Violent Clash Over Flag Ceremony Is Latest Flashpoint in Hindu-Muslim Conflicts

The communal violence that erupted in a town in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on Republic Day, January 26, again highlights the point that from the problematic perspective of the country’s Hindu supremacists, Indian Muslims can never be trusted to be, or to do good. Not even when they enthusiastically organize a program in their neighborhood to unfurl the national flag as a mark of respect for the tricolor, love for the country. Not even if the venue chosen for the occasion happens to be a spot named to honor the memory of a Muslim soldier, Abdul Hamid, whose act of extraordinary courage and sacrifice gave the Indian army a crucial edge during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. For this, Hamid was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest military honor.

According to reports in the media, in the January 26 Hindu-Muslim clash, both sides resorted to private firing, leading to the death of a Hindu, Chandan Gupta, and serious injury to a Muslim, “Prince.” A day later, ABP news channel released a video showing Muslim vehicles and business establishments being selectively targeted and torched while the police stood mute witness.

Police have set up a special investigation team (SIT) to probe the riots. That the Indian police are not free from communal bias is a fact that has in the past been publicly acknowledged and reported by many serving and retired police officers, and also by judicial inquiry commissions. Given this, and the fact that the Indian police functions as a force subservient to political bosses rather than one committed to impartial, independent enforcement of rule of law, what the SIT will produce is anyone’s guess. Especially so in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where a Hindu priest donned in saffron currently occupies the Chief Minister’s chair. For now, news reports and videos published by the national media give us a proximate picture of who did what. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state, and in March 2017, a Hindu supremacist government rode to power after 15 years in the state polls.

It all started when a few dozen activists on motorcycles, belonging to the right-wing Hindu ‘nationalist’ groups—Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)—insisted on taking their “Tiranga Yatra” (Tricolor Rally) through a predominantly Muslim neighborhood where the local residents were setting up chairs for their own community-level flag hoisting ceremony. Both sides have their own version of who said and did what. But two facts are beyond dispute. One, the rally was unauthorized. In India, processions by members of one community passing through a neighborhood of another community with a clear intent to provoke are routinely not permitted by the authorities. Two, there is videographic evidence (see ABP news channel video) to show that in addition to carrying the national flag, the Hindu extremists were also carrying saffron flags, symbolizing Hinduism. What was the motive behind flaunting saffron flags at a Tricolor Rally? What’s more, local Muslims claim they have videographic evidence of the Hindu supremacists using anti-Muslim slogans.

What happened in Kasganj on Republic Day is best understood through the Facebook posts of Raghvendra Vikram Singh, the District Magistrate of Bareilly, a neighboring district. In his stinging post, Singh asked why it has become a “trend” for some to “enter Muslim localities by force, raise anti-Pakistan slogans and then create ruckus.” While talking to the Times of India about his post, Singh said he is hurt by and angry at what is happening “in the name of nationalism."

In the first of two Facebook posts on the Kasganj violence, Singh wrote: “A very strange trend has started of late. Take out processions by force through Muslim dominated localities and raise anti-Pakistan slogans. Why? Are these people Pakistani? The same thing had happened in Khailam village of Bareilly. Then stones were pelted, FIRs lodged.”

The Times of India report pointed out that:

“During the kanwar yatra [a Hindu religious procession] last year in July, 15 ITBP jawans and two dozen kanwariyas [processionists] were injured after the latter insisted on taking their procession through Khailam, an area with substantial Muslim population. Soon there were clashes between the two groups and close to 250 Muslims were booked after the incident.”

The Times continued, “In another post, Singh wondered why similar slogans were never raised [by Hindu extremist groups] against China... [and commented:] ‘Such fringe groups are coming up in every part of the state, taking the same ugly route to instigate people of the minority community by forcefully entering their locality in the name of nationalism. These people don’t care about the fabric of our mixed culture and brotherhood.’”

Trolled and abused, summoned to the state headquarter, Lucknow, and reprimanded by his political bosses, Singh has since apologized and deleted his two posts. Meanwhile, contacted by Times of India for their comments on Singh’s Facebook posts, a few bureaucrats openly endorsed Singh’s views, others gave their quiet approval in view of the "sensitive nature of the controversy," while some advised caution. A retired deputy inspector general of police from the Uttar Pradesh cadre, S.R. Darapuri, has issued a press statement alleging the Kasganj violence was sponsored by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party in power both at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh.

In a sensational exposé, the Times of India reported Wednesday, January 31: “UP police are studying a video that has surfaced, which purportedly shows a group of young men marching towards a Muslim-dominated area in Kasganj on the morning of January 26, with guns. Some of them then fire several rounds. The video, shot from the roof of the local tehsil office, also shows many in the group holding clubs and sticks….In the violence that followed, one man was shot dead and two seriously injured."

Stating it had accessed the new video, the Times of India quoted a police officer, who said, “There were over 50 youths and one of them had the Indian flag. At least two had revolvers and others were carrying clubs and sticks, while the rest were hurling stones towards the Muslim-populated area. Several shots were fired in air by youths who were in the ‘Tiranga yatra.’”

Throughout its over nine-decade history, the RSS has peddled the myth that Hindus are by nature non-violent, that Muslims alone are responsible for all violence between the two communities, forcing Hindus to react in self-defense. In the context of India’s communal history this is referred to as the, ‘Who cast the first stone?’ theory of the Hindu nationalists.

The BJP and the rest of the ‘Brotherhood in Saffron’ have used the tragic death of a young Hindu who succumbed to a bullet injury on Republic Day as a pivot to turn the Kasganj story upside-down. Muslims, it is being claimed in statements to the mass media and through the social media, fired on Hindus who had taken out a national flag rally to celebrate Republic Day. Pro-Pakistan slogans were allegedly raised; the attack was pre-planned by pro-Pakistan elements. What further proof does one need of the treachery of Indian Muslims?

Even the brazenly pro-BJP, pro-government news channel Republic TV telecast an “exclusive” showing the BJP MP Rajveer Singh—son of Kalyan Singh, current Governor of Rajasthan and former chief minister of UP under whose watch the Babri Mosque was demolished, inciting Hindus to violence against Muslims during the cremation procession of the deceased Chandan Gupta. Muslim property was targeted and torched immediately after the cremation.

Among those pouring venom against Muslims was the BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh, Vinay Katiyar, who claimed pro-Pakistan agitators incited violence in Kasganj. “Pakistan supporters have come to Kasganj; they only respect the Pakistani flag and were raising slogans of ‘Pakistan zindabad.’ These people have killed one of our workers. These people should be dealt with strictly,” he demanded. The fire-breathing Union minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti added that the Kasganj incident showed that a national flag rally is unacceptable to “anti-national elements” that should be dealt with firmly.

“It has become a trend these days to hoist the Pakistan flag,” Katiyar later told the TV news channel CNN-News18. Asked if he had any evidence of Pakistani supporters having unfurled Pakistan flags in Kasganj, he simply stated, "I have all the necessary information."

Not for the first time, the new video that captures the armed Hindu mob marching toward a Muslim locality in Kasganj and firing in the air blows a big hole in the oft-promoted who-cast-the-first-stone hypothesis of the RSS.

“Damned if we do, damned if we don’t,” a Muslim activist from UP told this writer following the Kasganj violence. On the eve of Independence Day—August 15—last year all madrasas in UP received a directive from the UP Madarsa Shiksha Parishad, a state government body, directing that not only must all madrasas hoist the national flag, sing the national anthem and organize a cultural program, they must also produce videographic and photographic “evidence” of the same.

“Madrasas and their teachers have made valuable contribution in India’s freedom struggle. In spite of this, it is unfortunate and condemnable that we are being treated with suspicion,” Haji Syed Tahwar Hussain, manager of Madrasa Arabia in Gorakhpur, told CNN-News18.

Ironic, isn’t it? Around Independence Day last year in UP under the watch of the BJP government led by a Yogi (Adityanath), the allegiance of Muslims to the country and its national flag was suspect. Now, this Republic Day, the spontaneous decision of Muslims from a UP town to organize a community-level flag hoisting ceremony has been turned upside down into a story of how “anti-national Muslims” raised Pakistani flags and attacked “patriotic Hindus” who planned a ‘Tiranga Yatra.’

The irony does not end here. As is well-known, the RSS hated the tricolor chosen by India’s freedom fighters as the national flag. “Indian tricolor will never be respected and owned by the Hindus,” the most revered Guru of the Hindu nationalists and the then RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar wrote in the organization’s mouthpiece Organiser in 1947. “The word three in itself is an evil, and a flag having three colors will certainly produce a very bad psychological effect and is injurious to a country,” he added.

As Shamsul Islam writes, “While addressing a Gurupurnima gathering in Nagpur in 1946 Golwalkar had asserted that it was the saffron flag which in totality represented the great culture of Hindus, adding, ‘We firmly believe that in the end the whole nation will bow before this saffron flag.'"

Here is the irony. In keeping with its convictions, the RSS refused to unfurl and pay respects to the tricolor for decades after independence. It is only in recent years that political expediency has compelled it and its numerous progeny to at last “respect” and “own” the tricolor. But now that it “owns” the national flag, how can it tolerate the sight of Muslims affirming “co-ownership” of the same? 

Images of Indian Muslims unfurling the national tricolor do not fit the image of the country’s minority that the RSS has been projecting before the nation for nearly a century now. But the issue goes way beyond the flag. As one commentator has recently observed

“Hindus alone are the legitimate inhabitants of India, wrote the most revered Guru of the sangh parivar, M.S. Golwalkar in his We, or Our Nationhood Defined in the late 1930s. Some two decades later in his Bunch of Thoughts, he warned Hindus to beware of Indian Muslims, their ‘enemy number one.’ The internal enemy, he pointed out, was worse than any external enemy.

“For the Hindu supremacists the Indian Muslim remains a ‘Pakistani within’ whose patriotism is forever suspect.”

At the culmination of a “Tiranga Rally” also on Republic Day organized by the Hindu Yuva Vahini—a creation of Yogi Adityanath—in Meerut, its state secretary, Nagendra Tomar, called upon Hindu youth to prepare for a “counter love-jihad” against Muslims. (The Hindu supremacists allege that all marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women are part of a conspiracy to lure Hindu girls for conversion into Islam.) “If they take away one (Hindu girl), you must bring in at least 10 of them (Muslim girls),” he declared amidst enthusiastic applause.

In UP under BJP rule, the latest incident at Kasganj is but an example of the Hindu right-wing’s pursuit of communal politics by any possible means. This is also a sinister reminder of the kind of hate-driven politics that targets India’s religious minorities—physically, culturally and emotionally—and is more likely to unfurl under the present regime.

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