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A group of elderly activists fight the tide of prejudice in India with leaflets

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On a recent morning, Roop Rekha Verma, an 80-year-old peace activist and former university leader, was walking through a neighborhood in northern India prone to sectarian conflict when he stopped near a tea shop.

She pulled out a bundle of pamphlets with messages about religious tolerance and coexistence from her backpack and began distributing them to passersby.

“Talk to each other. Don’t let anyone divide you,” one message read in Hindi.

In today’s India, spreading these simple words is an act of courage.

Ms. Verma and others like her are fighting a lonely tide of hatred and bigotry that is increasingly normalized by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his deputy said Defamation of the country’s ethnic minorities A small group of elderly activists built bridges between religious groups and advocated for harmony during a years-long campaign that escalated during this national election.

Despite the already high cost of expressing dissent and free speech, they persist in street protests, trying to keep the flame of the non-sectarian ideals of India’s constitution and their own memories burning.

According to human rights groups, more than three dozen human rights defenders, poets, journalists and opposition politicians face charges, including anti-terrorism laws, for criticizing Modi’s divisive policies. (The government has said nothing about the charges, reiterating that the law has its own provisions.)

The crackdown has left many Indians feeling chilled.

“This is where the role of these civil society activists becomes even more important,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy director of Human Rights Watch. “Despite the crackdown, they refuse to give in, so they hold placards and distribute leaflets to rekindle messages that were once taken for granted.”

Using posters and pamphlets to raise public awareness is a time-tested practice among activists in India. Revolutionaries fighting for independence from the British colonial rule used these posters and pamphlets to rally support and mobilize ordinary Indians. Today, village leaders use these posters and pamphlets to spread awareness about health and other government programs.

Such old-school propaganda seems quixotic in the digital age, where hundreds of millions of people are inundated with anti-Muslim rhetoric posted daily by the BJP and its associated right-wing groups.

Modi and his party face a tough battle in the national elections that conclude next week. Directly targeting MuslimsOnline and in campaign speeches, the BJP has openly attacked Muslims. (The BJP denies accusations of discrimination against Muslims and points out that government welfare programs under its watch have helped all Indians equally.)

Those who have worked in places riven by sectarian violence say polarization can only be fought by taking to the streets and educating people about its dangers. Simply being there can help.

For Ms. Verma, the seeds of her social activism were planted during her childhood, when she heard horror stories of sectarian violence that killed hundreds of thousands of people during the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent.

Later, as a university philosophy professor, she fought against caste discrimination and religious divisions both in and out of the classroom. She opposed patriarchal attitudes, even though she was verbally abused. In the early 1980s, when she noticed that mothers’ names were not included on students’ admissions applications, she demanded that their names be included, and was successful.

But most importantly, Build a large Hindu temple The incident in her hometown of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh has given new meaning to Ms. Verma’s life.

In 1992, a Hindu mob demolished a centuries-old mosque there, claiming the site had previously been a Hindu temple. Deadly riots ensued. Thirty years later, in January this year, the Ayodhya temple was officially opened, inaugurated by Mr Modi.

It was a major victory for the Hindu nationalist movement, whose vilification and marginalization of Muslims Ms. Verma had campaigned against.

She said the Hindu majority had a responsibility to protect minorities “and not become accomplices in demonizing them”.

While government incitement to religious hatred is new in India, the sectarian divide itself is not. Activist Vipin Kumar Tripathi, 76, a former physics professor at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, said he began gathering students after school in the early 1990s to educate them about the dangers of “religious extremism.”

Today, Mr. Tripathi travels across India spreading the message of peace.

He stood recently in a corner of a busy railway station in northeast New Delhi, handing out information sheets and pamphlets to anyone who reached out as office workers, students and labourers rushed to the platform.

His material touches on some of India’s most contentious issues: Kashmir, the Modi government’s abolition of the Muslim-majority Semi-autonomous region; the politics of the Ayodhya temple; and the right of ordinary citizens to question their government.

“Respecting God and pretending to respect God in order to win votes are two different things,” he wrote on one leaflet.

At the station, Anirudh Saxena, a tall man in his early 30s with a moustache, stopped and looked Mr. Tripathi straight in the eye.

“Sir, why do you do this every week?” Mr. Saxena asked.

“Read this,” Tripathi said, handing Saxena a 10-page booklet. “It explains why we should read books and learn about history instead of reading spam on WhatsApp and deriving pleasure from other people’s suffering.”

Mr. Saxena smiled and nodded, put the pamphlet in his bag, and disappeared into the crowd.

Mr. Tripathi said that if only 10 people out of a thousand read his material, his job was done. “When truth becomes a casualty, you can only fight it in the streets,” he said.

Another New Delhi-based activist, Shabnam Hashmi, 66, said she helped distribute about 4 million pamphlets after sectarian riots in Gujarat in 2002, when ethnic violence led by Mr. Modi, then the state’s top leader, left more than a thousand people dead, most of them Muslims.

During this time, she and her colleagues were harassed by right-wing activists, who threw stones at her and filed complaints with the police.

In 2016, a few months after Modi became prime minister, his government banned foreign funding for her organization. Still, she continued her street activism.

“It’s the most effective way to reach people directly,” she said. “It gives people the courage to confront their fears and continue to resist.”

“We may not be able to stop this madness,” she added, “but that doesn’t mean we should stop fighting.”

Verma, the Uttar Pradesh activist, said that even before Modi’s rise, when she led marches and rallied warring factions after religious violence broke out, the government had never been “generous” to her.

For decades, she was threatened with incarceration and stuffed into police cars.

“But the situation has never been so bad,” she said, but now with Modi in power, the situation has become so bad.

Ms. Verma said that as the Republican Party becomes increasingly intolerant of any censorship, the space for activism could disappear altogether.

For now, she said, activists “are sadly only validating our existence: We may be demoralized, but we’re alive. Otherwise, the hatred has seeped so deeply that it will take decades to rebuild trust.”

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