Can communal riots be addressed with statistics?

We must fight the intangible intolerance that makes it heroic to kill for no reason other than difference of thought and belief.

WrittenBy:Madhu Trehan
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After reading Rupa Subramanya’s article does the reader feel reassured? There were as many if not more communal riots when the Congress party was in power. Cherry-picking is defined as the selection of data or data sets so a study or survey will give desired, predictable results which may be misleading or even completely contrary to actuality. But should the crux of the problem be addressed with statistics? There is a big fat elephant or should I say cow, in the room.

Rupa writes, “As I’ve shown, there’s absolutely no statistical basis on which to make such an assertion. The truth is, as any serious scholar will tell you, we’ll have to wait for years and decades of data to say whether there’s been any kind of change in the trend of episodes of communal violence in India or not. So anything you read that says there’s been an increase in communal violence is driven not by fact but by propaganda.”

So, if we apply the same logic, if you read there is a decrease in communal violence (or even if the numbers have remained constant) that too is driven not by fact but by propaganda?  Rupa herself writes, “we’ll have to wait for years and decades of data to say whether there’s been any kind of change in the trend of episodes of communal violence in India or not”. Why then has she used data to come to a conclusion? Rupa may be correct in her assessment by instinct, but the argument based on statistics that she herself debunks does not stand up.

Yes, our country has been through years of communal riots. Decades ago, it was difficult to get facts on who started them. And even today, there is the Rashomon result. Everyone involved or not involved gives different versions according to their political bent. People will tend to believe the version that their own identities connect with. Telling the truth is not one of our strong characteristics. I have personally experienced this in many reports. In the beginning of the militancy in Kashmir, a bus on the outskirts of Srinagar was attacked by militants. Our team was there and took interviews of those injured in the bus. They all spoke about militants attacking the bus. When the same people were interviewed in the hospital where they were being treated, their stories changed completely. They then said it was the Indian army that attacked them.

Rupa’s article states that there have been communal riots in the past but nobody blamed the Prime Minister. That is true. The horrors of 1984 have been reported on extensively but there was no black cloud of accusation and guilt over Rajiv Gandhi as there has been and is over Narendra Modi. The Congress party has been no angel when it comes to communalising a political situation. Yes, here whataboutery is valid because as citizens we have to look at the choices we have and make.

Narendra Modi has not made one communal or incendiary statement since he became Prime Minister. But, the ministers and members of his party and the cultural organisations RSS and VHP have many times over.

A discontent between the party in power and RSS has been written about. This Prime Minister wants to focus on development but cannot seem to shake off the Hindutva force that helped bring him to power. Modi has repeatedly invoked inclusive policies. But fundamentalists are not listening. They have made Modi a mascot of their intolerant aspirations. Modi is now speaking a different language but a lynch mob rarely hears anything but its own voice. And, each time these violent, non-inclusive statements are made, they give fuel to the Congress party to position itself as the liberal, reasonable alternative. The Congress party is neither liberal nor reasonable and really should not be an alternative. The virulent triumphalism of Hindutva thrust upon us is light years away from the Hinduism in the content and philosophy of the Vedas, Upanishads and the Sutras. Vedic literature is written in the spirit of enquiry and often there are contradictions in it, which is the beauty of it. Unlike Islam, there is nothing in our sacred books that encourages conversions or violence towards followers of other religions. Please listen to Swami Vivekanada’s speech in Chicago on September 15, 1893.

It is painful to think that politicians have used Hindutva for political gains and made it closer to the intolerance and violence encouraged in Islam. (Though many have written that Islam is supposed to be a peaceful religion, that is hard to believe.)

Statistics do not touch upon the reality we live in today. Writers have been murdered for non-alignment of thought and belief. A man was murdered on the presumption he had eaten beef. A man transporting cows was lynched. Yes, law and order is state controlled and those state governments are responsible. But, what motivates these goons? Have they misunderstood Swami Vivekananda? Is it the triumph of transformation from the passive Hindu that so dismayed Swami Vivekanada? In 1893, T B Macaulay described the Bengali: “The physical organization of the Bengalee [sic] is feeble even to effeminacy. He lives in a constant vapor bath. His pursuits are sedentary, his limbs delicate, his movements languid. During many ages he has been trampled upon by men of bolder and more hardy breeds. Courage, independence, veracity are qualities to which his constitution and his situation are equally unfavourable. He would see his country overrun, his house laid in ashes, his children murdered or dishonoured, without having the spirit to strike one blow.”

Swami Vivekanada’s response was his push for the spiritual remasculation of the Indian man. He said, “What we want is muscles of iron and nerves of steel, inside which dwell a mind of the same material as that of which the thunderbolt is made. Strength, manhood, Kshatra-Virya. We have wept long enough.” Yet he reminded us to keep our brains Vedantist. He did have a vision of a strong, aggressive Hindu man. I remember reading as a child that he wanted the Indian male to be like the Samurai. But yet, at the same time he never failed to remind the absorbate quality and tolerance in Hinduism. Perhaps, the subtlety of a strength that is at the same time benevolent is indeed difficult to comprehend. Swami Vivekananda explained, “Vedantism is an expansive ocean on the surface of which a man-of-war could be near a catamaran. So in the Vedantic ocean a real Yogi can be by the side of an idolater or even an atheist. What is more, in the Vedantic ocean, the Hindu, Mohammedan, Christian, and Parsee are all one, all children of the Almighty God.”

The unleashing of intolerance is an intangible that one cannot ignore. The quality of intangibility cannot be under estimated. Intangibility is not an object. It is not a fact. But that does not make it less powerful. Patriotism is an intangible. It not only moves nations, it creates countries such as Israel. Hate is another intangible that supports fascism and many tyrants have galvanised their people by using it.  If there is a tacit unspoken official approval and the majority doesn’t disapprove, the motivation becomes heroic. It is wonderful to have a powerful right-wing but it reduces itself with expressions of physical violence, verbal abuse and Vatican-like edicts. Why not an intellectual right-wing? Swami Vivekananda said, “The Vedanta recognises the reasoning power of man a good deal, although it says there is something higher than intellect; but the road lies through intellect.”

It would also be wonderful to have a powerful liberal party, but sadly that too is reduced to having the veneer of liberalism but has acted worse than any right-wing repression.

Can the power of the intangible intolerant atmosphere be glossed over with statistics? Freedom of speech has been under perennial peril under the Congress party. Section 66A is a blot in our constitution. The Congress party has a long history of suppression of freedom of expression being in the forefront of bans, pathetic appeasement and political convenience such as the Shah Bano case. The brainwashing is so complete in much of the English media that the Congress party has gotten away with the worst repressions and communal actions. Yet, the liberals’ silence on these repressions is astounding. So far from being true liberals they are merely dynasty supporters or are succumbing to a manufactured image of liberalism. There was as much self-censorship in the media under the Congress as there is today. There was fear of retribution then and there is the same fear now. How rabidly the media went after Snoopgate before the election? How did the story suddenly disappear? Fear. As simple as that. Yes, we have been functioning under fear right from Indira Gandhi’s time, Sonia Gandhi’s regime and now.

After a report on the Mandal riots in 1990, when students immolated themselves and were shot at and killed by the police, I closed my anchoring by saying, “The Prime Minister of our country V P Singh has the blood of these students on his hands.” Could I say that today? Fearlessly? What was the fall out? V P Singh refused to speak to anyone from Newstrack for a while but then, guess what? He recovered. Controlling journalists by refusing or giving access has always been practiced by those in power. No journalist who believes in journalism ever takes a politician’s refusal to speak to them personally. There could be a variety of reasons. I had the distinction of being ditched at the last minute by both Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. The former because the channel I was to interview him on had been in the forefront of blame in 2002 and the latter because after his interview with Arnab Goswami had made him the butt of ridicule there was apprehension that another interview would only invite more. These were valid political reasons. Why should I take it personally? But, I won’t give up. We just keep asking, in a thick skinned way. The satisfaction of pursuing good journalism ensures that I will never receive official awards to return.

What does culture minister Mahesh Sharma mean when he says, “If writers are unable to write, let them stop writing”? For those who are too young to really understand what happened during the Emergency, the dissidents who are being lauded now for standing up in 1975, were treated the same way that dissidents are being censured and mocked now. Writers have returned their awards to register their protest on the killings of writers and the esteemed Sahitya Akademi’s gaping silence. But, since when did Sahitya Akademi give out political statements? The Akademi was silent through the Emergency, 1984 Sikh riots, Godhra riots of 2002, banning of books, films, arrests for cartoons and Facebook posts and all the other assaults we have gone through. Not a single writer returned an award during these tribulations. Expecting Sahitya Akademi to issue statements is like expecting a dinosaur to disco.

But, we must still fight the intangible intolerance that makes it heroic to kill for no reason other than difference of thought and belief.

Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) wrote a poem about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazi’s rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist;

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

It has never been right to be silent while almost all the governments in India have tried to control the media. This is not the time to be silent yet again.


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