Interview: Kavita Srivastava on Terrorism, Hindutva and Human Rights Violations
Based in Jaipur, Kavita Srivastava is the President of the Rajasthan chapter of the Peoples' Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). She and her comrades have been consistently working in Rajasthan for the cause of human rights, particularly for the state's Muslims, Christians, Adivasis and Dalits, and have taken up the issue of targeting of Muslims by agencies of the state and the media in a major way. She discusses this and more in this interview with Yoginder Sikand.
Q: How do you see the way in which the state in Rajasthan is responding to acts of terror that have rocked the state in recent years, most particularly in the aftermath of the deadly blasts that shook Jaipur earlier this year?
A: The situation is indeed grim. Muslims are being readily branded as terrorists, and this is how many government officials view them. So, soon after the blasts large numbers of innocent Muslims were wrongly suspected or branded as terrorists. They were arrested and interrogated by the police, and many of them were subjected to cruel torture. The police somehow automatically assumed that Muslims were responsible for the blasts, without having any proof. Almost a fourth of those who died in the Jaipur blasts were Muslims, although Muslims account for just about a tenth of the city's population. But still the dominant view was that Muslims had killed Hindus in the blasts, without, as I said, this being proved at all.
Anti-Muslim bias in agencies of the state is mounting today. Just one instance of this is how some of the Muslims picked up by the police were treated. They were asked if they believe in the Quran or in the Indian Constitution, this ridiculous question reflecting the entirely erroneous notion that a religious and observant Muslim somehow is a traitor or a potential traitor to India. Then, of course, were the large numbers of Muslims who were picked up and thrown out of their homes in Jaipur, accused of being Bangladeshis, their miserable hutments being bulldozed over. All this suggests that there are powerful forces at work that seek to push Muslims to the wall.
And then there is the media. They simply parrot the police version of any Muslim whom it picks up as a terrorist, and when it is found that this person is innocent and is subsequently let off, the media chooses not to say anything about it. So, in this way, the image of large numbers of Muslims is being deliberately tarnished. Many of them have lost their jobs because of this, and are tainted in society for the rest of their lives although they have nothing to do with terrorism. I could cite several instances of this, people whose cases we have taken up. This is really a very worrying development.
Q: Why is it that the media, the police and the investigating agencies often jump to the conclusion that blasts must be the handiwork of Muslims soon after these occur even before any investigation has been conducted?
A: Unfortunately, that seems to be the case in large parts of country, including Rajasthan. Obviously, it is possible that some terror attacks might have been done by some Muslim elements, just as it is possible that they might be the handiwork of, say, Hindu extremists. But surely the agencies of the state and the media should not rush into concluding anything before a detailed investigation. Sadly, that does not seem to happen in most cases. So, they generally begin with the premise that any blast must be the handiwork of Muslims, and that obviously influences or determines the conclusions that they reach. They start with this premise probably, or at least in part, because there seems to be this widely-held, though erroneous, image in society of Muslims as somehow inherently and congenitally programmed to be prone to violence and terror. And so Muslims and their behavior come to be seen in an essentially criminalized way, not just by the police or media but also in the wider public domain.
Q: And why do you think this sort of image of Muslims is so deeply-rooted?
A: One major reason is that most Hindus, especially those in positions of power, have little, if any, personal engagement with Muslims. So, being unable to relate to them as real, flesh-and-blood people, they tend to see them in the form of sinister stereotypes and cruel caricatures. The only source of information about Muslims they might get is from the media, large sections of which, of course, are communalized and are getting increasingly more so.
Take television, for instance. You won't find a single programme set in a Muslim household. It's almost always set in an 'upper' caste, upper or middle-class Hindu family. Hindi cinema—or Hindustani cinema actually—once had considerable space for Muslims, although they were generally presented in stereotypical terms, as decadent feudal lords luxuriating in comfort, or as burkha-clad women or singing, paan-chewing qawwals or whatever, not as 'normal' human beings. But even that space has vanished, and now numerous Bollywood films clearly and explicitly demonise Muslims in a very carefully planned manner. In addition to all this is the poisonous anti-Muslim propaganda of the Hindutva forces. So, all this combines to colour the public domain and the public perception of Muslims in an increasingly negative light. As members of the wider society, it is not surprising that many people in the police, the courts and the media are also influenced by this way of thinking.
That said, let me also say here that the Rajasthan police must be distinguished from its Gujarati counterpart, which is far more anti-Muslim. At the same time, the Rajasthan police seem to be acting on the same premise as the Gujarat police does when it comes to Muslims, often regarding them as behind each and every terror attack and ignoring the possibility that some non-Muslim elements—say radical Hindutva groups—might be behind terror acts.
Q: There are now demands being voiced to make anti-terror laws even stricter as a means to counter terrorism. How do you see this demand?
A: What some people, such as the Hindutva right-wing, some police officers and pro-establishment media persons, are so forcefully advocating today is for a change in the law or a new law so that statements given by the arrested before the police can be counted as evidence against them. Now, we all know that this would lead to the further hounding of innocent people picked up by the police, who might torture them to make false 'confessions', which would be used as 'evidence' to falsely implicate them in cases for which they were not involved in, and which would let the real culprits go free. This would be a major assault on democracy.
Under the proposed draconian 'anti-terror' laws that some right-wing hawks are proposing, even human rights groups taking up the case of people wrongly accused of being terrorists could be arrested. Anyone who criticizes the wrong role of the police, the judiciary or any other branch of the state could then be easily branded as a criminal or terrorist sympathizer or abettor.
In other words, if such a draconian law comes into place, if you even think differently from the state you could be booked. Anyone who even talks of state terrorism could be labeled as a 'terrorist' or 'anti-national'. If you take up the rights of oppressed people who are being suppressed by the state, as is happening with human rights activists working with Adivasis in Chhatisgarh, for instance, you could be branded as an enemy of the state and thrown into jail. Or, as is happening in Orissa, activists protesting against multi-nationals grabbing Adivasi lands, backed by the state, can be arrested, but no action will be taken against the Hindu mobs, backed by Hindutva fascist outfits, which have left tens of thousands of Christians in the state homeless.
And now there is talk of the need for a new 'anti-terror' law according to which any person can be arrested if he or she even simply intends to support any banned group. In that case, how would the government presume that it can judge anyone's intentions? Obviously, this would make a complete mockery of any claims to democracy.
In other words, with these sorts of new laws that are being put into place or are being so vociferously advocated day in and day out, I fear India may be moving in the direction of a 'police state' run by intelligence agencies so that the state and the ruling classes can do whatever they want without any opposition whatsoever. These represent the sinister agenda of forces that are bent on destroying whatever little democracy we already enjoy.
Q: What, then, do you see as the way ahead?
A: This is a political issue, and for this we need a political struggle. It concerns not just Muslims, who might be among the worst targeted by such draconian laws, but all oppressed and marginalized social groups, communities and classes. It is a major threat to democracy, and so all democratic forces need to come together to stiffly oppose these draconian laws. __._,_.___