In Gurgaon, the shining IT satellite of India’s capital, Lukman Khan was pulled from his vehicle, abused, and bludgeoned with a hammer for allegedly transporting beef. While being assaulted, he’s heard on video explaining that he was transporting buffalo meat, not cow meat. Cows are sacred to most but not all Hindus. Lukman’s assaulters were self-appointed gau rakshaks or cow protectors, vigilantes who are increasingly active and protected in Prime Minister Modi’s India. Other Muslims looking on helplessly at Lukman’s near demise later admitted they were not surprised given the steadily increasing abuse from vigilantes in 2020.
For too many of us from the minority communities in this sub-continent, this emboldened vigilantism, in the name of right-wing dogmas and ideologues, makes daily life ridden with memories of past trauma and fears of fresh violence. We were reminded just last week how embraced this deadly vigilantism is by the bastions of India’s soft power, its glittering film stars. It’s time Indian cultural icons, often abroad in celebration and appreciation of their culture and talent, are also asked honest questions about their role in cultivating a culture of mass hysteria at home.
Megastar Amitabh Bachchan, while receiving necessary treatment for COVID-19, promised Direct Action against his social media hecklers. Apparently, he received some foul Twitter comments, including, per the actor’s blog, “I hope you die with this Covid.” The 77-year-old flagbearer of Bollywood began his response with “you do not even write your Father’s name,.. because you do not know who Fathered you.” This misogynist language is little surprise to those who have long observed the star’s off-camera silences on issues of gender-based violence.
Yet, buoyed by his star power against an anonymous Twitter user, Bachchan goes on promise that should he survive this heckler would face wrath: “not just from me, but on a very conservative level, from 90+ million followers […] and let me tell you they are a force incensed .. they traverse the entire World […] that extended family shall in the flash of an eye become ‘extermination family’ .. !!!!”
Then Bachchan specifies his command: “All I shall say to them is .. Thok do saalo ko!” Literally, Smash/Take out this wife’s brother [abusively]!
Then the role model of millions spews out a string of casteist and racist terms in Hindi to describe the troll(s)’ wretchedness, including: asur (the darker ones driven south by genocidal invasions); accursed is your name; as soon as my yagya (crusade, jehad) starts you will writhe; characterless; nonbeliever; disrespectful; burn, rot, melt, shameless (three ways) blot on society. Bachchan closes in English: “May you burn in your own stew!!”
Some embarrassed fans have wondered if Bachchan was displaying unknown cognitive symptoms of COVID. Some more angry Indians asked whether news channels’ 24/7 focus on these media royals simply proved most Indian patients are considered expendable. Even admission to hospitals is near-impossible for most COVID-afflicted Indians, but here sat Bachchan recovering in an elite facility and making death threats to some anonymous commentators, even as his sea of fans prayed for his family’s speedy recovery. Surely a complaint to Twitter—ever-pliant recently in curbing expression against the powerful–would have sufficed?
But for many this diatribe at once evoked the soundtrack which had heralded the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984; a chilling reminder of why this superstar’s voice makes skins crawl and adds insult to genocidal injury. Bachchan has long been accused for being prominent in the 1984 incitement to murder : “Khoon ka badla khoon, ” blood to avenge blood.
A quick look at just a few decades past shows Modi has created majoritarianism in India only as much as Trump has created racism in the U.S. The holocaust of 1947—ripping Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east—claimed a million lives, but was politically expedient for nationalists, itching to take over the reigns from the culpable British. The overwhelming number of murders took place after the new rulers were installed in power in both capitals. All these politicians, including apostle of non-violence Gandhi, not only finally signed off on this Partition, but at best did next to nothing to curb the violence, until the two parts of the once proud and United Punjab had been thoroughly “cleansed”.
Not one person on either side, India or Pakistan, was tried for 1947’s murders. So variations on ‘religion/nation is in danger’ have remained the tricks of the political trade on both sides. Legitimate regional demands are not only ignored they are often stoked into rebellion (including in the Kashmir Valley, marking one year of its newest siege on August 5). Then ‘enemies within’ crushed for electoral profit. The November 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom won Rajiv a landslide victory which remains unparalleled in India till date, Modi notwithstanding.
Hours after Rajiv’s mother Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was reported assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, anti-Sikh violence was unleashed on the streets of Delhi and then across India. 7,000 to 20,000 Sikhs were killed across India; at least 3,000 perished in New Delhi alone. Described a “genocide” by the anti-Congress BJP government, justice for this violence featured as one of Modi’s earlier, and unfulfilled, election promises.
State-controlled media instigated 1984’s synchronized violence, remembers author and child survivor of the pogrom, Jaspreet Singh: “The state-controlled television, Doordarshan broadcast live the national mourning as Mrs. Gandhi’s body lay in state (with Bergmanesque closeups of her face). But the soundtrack was the soundtrack of the ‘mob’ created by the cabinet ministers and members of parliament.” Bollywood superstar Bachchan, Rajiv Gandhi’s close friend, was reported by many witnesses as lending star power to this instigative sound track on national television: Khoon ka badla khoon se.
Ever since, in many Sikh homes, channels are changed as soon as a Bachchan movie or ad appears—so often, he is ubiquitous. Small acts of resistance when no requisite justice is served.
The 1984 audio and videotapes of the state news media have never been publicly re-aired or forensically analyzed, despite allegations by a variety of witnesses—largely all Sikh, all part of the 80’s enemy community. Bachchan has in the past furiously reminded anyone questioning him that his mother was from a Sikh family. Another friend of Rajiv Gandhi’s, ex-minister Tytler, also with a Sikh mother, remains a chief accused for commandeering 1984 murderers; court cases against Tytler have dragged for decades.
In 2019, during the world’s largest elections, Bachchan, now a vocal supporter of Narendra Modi’s BJP government, responded to one of Modi’s tweets: “Young ask questions about tomorrow not yesterday! VOTE FOR TOMORROW!” For young Sikhs who tried to explain away their parents’ memories of the star’s instigations in 1984 as morbid mythos, this new diatribe is triggering. For young Muslims living with horrid images of the bloodshed in Delhi earlier this year, or lynchings of men unluckier than Lukman was this Eid, such off-hand instigation to mobs is chilling. For all concerned by this sub-continent’s shameful records now being set on our live feeds, this diatribe should be a wake-up call.
At least 37,000 people have died of COVID in India. No one—convicted murderers or untried instigators alike—should be wished death by this virus. But we may still wish, and indeed must work towards, humane justice. At least boasting of an ability to instigate mob violence and murders should be scrutinized. At least a credible investigation (aided by the enhanced image and voice recognition technologies) into past instigations should be ordered and all prominent voices engaged in that sloganeering be identified. We must be forward-looking, but as Søren Kierkegaard advised, present life “can only be understood backwards.”
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and author of “Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper,” Palgrave MacMillan (2019). She teaches at UC Berkeley School of Law.