Gautam Singh reflects on the transformation of his home country of India, the recent riots in Delhi and the impact on his own village
I grew up in the small village of Jharkhand, India. My village has a population of almost 1200 people, half of them being Muslim, the other half Hindu, divided into several casts. This has been the demographic of my village for centuries. Until the early 1990’s, every festival, whether it was Eid, Holi or Diwali, was celebrated by everyone, Muslims and Hindus alike. Muslim villagers often led the Hindu Holi procession and Hindus often led the prayers and sweet distribution for Eid. There were three places of worship in the village and everyone could worship in any of these places. In this remote and isolated village, we all co-existed like members of a large extended family, maintaining a unique way of life; mellow and harmonious, celebratory and united.
All of this changed overnight on the 6th December 1992, when Babri Mosque in Ayodhya was demolished by a large group of Hindu nationalist activists. We started receiving new visitors to our village. Some came with ‘brick-in-hand’ to collect funds for a new Hindu temple in Ayodhya, while others preached that Islam was in danger in India. Some were wearing saffron robes with a sectorial mark on their forehead and others wore white robes and skull caps. They divided our places of worship, converting two of them into temples and one into a mosque. My village entered a transformatory phase. Villagers began to disengage from people from other communities, growing religiously private, limiting interaction, and keeping to themselves and their respective religious communities. We no longer celebrated festivals together. We stopped inviting villagers from other religious communities to family functions.
However, with the passage of time, villagers overcame the polarization, rejecting what they saw as a dividing tactic of some extreme religious groups. By the beginning of the 2000s, the community spirit of my village had returned. Although, the tradition of a Muslim man leading the Holi procession and Hindus distributing sweets in Eid were never revived, members of both religions began again to celebrate festivals and family functions together.
By this time, I had moved to Mumbai and subsequently to Qatar. But I never missed a single Eid, Holi or Diwali in my village and would always talk with great pride about how Hindus and Muslims of my village lived and celebrated life together for centuries.
Sadly, last year, this pride was totally shattered, when I returned to take part in the Holi procession in my village. Since the early 2000s, during a Hindu festival, Muslim men would walk along with the procession and women would stand outside their homes with water and sweets. But this time, the door of every Muslim house was shut. Not a single person from the Muslim community came out in the street to join the festival. As I went to knock on the door of some of my Muslim friends who lived near the village mosque, the procession loudspeaker started broadcasting loud Hindu nationalist slogans:
“Jai shree Ram” (Hail Lord Ram)
“Mandir wahi banayenge” (We will build the temple there only)
“Goli maro salon ko…desh ke gaddaron ko” (Kill the traitors)
“Kheer mango kheer denge…Kashmir mango cheer denge” (We will slaughter you if you ask for Kashmir)
These slogans referred to the site of the destroyed Mosque at Ayodhya, claiming it to be the birthplace of the Hindu God, Rama and pledging to rebuild a Hindu temple there. I then realised why my friends weren’t joining the parade and why the majority of the houses in my village were shut, as the Holi procession continued on through the ghostly streets.
But this story of my village of Jharkhand is not simply the story of one village. It is a story that has played out in villages, towns and cities across India over the last half century.
India is a country of 1.30 billion people, including 965 million Hindus and 170 million Muslims and despite differences, a long tradition of tolerance has pulled this huge nation together. However, since 2014, when the Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), lead by Narendra Modi, came to power, tensions between Muslims and Hindus have increased in many parts of the country.
Modi has been an activist for the Hindu far-right paramilitary RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and its affiliates for the entirety of his political life. He remains committed to the supremacist ideology of Hindutva which says that India should be an exclusive Hindu nation-state in which minorities are treated as second-class citizens. Muslims, in the last 6 years have faced regular attacks after being accused of eating beef or killing a cow, an animal considered sacred in Hinduism.
After being re-elected in 2019, Modi and his deputy Amit Shah pushed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) through Indian parliament. The Act prohibits ‘illegal migrants’ from becoming Indian Citizens, allowing for exceptions for six religious minorities, but not for Muslims. The creation of a National Register of Citizens (NRC), couched in the language of ‘national security’ and ‘muslim-only’ detention centres has caused an atmosphere of extreme mistrust among a large section of Indian Muslims. Anti-CAA protests have spread around the country and have been met with brutal force by authorities.
A Hindu-Muslim divide is growing. Even the visit of US President, Donald Trump to India did not prevent communal passions from taking a violent turn in the national capital, Delhi. Parts of Delhi were literally burning and rioters rampaged the streets as the US President was being welcomed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a well-orchestrated “Namaste Trump” ceremony. Delhi cried for 72 hours while Lutyen’s Delhi (the political heart of New Delhi) left not a single stone unturned to blow Trump’s Trumpet. While images of the Delhi riots spread around the globe, the two leaders were busy exhibiting showmanship and sycophancy.
The violence erupted following the ‘rabble-rousing’ of a local politician named Kapil Mishra whose speech provoked the targeting of Muslims protesting against the CAA. A mob went on the rampage in minority-dominated neighborhoods, and in some specific areas, Hindu-owned properties including schools, shops and homes were also attacked and burnt. 50 died and hundreds were injured. Instead of controlling the violence, the police became active participants in many areas. This was symbolized by a video which went viral, showing uniformed officers beating five young men, all of them injured, telling them to sing the national anthem. One of the men, Faizan, died of his injuries days later.
For three days the Prime Minister of India remained silent and the Home Minister was absent. When the state not only fails to provide the same protection of law to all sections of society but emboldens the rioters, one cannot put it down simply to the incompetency of state machinery to protect its citizens. Instead it exposes the reality of a more sinister wholescale discrimination against one religious minority, and deeply troubling signs for the future of the world’s biggest democracy.
About the author: Gautam Singh is an independent film-maker, cinematographer, writer, director and a program-maker at Al Jazeera Media Network. His films include ‘Gaon – The Village No More’, ‘Daughters of Brothel’, ‘The Burning City’, ‘Indian Hospital’, and ‘My Sister Laxmi’. Currently, he lives in Doha, Qatar along with his family.