Tripura: Raging anti-Muslim violence follows familiar script

Over a dozen mosques and countless Muslim properties have been vandalized and destroyed in Tripura as members of right-wing groups take out rallies and then proceed to attack Muslim houses and places of worship in a mob frenzy.

As Tripura is engulfed in frenzied anti-Muslim violence, the state, opposition parties, and mainstream media’s silence is ominous.

Over a dozen mosques and countless Muslim properties have been vandalized and destroyed in Tripura as members of right-wing groups take out rallies and then proceed to attack Muslim houses and places of worship in a mob frenzy. The violence has been ongoing for nearly a week. However, scanning through the Indian mainstream news outlets one wouldn’t know that any such thing is even happening. There is no news coverage of concerted violent attacks against minorities in the northeastern state.

Right-wing groups affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and Bajrang Dal—as is usually the case in such situations anywhere in India—have been the leading assailants on Muslim properties. The attacks began seemingly in retribution for the anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh during the Durga Puja festivities earlier this month.

Videos of ransacked houses of prominent Muslims in Tripura have been circulating on social media. One video purported to show strewn papers of a lawyer, Abdul Basit Khan, outside his pillaged house. Numerous videos of vandalized mosques have been doing the rounds. In some videos, ominous mobs with swords and makeshift weapons in their hands are seen in rallies chanting “Jai Shree Ram”, which has become the Hindutva mobs’ rallying cry as they attack religious minorities in any part of the country.

Bangladeshi political leadership swung swiftly into action to quell bigotry in its midst, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promising that those responsible for the violence would be “hunted down”. Moreover, the ruling party as well as civil society groups took out rallies, condemning the violence against its minorities. There have been mass arrests to bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice. The contrast to India’s response to the violence against its minorities couldn’t be starker.

The state has maintained complete silence on the issue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi patted himself on the back in a TV broadcast for administering 1 billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. He further reinforced the message on his Mann Ki Baat radio show. Home minister Amit Shah was in Kashmir over the weekend to meet the family of a slain police officer. However, neither of the two leaders had a word for the state of affairs in Tripura where the Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power since 2018. CM Biplab Deb, who has a predilection for making outlandish comments, is yet to let out a word on the violence in his state.

Even the opposition leaders have not so much as sent a tweet condemning the violence in the state. Senior Congress leadership, which has been busy over the last few weeks ratcheting up their campaign for the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections, has nothing to say on Tripura. Regardless, there is no doubt that they will be eagerly flaunting their secularism to court the votes of the near 20 percent Muslims in UP.

Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee, whose TMC is preparing to mount a challenge to the BJP in Tripura, could only muster a comment for her party worker who came under attack in the state. “There is peace in West Bengal and it is not the peace of the graveyard,” she was quoted as saying at a rally in Siliguri. “In contrast, look at the happenings in your state [Tripura]. Whoever dares to take out rallies opposing the BJP is hit with sticks. They don’t even allow the injured TMC workers to be treated at a hospital. A young party worker was thrashed and he had to be rushed to the SSKM Hospital [in Kolkata].” The horrific violence against Muslims in Tripura wasn’t worth a mention in her speech.

Pradyot Manikya of the erstwhile Tripura royal family and a political activist has been the sole prominent voice to talk about the violence in the state. He tweeted: “Any motivated acts in our state where minorities are attacked as retaliation to what has happened in Bangladesh must be condemned! Please remember Two wrongs don’t make a right… I appeal for peace amongst all religions in our state.”

The apathy of the ruling party and unseemly realpolitik of the opposition aside, the most disconcerting aspect of the ongoing siege against the Muslims has been the radio silence of the mainstream media on the matter. While the fourth pillar of the democracy in India never sat on anything more concrete than quicksand, the shaky ground has all but given way and swallowed whatever remained of it over the course of the BJP rule since 2014. While there is no expectation of grandiose blank editorials in dissent, it appears the media is reluctant to even do its job of reporting the news.

The blanket of silence over the issue has enabled the Hindutva ecosystem to even claim that the disturbing reports from Tripura are a hoax. Perhaps that has been the plan all along: if no one reports it, did it really happen?

The police have proven incapable—or disinterested—in stamping out the violence. It is nothing new. Former IPS officer Vibhuti Narayan Rai in Hashimpura 22 May—his account of the custodial killing of 42 Muslims in 1987—writes: “I had the opportunity to deal with many communal riots and I have closely examined the language of the police officials and magistrates as they use ‘us’ for Hindus and ‘they’ for Muslims.” Rai recounts in grim detail how the police often join the rioting Hindus as they target Muslims and how the Hindus feel emboldened by the presence of the police at the sites of such communal violence.

Rai’s observations were recorded for the world to witness last February as Delhi police officials were variously filmed forcing a group of heavily injured Muslims to sing the national anthem, and joining the rioting Hindus in stone-pelting.

The state’s apathy in bringing the violators to justice is also a well-worn theme irrespective of the regime in power. In a two-part video report, The Wire showed how Dasna priest Yati Narsinghanand was one of the main perpetrators of the anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi last year. He has recently been ordained as the mahamandaleshwar of Juna Akhara, the largest recognised sect of Hindu seers in the country.

In the midst of the conflagration in Tripura, October 24 marked 32 years of the start of the 1989 Bhagalpur pogrom in Bihar. Over 1,000 Muslims lost their lives— according to the official figures—in the three months of rioting. Superintendent of Police KS Dwivedi was among the men held responsible for the riots by the three-member commission set up by the Congress government ruling the state at the time. Dwivedi was appointed as the DGP of Bihar in 2018.

Rai’s book also recounts his struggle to get the story of the Hashimpura massacre in print as the newspaper he initially gave the story to keep it from publication. One of the ideas floated to then UP chief minister Vir Bahadur Singh of the Congress was to kill the three survivors of the custodial killing so as to stop the incident from becoming public. Indeed, it is easier to suppress such news in the hinterland or the frontier regions of the country as opposed to the national capital.

The long and extensive history of post-independence anti-Muslim pogroms in the country has followed an all too familiar script: Hindu mobs lynch Muslims; they loot and burn their properties in cahoots with the police; the state looks the other way; then it sets up a commission just to be seen to be doing something; the media turns a blind eye; decades later a vast majority of the foot soldiers—never the planners—get acquitted after a labyrinthine judicial process. Rinse, repeat.

Tripura appears to be just the latest chapter in this macabre anti-Muslim saga.

Wasi Manazir is an independent writer.