindu nationalist agenda aimed at polarising the communities and to reap the electoral dividends. To me the violence is organised by inciting the ‘bottom’ and by letting participants know that they will enjoy impunity. While mechanism of violence creation is similar, the underlying politics is very different in both.
What is the rationale that binds a large majority of the lower-caste population behind the Hindu nationalism project and the Bharatiya Janata Party?
The BJP is the electoral wing of Hindu nationalist politics. Its parent organisation has floated many organisations to work among Dalits and Adivasis. Through its vast network of shakhas, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has trained a large number of pracharaks (propagators) and swayamsevaks (volunteers) who work on ground level, at community level among these sections of society.
They first begin with religious machinations, promoting Hindu religious festivals among these sections. During the 1970s and 1980s, their volunteers promoted Vinayaka (Lord Ganesh) festivals in Dalits localities. They used to initiate the process, support with funds and involve the Dalit communities and introduce Brahmanical norms among them.
In Adivasi areas, they organised Shabari Sangams. Shabari is an Adivasi character in Ramayana who offered berries to Lord Ram. She is a symbol of poverty and destitution. The RSS has built temples to her and promoted her as the goddess of Adivasis. This is also a cultural messaging as to who is the idol of the tribals.
Also, they started moulding Lord Hanuman as Adivasis' deity and initiated multiple campaigns to popularise him in Adivasi areas. This again is a sort of messaging – loyalty to Lord Ram, who has been projected as an icon by the Hindu nationalist forces. This helped in co-opting these sections at religious level towards the RSS version of Hinduism.
At the social level, they regularly interacted with these communities, giving them a feeling of respect. Their regular interaction gave the impression to these communities of being honoured, and consequently being won over at electoral level despite the BJP opposing reservations, diluting reservations through introduction of quotas based on economic basis, and avoiding caste census, among others. It is pure ground-level community interaction, undertaken at massive scale, which has prepared the ground for the BJP making gains amongst these sections of society at electoral level.
According to one perspective, the 'deepening of democracy' happened in India after the 1980s. The emergence of the BJP as a major force in the country also happened in the same period. How do you perceive the deepening of democracy in India and the simultaneous emergence of the BJP in India?
It is true that democratic process has been deepening in the country. This process gives articulation to subaltern sections of society as well. With deepening democracy and coming up of Dalits and women in the social space, a section of society felt threatened and resorted to communal politics.
In the 1980s, this manifested first as anti-reservation riots in Gujarat, then anti-Other Backward Classes promotion policy in 1985, and later opposition to implementation of Mandal Commission.
In reaction to this [social justice measures], the privileged section of society rallied behind the BJP and the politics of communalism to strengthen its electoral power.
The BJP-RSS stand for the values of pre-modern, pre-industrial caste and gender hierarchy and by the 1980s, the social transformation towards equality started showing up in rudimentary form. It was this which gave a fillip to the already existing BJP mechanism. The BJP is not the primal force in deepening of democracy in India. As a matter fact, it has taken advantage of the process of deepening of democracy to make inroads for an agenda which cuts the very roots of democracy.
Certain scholars are of the view that the Modi era in the Indian politics will not last long and are pointing towards the emergence of a new political configuration based on Hindutva other than the BJP. How realistic are such expectations in your understanding?
The Modi period of Indian politics has wrought havoc on the plight of average people of society. The rising unemployment, the increasing prices, the worsening poverty, increasing rich-poor divide, and social polarisation has made the large sections of people aware about the negative impact of the continuing BJP rule. The declining press freedom, worsening indices of democracy and freedom of religion has raised a severe alarm among most sections of society.
The BJP government is insensitive to people's plight as demonstrated in its response to farmers' movement (in which nearly 650 people lost their lives), to the effort to disenfranchise Muslims through National Register of Citizens and Citizenship (Amendment) Act leading to Shaheen Baugh movement and then the orchestration of Delhi violence, and lastly ignoring wrestlers' complaint against sexual harassment.
The use of Enforcement Directorate, Central Bureau of Investigation, Income Tax Department against the Opposition leaders has made them aware of the dangers of the Modi dispensation. In addition, Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra and the result of Karnataka assembly elections has brought massive change in the political horizon. Now opposition political parties more than before feel the need to come together and form a political electoral front for democracy and secularism.
There are lots of obstacles in its path but as the matters are developing, there is a good possibility that the united opposition by fielding a single candidate against the BJP candidates in the elections may succeed in coming to power. This seems easier said than done as the BJP is vastly equipped with thousands of RSS pracharaks, lakhs of swayamsevaks, many RSS affiliate organisations who work for the BJP's success in elections. The BJP has media on its side aided by the IT cell and social media network carrying its message. It is also the richest political party in the country. It may play some tricks yet again to polarise the society apart from the already floated Uniform Civil Code and the issue of national security.
It is said that the electoral fixation towards the BJP can be sizeably stemmed by educating a large segment of the Indian society. Do you think if the electorate in rural and urban areas is educated, they will stop voting for the BJP?
No doubt education has an immense role in electoral awareness. It was also joked that the BJP is not able to make inroads into Kerala as that state is very literate. But that apart, mere formal education is no counter to the BJP politics.
The RSS and its vast network of shakahs, Sarswati Mandir chain of schools, and Ekal Vidyalayas popularise its version of history, culture and politics which makes a strong case for the BJP’s success. This is aided by pro-Modi media, BJP’s IT cell, and a large number of print media which spreads the BJP version of politics. This is what Noam Chomsky called 'manufacturing consent'.
In Indian scenario, the ‘social common sense’ among large sections of society is constructed on communal lines; the religious minorities are demonised by using history. The medieval period of history is used to demonise the Muslim community by propagating that Muslim kings destroyed Hindu temples, Islam spread by force, and Muslim kings were cruel to Hindu subjects. The demographic issues related to increase of Muslim population is attributed to religion in popular parlance, and the threat of Muslims becoming a majority in the country is used to polarise section of Hindus.
Similarly, the Christians are presented as doing conversion work through force, fraud and allurement. Though all these are totally false, these are becoming a part of social common sense. We need to create popular works to combat these misconceptions, which in turn lead to hate, violence, polarisation and victory of BJP in elections. Mere formal education will not counter the politics of the BJP.