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Assault On Professor Joseph, An Ode To Indian Democracy

By Avinash Pandey

24 July, 2010

Rarely do individual tragedies reflect all that is wrong in a society. Even rare are occasions where their implications go beyond the lives of the individual, his family, or the neighborhood. But, when they do, they assume a significance that has bearings on the history of the community and the society.

The recent attack upon a college professor in Kerala comes under the category. The attack is no doubt tragic. The fact that it happened in front of his family is worse. The brutality of chopping the palm off the teacher has scarred the psyche of the family, scars that will probably never be erased. The significance of the event, however, does not lie in the personal tragedy inflicted upon the family by a gang of criminals. It goes much beyond the family, the town where they live, and the state of Kerala.

The attack, rather, is a marker of the times to come in India. Times when freedoms guaranteed by the constitution will cease to be guarantees and convert into empty words devoid of any meaning, buried deep down the pages of a book no one uses anymore.

Or these dark undemocratic times have already descended and the attack is just a grim reminder of that?

The details of the case point to nothing if not this. The attack did not emanate from any personal enmity. The intent was not only to hurt, or to kill, but also to terrorise everyone. That is why the assailants decided to attack him in full public view. The most bizarre thing about the attack, however, is the motive and not any of the above. The assailants allegedly belonged to the Popular Front of India, a fundamentalist Islamic political organisation. They were incensed at a paper allegedly having a blasphemous conversation between God and Muhammad, set by the professor for the examinations of the private missionary run college.

Just that nothing in the conversation pointed to the Muhammad being referred to as the Prophet Muhammad. Yet, there was a boycott of the papers and protest rallies were promptly organised. Realising the electoral ramifications of the controversy, the state government sprung into action and directed the college administration to suspend him. It goes without saying that the government did it without any proper inquiry. Yet the real question is a little more startling, that in what capacity a secular and socialist (literally as Kerala is ruled by an alliance led by the Communist Party of India Marxist) state directed a private institution to suspend a professor in absence of any enquiry, internal or by the state agencies.

The travesty of the justice and abuse of state institutions did not stop at that. The suspension of the professor was followed by a police case against him for 'hurting religious sentiments' and death threats issued by fundamentalist Islamic groups. Further, the police issued 'wanted' posters against the professor who had gone into hiding precisely because of the reluctance of the police to provide him with security in the face of death threats. But maybe we are just cribbing too much. Maybe it is the discretion of the police whether to provide security to a person or not, especially if the person is accused irrespective of the facts of the case.

Just when we might think that things could not go worse than this, they went. As if failing to provide security to professor and bringing the culprits to books was not enough, the police did go all the way wrong, post attack as well. The first thing the police did, as per media reports was convincing the Church leaders about their earnest pursuit of the attackers. The Hindu, one of the most respected news papers of India quoted T. Vikram, the Superintendent of Police, Ernakulam Rural, saying: "We have talked to church leaders to convince them that an all-out effort is being made to nab the culprits."

A person like me with limited understanding of democracy may wonder how the Church Leaders enter the scene and why exactly a senior ranking police officer was trying to convince 'them' about the 'all out efforts' the police was making to nab the culprits. This was a criminal assault after all and the police are required to do their job. To gather the evidence and produce the suspects for trial is in essence what policing is. Further, they should investigate the attack in all details, including the role of instigators and not only the perpetrators. They should have done all this, further, without even thinking of the identity of the victims and that of the perpetrators.

Does not the political identity of being a 'citizen' is the crucial and decisive one in a democracy? Does not Indian constitution guarantees the same while criminalising any kind of discrimination based on any of the exclusive innate identities attached to a person, like those of caste, religion or ethnicity? And does not the very act of convincing church leaders in this case proves that the trail must have been going cold more often than not in cases where neither the victims nor the cases were not high profile.

The question, that what police would do after nabbing the suspects and getting them convicted raises itself. Will police apologise to the leaders of Muslim community in case all the accused happen to be Muslims, as is most likely? This sounds absurd but then this very absurdity is the hallmark of Indian criminal justice system. Where a criminal is not just a criminal, but always has an identity to invoke and dodge the law.

The legal course-of-action should be very clear. Anyone, and just about anyone, violating the law of the land should be dealt with firmly. Further, citizenship should be the only identity recognised by the law, accepting none other barring those of deprived sections constitutionally mandated for positive discrimination.

The case, therefore , should have been treated as an outright case of criminal and murderous assault and investigated like that only. Further, the investigation should have tried investigating the roles of instigators as well and to bring the whole ring of such exclusivist and fundamentalist religious fanatics to books as they pose a grave threat to the very ethos of the country.

All this discussion makes it very clear that the police had no business of convincing the religious leaders. But they did it. So, the question becomes, are they, in fact, responsible or at least answerable to religious leaders? De facto if not de jure. And if they are, leaders of which religion are they answerable to? Or, they are answerable to leaders of all religion? In that case what would be the line of action in cases of communal religious riots?

They are, or at least seem to be. There was nothing new in Kerala police's actions. Police forces across the country have done the same. Right from being biased in favour of one particular religion, they have presided over the genocidal attacks of one religion on another. The way Delhi Police did in 1984 when murderous Hindu crowds butchered Sikhs, in the name of taking revenge for the killing of Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, by her Sikh bodyguards. The government in charge of Delhi police was led by Indian National Congress, the party the slain prime minister belonged to.

Disgusting it may sound, but that was still better than what Gujarat police did in 2002 pogrom of Muslims by murderous Hindu crowds belonging to the Rashtriya Swyamsewak Sangh(RSS) and its affiliate organisations. This time they did not assist the pogrom just by looking away. Rather, they actually supported it by stopping the Muslims from trying to escape the attacks. They did this by firing, actually firing, at Muslim victims running for their lives. Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the political arm of the RSS was in the government.

The Odisha police did this in 2008. Christians were the target this time though the perpetrators remained the same. The riots took place apparently for revenging the killing of a Hindu sadhu (preacher) belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, another RSS affiliate allegedly by the Maoists. The police looked the other way again. Rather as per several victims, the police were quite friendly with them. The province was being ruled by an alliance of BJP and Biju Janata Dal, a regional political party.

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. The gross ones. In all of these cases, the riots were led by the ruling party itself, which controls the police. Apparently, the police cannot go against their political bosses. For every riot this huge, there are hundreds if not thousands of small localised attacks on minorities.

Most of these attacks are supported, if not organised, by the local government and the police. And that is done for a simple reason, for democracy. This may sound weird to untrained ears but then this is it. These riots are organised to mobilise communal passions. The communal passion in turn animates communities herding together. And that translates into votes for the leadership of 'democratic' parties.

The governments, therefore, need the religious leaders, especially of the highly sectarian nature as mobilising communal passion will be very difficult without them. And the numbers would follow the age old dictum, the more the merrier, as there would be as many fault lines to play with as many religions/sects/denominations. What else can explain that the best political scientists of the country explain every election in the biggest democracy of the world, right from the village council to the parliamentary ones, in terms of the caste, sects, and religious and ethnic break ups of the constituencies. Forget that these were precisely the identities that should play no role in any democratic process, leave aside elections.

But then, India is a democracy more than half of whose parliamentarians have serious criminal charges against them. Where a chief minister of a rich state organises and presides over a pogrom of Muslims to win an election and retains his chair. It is a democracy, where the same chief minister mocks the commission appointed by the Supreme Court of the country for looking into the pogrom. It is a democracy where half of the top leadership of the main opposition party would have been behind the bars for inciting communal frenzy and destabilising peace.

This is this systemic and systematic cultivation of mechanisms to find the loopholes in the legal system and exploiting them to escape punishment for one's crimes that makes the flawed democracy India has evolved into. The failure of the system has resulted into the police evolving as the extra arm of the ruling parties which is often used to terrorise the opposition. The injustices committed by the police lead to the alienation of the whole communities from the system, leading to their taking recourse to the extremism. Can one forget the incidents like when the Mumbai police lined up more than a thousand Muslim youth immediately after the blasts that rocked the city? Or the fact that there had been no action or even an inquiry against officers of the Uttar Pradesh state police who killed the alleged masterminds of the bomb blasts in Varanasi, almost a year before the Delhi police killed a completely different set of people for being the masterminds of the same blast?

This is what leads to a situation where extremist groups belonging to all religions play victims and emerge as the saviours of their communities. The clash of these fundamentalist groups with the state placating the needed one on that hour becomes the inevitable consequence of such an unjust system. A system where murderers of Muslims and Christians take oath in the name of Indian constitutions and run governments, and where no action is taken against Muslim legislators even when they assault and incite their supporters to kill Taslima Nasreen.

Evidently, cracking down on the religious fanatics does not make sense in the democracy of Indian kind. Neither does secularism. Rather, it does. Not in the Nehuruvian sense though which defined secularism as 'equal state protection to all religions'. It makes sense in its current form, equal state protection and immunity to the highly organised and institutionalised, rogue fundamentalist fanatics of all religions. The fanatics then, of course, can protect the followers of their religion.

*Mr. Avinash Pandey alias Samar is a research scholar based in New Delhi, India. Currently Samar is in Hong Kong on a work assignment with the AHRC.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.