Nine years into Narendra Modi’s reign as prime minister, one cannot but admire the consummate skill with which he has turned silence and enigma into his most effective political weapon. INDIA, the newly formed opposition coalition, has roundly condemned the BJP’s failure to prevent the civil war that is now raging in Manipur. It has also condemned the sudden and unexpected outbreak of communal rioting in Nuh, Palwal and Gurugram – a bare 40-60 km from Delhi. But Prime Minister Modi’s only response to them has been his now familiar, enigmatic, silence. His response to the no confidence motion didn’t even scratch the surface of the problems there.
Why is Modi silent? What can he possibly gain from silence? Only in the past week has the opposition become aware of the link that binds the two. This is his utter inability to empathise with victims of tragedy, and his dazzling capacity to turn that psychological failing to his political advantage.
Civil war has been raging in Manipur for more than three months. The entire state is split into warring camps. By the first week of July, nine weeks after the civil war started, 142 persons had been killed, dozens raped and several thousand injured or had their homes burned or razed to the ground – in a total of almost 6,000 atrocities reported to the police. Today, the death toll is closing on 200, but Modi not only continues to maintain his silence but, more significantly, has not levelled a word of criticism against Manipur chief minister Biren Singh in all of the three months that Singh has taken to destroy his state and endanger the unity of India.
This is the stubborn silence that drove the opposition into demanding a vote of confidence against his government. Its goal was not to oust him, which it knows is impossible, but just to force him to account for his government’s misrule to the people of India.
What can possibly have made the prime minister court this indignity? Surely, he knows that showing empathy with the poor is the best way to win their hearts? He has only to remember how Mrs Indira Gandhi’s instant concern for the plight of the poor made her spectacular political comeback in 1980 possible. The pivotal event then was the massacre of Dalits that took place in 1977 in Belchi, a village in Bihar, at the hands of upper caste landowners. Despite being on trial before the Shah Commission for the excesses committed during the Emergency, she flew to Bihar and rode on an elephant to reach the village.
That was the quality of spontaneous sympathy that gave her a near-divine status among the poor. Modi is too good a politician not to know the value of such gestures, so his profound silence has to be traced to other, more pressing concerns. The only one that springs to mind is his growing fear that, with opposition unity solidifying from month to month, the BJP is in danger of losing the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. So he has gone back to the one antidote with which he is familiar, and which worked unfailingly in Gujarat, and in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This is stirring up hatred of Muslims and other minorities in the Hindu majority. He did not plan the Manipur violence, but these played into his hands just as the Pulwama attack had done four years ago. It is against this background that one needs to examine the riots that broke out in Nuh.
How dangerously irresponsible Prime Minister Modi’s behaviour is can be judged by comparing it with that of his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee. When, within months of the NDA coming to power in 1998, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal raised a hue and cry against conversions to Islam and Christianity, began to attack Christian priests and nuns and vandalise churches, Vajpayee sharply criticised their lawlessness and undertook a fast to force BJP-ruled state governments to take stern action. When cadres of the Bajrang Dal set fire to the car in which Graham Staines, an Australian Christian missionary, and his two sons were sleeping outside a church in Odisha, and burned them alive, he took immediate action. Mass arrests followed, and in less than four years, Dara Singh, the main culprit was in prison, sentenced to death, while his accomplices received lesser sentences.
When the VHP began another campaign against the conversion of tribals to Christianity in the Dang district of Gujarat, Vajpayee pushed the state government to end it forthwith. He also called a conclave of the BJP’s coalition partners and set up a National Coordination Committee headed by George Fernandes as a counterweight to the RSS within his government. That balancing act gave India one of the best governments it has had since Independence.
When the Gujarat riots began on February 28, 2002, after repeatedly failing to contact Modi on the phone, Vajpayee sent defence minister Fernandes to Ahmedabad to call in the army to end the violence. When he visited Ahmedabad a month later, he openly criticised Modi at the Shahpur refugee camp stating, “Main yahan lashe ginane nahi aaya hoon. Aman kayam rakhna rajneetik neta aur adhikariyon ka zimmedari hai. (I have not come here to count the corpses. It is the responsibility of the political leaders and officials to maintain peace.)”
Compare this with Modi’s steadfast refusal to condemn, and his tacit legitimisation through silence, of the lynching of more than 50 Muslims and Dalits by self-appointed gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes), his three-month long silence as Manipur has burned, and now his calculated silence over the outbreak of communal violence in Nuh, Gurgaon and Palwal. This makes the difference between a Hindu who understood, and wanted to foster, the essential tolerance of Hinduism, and a fake devotee who is abusing it to perpetuate his personal power at the expense of his country becomes starkly apparent.
As I write, Prime Minister Modi has maintained his now-familiar enigmatic silence on the eruption of communal violence in Nuh, Gurgaon and Palwal for nine days. Through his silence, he has endorsed the Haryana home minister’s placing of the blame squarely upon Muslim youth in Nuh who allegedly attacked devotees who came to offer prayers at the Nalhar temple. This allegation has been so readily accepted that even The Hindu reported that “soon after they (the yatris) started the second leg of their journey from the Nalhar temple to a Radhakrishna temple 60 kms away, they were attacked by a mob . As stones were thrown at them and vehicles and shops set ablaze the devotees ran back to the temple in terror. They sat huddled inside for five hours as the mob surrounded the temple”.
This description left out several key facts. The most important of these is that it was preceded by a full year of carefully planned provocation of an entirely peaceful Muslim population by the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, to which the Haryana government consistently turned a blind eye. The first was that while the Nalhar temple was ancient, the pilgrimage to it, titled a Jalabhishekh Yatra (offering of holy water from the Ganges to Lord Shiva) was only three years old, and had been launched by the VHP, with the express purpose of reclaiming Mahabharat-age temples from the Muslims. The article also did not mention that most of the pilgrims in the Jalabhishekh Yatra were not ordinary men and women of all ages but almost exclusively young men.
The second was that the fracas in Nuh town was caused by a string of provocations that had begun a year or more before the violence occurred. The first provocation took place in 2022 when a mazaar (a sufi shrine) was vandalised, but the elders of both communities contained the reaction. This year, however, saw a rapid fire string of further provocations.
First, a self styled gau rakshak named Monu Manesar, who is a Bajrang Dal activist on the run from the Rajasthan police for killing two Muslims, Nasir and Junaid, earlier this year, posted a succession of inflammatory videos and promised that he would attend the Shobha Yatra at the Nalhar temple on Monday personally, to bathe the Shivling in Ganges water.
Second, another notorious Muslim baiter and self-advertised member of the Bajrang Dal, Bittu Bajrangi, uploaded a series of venomous anti-Muslim videos on various channels, in one of which he claimed derisively that ‘Nuh was the Hindu community’s sasural (in-laws’ house)’. No one failed to understand the insult.
A third agent provocateur who had also announced his intention to join the Yatra this year was yet another Bajrang Dal member who is known by his nom de guerre, ‘Rambhakt Gopal’. He gained notoriety in 2020 by firing a revolver at protestors demonstrating against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Shaheen Bagh, shouting “Yeh lo azaadi (Here’s your freedom)” as he retreated, still holding his revolver up, into the protective ranks of a hundred Delhi policemen who did nothing to deter him.
In the run up to the Nuh march, Gopal had uploaded two videos, the first of armed persons in a jeep terrorising women and children in a Muslim village, and the second, captioned “Taking away the cow smuggler” was of young men dragging a Muslim into an SUV.
Neither Monu Manesar nor Gopal turned up at Nuh, but the damage had been done and the town was seething with young men who were determined to take revenge. It was in these conditions that, after visiting the Nalhar temple, the Jalabhishekh Yatris decided to go through the centre of Nuh town to their second shrine, the Radhakrishna temple at Singar village, 60 km away. This made the resulting violence unavoidable.
Then followed the now familiar BJP routine of blaming the victims for the atrocities they had suffered. By Friday, just four days after the riot in Nuh, the Haryana police force that had done absolutely nothing to prevent a well publicised riot, had arrested as many as 141 persons and registered 55 FIRs in connection with the violence. It has not given any data as to who, precisely, they have arrested. But it is safe to assume that just as happened after the East Delhi riots three years ago – where despite 40 out of 53 persons killed being Muslims and most of the property destroyed being Muslim-owned, all but a handful of those arrested were also Muslims – most of those who have been arrested in Nuh will also turn out to be Muslims.
What there is data for already is the revenge that the police has taken upon the Muslims of Nuh. Almost all of the more than 750 homes, huts, shops, restaurants and cinema halls demolished by the Haryana government in the immediate aftermath of the riot, allegedly for suddenly discovered illegal construction, belong to Muslims.
Throughout this tragedy, Modi has maintained his sphinx-like silence while his advisers worked out how to convert the resulting increase in Hindu-Muslim animosity into votes for the BJP in 2024. The first fruit of their cogitations has not taken long to ripen. On Wednesday August 9, a bare 48 hours after the Muslim property destruction drive began, the Haryana BJP chief, Om Prakash Dhankar, had the brazen-faced gall to accuse the Congress and the Aam Admi Party of having instigated the riots. He and his five-member delegation did this without even having visited Nuh, but after the police had prevented a Congress delegation from going to the town on Tuesday and an AAP delegation from doing so on Wednesday.
The causes of the communal conflagration in Manipur may have been local, and the violence unplanned, but the same cannot be said of the tragedy that has befallen the Meos of Nuh. Judging from Modi’s past actions, Nuh is likely to be followed by more communal violence triggered by the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, but blamed upon local Muslims. As the BJP feels more threatened by the INDIA alliance, such provocations are set to multiply. India is therefore likely to go through the fires of hell before the next election. And if the BJP somehow comes out as the victor, it will almost certainly be the last proper general election this country will see.
Prem Shankar Jha is a veteran journalist.