How 2020 ‘Became’ The Year Of Hate, ‘Othering’ & Polarisation

To be sure, polarisation existed pre-2020 as well. But 2020 has highlighted divisions & hatred more prominently. 

Published
Opinion
5 min read
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The deafening echoes of ‘love jihad’ have been consuming India’s secular foundation for years – turning into riots, lynchings and witch hunts. Recently, the Uttar Pradesh government passed an ordinance with punishment of up to 10 years in jail for ‘illegal’ religious conversion. Some other BJP-ruled states are also looking to pursue similar action.

While some argue that Muslim men are ‘forcefully’ converting Hindu women by ‘enticing’ them into marriage, others have shot this down as nothing more than a conspiracy theory.

It appears that this is just another ugly manifestation of an extremist movement that aims to split a once united India – it aims to polarise, and 2020 seems to be the year of unfettered polarisation.

Let’s look at what it means to be a polarised society – at best, discontent and unrest between communities. At worst, civil war and the destruction of unity.

The question is: how far have we come on this journey of polarisation? How far have we, as individuals, become polarised?

Redefining The ‘Indian Citizen’

This year was a rather busy one for news cycles – we were caught in the terrors of a pandemic and the suicide of a celebrity that shook the nation. What we may have missed in the process is the unprecedented rise of the other in India. The nation has been carefully segmented into groups driven to hate and target one another. And even as we see this division across multiple axes – colour, caste, religion, gender, class – none is quite as pronounced as the religious angle. If by some play of luck, you were born into the category of the religious other, you find yourself gasping for breath in the India of 2020. It only demands that we pause for a moment and recall the events that have polarised the citizens of India this year.

It would be worth jogging our memories to recall what we have been witnessing since the start of the year – just before COVID-19 brought life to a standstill, protests had taken over the nation as we strived to redefine the Indian citizen.

India brought in the year on the note of polarisation – the Citizenship Amendment Act aimed to define belonging to India on the basis of religion (unequivocally unconstitutional).

The message was clear. People were being divided along communal, religious lines. Suddenly, some lives were more valuable and some people more ‘Indian’ than others. Groups were segregated and threatened, and we were told that everyone didn’t deserve the same rights and safeties.

Othering Of A Religious Minority Community

Amid these widespread protests, by late February 2020, videos and images of religious riots in northeast Delhi emerged that made our stomachs turn in agony. We watched violence that systematically targeted a minority community. Over 50 people were killed, hundreds were left injured and many ousted from their own homes into relief camps. Streets turned to smoke and many of our fellow citizens turned into lynchers. The result – a city in flames and a group of people threatened with lathis and made to prove their allegiance by singing the national anthem, and compelled to leave their homes solely because of the mark of their religion.

As the nation was still recovering from the horrors of the February riots, March came with strategic efforts to taint the image of all Indian Muslims through the case of the Tablighi Jamaat, or what came to be known as “Corona jihad”.

When the virus was just beginning to spread in India, in early March, the Tablighi Jamaat had held a religious congregation in Delhi. As fate would have it, this event became a super-spreader and resulted in thousands of COVID cases across the nation.

I am in no way justifying the actions and lack of precaution on the part of the organisers or the attendees. However, what we witnessed in the aftermath was a pointed effort to pit the nation against not just those actually involved, but an entire religious community. The categorisation of Muslims as the other was deepened, presenting an entire community as a threat to our safety. With little resistance, many of us accepted and bought into this narrative.

Ayodhya, ‘Love Jihad’ And Other Instances Of Divisiveness

By this point, there was an entrenched ecosystem of polarisation, with institutions across the board driving religious hatred. And we, as a people, had accepted this as the norm. In fact, we were beginning to support and spread it. Then came the bhoomi pujan of the Ayodhya temple in August, that exemplified the changing power dynamics of an age-old religious dispute. The foundation of the Ayodhya temple was laid, and many came together in loud cries of joy. Yet, while this united those within the religious community, it simultaneously dealt a blow to the unity of the nation as a whole. Not long after, all the (surviving) accused in the demolition of Babri masjid were acquitted, taking us a step closer to becoming a nation that only values the interests of the majority.

That brings us to this day and to the war against ‘love jihad’ – yet another step in a journey to divide and polarise a secular nation.

To be sure, polarisation isn’t a new phenomenon. It existed in the years before 2020 as well. It was polarisation that led to a bloody separation in 1947 and it was polarisation that led to widespread killings in 1984 and 2002. And it never really took a break.

But, 2020 has been a year of unfettered polarisation – one that highlights that we are being forced into divisions and hatred much faster than we realise. Polarisation is subtly and stealthily becoming the new normal for us, and we’re surrounded by hate-mongering and sparring groups.

We Are Polarised In Our Minds

What is particularly worrying is that we don’t blink an eye when we hear of the systematic demonisation of minorities or when friends and family members attack people based on their religious identity. It is becoming a part of our social fabric.

We are getting accustomed to the idea of the other. We are accepting that there is a nation of Hindus, and then there is the other within it – that doesn’t deserve the same liberties or protection from the State. We are strangling the syncretic roots of India.

We, as a people, are getting polarised in our individual minds and hearts, drawing us to a terrifying height of division. The challenge before us is to recognise, acknowledge and fight this rising polarisation and conscious othering of people. And then to put an end to it. The journey has begun with the recent ruling of the Allahabad High Court – that “two adults are free to choose their partner.” Now the mantle of responsibility lies with each one of us.

(The author is a MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a former LAMP fellow and campaign strategist. She tweets @sehrtaneja6. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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