Ever since the spectacular 2014 saffron surge in India, communal violence has occupied center stage in the country’s political discourse. However, social media and on-ground activism drawing the world’s attention to one of India’s most pressing crises is plagued with what can be termed as the “Jai Shri Ram fallacy.”
In essence, this fallacy leads its victims to adopt a very linear, simplistic view of communal violence where the religious majority is always fitted into the “oppressor” category while minorities such as Dalits, Muslims and Christians together form the “oppressed.” An open letter penned by 49 Indian eminences to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 23, claiming that “Jai Shri Ram” – a slogan sacred for Hindus that translates as “Hail Lord Rama” – had attained the status of a war cry, while requesting that he curb the rising spate of communally charged attacks against minorities, in the country gives ample evidence to this effect.
Perhaps the signatories of the letter have forgotten the origins of the recent “Jai Shri Ram” storm that gripped India at a time when one of the fiercest political battles in the country was at its peak. The slogan gained immense political traction in West Bengal in May, after the state’s hot-headed chief minister went on a spree to put those chanting it behind bars. In two separate incidents that occurred within a span of a month, Mamata Banerjee lashed out at groups of people shouting “Jai Shri Ram,” after which the “offenders” were taken into police custody. Their crime? Uttering three words that pay obeisance to a Hindu deity.
What followed the debacle in Bengal was a series of ugly attacks on members of the non-Hindu minority as well as the Hindu majority throughout India involving the slogan. While the former were unjustly subjected to aggression for not chanting the slogan by Hindutva forces, the latter underwent abuse for the opposite reason.
It is important to note that the motives of those perpetrating violence against the Hindu majority were, in all probability, different from those of the goons attacking minorities in the name of Hindutva. However, they are no less deserving of criticism.
What followed the debacle in Bengal was a series of ugly attacks on members of the non-Hindu minority as well as the Hindu majority throughout India involving the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram.’ While the former were unjustly subjected to aggression for not chanting the slogan by Hindutva forces, the latter underwent abuse for the opposite reason
Bengal itself became a hotbed of religious violence. A madrassa teacher was allegedly roughed up and shoved off a train for his refusal to chant the slogan in June. The next month, a student in Howrah district was mercilessly beaten up by his teacher for crying out “Jai Shri Ram.” These are just a few of the many communal incidents that infested the state.
The outrage against “communal strife” that brewed up all over India on account of such incidents, however, was selective. Except for a few right-leaning channels, the media chose to focus almost entirely on the oppression of the minorities at the hands of sloganeering goons. The other side of the Jai Shri Ram controversy – the violence inflicted on the unfortunate Hindus who chanted the slogan – received little to no attention from the journalist-activist fraternity. Every discussion on religious violence was dominated with the narrative that the majority was always at the giving end while the minorities were on the receiving end.
The fallacy also seems to have rendered those raising their voices against religious violence incapable of examining the layers of the crisis they are fighting. They tend to overlook communally triggered infighting prevalent among India’s different minorities.
In late May, Muslims reportedly assaulted a Dalit wedding procession while it was passing by a mosque in Madhya Pradesh. In 2017, a Dalit father-son duo in Karnataka was allegedly tied to a tree and thrashed by the relatives of a Muslim girl the son was rumored to have eloped with.
Selective outrage is one aspect of the fallacy. The other pertains to the mistaken belief that communal violence has risen to unprecedented heights across India only after Modi’s 2014 election as prime minister.
Though an analysis by IndiaSpend, a public-policy research organization, reveals that there has been a 28% increase in incidents of communal violence from 2014-2017, the data also reveal that the year 2008 (when India was under the rule of the United Progressive Alliance) ranked the highest in communal incidents when data between that year and 2017 was compared.
Also, the rise in communal incidents after 2014 wasn’t equally spread across all Indian states. In Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, both governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), they flared up in 2015 but reduced significantly in the next two years, while in Gujarat they plummeted in 2015 and more or less leveled off after that. However, Karnataka, where the Indian National Congress (INC) party formed the state government, experienced a decisive rise in communal incidents in 2015, and the numbers were similar in 2016 and 2017. The Hindu reported that there was a sharp spike in communal violence between 2015 and 2017 in West Bengal according to Home Ministry data.
Another important trend that the fallacy covers up is that certain conflicts and violent incidences are unnecessarily painted in communal colors because of the spread of fake news on social media. In February 2015, Firstpost reported that five of the six “communally motivated” church attacks in Delhi since 2014 had nothing to do with religious intolerance and were the result of mishaps or robberies, while the sixth was under investigation.
A few months ago, India Today debunked some fake news doing the rounds on social media about a BJP state lawmaker in Gujarat beating up a Dalit man; it was proved that the man getting beaten up had thrashed his wife for not getting a car as dowry and her relatives had attacked him in return.
This is not to say that incidents of religious intolerance against minorities don’t happen, or that they should not be condemned when they do. The Modi government has certainly played down violence against minorities and has failed to contain the soaring number of religiously motivated hate crimes.
However, any discussion on communalism in India must be holistic if the situation is to be brought under control. Communal violence is a complex phenomenon and selective outrage and half-baked views on the topic help no one. Journalists, activists and intellectuals need to examine the crisis from all angles rather than vilifying only one party while being biased towards the others.
The disease of communalism will keep haunting India if a biased and weak understanding of it is perpetuated.