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NOTES ON A DEATH

- The real tragedy of Mohsin Shaikh

Mohsin Shaikh, who was killed in Pune ten days ago, wanted to get on in life. A fine report in The Indian Express gives us a window into his world. He was from Solapur, a large town in southern Maharashtra where his father, Sadiq, like many Indian Muslims, was ‘self-employed’, which, in his case, meant running a small, unremunerative shop that doubled as an STD booth. After doing his first degree locally, Mohsin set about acquiring the qualifications that might turn him into a salaried professional. He did a course in hardware networking and moved to Pune, which is to Maharashtra what Bangalore is to India, a symbol of metropolitan modernity. He became the IT manager of a textile factory.

He was at once the modern ‘techie’ and your archetypal Indian son. He supported his parents in Solapur and helped his younger brother settle into Pune and get a temporary job there. The last conversation his father had with him was on the afternoon of his death; Mohsin had called to say that he had wired the money he sent his parents monthly on salary day. It was June 2.

There had been rumours of tension in Pune over morphed images of Shivaji and Bal Thackeray uploaded on to Facebook, but both Mohsin and Sadiq thought Pune was a safe city, too ‘busy’, as his father told The Indian Express reporter, to have the time for communal mayhem.

After speaking to his father, Mohsin went about his business. He went to his mosque and prayed, picked up his dinner from a tiffin centre as solitary professionals tend to do and set off home on his motorcycle with his friend, Riyaz, riding pillion.

On the way they were stopped by a gang of men on motorcycles who beat Mohsin to death with hockey sticks and cricket bats. Riyaz, his clean shaven friend, wasn’t attacked. Mohsin was singled out because he was wearing a beard and a skull cap. The Hindu Rashtra Sena’s goons didn’t know Mohsin, there was no connection between Mohsin and the alleged Facebook posts, but they were looking for Muslim prey and Mohsin looked the part. This young professional, this exemplary son, this living, breathing embodiment of India’s ‘demographic dividend’ died for being visibly Muslim.

This is why Indians should be worried by Mohsin’s murder. Whether the prime minister, Narendra Modi, takes notice of it or not doesn’t really matter. The idea that this tragedy is newsworthy because Narendra Modi didn’t comment on it distracts us from the existential and political significance of Mohsin’s death.

His murder is significant because, according to The Times of India, young Muslims in a mixed neighbourhood in Pune, Unnati Nagar, have begun shaving their beards off. Some of them have stopped wearing pathan suits to work or kurta pyjamas and skull caps to their mosques. Many of them work in shops or work as labourers, jobs that keep them in the public eye and they don’t want to be identified as Muslims in a city where being publicly Muslim has proved to be a fatal condition.

It’s significant because it sends out a signal that’s received by others beyond Pune. A young Muslim engineer writes a blog post describing an encounter in his office cafeteria after the news of Mohsin’s death became general. Over tea a non-Muslim colleague says, directly, “I am sad at his death, but they should dress appropriately and be clean shaven. This religious symbolism is offensive.”

This two-step response, first the cursory expression of regret and then the suggestion that ‘they’ bring it upon themselves in some way, has become something of a formula. Thus, the newly elected BJP MP from Pune, Anil Shirole, in a conversation with reporters outside Parliament, condemned the damage done to property and the inconvenience caused by the rioters in Pune and then said, “What appeared on Facebook was very painful. Some amount of repercussions was natural.”

Both the young engineer’s colleague and the BJP MP normalize violence by treating it as a symptom of something else. By describing the violence as a reflex they effectively absolve the rioters of responsibility by depriving them of volition. Shirole, in a later statement, complained that he had been misquoted, that he hadn’t intended to justify the attack on Mohsin but offered no alternative reading of ‘natural’ repercussions.

We should remember that Mohsin’s death was the epicentre of a larger ripple of violence. The Times of India reported that rioters attacked mosques and madrasas both in Pune and in Solapur, Satara and Raigarh. There were reports of attacks on Muslim bakeries and Muslim neighbourhoods.

Why is this important? It’s important because one of the things we should be alert about in the aftermath of a decisive and divisive election is the way in which the result is received by political extremists and the thuggish fringe. In the wake of the BJP’s sweeping win, in the new world of the Modi sarkar, are violent Hindutvavadi sectarians testing the waters to see what they can get away with?

There’s historical precedent for this and it has nothing to do with the Bharatiya Janata Party. In 1937, after the first provincial elections under the Government of India Act of 1935, the Congress formed governments in several provinces. It did so on the back of large legislative majorities based almost entirely on the Congress’s success in winning general, that is, non-Muslim seats (colonial elections featured separate electorates). The Muslim seats were won either by landed and conservative Muslim politicians opposed to the Congress or by the Muslim League.

The Congress’s time in office, in spite of its ideological commitment to secularism and pluralism, was marred by an uptick in communal violence. This was driven by local groups, unconnected with the Congress, who felt that in the new context of provincial governments made up almost entirely of nominally Hindu politicians, they could be more demanding in local disputes over Ram Lila processions or music before mosques or cow slaughter. Modern sectarians have simply replaced real-world provocations with Photoshopped images in cyberspace. Just two years of these provincial governments helped alienate Muslims from the Congress because they came to blame the ruling party for the sins of local sectarians.

The BJP today has a parliamentary majority that doesn’t feature a single Muslim. Unlike the ostentatiously pluralist colonial Congress, the BJP is a historically Hindutvavadi party, led by a man widely admired and reviled for being a charismatic Hindutvavadi nationalist. It’s very likely that lumpen fringe organizations like the Hindu Rashtra Sena, without any encouragement from the new government, feel emboldened by the BJP’s absolute majority. They might feel that they have a more congenial political environment for their goonery just as Ram Lila committees in 1937 felt, quite unjustifiably, that the new Congress governments might wink at their excesses.

The second reason that these disturbances in western Maharashtra are worrying is that they may be an early warning of the troubles in store in the run up to the Maharashtra legislative assembly elections later this year.

Rather like the struggle for the Jat vote in western Uttar Pradesh during the general elections, the Maratha vote is a vital prize in western Maharashtra. Just as Ajit Singh and the Rashtriya Lok Dal sought to consolidate the Jat vote while Amit Shah and the BJP strove for Hindu consolidation, the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra wants to shore up its core Maratha vote, while the Shiv Sena and the BJP would like to assimilate the Marathas into a larger Hindu bloc. The NCP’s Maratha stronghold was breached by the National Democratic Alliance during the general elections and the competition for Maratha votes in the state elections will be intense.

Just as the BJP used the communal polarization caused by the Muzaffarnagar riots to sweep UP during the general elections, sectarian violence in Maharashtra, even if it isn’t instigated by the BJP, is one route to Hindu consolidation. Equally, the NCP isn’t likely to be shy about rallying to the defence of the ur-Maratha hero, Shivaji, if there’s a rumour that his honour has been impugned in the real world or some site in virtual reality.

Mohsin Shaikh’s death is both an individual tragedy and a cautionary tale. He was a hard working, aspirational, socially mobile professional who should have been a poster boy for the new India that both Nandan Nilekani and Narendra Modi want to conjure into existence. And he’s dead, killed by cruising bigots looking to avenge faux-provocations on Facebook. His death and its reverberations are a warning: cycles of violence and alienation are easy to set off but hard to control. History, both recent and remote, has lessons for us; we should pay attention.