Decolonise the Media: Why is it inappropriate to call the violence in Delhi a 'religious riot'?

Updated: Mar 3

By Dr Laila Kadiwal.

Many news outlets have chosen to report violence in India along religious lines. It has been portrayed as 'religious violence,' 'communal conflict,' 'sectarian' and a 'clash' between Hindu and Muslims groups. Some members of the South Asia diaspora also tend to see religion as a uniquely dividable, exclusive, and an all-encompassing identity. These views need decolonisation. It warrants rethinking our assumptions about how we conceive our imagination of the world. It involves transforming the imposition of reified perceptions of identity to make space for humanity and many possible ways of experiencing the Earth and human relations possible. Recognising and addressing coloniality in conceptions, norms, and practices of representing the world could be a helpful beginning in making the world a peaceful and fairer place. It is an imperialist tendency to interpret conflict along religious lines, which obscures the root causes of conflict, blames the victims, and resists global political accountability. It also invisiblises the voices of those whose experiences do not conform to the dominant narrative of the so-called clash of religions. This blog is an act of storytelling from a marginalised perspective in the powerfully delivered stories about the world.

Violence in Delhi is political terrorism.

The tragic events in India are not an issue of 'communal harmony' but an issue of political accountability. Representations have real-life consequences. Depicting it as a 'clash' between the two religions creates a generalised and stereotyped impression. It conveys as if a) the violence is religiously motivated; b) the two religions are mutually antagonistic, and c) the offending parties are equally responsible. It is precisely the trope those accountable for the violence want us to fall into so that conflict can be explained away through a simplistic notion of group identities. It also creates a false equivalence, assigning responsibility and blame on to the victims, as if those identified as Muslims, cannot be victims. The violence needs to be labeled for what it is: an act of political terrorism. It is not a 'riot' but a deliberate measure to privilege one group of people over the other. It is a part of the broader plan of a small group of elite fascists to cement themselves as the 'core' of India, at the expense of its minority, women, poor, Dalits, Adivasis, atheists, LGBTQ, activists and secular and democratic-minded populations.

Stanton has warned that the Indian Muslims face a real danger of being persecuted in large numbers by the state institutions. His noted "Ten Stages of Genocide," drawing upon his research in Rwanda and Burundi, the two countries where genocide has occurred, explains the stages leading up to this grave danger. The first stage is the "classification" of people into "us versus them." The second stage is "symbolization," which labels the victims as "foreigners." In the third stage of "discrimination," victims are classified as outside the group accepted for citizenship. It deprives them of "human rights or civil rights of citizens" and makes legal discrimination possible. "Dehumanisation" is the fourth stage when 'the genocidal spiral' goes downwards. The victims are portrayed as a danger to society. They are called 'terrorists,' animals, and 'a disease that must be somehow dealt with.' "Organisation" is the fifth state that creating the institutional capacity to commit the genocide. The sixth stage is "polarisation," which is achieved by propaganda. The seventh stage is "preparation", the eighth "persecution," and the ninth is "extermination." The final step is "denial."

Most of the above elements are present in the current ruling political trends in India. The doctrine of BJP's paternal group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sees Muslims as an impediment to establishing a Hindu Rashtra and admires the efforts of Hitler and Mussolini in protecting a pure Aryan race. Educational textbooks sponsored by the supremacists, and the constant barrage of hate speeches from those in positions of authority, normalises an 'us' versus 'them' narrative in which Muslims are the demonised 'other.' Several hundred thousand Muslims in Assam have found themselves classified as 'infiltrators' and 'doubtful citizens' in a highly controversial census exercise. It has deprived them of their human rights and civil rights as citizens. Many of them have ended up in detention centres as a result. The amendment to the citizenship that followed on the back of the census in Assam is explicitly anti-Muslim. The political disempowerment of Kashmir through imprisoning its elected politicians, the abrogation of its autonomous status, the clamp down on the internet, brutal crackdown against free speech, and ongoing curfew indicate the marginalisation of Kashmiri Muslims. Muslims are portrayed as threats to national security, and 'traitors' who must be eliminated. The state propaganda machine has been spreading venomous views of minorities every day polarising the social fabric drip by drip. The Delhi pogrom was an active call for the 'extermination' of Muslims incited by the members of the ruling regime. The live videos of police abetting the violence have also circulated all over social media. The political will of the state to protect the lives of innocents seemed non-existence for at least three days. It is in this light that calling it a religious 'riot' or a 'clash' constitutes but the 'denial' of the pogrom. Priyamvada Gopal, the scholar of imperial politics, accurately reprimands the Western press in her tweet:

Preparation for pogroms are not 'riots'. If you are really an anti-Nazi, as most Westerners claim to be, then you would be considerably more exercised about the tremendous violence being visited on Indian Muslims today. As for the BBC & other Western media: Do you remember when Jews 'clashed' with Nazis in the 1930s? The chant being shrieked by murderers & thugs roaming the capital is not religious at all in nature. 'Jai Shri Ram' is the 'Sieg Heil' of India today. 'Pakistan ya Qabristan' is the 'Juden Raus.'
Please don't claim to be devastated about what happened in the 1930s but still choose to believe that what is happening in India is 'clashes' (disgraceful) or even' riots'…ANY journalist or media organization using the term clashes' or even 'riots': You are *directly* complicit in sanitizing pogroms. Directly. Do it but do it without illusions.

This is not a clash of civilisations: a pluralistic thread intricately weaves the Hindu and Muslim identities.

The dividing of peoples along faith lines reflects the needs of imperialist apparatuses, not the social realities of people on the ground. The idea of internally coherent and homogeneous doctrinal bodies of Hinduism and Islam runs contrary to lived, non-elite, subaltern experiences. Western academic settings have been complicit in promoting false assumption of culturally distinct Hindu and Muslim identities, with different value systems, and clear boundaries. The first census carried out by the British administration in India in 1872 asked people to classify themselves according to their faith. The resulting demographic data played an enormous role in 'raising Hindu-Muslim consciousness and their relationship in a new form in both colonial and postcolonial India' (Bhagat, 2013, p.435). Romila Thaper (2009), a noted historian on South Asia, argues that in 1857, the 'war of independence' against the British East India Company's rule was fought by people under the titular leadership of the last Mughal emperor. When faced with resistance from the local middle class, the British claimed that Indians had always been ruled by alien powers and that the most constant of these invaders were Muslims rulers. The British had, in fact, brought pax Britannica by intervening against these Muslim despots. The upper-caste Hindu, like them, were Aryans, who had arrived in India in ancient times and had established a golden age of Aryan civilisation. The British were Aryans, a superior race, and were helping restore that civilisation. Like the ideal Roman Empire, they were bringing progress. Thus, through a combination of civilising narrative and use of the army, the British Empire and its upper-class colonial subjects not only sought to strengthen their interests and political control of India but also created imagination of two warring religious nations. This situation does not mean that people did not identify themselves along faith lines. They did, but as Dalrymple (2015) observes, even in the nineteenth century, India was still a space where customs, languages, and cultures cut across religious labels, and where people did not classify themselves principally through a theological lens. Medieval Sanskrit inscriptions identify the 11th-century arrival of the Central Asian rulers, by linguistic and ethnic affiliation, most typically as Turushka—Turks rather than Muslims. Many social groups found it difficult to classify themselves neatly as Hindu or Muhammadan, along with the rigid 'religion' criteria imposed by the British officials even in the census of 1931 (Shirras, 1935). This counting and measuring of peoples reflected the social engineering requirements of the Empire and not the lived realities of all people.

Religion does not necessarily constitute the foundation of human relationships for all Indians. People often relate to each other based on their multiple and complex affiliations and sense of belongings. For instance, my grandmother called her village and the area surrounding her village, known as Kathiawad in Gujarat, as 'des' (literally, country). She had not an iota of an idea of how big India was, or where its borders ended; she did not know where Pakistan was or how it got created. For her, Kathiawad was her des. She celebrated Navratri, spoke Gujarati, ate Gujarati food, wore Gujarati clothes, and toiled as a peasant woman on some landlord's farm. If you asked her, she identified herself as a Kathiawadi desi. Each time she came to visit her son's family in Maharashtra, she longed to return to her des. Such was her attachment to her land; it was not just a homeland but a country to her. The elite construct of an 'imagined political community' of India hardly penetrated her imagination. Many ways of experiencing her world shaped her identity as a Kathiawadi, a Gujarati, a mother, a peasant, a widow, a poor, and an illiterate woman, a vegetarian, a grandmother, not just her faith. She died peacefully, 'abroad', at our home, in another state in India. Indeed, the ideas of community, belonging, and nationhood in India are complex. She was what you might say in Spivak's (1988) term, a subaltern, people who speak but are rarely heard in policymaking.

Historical contingencies, to no small extent, have defined Hindu or Muslim affiliations for many in South Asia. Some social groups, when struggling to identify themselves neatly as a Hindu or a Muslim, on the British census, made contingent decisions. Some families decided to raise their one child as a Muslim and the other as a Hindu. Some fluctuated between Hindu and Muslim classifications. Some even viewed Islam as a way to escape the traditional caste hierarchies. Some decided to forge an upper-class ancestry (Ashraf) by adopting a foreign-sounding affiliation or copying the Arabo-Persian names to sound more authentic Muslims. Thus, Jamuna ben became Jamila ben, and Ram Sen became Rahim Sayed. Many fluid socio-spiritual congregations that drew upon a confluence of Sufi and Bhakti devotional movements retained their shared heritage even if they eventually came to be affiliated with a particular religion.In some cases, it is the British court, which determined religious classification as the members could not agree among themselves. Some rejected such an undertaking altogether. The revered 17th century local saint, Bulleh Shah's poem is symbolic of those worldviews that defy the tendency to see people as belonging to exactly one group:

Bulleh has no identity of caste or race This single point makes all the difference It is all the Teacher taught me

Not an Arab, nor Lahori Neither Hindi, nor Nagauri Hindu, Turk, nor Peshawari Nor do I live in Nadaun Bulleh! to me, I am not known

India is not just a collection of distinct religions. Often, it isn't straightforward to tell where Hinduism begins, and Islam stops in the lived experience of many. The boundaries are political, usually historically established through power over minds and docile bodies. It is not unusual to see the walls adorned with photos of revered figures contested by institutionalized faiths in homes. The living rooms of my friends, irrespective of their faith backgrounds, have pictures of revered figures claimed by different institutional religions. Shrines tend to bring people from all faiths and backgrounds. My Muslim mother worried that she was going to miss the episode of the then very popular TV series Ramayana, an Indic epic story of the life of the revered god Ram, even in her death bed. My brother wrote a well-received play for my friends and me to perform at our college Adhunik (modern) Vishvamitra, dedicated to an Indic revered sage. Nearly all of us, irrespective of our faith backgrounds, played Holi, and celebrated the Diwali in our neighborhoods. The goddess Lakhmi (associated with bringing prosperity) is revered by many traders across their faith affiliations. I respected the goddess Sarasvati as the bringer of knowledge. My family was actively involved in our Muslim religious centers. I delivered many sermons, mainly focusing on the ethics of Islam, such as peace, education, and unity. Where would you put a full stop on my family being a Muslim and where you would call us Hindu? This story is not unique to my family. An imposition of a 'little box' of single identity is a prison when it suffocates human wellbeing, life, creativity, and context.

Muslims are indigenous peoples. They are not even a distinct ethnolinguistic group. They are Marathi Muslims, Bengali Muslims, Gujarati Muslims, Malayali Muslims, Punjabi Muslims, Tamil Muslims, Kashmiri Muslims, and so on. Two people from the same region, from the same socio-economic background, are likely to have more in common with each other, irrespective of their religion, than two co-religionists from two different regions of India. Food, languages, poems, literature, music, and jokes are likely to draw upon the prevailing cultural milieu. Many of their cultural norms and customs, religious practices, hymns, festivals and rites of passages such as marriage, birth, and death build on the elements from their shared cultural repertoire. There is also an immense diversity. They may be even surprised at the practices of their fellow co-religionists from other parts of India. A friend Krishna who grew up in a vegetarian Marathi Hindu household in Mumbai, nearly caused a scandal when he went to visit his future wife's Hindu Bengali parents in Calcutta. They had prepared many delicacies to welcome their potential son-in-law, most of which involved fish. Being a vegetarian, my friend refused. Fish is an essential part of a Bengali everyday diet for many. The parents wondered if they could trust someone who did not like fish to marry their daughter. Still, they found common ground on many things, one of them being the grandmother in-law's commitment to the communist ideas.

Recently, my childhood classmate said: 'I never saw you as a Muslim.' Because our identities are not merely religious ones, we were also friends, students; classmates; and girls. We danced and dreamed together. We were members of the national social service and guides, and we loved eating South Indian dosas. We grew up on Bollywood movies and cricket and fretted together over our exams. We ate in each other's' homes. When my mum made food, she sent a portion to our neighbour's aunty, who, in turn, also did the same. We recited the national anthem written by Tagore that we were united in our diversity every single morning in our school as if it was a solemn oath. We had a faint awareness that our elders made many distinctions based on caste, gender, socio-economic resources, and languages, and we felt inferior or superior accordingly. Some of us had normalised these distinctions as children and suffered or gained according to these resources available to us. Yet, elders in the village were uncles or aunties. Whether you believed in Ram, Krishna, Jesus, Allah, or Buddha, we thought, they were all ultimately the same. 'Sabka Malik Ek' (everyone's god is one) is what we said. There exists, 'long-term historical commonalities which people spontaneously practice and enjoy — in food, material culture, literature, art, music — which have a deep and long history' (Kaviraj, 2014, p. 23). It is these profoundly intertwined ties, and the intuitive sense of human decency, which are proving resilient to those identity-based colonisations of India.

I worry that for some of my friends, I am no longer their childhood friend, but an outsider. When my childhood classmate said, she never saw me from a religious lens when we grew up, that's a sign of how rapidly the 'proficient artisans of terror' can turn people into caricatures of their divisive imaginations.

Violence is due to an unequal value ascribed to human life.

There is also the broader issue of casteism and the multiple marginalisations of low-status groups who remain wilfully ignored by the successive governments and discriminated against in their everyday lives. The racist imagination of poor low caste status groups as inferior, insignificant, stupid, barbaric, and dangerous is not unusual in India. Significant populations of minority groups fall into lower caste status and socio-economically marginalised groups, who are susceptible to humiliation and silencing even from their privileged co-religionists. Celebrations of the current prime minister's background as 'chai wala' (tea seller) did not deter capitalist elites from hiding poor people from Trump's gaze, rather than making them central to the policymaking on his recent visit. So, there is undoubtedly also a class and status angle to the issue. It is ultimately the most marginalised who suffer the most from physical violence and profound structural and systemic injustices. Yet, ordinary people are made to brutalise other marginalised people. At the same time, supremacists hide behind the state or private security with impunity.

More significantly, for the paternalist masculine system, even peaceful dissent from women and young people is an anathema. Substantial numbers of protests have been led by women and students from all backgrounds, in sustained ways for over two months, reminding the older male leaders of their duty of care. The voting demography of Delhi elections reveals that a large number of women and young people preferred a focus on public welfare over an aggressive agenda. So, there is also a gendered and generational angle to the issue. It has irked toxic, violent masculinity. Violence and intimidation are the weapons of patriarchy to discipline and silence women and the young.

The misleading label of 'religious violence' also hides the fact that a large number of ordinary people, resisting a fascist agenda, hail from all faith backgrounds. They are also at the receiving end of abuse, intimidation, and suffering. Violence in India is really about the clash of ideologies: neoliberal fascism versus humanism. Delhi elections clearly showed that the politics of hatred is not people's priorities. They want the government to address the issues that directly affect their lives and their children's futures. These basic needs include good quality education, access to clean water, cheaper electricity and transport, cleaner air, and addressing economic concerns, to name a few. These issues unite everyone irrespective of their caste, religions, linguistic or any other backgrounds. It is this unity, which is a threat to those authoritarian- military-industrial complexes, that thrive on the politics of hatred, division, and exploitation.

Recognise global political accountability.

The representation of the issue as 'religious violence' also misrecognises the issue of global political accountability. Tough questions regarding the role of enormously powerful mining corporations, and of the policies of Israel (which is the largest arms seller to India), the USA, the UK, and Brazil must be asked against the backdrop of emboldening fascism in India. Our fight is against the worldwide fascism, kleptocracies, racism-stoking populist regimes, and a vast propaganda machine. How do we connect the dots between the shadow world of the arms trade, the offshore banks, international economic regulations, reputation laundering, the ecofascist narrative of overpopulation, and ethnonationalism?

India faces immense challenges: water scarcity, mass unemployment, unequal access to power and resources, suicides, sex trafficking, rising costs of education, educational inequities, increasing costs of health care, mass homelessness, children living on streets, the effects of climate change, and exploitative systems. The narrow focus on identity-based explanations deflects attention away from a broader interconnected issue that is putting the world, as a whole, in danger.

Western media can play an immense role due to its colonially acquired epistemic and material privileges. Singular manageable labels are what the political actors want. Let's not hand these to them. Let us not aggressively use the dominant classifications. As Amartya Sen (2006) notes, 'The uniquely partitioned world is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse categories that shape the world in which we live.' Use other ways of describing people as human beings with multiple, complex, and interconnected identities and situate their wellbeing in terms of where they are in the global and national political economy. There is no absence of choice about how we represent people; there is willful ignorance. True decolonisation has the power to transform identity-based divisions to make space for humanity.

I end with a quote from Priyamvada Gopal's post:

We face an entrenched reality now, here to stay for the foreseeable future. It's the reality that the anticolonialists of the world once faced: huge empires with vast weaponry at their command, literal & ideological, & the ignorant consent of swathes of their populaces. We are not going to win this election by-election. This is going to take long, patient, varied work and global alliances. We'll have to do our best to throw our bodies between vulnerable groups and immediate attack from these regimes, while commencing, as many already have, the slow, patient long-term work of making truth and facts fashionable again, finding ways to disseminate them and get them their due DESPITE a fawning media landscape populated by thugs, fantasists, and billionaires.

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