There are Signs of Hope in the Fight against Saffron Violence in Uttarakhand

After the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the 2017 elections in Uttarakhand, there was a spike in efforts by various groups to stoke violence. At the same time, there was also a resistance to these efforts and it now seems that the resistance may be having some degree of success.

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Uttarakhand in March 2017, recurrent attacks by saffron organisations have taken place across the state. Each attack has been justified by claiming that there was either some "atrocity" or "anti-national" act by Muslims or opponents of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Between July and October 2017, incidents of this kind occurred about once every 10 days on average. Till date, violence has taken place in Mussoorie (twice), Satpuli (twice), Chamba, Pauri, Haridwar, Raiwala, Kirtinagar, and Dehradun (Gopalakrishnan 2017). The attacks have not been confined to assault on minorities. On 11 October, in Dehradun, in the presence of senior BJP leaders (including the mayor of the city) and the police, RSS and BJP cadre forced their way into the district office of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]) and beat up the CPI(M) cadre as well.

In every attack, the modus operandi is simple and the same as elsewhere in India. An allegation is made that someone from a target group—mostly a Muslim, except in the case of the CPI(M) attack—has insulted the Hindu faith, or has sexually harassed a Hindu girl, or praised Pakistan, and so on. The saffron organisations then “protest”, demanding police action. Simultaneously, they beat up that person, attack their family's property, or attack other Muslims to “punish” them for their “offence”. The police then arrest the targeted person and their family members. No action is taken against those responsible for violence (no one has been arrested for the CPI(M) attack either).

In India, after 2014, none of this seems unusual. But in Uttarakhand it is indeed unusual, because the state has hardly had any history of mob violence, especially in the hills. This is not a state where such violence is seen as part of “normal” politics. Prejudice is rife, but violence is not.

In this sense, Uttarakhand is at a crucial tipping point. At present, Uttarakhandis of all faiths are uncomfortable with violence. This was visible in some of these incidents. In Chamba, several shopkeepers opposed the attempt to close their bazaar in a “protest bandh”, and in Kirtinagar and Haridwar, local residents stressed strongly to the press that those who attacked Muslims were outsiders. In Haridwar, an allegation was made by Anuj Walia, the Bajrang Dal's state coordinator, that Muslims had made objectionable remarks against the Valmiki community. However, according to press reports, Valmiki youth themselves filed a police complaint saying that this did not happen and that the Bajrang Dal's state coordinator was spreading fake news to incite violence (Singh 2017). While the police have been biased in terms of filing cases, they have also intervened to stop physical attacks when they were occurring.

None of this is evidence of commitment to the rule of law as such, but it does show a visceral, basic opposition to violence. The saffron groups are attempting to change this—to push Uttarakhand into the “new normal”—by slowly and gradually making inhuman brutality a routine affair. Hence, so far, they have not tried to kill anyone. Instead, they are starting with beatings and attacks on property. This simultaneously sends a signal that Hindus are being attacked in various ways and those who are the “defenders of Hindus” are thus above the law. If this violence goes unopposed, in a year or so, we can be certain that the reactions of both the police and the average Hindu will begin to change. Soon after, killings will begin.

 

Signs of Hope

Fortunately, the violence has not gone unopposed (in the same way as other parts of India).

Immediately after the first incident in Satpuli (on 6 July), we in Chetna Andolan came together with leaders from the CPI, the CPI(M), the Uttarakhand Mahila Manch, Jan Chetna Manch and others to resist this violence and impunity. On 12 August, a mass convention held in Dehradun was attended by leaders from all opposition parties, as well as most of the state's major social movements.[1] The convention demanded action against the Sangh groups and the upholding of the rule of law. This was followed by protests in Dehradun on 22 August and 23 September. After the initial two programmes, the subsequent protests were held under the banner of Jan Hastakshep.[2] In early November, Jan Hastakshep announced a series of “kanastar bajao” programmes, following an old protest tradition of the hills (where protesters bang tins—kanastar—as an act of protest, much as farmers bang tins to drive wild animals from their fields). The first kanastar bajao programme was held on 7 November in Dehradun, the second on 21 December in Vikasnagar, and the third in the chief minister's constituency (Doiwala) on 27 February. Thus, six protest programmes have been held so far, and a mass convention has been planned for May 2018. A "Dehradun march" is also being planned.

The striking news is this: at least as far as we are aware, after mid-October, no incidents of the kind noted above have been reported in the state. It appears that unlike in most other states, the situation in Uttarakhand has not reached a point where the Sangh feels that it can get away with violence in the face of vocal public opposition.

Certain features have marked these protests. First, in all of them, there has been representation from a wide spectrum of opposition leaders, the state's senior intellectuals, and large social movements. Second, in all cases, the vast majority of the protesters have been daily wage workers, working class women, and others from Dalit, Other Backward Classes (OBC), and Muslim backgrounds. Third, in all the protests, three central demands have been raised: enforcement of the rule of law and an end to hate politics; the implementation and enforcement of labour laws and welfare schemes; and rights over natural resources (especially through the Forest Rights Act).

 

Developments in non-BJP Parties

The protests have also triggered schisms in the leadership of the non-BJP parties in the state. Jan Hastakshep's core group now has Samar Bhandari of the CPI, Bachi Ram Kanswal of the CPI (M), Nirmala Bisht from Uttarakhand Mahila Manch, Satish Dhaulakhandi from the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, and others, including us from Chetna Andolan. The senior leaders from all the other major opposition parties have also been regular participants. In most parties, this has resulted in internal factional disputes. In the Congress, the group surrounding Kishore Upadhyaya (Uttarakhand Pradesh Congress Committee president until May 2017) has been the most active in opposing the saffron brigade, and has also started a parallel discussion process called Uttarakhand Vimarsh, which aims to bring together the state's non-BJP parties, social movements, and intellectuals.

 

However, the current state Congress president, Pritam Singh, has maintained a studied silence on these issues. When a delegation sought his support for a joint statement against the violence, he declared that "every action leads to a reaction" (quoting, perhaps unwittingly, Narendra Modi) and that these were "local protests", which even Congress supporters might have joined. Needless to say, this is precisely the stance of the RSS. Similarly, the state president of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal issued a statement against one of its best-known leaders Kashi Singh Airy for joining the Uttarakhand Vimarsh discussion process. Within the CPI(M) as well, there has been internal debate and criticism of the leaders who are active in the Jan Hastakshep platform.

In this sense, these processes are pushing those who claim to be on the democratic or secular side of the political divide to face their own internal contradictions. It is not clear how far this will go, but if democratic politics in India is to succeed in defeating the threats it currently faces, such confrontations are vital. Only then can a genuinely progressive alternative politics find the space to develop.

While it is too early to say, these protests could be the seed of something new in the long run. At the very least, if they can succeed in halting the violence, it will be a major contribution to the possibility of a truly democratic future for the state and perhaps the country as a whole.

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