Silence on vigilantism is not an option

Vigilantism has now spilled over from the domain of the creative arts to regulate the daily lives of people

April 25, 2017 12:02 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:45 pm IST

When was the last time the Hindu community asked itself the question ‘who are we’? The last of the interrogators of Hindu society was, arguably, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He catapulted to the forefront of the political agenda the many oppressions, discriminations, and exclusions of Hinduism, and thus compelled at least public intellectuals to investigate tradition and reflect on the malaise of the community. After him no one has really looked within the collective self, reflected, and considered.

This is a great tragedy, because unless a society asks fundamental questions of itself, it is doomed to complacency and stagnation, or simply doomed. Disdaining the stimulating intellectual exercise of examining the collective self, we have swept the failings of our society under the metaphorical carpet. Lulled into complacency by meaningless assertions — ‘say with pride we are Hindu’, or a ‘New India’, or a ‘sanitised India’, or a ‘digital India’ — few people ask why we still practise caste discrimination, why we continue to be disgracefully hostile to religious minorities, or why we are indifferent to the plight of our own people.

Silence as complicity

In a democratic political community, citizens owe obligations of justice to their fellow citizens. If the basic rights of an individual or a community are systematically violated, there should be pain, there should be empathy and outrage, and a determination to do something about the fundamental infringement of what is owed to human beings: dignity and respect. But we follow our own star; indifferent to the deplorable lack of solidarity in our community.

This is our tragedy, a double tragedy, because we are the inheritors of a rich history of public intellectuals, philosophers, social and religious reformers, and national leaders asking crucial questions of Indian society since the beginning of the nineteenth century. This was the beginning of the Indian Renaissance, and these questions escalated till the middle of the twentieth century. But no more.

Today, Hindu society is complicit in massive crimes perpetrated against Dalits, Muslims, and women, because it is silent in the face of atrocities practised by vigilantes who single-handedly define what they consider ‘morality’, and who punish people merely on suspicion that they violate codes of Hinduism. Backed by powerful political patrons and a compliant police force, vigilantes are legislators, prosecutors, juries and executioners rolled into one. Reports in our daily newspaper bring stories of horrific violence perpetrated by vigilantes masquerading as the keeper of the keys to the Hindu kingdom. This abnormality in our political life has become a normal way of doing politics. We should realise that democracy has been subverted, the rule of law has become redundant, and that our representatives are responsible for this serious deviation in political life. But we are silent.

Rising vigilantism

In early April, cow vigilantes attacked 15 Muslim men in the district of Alwar because they were transporting cows. One person died in the appalling violence, others were hospitalised. The Rajasthan Home Minister, Gulab Singh Kataria, defended vigilantes on the plea that cow smuggling is banned in Rajasthan. Apart from the fact that the victims possessed government documents allowing them to transport cows, the Minister’s words trivialise the system of justice. If people break a law, they should be hauled up before a court of justice for ‘the law to take its own course’. The law is, however, brushed aside as a slight inconvenience, as mercenaries attack the most vulnerable in our society, the Dalits and Muslims. This viciousness and this savagery is the new normal. And we watch in silence!

Vigilantism takes vicious shapes. In 2011 M.F. Husain died in loneliness and in exile, separated from his beloved country and its mythologies, to which he paid poetic homage on canvas. Some years before his death, London-based vigilantes ransacked an exhibition in Asia House that showcased some of Hussain’s paintings, and damaged priceless pieces of art. In India, the works of the gifted artist were not allowed to be exhibited, warrants were prepared for his arrest by the police, and Hussain had to leave the country of his birth. We live in an age when anyone, with no understanding, let alone appreciation, of aesthetics, metaphors, and allegories, can rule which painting, which book, which film can enter the public domain.

Deepa Mehta could not shoot her film on widows in the ashrams of Varanasi. And now Sanjay Leela Bhansali, known more for his lavish presentations than serious cinema, has been put on notice by the activist group Rajput Karni Sena. Bollywood producers, directors and actors have for long genuflected before the leadership of the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena to ensure that their films could be released. The process has reached its natural culmination point, and now self-appointed censors force film-makers to follow ‘this’ and not ‘that’ script.

The need to speak out

For readers of newspapers these are stories of vigilantes wreaking their perverse notions of correctness on culture, art, and society. But we cannot afford to be silent. Martin Niemöller, the well-known German Lutheran pastor and theologian, initially supported the Nazis, subsequently opposed them, and was banished to a concentration camp. Reflecting on his own silence in the face of social suffering, he authored a famous Holocaust poem: 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. Michael R. Burch, a poet, editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry, has authored a new version of this poem for contemporary America. ‘They’, he writes, came for the Muslims, then the homosexuals, and then the feminists, and I did not speak out because I belonged to none of these groups. He ends on a sombre note: “Now when will they come for me, because I was too busy and too apathetic, to defend my sisters and brothers?” Sages tell us that silence is a virtue, but silence when confronted by social oppression is tantamount to acquiescence.

There is a need to speak out, because vigilantism has now spilled over from the domain of the creative arts to regulate the daily lives of people. Nowhere is this more visible than in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh. The Hindu Yuva Vahini, founded by him to enforce his writ on his home turf, now rules the State and polices relationships. The group stalks courting couples, forces closure of slaughterhouses, and sparks off communal riots. A few days ago, its members broke into a home in Meerut and barged into the bedroom of a couple.

Can we afford to be silent? Our basic right to privacy is at stake. Also at stake is our status as mature citizens who possess the capacity to decide what kind of life we want to lead, who to be friends with, who to love, and what kind of food should be on our dinner table. Abjuring silence, we have to ask basic questions about our own society, and about our role as fellow citizens.

Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University

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