Interview: Aakar Patel

Aakar Patel: ‘Structurally, we have already arrived at a Hindu Rashtra’

Print edition : March 26, 2021

Aakar Patel. Photo: By Special Arrangement

“Our Hindu Rashtra: What It Is. How We Got Here” by Aakar Patel (Westland, 2020)

Interview with Aakar Patel, author of “Our Hindu Rashtra”.

AT a time when to write itself is often to rebel, the columnist Aakar Patel has made bold to pen Our Hindu Rashtra: What It Is. How We Got Here, a scathing criticism of the Hindutva politics of exclusion, hate and violence. Patel, who was the executive director of Amnesty International India until November 2019, reckons that “structurally we have already arrived [at a Hindu Rashtra]” as it does not need any changes in the Constitution.

He also busts the myth of Muslim appeasement and states that the Babri Masjid judgment was one that deprived Muslims of the mosque “through subterfuge and outright theft”. Of the state’s increasing tendency to slap sedition charges on social activists, writers and journalists, he says: “Today, the Indian state’s right to restrict freedom is more important than the right of citizens to enjoy them.”

Aakar Patel is a well-known critic of the Narendra Modi government and a prominent figure on social media. He took a few questions from Frontline about his new book. Excerpts from the interview:

The title of your book denotes a certain inevitability to the arrival of Hindu Rashtra.

Structurally, we have already arrived there. The Hindu Rashtra does not require any changes in the Constitution because what is sought to be achieved can be done through existing law and policy. The ending of fundamental rights such as freedom of religion for Christians by criminalising propagation or of occupation for Muslims by banning cattle slaughter came before 2014. What is happening today is the use of the existing law to brutalise India’s minorities in innovative ways.

Theoretically, it is reversible because the Constitution remains, in some ways, intact. The balance of power on individual freedoms, civil liberties and fundamental rights needs to shift from the state back to the citizen, as the Constituent Assembly had wanted. Today the Indian state’s right to restrict freedom is more important than the right of citizens to enjoy them.

The politics of Hindutva feeds off Muslims. If the nation becomes a de jure Hindu Rashtra, would it not present an existential challenge to votaries of Hindutva?

It appears the votaries of Hindutva either do not care about or only marginally care about the other aspects of governance. In March 2021, we are in the fourth year, 13th quarter and 39th month of sequential decline in GDP (gross domestic product) growth. This is government data. We are at a historic high in unemployment and a historic low in labour force participation. Government data from the NSSO [National Sample Survey Office] also says that Indians were already poorer and eating less in 2018 than in 2013. We have declined further since. There is no dispute about the facts.

Also read: Roots of Hindutva

But that has not appeared to materially affect either the Prime Minister’s popularity or the Bharatiya Janata Party’s [BJP] electoral success. So long as the state can find new ways to torture our minorities, especially Muslims, the rest seems excusable. Even ideologically there appears to be no particular end to Hindutva other than the “political defeat of Muslims”, a phrase used by Deendayal Upadhyaya in 1965. This seems to be all they care about or mostly care about.

We have sufi shrines in Ajmer, Delhi, Agra, Kashmir where tens of thousands of non-Muslims go for prayers, just as Muslims facilitate the Amarnath pilgrimage. What then accounts for the hypnotic hold of Hindutva, which is anathema to the very idea of India?

It is true that culturally South Asia is pluralist in many ways. This needs to be emphasised by the state. When the state makes laws that pause or reverse pluralism, it eats away at the culture also. This is what has happened on the issue of blasphemy in Pakistan and cattle slaughter in India. What was acceptable in practice became intolerable once it was criminalised. The agency of the state is being used today in India for active persecution. When that is stopped, we have some hope that we return, in time, to some form of natural pluralism and tolerance.

There is a reason why the BJP chooses to emphasise specific things. The reason is that these things promote division in society, and polarisation is profitable because voter choice becomes easier.

We have seen the apex court allowing the Jagannath rath yatra and the bhumi pujan in Ayodhya at the time of the pandemic. How does this relentless appeasement of the majority community sit with the founding principles of our nation?

India is not a secular state, if by that we mean that religion is irrelevant. We could debate if it ever was secular, but the reality is that today India is as majoritarian as the non-secular states in our neighbourhood.

We have laws introducing religious discrimination into citizenship itself. The absence of secularism is visible also in practice.

There is no Hindu Chief Minister in Pakistan’s four States, and there is no Muslim Chief Minister in India’s 29 States. There is no Muslim Minister at all in 15 Indian States, and in 10 of the remaining States, there is one Muslim minister, who is usually given [the portfolio of] Minority Affairs. In Uttar Pradesh, even the Minority Affairs portfolio tasked with looking after the Waqf is held by a Hindu. Of the 303 Lok Sabha members from the party, there is no Muslim.

Also read: Hindutva’s stick

Whether the exclusion on political participation is through law as in Pakistan or in practice as in India, the exclusion is real. Not only does India brutalise and exclude its minorities, this is done while also claiming that they are being “appeased”. What the Constituent Assembly may have wanted in terms of safeguards to ensure minority rights has been undone fairly comprehensively.

L.K. Advani spent a lifetime talking of Muslim appeasement without ever backing his claims. Why and how does such a campaign work with the common man?

It appears on the face of it that the success of the BJP was primarily because of the Babri Masjid campaign and the violence produced during that campaign and then sustained after 2002. Emphasising “appeasement” does not appear to have been a significant factor in its rise in popularity.

The Jana Sangh/BJP had no majority of its own in any State until 1990. It is the bloodshed produced by the mobilisation against the mosque—3,000 Indians were killed—that gave it electoral success. However, the continued emphasis on appeasement even after it has achieved success indicates that the BJP does see political benefit in pushing the accusation.

It is of course nonsense to say there is appeasement of Muslims, but few have read the findings of the committee led by Justice Rajinder Sachar or are interested in examining the data.

Attack on Urdu

We grew up in an age when the Urdu language did not have a religion. How do you look at the way Urdu is not only associated with a certain religious community today but also penalised for the same?

Many Indians do not see Urdu as Hindustani in Perso-Arabic script but as a “foreign” language. One reason is the disinvestment of Hindus, especially Punjabis and Kayasths, from the script. The attack on the script where it has been in popular use, such as in Uttar Pradesh, is quite complete.

Triple talaq

The Modi government passed a law against instant triple talaq without consulting the stakeholders.

After the Supreme Court’s judgment invalidating triple talaq in a single sitting, there was no need to criminalise its pronouncement. We are essentially punishing a crime that did not take place. If a Muslim man were to say the word “talaq” three times in one sitting to his wife, this would not dissolve the marriage and it would remain intact.

Using criminal law, which has the power to destroy lives, for a non-event is purely to persecute and harass Muslims. Pronouncing triple talaq attracts as much punishment as IPC 148, rioting with a deadly weapon.

Also read: Triple Talaq Bill: In the guise of justice

We have the absurd situation where a Hindu man says the word talaq to his wife three times, their marriage is intact and there is no crime. If a Muslim does the same thing, the marriage remains intact but it is still a crime.

In the Babri Masjid case, even the Supreme Court admitted there was no evidence of temple beneath the mosque, yet it did not reflect in the judgment.

Future generations will be ashamed of the judgment in the Babri Masjid case. Indian Muslims were deprived of their mosque through subterfuge and outright theft.

First the conspiracy to smuggle idols into the mosque, done by a bureaucrat who later became Jana Sangh MP; then the allowing by the judiciary of Hindu prayer inside the mosque while stopping Muslims from offering namaz; the determination by the court that a mosque was not essential to Islam because namaz could be offered anywhere; and finally the extraordinary but entirely expected reversal of burden of proof in the final judgment: Muslims were asked to prove that they had been praying in their mosque from the time of its erection, while it was taken for granted that Hindus had offered prayer always.

Handing over the site of the mosque to its vandals is something this nation will not be able to live down.

Cow politics

The politics of the cow seems more like a vehicle of hate today. Even historians such as Professor D.N. Jha pointed out that the cow was not a sacred animal in ancient India.

The cow slaughter laws act as a trigger for violence. Lynching as a category of violence was unknown in India until the events of 2015. The Prime Minister pushed his conspiracy of the pink revolution, and goaded States into legislating against cattle slaughter. Maharashtra and Haryana responded and the lynching began.

The punishment for cow slaughter, ostensibly an economic crime, is life imprisonment in Gujarat. The burden of proof in the law has been reversed. One is guilty until proven innocent. A man was convicted in 2019 after being accused of serving beef at his daughter’s wedding and being unable to prove months later that the meat was not in fact beef.

Also read: ‘The cow was neither unslayable nor sacred in the Vedic period’

On the other hand, gau rakshaks were shocked when Dalits began dumping cow carcasses in Gujarat’s towns after the barbarism in Una. India has no capacity for self-correction, and the avalanche of laws on this issue and on the so-called love jehad (where also burden of proof is reversed) will trouble us for a long time.

Even as the Indian Constitution regards each citizen as equal, is the bigotry inherent in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) a sign of things to come?

The CAA is unconstitutional and against the [United Nations’] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The judiciary has run away from confronting Narendra Modi, but the world has been active in preventing India from brutalising its minorities through the CAA-NRC pincer.

One reason CAA’s rules have not yet been framed is because of heavy opposition to it from the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which has called CAA “fundamentally discriminatory”, and the pending resolution against CAA in the European parliament, which has yet to be voted on. External pressure on this and other rights issues is important and necessary and welcome because, as I said, India is not self-correcting.

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