The way violence recently engulfed more than half of Maharashtra is bound to cause fear and anxiety. During this period, frenzied mobs didn’t spare even the buses carrying children returning from school and pelted them with stones. Trembling with fear, the children had to seek shelter from the mobs even as their parents helplessly waited for them in various parts of Mumbai. All means of transport that could have brought the children home were stalled. For some time, governance became paralysed. This is only one chilling example among many of the lawlessness that spread in large parts of the country’s commercial capital. It will take some time before the complete damage caused by the protests and the violence can be assessed. But for now, it has raised some disturbing questions. Was the plot for this bloodshed being scripted for long? Or is it part of the next stage of conflict likely to grip the country?

To get an answer to these questions, let me take you to Bhima Koregaon. Members of the Dalit community assemble here for a celebration every year. They commemorate the day Peshwa soldiers were defeated there. The victorious army comprised a majority of Mahar soldiers and a few Britishers. That is why Dalits view it as a symbol of the defeat of Brahminical power. I am not going into the details of this clash as many pieces of contradictory information are being circulated on social media.

This issue is an offshoot of a malaise that is rapidly spreading across the country in which self-appointed historians have mushroomed. Ignoring scientific facts, they swear by anecdotes and urban legends. While doing this, they conveniently forget the lessons of history where fictitious definitions can prove hazardous for humanity. The recent incidents in Maharashtra are another example of this.

The tradition of celebration at Bhima Koregaon is not a new development. People have been assembling there for decades. Since it was the 200th anniversary of the Peshwa defeat, the crowds had been expected to be bigger than usual. This was not done in any secret manner. If the state government so desired, it could have made the necessary arrangements. But that wasn’t done. Not just this, even when the mobs were running amok, the police didn’t display the enthusiasm required to stop them. TV journalists attacked in Mumbai allege that the police at the spot didn’t attempt to protect them. Stories such as these create an atmosphere of suspicion.

If you look closely, you will discover that attempts to stoke caste and religious sentiments have been made periodically over the last few years. Before this, the battleground was in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur, where Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar ‘Ravan’ made some really provocative comments. The result? Two people were killed, many injured and property worth crores of rupees set afire. For months after this, the entire region felt the repercussions.

Before this, as part of a conspiracy, a communal colour was lent to the beating up of Dalits in Gujarat’s Una and the Rohith Vemula suicide in Hyderabad. The Jats in Haryana and the Gujjars in Rajasthan turned violent, demanding reservations. You may recall that this phenomenon captured the country’s imagination after a few people raised anti-India slogans in Afzal Guru’s memory at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Rather than deal with them at the administrative level, these incidents were sensationalised. The tragic effects are now being felt.

From JNU to Bhima Koregaon, the way hatred is being stoked is resembling a well-planned strategy and raises some disturbing questions. India is a nation of unity in diversity. Our ancestors adopted this principle after testing it for thousands of years. So, whenever religious or caste passions were unleashed, we were able to successfully douse them. But in the age of social media and exploding political aspirations, traditions are coming in handy to create unrest rather than harmony.

Unfortunately, our politicians are trying to further fan these fires. If you don’t believe me, just have a look at the proceedings in Parliament. Even as Maharashtra was burning, our lawmakers were busy trading charges and counter-charges. They forgot that the people of Maharashtra were looking at them with hope. Our honourable MPs even forgot that every such incident scars social harmony.

This doesn’t behove a nation emerging as a global superpower.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.

His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin

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