Religious violence: Where silence is sanction

Last Updated: Mon, Oct 29, 2018 11:16 hrs
Sabarimala

The situation is not unique to India.

The situation is not unique to a particular government.

Throughout history, across the globe, there have been eras of hooliganism, sanctioned by the state and carried out by the masses.

The one thing that is a constant is religion.

From the Crusades to Sabarimala, religion has been at the centre of a battle which appears to be motivated by popular sentiment, but is really about power.

The Centre is headed by a party whose one-time strongman was given the dubious distinction of having brought down a piece of history through the hands of his followers.

L K Advani’s famous march to Ram Janmabhoomi culminated in the Babri Masjid being disintegrated by handheld tools. At the time, the Congress was in power both at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh.

Less than a decade before this, when the Congress was in power and its leader and the country’s then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had been assassinated by her bodyguards, anti-Sikh riots swept through Delhi. Eyewitnesses have gone on record stating that leaders from the party actively encouraged the mobs. But most have escaped punishment.

Violence is not necessarily sanctioned by words. It can often be sanctioned by silence, by tacit approval.

And for a man who is so fond of talking, the prime minister has maintained a remarkable silence on critical issues.

A case in point is the Supreme Court’s verdict on the entry of women into Sabarimala.

The Kerala state wing of the BJP has been shooting off its mouth constantly. Its President P. S. Sreedharan Pillai has made it clear that the Kerala BJP is opposed to the entry of women to the temple, and has promised to “stand by the devotees”.

No one at the Centre has given him a rap on the knuckles. Since 2014, it has been acceptable to attack as long as a particular religion is being protected.

Therefore, it has been okay to lynch Muslims across the country, it has been okay to kill Dalits across the country, and it has been okay to attack women who could potentially “desecrate” an abode of god.

Speaking to the media, Pillai said the party would be in “full strength” to “support the devotees’ wishes” when the temple opens again, on November 5 and 6.

The “devotees” to whom Pillai refers have been disrupting law and order with violent protests. The fact that nearly 3500 protesters have been arrested in the past couple of days and more than 500 cases registered is indicative of the hooliganism that prevailed at Sabarimala.

While the media had initially quoted BJP President Amit Shah as saying he was against the arrest of protesters at Sabarimala, the remark was eventually attributed to Pillai. It was also reported that Shah said the Centre would throw out the Kerala government if it targeted “devotees”. Pillai insisted Shah had never made such a statement.

Amit Shah may not have made the remark against arrests, but he did say the government and Supreme Court should not “give orders that work to break the faith of the people” and are therefore difficult to implement.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has greeted Shah’s remarks with sarcasm and irony, saying the BJP has “no space” in the state, in response to the latter’s prediction that the people of Kerala would revolt against the Left.

To use words like “revolt” when a mob is itching for violence is more than silent sanction – it is a call to action.

The three branches of government – the executive, legislature, and judiciary – are separate partially to keep each other in check, and partially to support each other. One does not expect that the purpose of each is to undermine the other.

The judiciary goes by the law in forming an assessment.

Isn’t the legislature then bound to accept the judiciary’s verdict?

For centuries, religious institutions have been able to get away with flouting laws by citing the “word of god”. The “word of god” has enabled these institutions to avoid questioning, and silence dissent.

When the powers that be suggest that the judiciary is guilty of dissent and that the “devotees” are therefore impossible to control, they are verbally sanctioning violence and hooliganism. They are assigning the mob a “cause”.

Religion, more unfortunately than fortunately, is open to interpretation, and the task of interpretation is usually assumed by gatekeepers.

No religion can boast of gatekeepers who have ever welcomed a progressive stance, and most religions are manned by gatekeepers who are happy to perpetrate all manner of cruelty and horror in the name of religious mandate.

There was a time when sati was the norm, and opposition to it was considered sacrilegious.

There was a time when caste determined entry to a temple, and opposition to it was believed to be blasphemous.

There can be opinions.

But when opinions are expressed through violence, the state is duty-bound to intervene. The leaders’ silence is as good as sanction.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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