Dark jubilee: An era of impunity

India celebrated the 70th anniversary of its independence in August last year. However, the occasion was marred by the fact that since the right-wing Hindu chauvinist BJP assumed power in New Delhi, minorities, especially the Muslims, have been the target of attacks, with no effective action taken against the perpetrators by the state. In this analysis, Mukul Kesavan argues that this era of impunity really began 25 years ago with the 1992 demolition of the Babri Mosque by Hindu mobs.

THERE is a straight line that connects the razing of the Babri Masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya in 1992 with the butchering and burning alive of a Bengali Muslim labourer in Rajasthan in December 2017: what they have in common is a sense of impunity.

The mob in Ayodhya and the politicians who urged them on in their task of destruction, as well as Shambhulal Regar, who murdered Mohammad Afrazul while his nephew filmed him in the act, didn't believe that they would be punished for their crimes. And they believed this for a very particular reason: the vandals and the killer thought they were channelling the grievances of India's Hindu majority.

6 December 1992 is a landmark date in the history of the Indian republic: confronted by a mob claiming to act in a Hindu cause, it blinked. The State became a bystander as the mob destroyed the mosque, thus signalling both its impotence - there was a Congress party government at the centre - and its cooption - the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s Kalyan Singh was the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, where Ayodhya is located.

The State's failure to maintain order, to uphold its laws, was critical in this matter because the Ram temple movement led by the BJP was a political cause: the projected bhavya mandir was less a religious shrine than a symbol of the Hindu ownership of the Indian nation. The real estate in dispute was not the site on which the Babri Masjid stood, but the constitutional ground on which the republic was built.

By intimidating the State into inaction (or complicity), the kar sevaks (volunteers for the Ram temple movement) flaunted through spectacle - the tearing down of a medieval mosque in broad daylight - this sense of impunity. By first failing to prevent the demolition and then failing to bring the vandals and their political patrons to justice, the republic demoralised its own institutions and encouraged them to make their peace with Hindu majoritarianism. The history of the republic over the next 25 years has, in large part, been the story of this appeasement.

This deference to Hindu sentiment is, at times, visible in the rulings of the judiciary. In the 1996 'Hindutva judgment', Justice JS Verma went to remarkable lengths to argue that the invocation of 'Hindutva' by Shiv Sena and BJP leaders while campaigning for elections did not fall foul of the law that explicitly prohibits the soliciting of votes in the name of religion. Verma quoted a Muslim alim, Maulana Wahiuddin Khan, entirely out of context to argue that 'the word "Hindutva" is used and understood as a synonym of "Indianization", i.e. development of uniform culture by obliterating the differences between all cultures coexisting in the country'. 'Ordinarily, Hindutva,' ruled Verma, 'is understood as a way of life or a state of mind and it is not to be equated with, or understood as religious Hindu fundamentalism.'

Contrast the latitude Verma grants the political vocabulary and electoral practices of the Hindu Right with his brisk dismissal, in an earlier case, of the objection of the Muslim parties to the Ayodhya dispute, to the government's acquisition of the disputed site after the demolition. The acquisition of a mosque or mosque site by the State, according to the majority judgment written by Verma, did not constitute a violation of the fundamental right to religious practice of Muslims because '[a] mosque is not an essential part of the practice of religion of Islam...' This ruling is derived from the fact that 'Namaz by Muslims can be offered anywhere, even in the open.' It's hard to imagine any court in India ruling on the essentials of Hindu religious practice in this blithe way.

Meanwhile, the sense of impunity was consolidated by the fact that the case of criminal conspiracy (also known as the 'demolition suit') against political leaders like L K Advani, Uma Bharti and Murli Manohar Joshi has meandered on for a quarter of a century without a verdict. The Supreme Court has begun hearing the title suit urgently without the criminal case being settled, which is, as Justice Manmohan Singh, who led the commission of enquiry into the demolition of the Babri Masjid, observed, an inversion of the priorities of justice.

It could be argued that this is not exceptional (as the unpunished pogrom of 1984 demonstrates), that the Indian justice system is incorrigibly dilatory. But given the symbolic importance of the razing of the Babri Masjid, the fact that criminal prosecutions have not been successfully concluded in 25 years (during which time the Allahabad High Court effectively ruled in favour of the Hindu parties to the title suit in its 2010 judgment) has helped amplify this sense of impunity, the notion that you could get away with virtually anything in a majoritarian cause.

Take the example of the thuggish lawyers who assaulted both Kanhaiya Kumar and a delegation of senior lawyers expressly sent by the Supreme Court to the Patiala House courts in February 2016. The reason they repeatedly challenged the authority of the apex court with violent goonery is that they felt they could get away with it because of their political connections. And they did; despite their violence and their open defiance of the Supreme Court, they were neither prosecuted nor charged with contempt.

Compliant media

If the judiciary is one line of defence for the citizen, an alert and sceptical press is another. Here again, the elections of 2014 seemed to suggest that the prime movers behind the demolition of the mosque and the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 had been voted to power. That far from suffering the consequences of lawlessness and violence, they had been politically endorsed by the electorate. The speed at which most news channels veered towards the right and turned themselves into ventriloquists for the sangh parivar was of a piece with the knowledge that there was no downside to taking extreme majoritarian positions, no blowback for bigotry. The hushed silence with which Caravan's story on the troubling death of Justice Loya was received by newspapers and news channels was the flipside of their eloquence in the majoritarian cause: there was no upside to challenging this sense of majoritarian impunity that Advani, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah had so painstakingly created.

It should come as no surprise, then, that North India has seen a rash of lynchings in the name of cow protection by murderous vigilantes who believe that they have the tacit support of the State. Nor should it seem strange that the policemen in these provinces are sometimes quicker to charge the families of the victims with cow slaughter than their assailants with murder.

The era of impunity prefigured by 1984 and inaugurated by the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 has found institutional expression. The real tragedy of the murder of Mohammad Afrazul is that he was killed only because it was widely known that such deaths are inconsequential.  

This article is reproduced from The Telegraph (India) (10 December 2017).

*Third World Resurgence No. 324/325, August/September 2017, pp 64-65