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HomeColumnsAshutosh Varshney writes: A dark path goes from Kheda to New India

Ashutosh Varshney writes: A dark path goes from Kheda to New India

The images kept coming. They first appeared when I was in Berlin some days back, preparing to give a talk on the conditions under which, in democracies, extra-legal violence has been inflicted on minorities with some sort of popular approval. My paper was on “Modi’s India, Jim Crow America”, a comparison whose seeds were born in my column for this newspaper last year (‘Jim Crow Hindutva’, IE, October 19).

As a roar of approval burst out of the surrounding mob, while the cops flogged Muslim youth tied to an electric pole on the suspicion that they had pelted stones during Garba celebrations, the experience was eerie and sad. The beatings and what they represented can easily be analysed with the cold objectivity of a comparative historical gaze, but its deep repugnance easily pierced through the professionally induced academic calm. The horror of the loathing was unmistakable.

The video of the beatings kept flashing through Twitter for the next several days, accompanied by virtually endless commentary in the newspapers. Last Friday, in a seminar at Brown University, the Kheda floggings surfaced again. Something awful about “new India” was revealed in Kheda, disturbingly familiar now but quite unknown in the first six decades of the post-Independence period. It was an act of brutal disregard for the routine legal norms of a civilised society. Shockingly, for many it was an act that inspired gleeful celebration.

The irony of inverted historical meanings should be noted at this point. In the books of modern Indian history, Kheda is famous. It was the site for one of the first satyagrahas of Mahatma Gandhi in 1918, three years after he permanently returned to India from South Africa, a satyagraha in which Sardar Patel, a hero of modern-day Hindu nationalism, participated, as did Indulal Yagnik, another stalwart of modern Gujarat. The satyagraha was about organising peasant defiance of British taxes in a year of grave agricultural and public health distress. While Gandhi was already known, Sardar Patel was thrust into the limelight of the emerging freedom movement at Kheda. He became Gandhi’s trusted deputy thereafter.

The same Kheda district two weeks back was the site of something exactly antithetical. Instead of celebrating the power of nonviolence and helping peasants of all religions, Kheda’s onlookers were cheering, in full public gaze, the beating of young Muslim men by policemen and the video was sent to thousands on WhatsApp and Twitter. True to a trope in communal violence research, in which I have participated for over two decades, there were clashing narratives about what exactly happened in Kheda. But without a proper investigation, the Hindu mob and the cops seemed only too willing to humiliate, violate and flog Muslim youth for their alleged misconduct.

To further understand the significance of what happened, let us also be clear what the episode was not about. Flogging was quite common in the early modern armed forces: For example, in the US navy and under George III in Britain (1760-1820). For the latter period, here is how Jawaharlal Nehru described British flogging in The Discovery of India. “When George III (ruled)… the ordinary soldier in the British army was treated worse than a beast of the field, with a brutality and inhumanity that horrify. Death sentences were common and commoner still was flogging, inflicted in public, flogging up to several hundred lashes, till death sometimes intervened or the mangled body of the sufferer, just surviving, told the story to his dying day.”

This is not what Kheda floggings were about.

Nor should the comparison be made with “Talibanisation”, as proposed in some quarters. Talibanisation, as a term, represents religious punishment for violations of the criminal, not civil, Sharia laws by Muslims. The civil Sharia is about matters such as marriage, divorce and property inheritance. The criminal Sharia laws, the so-called Hudood ordinances in some quarters, are about how to punish grave transgressions of religiously prescribed behaviour for Muslim men and women. They are about enforcing religious orthodoxy within. Though there is some dispute about it, the Sharia laws technically do not apply to non-Muslims. The criminal dimensions of Shariat punishment born in the Middle Ages — flogging, stoning, decapitation — have been operative only in a few Muslim societies in modern times, the most prominent being Afghanistan under the Taliban. Flogging is typically a punishment for sexual crimes within Islamic societies.

The Kheda flagellations were not about intra-Muslim attempts at imposing religious orthodoxy. They were about the village’s Hindu majority, supported by the police, violently imposing a social order of dominance over another community — a minority community practising a different faith. It can’t be equated with “Talibanisation”.

If anything, there is an awful resemblance between what is happening to the Muslims of India in BJP-ruled states and what was done to the black community in the 11 states of American South that had unsuccessfully fought to keep slavery during the American Civil War. They lost the war in 1865, but within a couple of decades or so, they successfully re-established white supremacy. It was done via regaining control over state governments and legislatures.

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Along with anti-black laws and executive decrees in the southern states also came white support for extra-legal violence, perpetrated by vigilante forces and local police, often in coordination. Here is a brief account by Richard White, a leading historian of the period. “Lynchings were… public spectacles, even entertainments, that often took place before large crowds. White men tortured black men… Photographers memorialised the murders. The photographs, turned into postcards, sold widely. … Far from being a problem for the Democrats, lynching… reinforced their standing as a white man’s party.” Instead of picture postcards, we now have videos on WhatsApp and Twitter.

What white supremacy — or “Jim Crow” — was for blacks in the American South, Hindu supremacy is for India’s Muslims in BJP-ruled states. The BJP-ruled states of India, 18 out of 28, are now going through roughly similar majoritarian processes, politically and socially. Jim Crow was a very long tragedy for American democracy. It lasted nearly eight decades, overturned finally only in the mid-1960s. One can only hope that India’s new anti-Muslim turn will not last that long.

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The writer is Sol Goldman professor of international studies and the social sciences at Brown University

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