Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The complicity in murder

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The gathering at Jantar Mantar signals that the saffron tint of hate crimes against Muslims are swiftly becoming a taint.

Business Standard, June 30, 2017

Exactly as predicted by the weather office, the monsoon hit the capital on Wednesday afternoon. What was entirely unexpected was the crowd that descended on to join the “Not In My Name” protests in response to posts by documentary filmmaker Saba Dewan. As the clouds opportunely rolled back for a while people kept pouring in, my phone buzzed with social media alerts and messages from colleagues, friends, and neighbours on their way.

The gathering was neither politically orchestrated nor propelled by fury. The numbers were not as many as the city saw during Anna Hazare’s or the but even a few thousand was large for spontaneous word-of-mouth outreach. There were some well-known lawyers, activists, and performers on stage but not, as some cynically suggested, more journalists present than protestors. I encountered people of all age groups and backgrounds. Arogyan Kumar, a middle-aged office worker, came by Metro from Gurgaon, “kyonki daftar mein do din se is meeting ki charcha hai” (there has been much talk about this meeting in my office for two days). Mohd. Vakil, a college student, confidently sporting his skull cap, came all the way from Modinagar with classmates. “Sirf Junaid ki yaadmein,” he said simply (we’re only here in Junaid’s memory).

Unlike Mohd. Akhlaq’s lynching in Dadri or Pehlu Khan’s in Alwar on false allegations of storing beef or trading cattle for slaughter, the 16-year-old Junaid Khan was brutally stabbed in full public view, in front of his siblings on a train, for no other reason than he went shopping for Eid. That the cold-blooded murder took place on the outskirts of Delhi was made more horrifying by the complicity of two Delhi government officials who egged on his killer.

Ms Dewan, who organised the meeting, is not a street agitator, she says. “Yet the tipping point came with the lynching of Junaid…[he] was just a child….and got killed by a mob near Delhi, my city. You become complicit in this violence by keeping quiet. I didn’t want to be complicit in this. We can’t wait for an eternity to protest.”

As the “Not In My Name” call spread to other cities via the simple and speedy tool of social media, devices that the prime minister and his government relentlessly use for puff jobs and self-promotion, their complicity in the humiliation, intimidation and targeted killing of Muslims gets darker by the day.

It has been the gloomiest Eid in memory. In official circles the festival is marked by a series of iftaar dinners, with political leaders competing to outdo one another by hosting lavish feasts to break the day’s fast. Far from doing so, not a single member of the Union cabinet attended the President’s iftaar. In Lucknow, the saffron-robed Muslim-baiting Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath broke from precedent and followed his leader Narendra Modi by failing to host one; he also pointedly skipped the governor’s iftaar. “He should have been courteous to attend it. It has been a longstanding tradition,” the imam of Lucknow’s idgah remarked. In the city that epitomises an embedded syncretic culture of Ganga-Jumni tehzeeb, the omission was a deliberate insult.

A repudiation of the most important Muslim festival is one thing but the terrifying roster of hate crimes against Muslims another — their numbers have soared since Mr Modi came to power and growing in BJP-ruled states. In a recent piece on the shape of India’s political landscape to come, the historian Ramachandra Guha says that though the BJP juggernaut may be unstoppable, “it has not been able to suppress either reasoned debate or independent documentation and analysis … In society at large, tens of millions of Indians remain committed to an idea of constitutional patriotism that is steadfastly opposed to Hindutva. These Indians do not want their country to become a Hindu Pakistan. They do not want to be told what to eat, how to dress, whom to love and whom to vilify. Seventy years of independence and of life under the Constitution have led to the inculcation of mores and habits that run against the grain of authoritarianism and majoritarianism”.

The crowds collecting in cities this week in stunned sympathy for an innocent teenager’s killing could snowball; a trickle could become a flood that the BJP’s masterful managers might find hard to contain.

Mindful of this Mr Modi took to invoking the Mahatma, spinning the charkha at Sabarmati ashram and denouncing cow protectors that Mr Guha calls “gau gundas”.

But before the country’s saffron-tinted map becomes a taint, Mr Modi has to demonstrably prove that he means what he says, and that his cohorts in New Delhi and party faithful in the states are not complicit in foul murders.

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