Hate speech: Time to step back from the brink

Hate speech: Time to step back from the brink

Hindus must retain faith in their proud identity and repel attempts to induce paranoid sentiments of victimhood in their own homeland

Representative image. Credit: Reuters photo

On October 30, 1947, when I was a three-year-old, my family had to flee the small Kashmiri town of Budgam, before the onslaught of Pakistani tribals advancing from Baramulla. My father, a J&K government civil servant, managed to hustle us into one of the Dakota aircraft that were shuttling between Delhi and Srinagar, ferrying troops to defend this vital airfield against the marauders. We rejoined father, six months later, to find our home burnt to cinders.

We were lucky. The rest of our extended family lived in the small town of Mirpur, now in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Within days of Partition, approximately 25,000 Hindu men, women and children — amongst them, my close relatives — were force-marched, by Pakistani irregulars, from Mirpur to a refugee camp in Ali Beg. Only 5,000 made it to the camp, and a year later, the International Red Cross found a mere 1,600 survivors awaiting repatriation to India; the rest, were killed, kidnapped or had taken their own lives.

My reason for recalling these personal details is to share two thoughts with the reader. Firstly, notwithstanding the bloodbath and trauma of 1947, as well as loss of home and hearth, I do not recall either my parents or others of their generation teaching us to bear hatred towards Muslims, or to carry a sense of ‘victimhood’.  As they struggled, against huge odds, to rebuild their lives, and grieved for lost family and friends, they acknowledged that in the madness of Partition, such tragedies had occurred on both sides of the Radcliff Line. 

Secondly, as a septuagenarian military veteran who has witnessed or participated in all the post-Independence wars and national crises, I wish to convey that rarely have I felt such a deep sense of dismay and apprehension as I do today. The sequence of events that have unfolded over the past few days has given rise to foreboding about the future of my country. 

The so-called ‘religious conclave’, held in the holy town of Haridwar December 17-19, saw brazen and open incitement to violence, whereby participants took an oath to “fight, die and kill” in order to make the country a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, and the speakers openly called for every Hindu to bear arms and undertake a “safai abhiyan” (cleansing campaign) to finish off the minority population. Mahatma Gandhi was abused and his assassin Nathuram Godse received fulsome praise; a former Prime Minister was threatened with violence. The aim of transforming a democratic nation, uniquely rich in its religious, cultural, linguistic and caste diversity, into a majority-dominated ‘Hindu Rashtra’ could have been dismissed as absurd, had it not been for its ominous connotations and the manner in which it is being sought.   

In addition to this deeply disturbing event, there has emerged a worrisome sequence of incidents across the country. Some examples: the repeated obstruction of Friday namaz in Gurugram, the disruption of Christian prayers and the vandalising of churches in Karnataka, Assam and Haryana. A common thread running through all these unsavoury incidents is the total silence of the political establishment and unabashed foot-dragging by police forces everywhere. The obvious message being conveyed is that mobs and fringe groups can take the law into their own hands and threaten or actually inflict violence with impunity, as long as they claim to be acting in the ‘cause’ of the majority’s religion. 

Rational politicians must realise that even if such repulsive and unethical ploys win them votes or elections, they would have created a socio-political Frankenstein’s monster which will certainly come back to devour them, before it destroys the whole country. Neighbouring Pakistan provides a stark example of how simplistic approaches, dreamt-up by religious fanatics, can have disastrous consequences. Created as the first theocratic State of modern times, Pakistan started unravelling as soon as it adopted religious fundamentalism as State policy and mobilised Sharia law to victimise religious minorities and even some non-conformist Muslims. By 1971, culture, language and ethnicity had provided a far stronger magnetic force than Islam, and East Pakistan broke away to become independent Bangladesh.

To view the situation through a national security prism, let us pay heed to our military leadership, which continues to warn the nation about the possibility of a “two and a half front war”. While the “two fronts” obviously refer to our nuclear-armed adversaries, China and Pakistan, who covet our territory, the “half front” that worries our Generals is the internal security threat represented by the existing Naxal insurgency and ongoing separatist movements in Kashmir and the North-Eastern states. Over this volatile scenario, if you now superimpose religious/sectarian fratricidal conflicts, the cumulative threat could overwhelm India’s security apparatus and bring us to the brink of disaster.

Thus, as India struggles to cope with the triple-crisis posed by Covid-19, China’s border incursions, and the economic downslide, we need to reflect upon the adverse impact that the pursuit of majoritarianism is having on our heterogeneous society as well as on our security, well-being and international image. 

Tolerance is the hallmark of a self-confident and dynamic civilisation. India’s Hindus must, therefore, retain faith in their proud identity and repel attempts to induce paranoid sentiments of victimhood in their own homeland, where they outnumber minorities 80 to 20. 

Elections come and go, but India’s ruling elite must recognise that in a multi-faith society like ours, religious polarisation can cause irreparable damage to the fragile fabric of our nationhood. India’s supreme national interest will be best served if we retain a sharp focus on unity and internal cohesion through assimilation, inclusivity and maintenance of domestic harmony; everything else is a distraction from the vital task of nation-building. If such wisdom dawns on them, there is still time for India to step back from the brink. 

(Admiral Arun Prakash, who was awarded Vir Chakra for his gallantry in the India-Pakistan war in 1971, retired as the chief of Indian Navy and the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee in 2006.)

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