The demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 and the deadly riots in the weeks that followed changed India. Twenty-five years later, most will agree with this. In the triumphalist narratives of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Shiv Sena, December 6 was the beginning of a new era where a righteously angry Hindu majority began to shape public discourse and political life in the country. For everybody else, December 6 marks the beginning of an era of unbridled majoritarianism that has polarised and divided Indian society more deeply than ever.
I spent the better part of 1992-93 in India following the emerging Hindu nationalist movement. From that vantage point, December 6 was no surprise. Hundreds of jampacked trains had ferried karsevaks to Ayodhya for weeks and there was no dearth of reports of the belligerence of the assembled crowds. It was a battle of wits and nerve between the RSS and the government. Would the RSS so openly defy the courts and the government? P.V. Narasimha Rao blinked (or slept) and was checkmated. Unprepared for the wave of anger that blasted through the country as the news spread, the police resorted to the method of crowd control it inherited from the colonial state: shoot to kill. The vast majority of those killed by the police were Muslims.
On December 10, after the death toll in the country had crossed 950, the government decided to ban the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the RSS and the Bajrang Dal for their ‘provocative speeches’ prior to the demolition. For good measure, the government also banned two marginal Muslim groups. I happened to be in Delhi at the time and RSS leaders had called me for a meeting late at night on the 10th. The RSS headquarters was packed with policemen, posted to protect the building against threats. “It is a sensitive spot,” a police officer told me. Rajendra Singh, soon to be elevated to become the supreme leader of the RSS, broke off a friendly chat with police officers and turned to me. “I am expecting they will pick us up any moment,” he said with a faint smile. “They feel the need to be seen to take some action,” he added archly while the policemen chuckled. This was not the scene of a determined attempt to maintain law and order; it was the reluctant action of a government that had lost a battle it never wanted to fight. Less than six months later, this ‘lite ban’ was lifted by a judge who argued that the government had failed to provide evidence that the VHP and the RSS had been responsible for the demolition and the riots that ensued. Narasimha Rao, who cut his political teeth organising armed Hindu vigilantes in Hyderabad before the police action in 1948, was in no mood to stop the Hindu nationalists.
Three significant shifts occurred during those fateful weeks.
The first was a violation of a ‘secular ethic’ pertaining to public conduct. Indian secularism was never secular in the French or Turkish sense of the term but was based on a tacit consensus about maintaining a certain restrained public speech and inclusion of various communities in public ritual and public policies, even if such inclusion often was a mere token gesture. The BJP and the RSS’s denouncing of Congress’s ‘pseudo secularism’ had chipped away at this consensus. Yet the public debates before December 6 were still defined by an ethical anguish as this consensus turned out to be more shallow and brittle than many had imagined. Many worried about the future of the country. The RSS’s and VHP’s willingness to defy the state, the law and the secular consensus, opened for a more confrontational and muscular style of political life. As the riots rocked the country, it was as if an older layer of restrained speech was stripped away. Now hateful statements, deep stereotypes and endorsement of the killing of Muslims was uttered freely by the respectable family doctor, the bank clerk, the rickshaw wallah and at middle-class dinner parties. Brief public displays of communal hatred were not unheard of, but this time, there was no attempt to put the lid back on. Anti-Muslim and openly casteist jokes and remarks could now be made quite freely also among perfect strangers.
As I returned to the newly renamed Mumbai in 1996, it was clear to me that Bal Thackeray’s style of ‘straight talk’ – abusive, confrontational, coining nicknames for his foes – had become much more accepted and common in the city. The BJP’s charge that Muslims did not want to join the ‘national mainstream’ – a code for upper-caste Hindu norms – had sunk into a broader common sense, legitimising unprecedented levels of discrimination and exclusion of Muslims from the public sector as well as the newly buoyant private sector. The relationship between a Hindu majority and the nation’s multiple minorities was no longer governed by any ethical injunctions or any attempt to restrain public discourse. Muslims were now portrayed as an intransigent social minority holding the country back; located in social and spatial enclaves that had to be dealt with through containment and harsh policing. Invocation of secular values was now becoming a minority discourse, a mere unwelcome echo of a past, irrelevant to the emergence of a ‘new India’.
The second major shift was revealed by the pogrom against Bombay’s Muslims in January 1993. The facts are well known and chilling. Shortly after the protests across the city on December 7-10 where 160 people lost their lives, mainly felled by police bullets, the Shiv Sena swung into action to whip up Hindu sentiments. The chief instrument was the regular maha aartis, a new kind of mass Hindu prayer in public spaces that copied the form and choreography of Muslim Friday prayers. Tensions throughout the city were palpable and many Muslims knew that something was going to happen. On January 6, arson killed an entire Hindu family in Gandhi chawl in Jogeshwari, an event that set off six days of intense attacks on Muslims across the city. On January 11, Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamna called off the attacks with a front page saying ‘Enough is enough’. The official death toll was around 900, mostly Muslims, and more than 100,000 had fled the city, many vowing never to return.
The riots shattered the image of Bombay as India’s most modern and cosmopolitan city, an icon of modernity, industry and liberal values. In this cherished mythology, Bombay was the place one came to escape the strictures of caste and atavistic impulses that governed the village and the mofussil town. Sociologists and commentators had long assured the public that communalism would never come to dominate this modern metropolis with its varied and educated civic life and strong tradition of trade unions.
However, this idealised myth of the city had obscured what was actually happening on the ground. Industrial labour had always been recruited along the lines of community, region and caste and the unions reflected this. Muslims had largely been squeezed out of most of the larger industries since the 1960s and Shiv Sena had for decades established a commanding presence across slums and middle class colonies in the city. Bombay’s cosmopolitanism did not reach inside the city’s thousands of housing colonies where residents’ associations for decades had given preference to those from their own class, caste and linguistic backgrounds. Bombay’s urban dwellers encountered other communities in their workplaces, streets, markets, trains and public spaces but like in the rest of the country, most lived their private lives within their own communities.
The other part of the myth of the modern city was that communal conflict was engineered by scheming politicians who exploited the gullible and uneducated masses in the slums. Education, proper jobs and development would eventually remove communal attitudes. There was never any evidence for this belief. On the contrary, the riots in Bombay were enthusiastically supported by many well-educated Hindus. The ‘retaliation’ excited many because it felt like a transgression of the old order. Such fearful excitement motivated hundreds of middle class men to take their cars to the beach during those days and weeks, training their Maruti headlights on the Arabian Sea and what was rumored to be a flotilla of boats with armed commandos sent to relieve the city’s Muslims.
Across the country, the feverish mobilisation behind the BJP also disproportionately attracted the upper castes, the urban middle class and those with college degrees. Today, these segments remain the core of BJP’s electoral base.
What is more, communal violence is almost exclusively an urban phenomenon that in cycle after cycle, over the decades, has deepened spatial and social segregation of communities in clearly separated neighbourhoods. Before the riots, Bombay was known to have more mixed neighborhoods than many other cities in India. Yet it was far from always friendly “Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai”. One section of the area in Central Bombay where I spent much time in the early 1990s was known as “Jammu-Kashmir” – rows of crumbling chawls separated by a narrow streets, Hindus on one side, Muslim on the other. Whenever there were tense days and events – rumors, a cricket match, election campaigns – insults and at times projectiles were exchanged between the balconies across the road. Predictably, this became a flashpoint during the riots. In the decades after, Muslims have all but disappeared from this area that is now slated for redevelopment. This pattern is repeated across the vast expanse of the city today. Muslim neighborhoods are more cramped and dense than ever, and communities are more clearly separated than before.
Mumbai’s building boom and the rapid development of new elite enclaves and new high rises catering to the middle class have been fuelled by a more openly articulated desire for social segregation. The memories of the riots and the fear of minorities came to form the core of a new Hindu middle class common sense that imagines the city as a battle zone, where embattled hardworking patriotic families seek to protect themselves from the onslaught of indigent encroachers, greedy builders and hostile minorities.
Many progressives in India and elsewhere used to believe that the modern industrial city would create a more open, free and rational social order. It turned out that the modern Indian city thrives on segregation. Intense social prejudice and communal stereotypes are major drivers in the roaring capital accumulation in the housing market.
The third shift was that the whole universe of ‘alternative facts’ and mythmaking that had been germinating within Hindu nationalist circles for decades began to be accepted as legitimate forms of political emotion and public discourse. The term ‘alternative facts’ was coined by a spokesperson for Donald Trump, referring to his penchant for lies, exaggeration and his reliance on the vast network of racist conspiracy theorists that emerged out of the shadows during the American election in 2016.
A similar process but on an even larger scale began in India in the late 1980s with the campaign to ‘liberate’ what was claimed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram. This campaign was driven by fanciful claims about the historical existence of Lord Ram mixed with bogus archeaology, doctored footage of the supposed massacre of thousands of of karsevaks by the UP government in 1990 (footage still in circulation across North India) and claims that the Babri Masjid constituted a ‘historical wound’. In 1991, a young and intense RSS man in Pune told me: “Most Hindus feel that this is the birth place of Lord Ram”. But there is no proof, I protested, could it not be somewhere else in Ayodhya? “No, it happened on that exact spot, and there was a temple” he said, “for us, that is an emotional truth”.
Some weeks earlier, I had spent what felt like a very long afternoon with Gopal Godse, brother of Naturam, and five of his friends in a tiny apartment in Pune. For hours, they showed me architectural drawings that supposedly proved that Taj Mahal was built on top of a temple, as was virtually every major edifice that Muslim rulers had claimed as theirs. This was indeed a universe of ‘emotional truth’, impervious to argument or objection. Only they possessed the proof and all the socalled experts were either deluded or serving the pseudo-secular state. These exact same claims, and some of those ‘drawings’, emerged into the open in September 2017 as BJP politicians wanted tourists and school children in UP to be exposed to what they claimed was a proper Hindu history. Along with the promotion of fanciful Vedic sciences, revision of history books, a new push for a temple in Ayodhya, it is clear that such alternative facts of an eternal Hindu India now are being presented to a very large chunk of the population as if on a par with, if not superior to, globally accepted standards of scientific proof and historical fact.
How did such a nakedly anti-intellectual assertion of ‘emotional truth’ succeed in a country famously obsessed with higher education, a country where being an intellectual, a writer, an engineer or a scientist, carried much prestige and authority until quite recently? One answer lies obviosuly in the sustained success of the RSS and its many avatars in claiming to be the primary defender of a Hindu majority under attack by minorities and the country’s secular elites. Their claim of recovering Hindu pride has had many takers in the new middle classes and elites, anxious that they, and India, be recognized in the eyes of the world. A deeper reason lies in the hyper-politicization of Indian society in the last few decades. The deepening of India’s democracy has questioned many truths and social authorities. But the price has been a more polarized society where all facts have become partisan facts, and where each political and social community nurtures its own truths.
From the highest offices to everyday conversations in a chai shop runs the idea that behind every event, or action, lies some political machination, some hidden hand, some elite section, or other community, scheeming and plotting. Court verdicts, public policies, what is written in a newspaper or shown on TV are all seen as interested and engineered facts, mere opinions. Nothing illustrates this state of affairs better than the staged screaming matches on Indian talk shows, regardless of language. In such a climate, a proven fact or a scientific proof is just an opinion, nothing but a rhetorical ploy that operates at the same level as an ‘emotional truth’. India has almost become Nietzsche’s dream: there is no truth, there is only power.
India is not alone in living through this profound crisis of truth claims where everything has become partisan facts. It is just that the process is more advanced, and possibly deeper in India, because its dominant political party and movement consistently has promoted ‘emotional truth’ over all other truth claims. December 6, 1992 was the day where it became clear that they could get away with it. Twenty five years later we can see that quite clearly.
Thomas Blom Hansen is professor of anthropology at Stanford University and the author of The Saffron Wave and Wages of Violence.