Opinion: When Muslims Are Demonised At Garba Events

Today, October 5, there will be numerous events to declare the triumph of good over evil in Dussehra celebrations with the burning of the effigy of Ravana. Elsewhere, there will be elaborate preparations for the immersion of the clay images of Goddess Durga after celebrating her victory over the demon king Mahishasura. These festivities traditionally involve crores of Indians within and outside the boundaries of India. The beautifully-decorated puja pandals are visited by people across communities, just as the audiences at the performances of the Ram Leela are inclusive of people across communities. This is how it has been in the past.

But will it remain so? Will we soon have signboards outside the pandals that state "Hindus only", much like the signs in British India that forbade the entry of Indians into many public places? If a pandal in Kolkata can actually portray the demon king killed by the Goddess in the form of Gandhi-ji, is the idea of "Hindus Only" signboards so outlandish? The Vishwa Hindu Parishad spokesperson Chandrachud Goswami, responsible for the abomination, was not shy or defensive. He said, "Gandhi does not deserve respect. We want to send a clear message that we want a Gandhi-mukt Bharata Varsh."

India needs to ask itself some hard questions - in our own times, in our own society, is evil triumphing over the good? Perhaps not. The people of India, the working poor, the workers, the kisans, have historically, more often than not, chosen the path of acting for what is right, fighting back the forces that want to enslave us, to divide us, to perpetuate injustice. But today, it is not an ordinary fight. Every day brings new examples of why the question is relevant. Look at the recent developments over the "garba" celebrations.

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A group of Muslim men were beaten in Gujarat's Kheda district over a dispute over a garba event.

The beating of Muslim men at or even around the vicinity of "garba pandals" by private armies of the Hindutva brigade are akin to lighting bonfires of the Constitution. The attacks constitute a level of crude religious profiling that is quite unprecedented. It is a shameful demonizing of a whole community as potential trouble-makers, as harassers of women, as 'love jihadists'. In all these attacks, the police have admitted that there have been no complaints of harassment by any women attending the garba events. The charge against Muslim men as "luring women" is insulting to Hindu women, too, who must be considered brainless if they can be so easily "lured".

Such attacks are taking place in centres in BJP-ruled Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Instead of arresting the attackers led by the Bajrang Dal and, in some cases, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the police have arrested the victims. Since there is no evidence of any crime against those arrested, the police have used Section 151, an open-ended clause, which gives police the right to arrest without any evidence or proof of crime committed but to "prevent the commission of cognizable offences". It reads "(1) A police officer knowing of a design to commit any cognizable offence may arrest, without orders from a Magistrate and without a warrant, the person so designing, if it appears to such officer that the commission of the offence cannot be otherwise prevented. "The Hindutva brigade have made known their intention to use the present religious festivities to target Muslims, they are the people 'so designing'." But not a single one of them, not even those easily identifiable in the videos shown on national television, have been booked by the police. It is known that sections of the police force have been communalised. But the blatant bias in their actions in these cases is because of the public support to the Hindutva gangs by the governments of both Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

The leader of the Bajrang Dal in Indore, Tannu Sharma, stated that Muslims would not be allowed into garba pandals. He was quoted as saying "Pehle rokenge, pair tokenge, phir thokenge" (we will stop them, then threaten them, then beat them). Pragya Thakur, Member of Parliament and accused in the Malegaon bombing case, stated, "Muslims should not be allowed into garba pandals", and further, "shops owned by Muslims near the pandals should be shut down". The Minister of Culture, Usha Thakur, echoing the Bajrang Dal, stated that "Garba pandals are becoming the medium for love jihad". This was followed by the statement of the State's Home Minister Narottam Mishra that "identity cards would be required to enter pandals". In compliance with his statement, orders making ID cards mandatory were issued by district administrations in Ujjain, Bhopal, Indore, Narmadapuram and Khandwa. So, what started with the Bajrang Dal ended with the official approval of the government. Let's not fool ourselves that these are "fringe elements".

Madhya Pradesh has a high crime rate in sexual assaults against women. If there are goons, as there often are, at such public events where large numbers of young women may be present, the police have to ensure their arrest and the protection of the women. Identity cards do not show records of criminal history - they only give the name and address of the person concerned. The order for identity cards was not to protect women, but only to humiliate members of the minority community. Many of the pandals are on public thoroughfares, so at any given time, there may be members of the Muslim community passing by. They too were reportedly subjected to harassment and physical attacks. In Indore alone, 14 members of the Muslim community were arrested.

In Gujarat, the Hindutva brigade issued orders to organizers of garba pandals assuming the authority of the government. Hitendrasinh Rajput, the spokesperson of the Bajrang Dal and the VHP, declared that "Bajrang Dal in advance has instructed all organizers to ensure that no security person is hired belonging to the Muslim community as they have malafide intentions of luring Hindu girls. If it is done, then such clashes will happen." This was his justification after his gangs attacked Muslim security guards at a garba function in Surat. The Bajrang Dal announced that its men would be 'checking' to ensure that there are no Muslims at the pandals. If the Hindutva brigade can act with such impunity, it hardly needs a political scientist's analysis to point out that this is a clear example of state support for wholly illegal actions.

All these decades, "garba" celebrations like those associated with other religious festivals have been celebrated by members of all communities. But after the advent of the BJP government in 2014, the trend has increased of religious festivities becoming occasions to create and deepen fault lines between communities. In Gujarat, where the garba tradition originates, Muslim musicians have long been associated with the festivities. In 2015, there were incidents in Ahmedabad of Muslims being excluded from garba celebrations. At the time, it was not "love jihad" but "beef eaters" who were to be kept out of the pandals. Achyut Yagnik, a well-recognized author and analyst of Gujarat society in an interview (Economic Times, Oct 10, 2015) had said "The Muslim 'Mir' or 'Langa' community was traditionally associated with music in Gujarat and their members participated and played music in Hindu temples and festivals. In recent times, Mir singers, male and female, have become very popular and are invited to sing during Navaratri in various towns and cities. " He criticized the trend of keeping Muslims out of the celebrations.

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There has been growing communal friction surrounding festive events in recent years.

Since 2015, the situation has worsened with attacks taking different forms. With the commercialization of the festivities, huge garba events inviting Bollywood stars are organised by professionals, many of them Muslim event organizers. They are not being allowed to organise such events. The events require security arrangements. Some of the guards are Muslim workers earning an honest living. This too is stopped. Shops to be shut down because they are owned by Muslims, workers to be prevented from going to work because they are Muslim, event organizers prohibited from providing professional services because they are Muslim - this is a direct attack on livelihood.

A few months ago, at the time of Ram Navami, we saw a concerted plan being put into action when aggressive processions of slogan-shouting members led by the same organisations - the Bajrang Dal and the VHP - deliberately provoked clashes outside mosques at a time when the Muslim community were observing ramzan. Hundreds of Muslims were arrested and many are still in jail. Bulldozers were used to raze Muslim-owned properties to the ground while the provocateurs got away scot-free through government patronage. Today, navratri or puja celebrations are sought to be used to fulfil the same aim of demonization of a community, division of society and destruction of pluralist cultures.

Symbolic actions of the ritual burning of effigies representing evil will have more meaning when we have the will and determination to identify, recognize and fight back the forces of darkness in our midst.

Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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