May 2016, I’m sitting in Kigali where my host, an Englishman who calls Rwanda home, has a few people over for drinks. Among them is a septuagenarian British writer who is writing a book on Rwanda. He waxed eloquent about how successful Rwanda has been since 1994. Buses run on time, the roads are paved and clean. Even compared to India, Rwanda looks like it is a few decades ahead; let alone its neighboring countries. The credit for most of this goes unambiguously to the President, Paul Kagame.
But he warns that the “Interahamwe” are not gone, they lie waiting across the border in Congo with supporters spread across Europe and the US. As the night wore on, we witnessed an altercation between two of the guests over some purported slight. I could not tell the difference but was told later that one of them was Hutu while the other Tutsi.
India also suffers from a problem of low-intensity animosity between various groups. The divisions in our society are inter-religion (Hindu-Muslim), intra-religion (Dalits vs Thakurs in Saharanpur currently), cultural (Anti-Romeo squad) among many others. Divisions exist in all societies but in India, violence is always imminent. This partly reflects the weakness of the state but more insidiously, the tacit support of politicians which prevents the police from maintaining peace.
‘Hotel Rwanda’ Nowhere Close to Reality
My knowledge of Rwanda till I got there was limited to “Hotel Rwanda”, the award-winning 2004 documentary about the 1994 genocide. As hard-hitting as the movie is, it does not come close to capturing how wounded the country was.
Almost 15% of the population was killed in a hundred days of gore.
Though the majority of the killings happened in those hundred days, low intensity animosity and murders had been occurring since independence from Belgium in 1961. Hutu-Tutsi animosities kept flaring up in 1958, 1961 and 1974, till the Civil War which started in 1990 culminated in the events of 1994.
A lot of current literature blames the Belgians for dividing the society into Hutus and Tutsis, for issuing identity cards with race marked on them, for making the historical division which offered some mobility permanent and also for playing one side against the other in order to maintain their rule.
Indians blame the British for some of their divisions. The divide-and-rule policy had its roots in the reorganization of the British Army after the revolt of 1857 along communal lines to create division within the army and prevent coordination. This policy was extended to weaken the independence movement resulting first in the partition of Bengal in 1905 and then of India in 1947.
Thankfully, India chose to constitute itself into a state where everyone is treated equally, as opposed to Pakistan. But the mass movement of people resulting from the partition solidified these divisions.
The Notorious RTLMC
The next morning, I made my way to the now iconic Hotel des Mille Collines on which the story of “Hotel Rwanda” was based. It brings to mind the eponymous “Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines” (RTLMC) which broadcast racist propaganda against Tutsis, Belgians and UN. It referred to the Tutsis as “inyenzi” or ‘cockroaches’ and railed against any Hutu who would dare to break ranks:
Such traitors could not possibly act from worthy motives but must have succumbed to money or women offered by the Tutsi.
The need to maintain Hutu purity and to avoid contamination by the Tutsi was taught in a notorious set of “Ten Commandments”. It specified that any Hutu who married or had sex with Tutsi women were traitors, as were any who engaged in business with Tutsi.
The radio had a dedicated following among the youth who formed the “Interahamwe”, the militia which carried out the bulk of the genocide.
Learn From History
Sushant Singh in a column earlier this year wrote about how the propaganda by RTLMC has parallels in the hate messages circulating via WhatsApp and how WhatsApp groups were used in the Muzaffarnagar riots. Last week, haunting images emerged from Jharkhand of the lynching of seven men by a crowd who thought that the men were trafficking children based on some WhatsApp rumour. Meanwhile, assorted “anti-Romeo squads” and cow-terrorist groups roam the country freely.
As I continued walking in a swanky neighborhood, I crossed the house of Madame Agathe Uwilingiyimana, the former Prime Minister of Rwanda. As a moderate, she was constantly attacked by Hutu political parties. The night the 1994 genocide began, she was among the first people to be targeted, her guard of UN soldiers was disarmed by the Rwandan army, and she was later assaulted and shot.
A similar fate befell most moderate Hutu voices. The intensity of the attacks against Hutu who opposed the regime showed how much the regime dreaded the “Kanyarengwe effect”.
Colonel Kanyarengwe was a Hutu army commander who defected to the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front, the rebel army led by Paul Kagame) ostensibly because he opposed the training of militia and killing of Tutsis.
Discrediting those already in the opposition was not enough; they had to make it unthinkable for others to join them.
It’s May 2017 and a similar climate has overtaken much of India. A popular actor and Member of Parliament called for an author to be tied to a jeep as a human shield. Liberal journalists are constantly abused on social media, the women among them referred to as prostitutes and “presstitutes”. Television too has taken to hounding opponents of the ruling party.
In so far as the questioning is objective, and in matters of corruption and other illegal activities, it can be justified – but we are long past the point of any such objectivity.
In place of one RTLM, we have many. One university is perceived to be such a danger to the regime that every year, members of the ruling party or its affiliates demand oaths of loyalty from its professors and students.
In a similar vein, a variety of people from writers, economists, lawyers etc. are targeted for opposing any government policy. So far, violence has been restricted mostly to the cow-terrorists. That this violence goes unpunished implies that it enjoys the support of the powers that be. The threat of violence looms large against any opponent of the government, with the guarantee that it too will go unpunished or worse, condoned.
History has much to teach us. Divisions exacerbated by propaganda never end well for any country. They say that with the advent of social media, memories have become shorter.
Those for whom 1994 is too far away can look to Turkey. The AKP swept to power in 2002 and proceeded in their attempt to create an Islamic republic out of a secular country. It took them 14 years to take Turkey from the verge of EU membership to a quasi-Islamic dictatorship.
Cultural and religious chauvinism does not bode well for any society. If India descends down a similar path, unlike Rwanda, we may not have the British to blame for our divisions.
(The writer is a fellow at Pahle India Foundation. He can be reached @roynosaurus)