India’s ‘encounter’ with Barbarism

killing of Atiq Ahmed

The brutal murders of the politician Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf in police custody and that too in front of rolling TV cameras corroborates the worst kept secret about the Republic of India. That far from being the ‘Mother of Democracy’  it has in fact become a poster ‘Child of Barbarism’.

Encounter killings or custodial deaths are only teasers to the full horror movie that this country is today. Lynching of Muslims by Hindu mobs, routine state-backed communal violence against religious minorities, deliberate subversion of law by those in power and debasement of democratic institutions are the norm.

None of this is surprising, given that for the past nine years India has been ruled by the most petty, sectarian, callous and incompetent regime it has ever seen in its entire existence as an independent nation. With its goal of establishing a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ the incumbent regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is destroying everything that the country was once cherished for – tolerance, non-violence, spiritual wisdom and of course, its vast and vibrant diversity.

What makes the Hindutva phenomenon different from any of its political rivals is its open attempt to overturn the Indian Constitution and  establish a theological, majoritarian dictatorship.  A dictatorship working solely for the benefit of traditional caste and corporate elites, who are drawn to each other by the common desire to rule without resistance or accountability.  A Hindu Rashtra, where religious minorities, Dalits, Adivasis, women, workers, peasants, the poor in general will be second class citizens on a permanent basis. A dystopian new order where everyone will ‘know their place’ and quietly accept it or perish under the iron heels of the savarna police state.

The net result is that the Republic of India, which emerged seventy five years ago with great hope from the fire of anti-colonial struggles, is dead – ‘encountered’ by Hindutva. Its corpse lies decaying on alleyways of the nation today, with no one to give it a decent funeral, as fanatical mobs roam the streets shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram!’

So, where do we go from here? What is the pathway to a future India where everyone can live in peace but also with justice and dignity? What can we do to regenerate hope?

Difficult questions with no certain answers but one can begin with trying to understand the roots of barbarism visible all around in Indian society today. Isn’t what is happening to the Muslims and Christians in India now eerily similar to the way Dalits and Adivasis have been treated for millennia?

And to clarify here – barbarism in India is not just about violence by state or private actors carried out with impunity – it is even more so about the untold misery of a bulk of the Indian population due to their social and economic context.

India ranks among the most unequal countries on the globe in terms of wealth distribution. It  has the world’s largest number of people in absolute poverty and the highest burden of disease and malnutrition among adults and children. Discrimination on the basis of caste and gender is rampant. On all these and many other fronts India has the worst indicators in the world and given the size of our population we are talking about the suffering of hundreds of millions of people.

It has to be acknowledged clearly that the rise of Hindutva has been possible largely due to the  inability of previous Indian regimes to solve such fundamental challenges facing the country. Despite some genuine good work done since Independence the fact remains that in all these decades India’s rulers have failed to make much of a dent on all these problems.

Which brings us to the question – who exactly are these ‘millions of people’? What prevented previous Indian governments from making an honest and sincere effort to help lift its citizens out of such deep, inhuman and needless misery? Is it just the lack of resources, technical incompetence, bureaucratic laziness or something else?

The answer  to the first question is that, the bulk of India’s poor come from the same set of communities Dalits, Adivasis, backward castes and the poorer sections of religious minorities – those who ‘converted’ to escape the oppression of the Hindu caste system long ago.

And while sloth and corruption have played their role, the real reason why these communities never get their due share of power or resources is that India is run by a tiny elite of so-called ‘upper caste’ Hindus. Across the ideological spectrum – this savarna elite dominates everything from politics, economy, education, culture and key institutions like the judiciary, media, police and armed forces.

If there are any benefits going to Dalits,  backward castes, Adivasis and the poorer sections of religious minorities it is solely because of the ‘one citizen, one vote’ principle enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The masses draw their importance only because they determine the outcome of elections. Take away the right to vote or make the vote meaningless by purchasing elected representatives – as the current regime has been doing blatantly – and the pretence of the government working for ‘public welfare’ of any kind will disappear too.

This colonial ruler-like section, does not really give a damn whether the rest of those in the country live or die. In other words it is plain that – India is actually an apartheid state masquerading as not just a modern democracy – but as the ‘Mother of Democracy’ itself! It would all be so laughable if not for the fact that we are talking about over a billion plus Indians subjected to the barbaric rule of caste-supremacists, forcing them to live in sub-human conditions.

The origins of this racist social system go back to between 9,000 and 5,000 years ago,  when waves of migrants from Anatolia, the Caucasus and Iran descended upon the Indian subcontinent and established their hegemony over not just land and resources but over the spiritual and cultural lives of the original people of India. The story of Hinduism and Indian society – in all its dimensions – is essentially about how this hegemony evolved – through the process of the ‘Three C’s – Conquest, Compromise and Co-option’ (which continues even now).

A modern equivalent of this process in another context is the way European migrants, invaders, refugees have transformed South America – in just over five centuries – since Christopher Columbus first set foot on the Bahamas. A proto-caste system is clearly visible there today – particularly in those parts where indigenous people have not been completely wiped out – with the whites at the top, mestizos in the middle, blacks and native Indians right at the bottom.

What is clear is that opposing barbarism in India really means granting people right at the bottom of the country’s social hierarchy their  true political and social status. And for this to happen they will need both economic and civilizational justice.

Economic justice here means the actual redistribution of wealth to the poorest communities and citizens, in the form of land, finance or other assets, to enable them to start living a dignified and secure life. A simple formula can be to divide national resources among all communities in proportion to their population.

The growing demand by Indian opposition parties for a caste census  – which will reveal the actual numbers of different communities across India – is a historical step forward in this direction. (The coining of the slogan ‘Jitni Abadi Utna Haq’ by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, paraphrasing Kanshi Ram’s original slogan   ‘Jiski Jitni Sankhya Bhari, Uski Utni Hissedari’, is absolutely spot on).

However, economic justice will need to be supplemented by challenging the cultural and spiritual hegemony of Hindutva. This can be done by insisting on civilizational justice, which means recognizing the primacy of those who represent the longest, unbroken legacy of  living in harmony with soil, earth, water and sky of the Indian subcontinent – the Dalit and indigenous people of India.

They are the original inhabitants and protectors of the entire subcontinent, brutally and tragically pushed off their lands, enslaved, their way of life destroyed  by colonising migrants, settlers, invaders, marauders of all kinds over the centuries. Civilizational justice calls for the recognition of Adivasis and Dalits as the ‘moolnivasis’ or ‘original people’ of India. Interestingly, this again is a demand that is already gaining popularity among both Dalit and Adivasi communities and needs to be built up to make it even more popular and accepted.

A logical corollary to civilizational justice would be for the Indian government and state to apologise to these communities for all atrocities committed against them over the millennia. It also means removing racist, abusive terms like ‘rakshasa’, ‘dasyu’, ‘danav’ from all religious texts, which treat ‘moolnivasis’ as subhuman creatures to be vanquished and exterminated.

It is not difficult to see that all these demands are going to be difficult to achieve in the current political or social scenario. They are the equivalent of asking the descendants of white Europeans in the United States to redistribute their land, resources and power to their country’s blacks and native Indians.  There is no way such demands are going to be met without great application of force, either in the US or in India.

And we are not talking about just the force of morality, of course. From a very long and painful record of human societies we know that those in power rarely move when confronted by mere words, however kind or wise they may be.

The privileged will require a different kind of force to ‘uplift’ them –  i.e. the organisational muscle to physically lift them up and throw them into the dustbin of history. Only then will the ideas of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – that inspired the Indian Constitution – take on any real meaning.

And increase the possibility of India transitioning from being the Child of Barbarism it is today, to an offspring of genuine democracy someday in future.

Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker who can be reached at [email protected]

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