One of the shocks that the great mutiny of 1857 gave to the British Government was the unprecedented unity shown by Hindus and Muslims. After the mutiny, the British worked heavily to puncture this harmonious spirit. All the communal riots after 1857 in the words of Markandey Katju were “artificially engineered by British authorities”.
Every policy after the revolt, be it 1909 Morley Minto reforms which introduced separate electorate for Muslims or the 1932 communal award, also known as MacDonald award, which extended separate electorates to depressed classes (now known as SC) and other minorities, displayed division.
The British knew that as long as the two communities are cemented, their state is highly precarious, hanging by a thread. Thus, to robust their roots, they played the card of divide and rule. History stands testimony that how this card proved as an antidote in demolishing the long-established unity between the two communities.
Further, how Indians were made to look at almost everything through the prism of religion, thus, diversifying them from the lynchpin which included issues like unemployment, heavy taxation, the shattered structure of cottage and small industries, low level of investment and the like.
The current happenings in new India are in many ways akin to the times of the British Raj, albeit the enemy this time is not in foreign attire. The times are terrible for people across the world, but the scenario of the world’s largest diversity hub is deplorable. The country is plagued, on the one hand, by cunning COVID-19 and on the other hand by the communal virus which is incontrovertibly more engulfing than the former. Let us elucidate this:
At a time of distress, when the country needs solidarity to fight a macabre microbe, some black sheep are nurturing hate both on the social media and on the ground by painting the virus with communal colours. For instance, a tweet which has around 2,000 retweets before it was removed for violating Twitter norms featured a cartoon of caricatured Muslim man labelled “corona jihad” trying to push a Hindu off a cliff. Another video shared on both Facebook and Twitter purporting to show Muslims intentionally sneezing on each other was debunked by the fact-checking organisation alt news.
Then came the reaction in the form of an attack on a team of health workers in Indore’s Talpatti Bakhal area by some Muslims. Although the attack is highly reprehensible and should be unequivocally condemned, at the same time, it can be linked to the growing stigma against Muslims. As Bhikhu Parekh, an Indian born British political theorist, says, “When a cultural community has a low prestige in the public arena, individuals belonging to them develop a sense of low esteem. They become nervous and diffident and are unable to perform successfully in society.”
The precursor to all this was a positive case linked to Nizamuddin where an international seminar of a sect known as Tablighi Jamaat was held in mid-march. What was more gut-wrenching was the role of Government and the fourth estate.
Firstly, the Government wittingly or unwittingly instead of pacifying the chaos exacerbated it. The Modi government’s letter to Mamata Banerjee administration in West Bengal reiterating the need to strictly enforce the lockdown in the state. It could not be a coincidence that five of the seven places mentioned in the letter were Muslim dominated regions.
Secondly, the Government reacted late. The tweet by PM Modi that “COVID-19 has no religion” may be considered a substantial step in the direction of dousing the divisive flames. However, its timing is suspicious as it corresponded more to the international pressure, especially from the gulf than to developing internal circumstances or empathising with the minorities. The fourth estate too fanned the flames by carrying everyday news briefing of cases linked to the Nizamuddin centre, which was indeed ridiculous.
These are, thus, the tough times. The two communities missed the trick during the British Raj and the rest is history. History can’t be unlived, but it can’t be forgotten either, lest we forget. It is the best time to take lessons from history by locating the enemy who is trying to sow the seed of discord, who is benefiting from the violence, who is misleading us in the name of religion, who is deflecting us from cardinal issues like job crisis, economic slowdown and so on.
The lockdown allows us to contemplate the scenario afresh. Prejudice will sink us and cooperation will save us. The choice is ours, we have to choose one.