Remember when an Indian police officer swore under oath that prime minister Narendra Modi once allowed Hindu mobs to vent their anger following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in 2002?
The setting was the state of Gujarat where Modi was chief minister at the time. The train was allegedly torched by the Muslim fundamentalists, killing more than 50 passengers. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party, which held power in the state, blamed Pakistan-based extremists for the incident. It culminated into a well-organized anti Muslim pogrom throughout the state.
According to the police officer, Modi said the night before the riots that the Muslim community needed to be taught a lesson.
What followed has become a history. Thousands of Muslims were lynched, burned alive, and their women were raped by mobs belonging to the Hindu right-wing groups. The police not only looked away in most cases, but also helped the mobs in killing Muslims. Though Modi was never criminally charged, he continues to face criticism for allowing the pogrom of the minority community.
His controversial remarks can be interpreted in different ways. His supporters can take the comments as a signal to police not to obstruct people from protesting killings of fellow countrymen.
If that is the case, Modi in his more recent role as India's prime minister, must take blame for not conveying a similar message to security forces under him across the country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy. At least, that message was never conveyed for the sake of people living in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
This month, Indian-controlled Kashmir has witnessed angry protests against the army's killing of a popular militant leader, Burhan Wani. Some allege he was killed in a staged shootout; others are claiming it was a genuine encounter. As a result of his death, people came out on streets to vent out their anger.
The security forces, instead of looking the other way, killed more than 40 of them.
This is not the first time that protesters were killed by Indian forces in Kashmir for exercising their democratic right to assemble and show their anger against state violence. In Kashmir, there has been a struggle for the right to self-determination since India gained its independence in 1947.
Protests over tortures, forced disappearances, unmarked graves, and rapes elicit more state-sponsored violence.
Notably, Modi’s party is sharing power with Kashmir People’s Democratic Party. Yet protesters in Kashmir, unilike those in Gujurat in 2002, were not given the privilege of being overlooked by the state machinery during the course of their demonstrations.
Kashmir is not an exception. Not very long ago two Sikh protesters were killed in a police shooting in Punjab when they were demonstrating against the alleged sacrilege of their holy scriptures in October 2015.
Modi’s party is sharing power in that Punjab with a regional party, Akali Dal. But like Kashmiri Muslims, Punjabi Sikhs who wanted to vent their anger were not given a concession similar to the one given Hindu mobs in 2002.
What emerges out of these episodes is the noticeable difference in the state response to protests and demonstrations by those associated with the majority community and two minority groups.
Hindus form 80 percent of the Indian population, whereas Muslims account for 14 percent and Sikhs are merely two percent. One only needs to look at these numbers to understand the psychology behind such violent state responses in dealing with dissent.
Dalits, or the so-called Hindu "untouchable" caste, are 16 percent of the population and continue to suffer structural violence. In 1997, a police action killed 10 Dalits who were protesting the desecration of the statue of a towering Dalit icon, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, in Bombay (now known as Mumbai). The BJP was sharing power with a regionnal party called Shiv Sena in the state of Maharashtra, which included Bombay, but police decided to look the other way.
This has gone on even though police can use various other means to control a mob without causing death, such as water cannons, sticks, or if need be, firing on nonvital organs of those resorting to violence.
But teaching minority groups a "lesson" to send across a message to win the support of majority community pays a dividend in elections. Why wouldn’t opportunistic political leadership allow such high-handedness?
Modi was returned to power with an even larger majority in Gujarat following the 2002 massacre of Muslims.
Eighteen years earlier, the so-called secularist Congress party won the general election in India in December 1984 in the aftermath of anti-Sikh pogrom that followed the assassination of the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Congress leaders instigated mobs to kill innocent Sikhs, and the subsequent election was fought on the slogan of national unity. Police at that time remained a mute spectator to the carnage or helped the mobs.
Whether Wani was killed in a staged shootout or not is irrelevant. The real issue is how the state is responding to the people’s reaction in Kashmir. Even if one believes that Wani was killed in a genuine shootout, then a question arises why Hindu extremists who've been arrested in recent years for planting bombs and taking innocent lives never met the same fate? Rather, the Modi administration is pressuring investigators and prosecutors to go slow against them.
That Sikh and Muslim extremists or ultra-leftist activists from oppressed communities have been frequently killed in staged shootouts, while Hindu extremists continue to cool their heels in jails, itself explains the bias of the Indian state that remains secular on paper, but in reality remains a tyrant toward religious minorities.