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The Politicisation of Organised Religion and Freedom.

This session of JanPaigam explored the link between faith and freedom within India. The discussion was conducted by Ms. Akriti Bhatia, Founder and Director of PAIGAM, and Dr. Valson Thampu, an author, scholar, and the former Principal of St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. Throughout the discussion, discourses around historical and the current politicised aspects of faith and religion in India were explored. The impact of external rule and colonisation along with the nature secularism practiced within the state were discussed. Building on this issue, the politics of populism and nationalism and the interlinking of freedom and religious identity was traced, by looking at the role of Gandhi, and his concepts of ahimsa and truth.

Ms. Bhatia began the discussion by raising vital questions with regards to the freedom celebrated within India, the shift in the ideas of this freedom and the role of faith. She posed questions on the different natures of oppression individuals and communities continue to fight against, in order to obtain freedom within the country. Here, oppression was identified as socio-economic and political disadvantages and discrimination faced on the basis of a religious identity. Dr. Valson responds by stating that in order to understand the current freedoms enjoyed within India, one needs to consider the freedoms we lost. Here, he refers to how the Indian subcontinent was constantly subjected to external rule, either being conquered, or colonised. It is through this subjugation that India came to realise that “freedom is endangered by vested interest”, wherein economic and financial gains of others are prioritised over human rights and development. Post- independence, Dr. Valson believes that despite being an independent sovereign state, “having the reins in our hands”, freedom for all is still not guaranteed within India.

Looking back at the independence struggle and the Partition of 1947, Dr. Valson remarked that the secular nature of India began being questioned during that time, and now even more so with the rise of majoritarianism. He builds upon his understanding of majoritarianism, stating that it is a “negative force which arises when our humanity is atrophied”. Majoritarianism, according to him, comes about when “the substance of our togetherness, human solidarity, kinship, brotherhood, and commitment to one another disappear”. Both spirituality and the lack of resistance play a vital role in the rise of such a phenomenon. Freedom, Dr. Valson said “fundamentally spiritual, and should be nourished by spiritual values and a sense of equality for all”.

With regards to politics, Dr. Valson believes that there is a “near complete vacuum of opposition space in India”. The combination of the two aforementioned factors have led to such an environment, wherein each individual is responsible for its rise. With regards to faith and freedom, Ms. Bhatia and Dr. Valson looked at the rise in the role of organized religion and majoritarianism. According to Dr. Valson, “religion is fundamentally irreconcilable with freedom”. To him, the function of truth is to create a general context which can be shared with all people, meant to unify people, whereas falsehood causes divisions. Here, when freedom becomes detached from truth, it gets linked to other forms of raw power, to establish some sort of hegemony.

Dr. Valson stressed that there are two things present at the same time in all society, essentially that when commitment and truth are diluted and abandoned, “the taste for and faith in violence increases”. Here, organised religion acts as a means for the powerless to feel powerful, creating a sense of self-affirmation.

When linking the rise of religious majoritarianism, Dr. Valson emphasised that the rhetoric and political charade built around religious events and holy sites was problematic. With regards to majoritarianism and religious dominance, Dr. Valson said that the rhetoric and political charade made around events based on faith and religion are just as, if not more, important than the actual events. The rise of such majoritarianism comes about over a period of time. Dr. Valson remarked, “If people do not wake up to this reality, there will be no remedy, and the situation will keep worsening. Change requires awareness to develop, the only way out of that is to go back to the foundations we have abandoned and rebuild ourselves as a democratic culture”.

Dr. Valson emphasised that all sense of unity has been displaced and the stage for such an atmosphere was set up by not only one party but by all the religions, parties, and sections of society. He stated that nationalism and patriotism should be looked at with two different lenses. In theory patriotism is the love for one’s country, however, it also means that one needs to understand the concept of a country, which differs from person to person.

The values in the preamble only apply in the context of the citizens, however, the idea of ‘a citizen’ no longer exists. It has been substituted with “my people versus your people”. According to Dr. Valson, when a political model changes another one comes in its place, causing a shift in the activities and priorities of the state and of individuals. The effectiveness is only witnessed when the new paradigm is practiced faithfully and violently. The only way to redeem the situation is by creating public awareness about whether or not we have the “mentality for freedom”. He believes that majoritarianism comes from the memory of slavery, so it is vital for people to understand the mentality of freedom to become receptive to it. Dr. Valson said that it takes a lot of character strength and energy for an individual to stick to his/her values and face the consequences. He believes that it is crucial to radically educate the public. For democracy to thrive it is important to have a strong opposition, which is not present at this moment.

Society has become stagnant and now exists in a vacuum. Such a state only develops when there is a loss of dynamism in people’s perspectives and ideas. This can be dealt with only by restoring dialogue and cross-border interaction Dr. Valson said, but since the rise of socialism, we have seen a decline in such practices, which in turn has made society an inert object rather than a subject.

A Pogrom in Making and its Aftermath

With the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) in December 2019 by the government and its linking with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Muslims of the country were gripped by fear, uncertainty and a deep sense of alienation. There were peaceful protests organised across the different parts of the country, including the national capital. The situation turned grim on 24th February 2020 when the streets of North-East Delhi were struck with violence and terror as a mob of Hindu nationalists – who stood in support of the CAA-NRC- attacked Muslim neighbourhoods. The pogrom that ensued lasted for several days and claimed over 50 lives with complete absence of state intervention in controlling the rioting mobs. This was a targeted attack on the community as their shops, homes and few mosques were burnt down with thousands of them being displaced.

Pari and Hamza, a middle-aged couple have lost everything they owned as a result of the February pogrom. The mob that entered their lane, broke into their house, looted all their belongings, and then set their house on fire. While trying to escape, they were attacked on the streets by rioters with iron rods and stones. Pari got saved but her son and relatives were injured.

It has been seven months since this incident occurred but there has been no respite for the victims. While the memories of violence are fresh, there are no signs of restoring normalcy in their lives. Pari burst into tears while speaking to the scribe about the darkness the riots brought to their lives. Their house needs to be rebuilt from scratch, but they don’t have the means to pay for its full construction. Hamza was an egg-seller but has been unable to run his business because of a “shift in people’s attitude”, as he puts it, since the pogrom. The ongoing pandemic and the following lockdown imposed in March this year further pushed Hamza and his business to the edges. The pogrom cleaved divisions in the society to an extent that neighbourhood businesses were communalised. “Somehow the non-Muslims who employed me before the riots do not want services from me anymore, they get it done from their own community members”, he exclaimed.

They are currently living in a rented flat that costs them Rs. 3000 each month, which they are finding difficult to afford. They don’t have a home or a job nor any money to buy food. “We’ll either get a heart attack or die. That is all that can happen without a roof over our heads.” They have received no assistance or relief from the government or any organisation to rebuild their lives. While there are government funds that have been allocated and distributed to families affected by the pogrom, Hamza and Pari have gotten no access to a penny. “You can look at my bank accounts, I haven’t been given any money from anyone to build my house apart from Rs 5000 and some other stuff”, she said with tears in her eyes.

With the absence of the state, it is the civil society that took up the responsibility of rebuilding lives of the people who suffered in this grotesque display of hate.

The attackers, by destroying the houses, looting all their belongings, and disrupting their livelihood, have pushed the community deeper into poverty. The lack of government assistance in the aftermath of what were the Capital’s most brutal events of violence that took place in decades has deepened their feeling of fear and doom. This begs us to ask who is responsible for helping them get back on their feet after everything they had was taken away from them. As Pari sits on the unfinished floor of the construction site of her roofless house describing her helplessness, she says, “All I’m asking for is help to rebuild my house. The rest we will earn on our own.” Whose job is it to do so?

The psychological trauma that the pogrom and the state’s apathy has brought to its victims is incalculable and may last for generations. It then becomes the duty of the state to compensate the victims for their monetary losses so they can restart their lives and stand on their own feet.

A Pogrom in Making and its Aftermath.

The terror caused by the Pogrom in February has been one of the most violent communal riots that Delhi has seen after Partition.

Each attack that took place during those days was of the same nature and followed a set pattern. In every Muslim neighbourhood that was attacked, the houses were broken into and looted. Shops and cars, and local Mosques were set on fire. Any Muslim seen on the streets was targeted and attacked.

Mohammed Hassan and his wife were at home on 25th February, hoping for a quiet night in, when they heard loud noises on the street. A hoard of people stormed across, smashing cars, setting mosques on fire, and burning down houses. At 8 pm they came to Hassan’s house. They broke down their door and burnt their car. The family had locked themselves inside but the mob found a way in. Their home was attacked, looted, and destroyed. Hassan’s wife recalls how the attackers entered and looted their belongings, picking up everything that was valuable. “They took my jewellery, our hard-earned money, and they took our clothes as well. They didn’t even spare our children’s clothes”.

Hassan and his wife were beaten black and blue. The chants and slogans of their attackers were louder than their screams and cries for mercy. The police arrived to their rescue fifteen minutes after they were called. “We are thankful to the police. They saved our lives. We could’ve been killed”, Hassan recalled.

While Hassan’s case is an exception in terms of receiving Police help, there was complete Police inaction during the Delhi pogrom. In fact, there were reports that the police participated in violence attacking Muslim neighbourhoods, while chanting “Jai Shree Ram!” along with the armed Hindu mob. The international media reported about the partisan behaviour of the Delhi police that chose to “look away” in abetting the rioters.

As Hassan stood, holding up pictures of their ransacked house, the idea of justice seems very far-fetched to him and many more like him who have been victims of communal riots. It has been seven months since Hassan’s house was destroyed and looted. He was stripped of all his belongings and savings which he acquired after years of hard work and there was nothing left to rebuild. Despite this, all he and his wife ask for is assistance to “get back on their feet”.

Since then they have not been able to sustain themselves. The van that Hassan owned for his egg selling business was burnt and destroyed. The lockdown posed further challenges, making acquiring daily meals a challenge. They have been fortunate enough to receive help from an NGO, however, there has still been no action from the side of the state. Neither to provide justice to Hassan and his family, nor to support them for their basic survival.

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