The murder of a young IT professional Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh allegedly by a radical Hindu outfit must not be written off as the handiwork of a fringe group of lunatics. There is a pronounced communal polarisation in Indian society today and radical outfits like the Hindu Rashtra Sena whose activists have been arrested on suspicion of beating 28-year-old Shaikh to death are the products and the neo-proponents of a problem the Indian nation has had to grapple with since Partition. That Shaikh was targeted for merely sporting his identity — a skull-cap and beard — confirms the deep-seated prejudice against Muslims and the insecurities that plague Muslims — both orthodox and progressive — in the daily life of the secular modern Indian republic. From 1984, when Sikhs, discernible by their expression of religious identity, were dragged out of their homes and burnt for an assassination they were not responsible for, to 2014, little has changed.
The murder, by no sense a mindless killing — the blameless Shaikh was singled out by his assailants in calculated fashion — was a culmination of the fallout over the morphed derogatory pictures of Shivaji and Bal Thackeray uploaded on Facebook by an anonymous miscreant. That the murder happened on Monday despite alleged instances of arson, destruction of public property and communal disturbances in Pune over the past weekend is also a sad commentary on the Pune Police’ handling of the rowdy elements of this fringe outfit. Quick to conduct peace meetings to defuse tensions, the police seem not to have displayed the same alacrity in rounding up troublemakers. The potential of social media to trigger communal frenzy through sharing videos, photographs and text messages peddling falsehoods that incite mobs has already hit India hard as was seen in the 2012 Mumbai Azad Maidan riots, the Muzaffarnagar riots, and the exodus of North-East natives from Bangalore.
But the problem lies deeper than the malicious use of social media. The use of communal propaganda to trigger unrest predates the Internet. While Islamist terrorists blatantly admit to pursuing such indoctrination, overground religious and cultural outfits speak in multiple voices about their ideologies and actions. This was best exemplified by the Hindu Rashtra Sena chief Dhananjay Desai who denied that his activists were behind the Pune attacks, and came across as a picture of sanity and rationalism in his dispassionate assessment that circulating derogatory pictures was a cyber crime though several of his incendiary speeches are available online.
While the RSS and its affiliate outfits rarely miss an opportunity to rail against minority communalism, they prefer to ignore the larger danger posed by majoritarian communalism. The time is ripe for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make an unequivocal statement condemning the murder and demanding strict action against the outfit that conspired to kill Shaikh. By shedding his silence, the Prime Minister will be lending the immense stature and prestige of his office towards isolating communalism of all forms. During his election campaign, Modi nuanced his speeches with the promise of development and security to all, irrespective of caste, creed, and religion. But incidents like Shaikh’s murder will further vitiate the atmosphere of distrust and subterranean hatred that hang uneasily over India’s fragile multicultural ethos. Armed with the popular mandate to govern, Modi must provide the healing touch. The UPA government made frequent noises about safeguarding India’s secular character but was ill-equipped to check the rightward shift of Indian society. With few to represent them in the present ruling dispensation, the absence of a political identity and the onslaught on their religious identity mark a fraught situation for India’s Muslims.