Delhi election

BJP's venomous rhetoric in Delhi Assembly election campaign

Print edition : February 28, 2020

A multi-faith ceremony at Shaheen Bagh on February 6. Photo: Bibek Chettri

The man who fired shots at the protest site being detained by the police on February 1. Photo: ANI

The BJP’s Delhi Assembly election campaign hinges on berating the Shaheen Bagh protesters, completely sidestepping governance issues and the AAP’s performance.

THE nondescript New Delhi neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh has suddenly metamorphosed into all things “seditious”. It has become, in the words of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, the den of all anti-national elements. But it boggles the imagination that this “gang of anti-nationals”, sitting on a wide, public road, has been allowed to plan and execute its seditious activities with Home Minister Amit Shah watching helplessly. With a government whose slogan is Modi hai to mumkin hai (Modi makes it possible) for every issue relating to national security, it is intriguing why this group of so-called conspirators has been allowed to continue with the protest for so many days, holding lakhs of Delhi commuters hostage.

Looking at the way the Shaheen Bagh protests, which started as an impromptu sit-in in the aftermath of the violence at Jamia Millia Islamia, have been portrayed by BJP leaders during campaigning for the February 8 Assembly election, one wonders whether it has just been turned into an experiment by the BJP to test the feasibility of its Hindu Rashtra campaign.

The Shaheen Bagh protests are essentially about a desperate group of people that wants its government to listen to it. It is basically a motley group of women—old and young, frail and looking forlorn—children clutching on to them, sitting on the road since December 15, 2019, braving the brutal Delhi winter, rain and hail. They are unarmed and hold copies of the Constitution in their hands. The Indian tricolour forms the backdrop of their protest, and pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar are perched at vantage points above them.

Their only demand: the government withdraw the newly enacted Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) because they fear the new law—which makes religion the basis for granting citizenship to those fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh—will, somehow, be used to persecute them.

Trust deficit

Given the fact that the new law is limited in scope to those fleeing the above three countries because of religious persecution, there is no basis for their fears, per se. But given the trust deficit that this government has accumulated over the last five and a half years, their fears are not completely unjustified. For any government genuinely concerned about the trust and welfare of all its citizens, the easiest thing to do would have been to reach out to these fearful people with a friendly smile and a sincere, heartfelt conversation.

The only thing that the government was expected to do was initiate a sincere dialogue and convince them that there was nothing to fear. Instead, what one has seen is a continuous harangue by every BJP leader, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, berating them as anti-national and as biryani-eating Pakistan sympathisers out to break the nation.

The incongruity of the severity of attacks by the BJP leaders compared with the ground reality at the protest site makes one wonder whether this actually is the BJP’s Hindu Rashtra experiment.

When Modi lashed out at his political opponents during one of his election speeches in Delhi on February 3, he said that Shaheen Bagh was not a coincidence but an experiment (sanjog nahi prayog hai). This was seen as an attempt to polarise Delhi voters along religious lines and get them to vote in the BJP’s favour, overlooking the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government’s performance, which has been satisfactory.

The Delhi State government’s jurisdiction is restricted to electricity, roads, health, education and a few other areas.

AAP performance

Delhi Chief Minister and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal’s governance record has not been spectacular, to say the least. Until 2017, he was busy fighting the Centre for everything. The days when he got into a slugfest with the BJP-ruled Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which resulted in piles of garbage being dumped on roads by agitating MCD employees, are fresh in the memory of Delhi residents.

It was only after the Supreme Court intervened that good sense prevailed and he began focussing on areas under his jurisdiction. The improved performance of Delhi government schools (the examination results bear testimony to this) and better facilities at hospitals are a matter of record. In addition, his pressure tactics forced the BJP to start regularising unauthorised colonies, making basic facilities such as good roads, drinking water and drains available to them.

Giving free electricity and water and providing free local bus travel for women and senior citizens also earned Kejriwal a lot of goodwill. The BJP was thus expected to counter the AAP in these areas since there is much that remains questionable.

Instead, the BJP chose to talk only about Article 370, the CAA and Shaheen Bagh. The spate of hate speeches started after Amit Shah exhorted Delhi voters to “press the button” so hard that those in Shaheen Bagh felt the shock. This was followed by Union Minister Anurag Thakur chanting “desh ke gaddaro ko goli maro saalo ko” (shoot the traitors) in one of his election speeches. Thakur got the crowd to chant it with him.

Parvesh Verma, BJP MP, went a step further and told voters that this was the chance for them to get rid of those at Shaheen Bagh because tomorrow they would “enter their homes, kidnap their sisters and daughters and rape and kill them”. He said that if Delhi voters did not get rid of them now, Modi and Amit Shah would not be able to save them later.

The BJP tirade continued on various television channels. Spokesman Sambit Patra once said “Hinduon jaago, yeh musalmaano ko unite kar rahe hain” (Awake Hindus! These people are uniting Muslims) during a debate on Aaj Tak. Union Ministers Prakash Javadekar and Giriraj Singh said that all those sitting in Shaheen Bagh were “supporters of the tukde-tukde gang” and that no government representative should talk to them because they were committing an anti-national activity by opposing a law duly passed by Parliament. The hate campaign reached a crescendo when Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said: “Boli se nahi maney to goli se to maan hi jayenge” (if they do not listen to words, they will listen to bullets).

Hate campaign

With all this talk of bullets and shooting, it was not surprising when a couple of young men actually went to the protest site wielding pistols and firing at the protesters. One of them, apparently a minor, went to Jamia Millia Islamia and fired shots at protesters on January 30, injuring a student named Shadaab. He reportedly mistook the protest site for Shaheen Bagh, the police said.

On February 1, a youth named Kapil Gujjar went to Shaheen Bagh and fired shots but was nabbed in time before he could harm anyone. The Delhi Police said he was associated with the AAP. The party has demanded that irrespective of that action should be taken against him.

Yet another incident of firing was reported from Jamia Millia Islamia, on the night of February 2, when two men on scooters went on a firing spree in the area and fled. They fired in the air, shouting expletives against those sitting in protest at Shaheen Bagh.

If the government actually believes that the protest at Shaheen Bagh enjoys the protection of anti-national elements, it should take all possible steps to stop it. Instead, communal speeches are being made by BJP leaders. The Hindu Rashtra agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent, and the days of mutual suspicion between Hindus and Muslims in the post-Partition days are well known.

As the historian and author Ramchandra Guha has written in his India after Gandhi, even stalwarts like Vallabhbhai Patel viewed Muslims with suspicion after Partition.

In the book’s 2017 edition, Guha has written about a speech Vallabhbhai Patel gave in Lucknow in 1948 where he reminded the people that it was in that city that the seeds of Partition had been sowed. Guha has written about Vallabhbhai Patel’s speech in which he said that it was not enough for Muslims to give a mere declaration of loyalty to the Indian Union, they must give practical proof of their declaration. This was followed by Home Ministry officials writing to Chief Ministers to collect such proof from Muslims in their States.

According to Guha, the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not approve of this and wrote a letter to Vallabhbhai Patel and all the Chief Ministers saying: “We have a Muslim minority so large in number that, they cannot, even if they want, go anywhere else. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan, and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilised manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic state. If we fail to do so we shall have a festering sore which will eventually poison the whole body politic and probably destroy it.”

According to Guha, Nehru’s unwavering faith in secularism and his rejection of the two-nation theory were the reason India did not become a Hindu Rashtra at that time. Guha also writes about how Nehru targeted communal organisations during the first general election in 1951-52 and defeated them. “That election was fought and won on the plank of not making India a Hindu Pakistan,” Guha writes.

Guha quotes United States Ambassador Robert Blackwill, who said in 2003 while leaving India: “India is a pluralist society that creates magic with democracy, rule of law and individual freedom, community relationship and cultural diversity. What a place to be an intellectual…. I wouldn’t mind being born ten times to rediscover India.”

Even as the BJP keeps demonising the Shaheen Bagh protesters, the protest has claimed its first casualty. A one-year-old child who was brought to the protest site by his mother, Naziya, died of cold on January 31. Naziya continues to come to the venue.

Those at Shaheen Bagh told this correspondent that they would continue the protest until the government withdrew the law. When told that the government had refused to withdraw or amend the law, a protester said: “Better to die here on road than to end up there,” pointing to a cage marked “detention centre” that has been erected at the protest site.

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