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By Jas Singh
VARANASI, India—On a crisp February morning, in this ancient city, perched along the banks of the Ganges, the sun shines brightly on a landscape saturated with saffron. A sea of pilgrims gather restlessly around a stage at the Bharat Mata Mandir, the Mother India Temple, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the priest. Youths dressed in casual western attire, accented with saffron stoles draped around their necks, talk excitedly among themselves. Women seated on plastic chairs observe the veil, one end of their saris covering their faces, while others cover their heads informally. Seers wielding tridents and carrying clay pots filled with holy water amble with pride among the devotees. On the stage, bearded ascetic holy men with their faces covered in white and vermillion paint, gaze intently at the onlookers. A blue banner above the stage reads in Hindi “Viraat Hindu Sammelan,” or “Hindu Show of Strength.” The occasion is the golden jubilee celebration of the founding of the radical right-wing Hindu nationalist organization, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP).
A young woman with vermillion applied liberally to the part in her hair is seated calmly in the audience in a yellow georgette sari.
She explains with a coy smile that the real draw of the celebration is actually the keynote speaker, the chief priest of the Gorakhnath Hindu monastic order, Yogi Adityanath. “[The chief priest] is a real divine figure. He can solve every problem. I am here to take his blessings. My husband makes saris. He has been sick the past six months. I want the priest’s blessings.” Finally, a man in his early 40s with a shaven head, in saffron robes, approaches the podium with the word “Om” inscribed in bold calligraphy. The crowds grow euphoric as salutations to the Hindu deity, Lord Shiva, ring through the air, “Har har Mahadev!” or “Please take away all our worries.”
Adityanath proceeds to deliver a speech with the hallmarks of the country’s right-wing Hindu extremist agenda. Referring to the Gyanvapi mosque, built by the 17th century Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, the priest thunders, “Every time a Hindu visits the Vishwanath temple, the Gyanvapi mosque taunts us. If given a chance, we will install statues of Goddesses Gauri, Ganesh, and Nandi in every mosque.” The crowd roars its approval with cries of “Long live the chief priest!”
In another veiled incitement to sectarian tension, the priest proclaims, “everyone, irrespective of religion, can come to Varanasi, but only Muslims are allowed in Mecca and Medina. This is the century of Hindutva, not just in India but in the entire world.”
In invoking Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, Adityanath seamlessly transitions from his role as chief priest to his political title as Member of Parliament of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—which was buoyed by a landslide victory in the 2014 national elections on the coattails of its enormously popular leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His dual role appears not to have had significant negative repercussions for Adityanath’s political career, as he has represented the district of Gorakhpur in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, since 1998. In fact, his two titles have a symbiotic relationship—his own website hails him as both “parampoojniye,” the holiest one, deserving to be worshipped, as well as the “superhero of Hindu Renaissance, the symbol of cultural nationalism, and a dreamer of Hindutva and development.”
While the priest-politician’s vitriol is often denounced as extreme, even among BJP supporters, his platform of forging national unity around a Hindu religious identity has always been a cornerstone of BJP campaign strategy, which led to the landslide BJP victory in the national elections last year. The meteoric rise of the Hindu nationalist party has in turn driven the country’s political compass to the right, galvanizing an array of opportunist Hindu nationalist groups, most directly affiliated with the BJP, to exploit the favorable political conditions to implement their agenda. The inevitable result has been a wave of hostility directed against Indian Christians and Muslims, eerily reminiscent of India’s long and sordid history of state-sanctioned, even state-sponsored, violence against its religious minorities. Unlike the past, however, the country’s current embrace of the right may lead to permanent changes to India’s secular character with grave implications for a country that has always prided itself on being a pluralist democracy.
The scale of the BJP’s win in the 2014 elections cannot be overestimated. It was the first time in India’s 67-year history as an independent nation that any party other than the Congress party won a clear parliamentary majority, without any need to form a coalition. The margin of victory was breathtaking. In a country of over a billion people, with voter turnout at just over 66 percent, nearly a third of all votes went to the Hindu nationalist party. Modi declared in a tweet, triumphantly, “India has won” and, most notably, “good days are coming,” promising to deliver on his pledge of economic development. Yet for many of India’s religious minorities, the good days seem far-fetched.
While Hindu extremist violence against religious minorities is hardly a new phenomenon in India, the scale and brazenness of attacks in the wake of the BJP victory has been alarming. According to an interim report by human rights activist and Christian community leader, Dr. John Dayal, the first 300 days of Modi’s rule have been marked by 43 deaths among 600 documented cases of violence against Christians and Muslims. These include five attacks on churches in Delhi, the nation’s capital. In some of these cases, religious objects were stolen or desecrated, while in others, such as the case of Saint Sebastian, a Roman Catholic church, the entire interior of the church was burned.
In one of the most egregious incidents of violence this year, a 71-year-old Catholic nun was raped in a convent school in the city of Ranaghat in West Bengal, home to many Christian institutions. The attack occurred when a group of seven to eight armed men stormed the school compound in the middle of the night, desecrated the chapel, stole $9,000 in cash, tied up several sisters, and raped an ailing elderly nun. As with all the other attacks, police investigations have failed to implicate any Hindu nationalist group, but the overall pattern clearly indicates an intention to spread an atmosphere of fear among Christians.
According to the Dayal report, Hindu nationalist groups often have the tacit support of police in implementing their agendas. In two of the five cases of church vandalism and arson in Delhi, police have made no visible progress, and in the remaining three have attributed the vandalism to a short circuit or drunken behavior rather than religious motivations, even when incontrovertible evidence indicates otherwise. The climate of impunity is even worse in rural villages, most notably in Chattisgarh, where Dalit Christians—converts from the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system—have alleged in numerous cases that police are blatantly complicit in attacks.
The National United Christian Forum, comprising the three largest Christian denominations of India, released a statement in March that warned “the cultural DNA of India of pluralism and diversity is being threatened” and that “any effort to impose [cultural homogeneity] is fraught with grave ramifications for the country.” The statement also expressed “deep concern about the physical violence—arson, murder, and rape of religious personnel.”
ECHO CHAMBER OF HATE
BJP dominance has been accompanied by a toxic turn in political discourse that has targeted more than 200 million Indian Christians and Muslims for their religious beliefs.
Arguably the second most influential person in the country, Mohan Bhagwat, head of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the virulently nationalist ideological parent of numerous right-wing Hindu satellite organizations, including the BJP and VHP, bluntly explained his organization’s agenda at the 50th anniversary of the founding of VHP: “Hindutva is the identity of India, and it has the capacity to swallow other identities. We just need to restore those capacities.” At a different event this year he proclaimed, “citizens of Hindustan should be known as Hindus.”
While such pronouncements from the RSS are hardly new, they have far greater resonance in a nation led by its political wing, the BJP. In fact, under such circumstances, extremist rhetoric is amplified in an echo chamber of hate. Rajeshwar Singh, a leader of Dharm Jagran Samiti—yet another offshoot of RSS—voiced his intention to make India a Hindu rashtra (nation) and “ensure that India is freed of Muslims and Christians by December 31, 2021.” BJP MP Adityanath, already embroiled in numerous incidents of sectarian violence, similarly declared of his followers, “When I ask them to rise and protect our Hindu culture, they obey. If I ask for blood, they will give me blood.” Niranjan Jyoti, a holy woman-turned BJP politician, declared at a public rally, “It is you who must decide whether the government in Delhi will be run by the sons of Ram or by bastards,” an oblique reference to non-Hindus.
Some Hindu nationalists even use misogynist rhetoric to convey their message. BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj has warned that “the [Islamic] concept of four wives and 40 children will not work in India, and the time has come when a Hindu woman must produce at least four children in order to protect the Hindu religion,” he says. The underlying fear is that the Muslim population, some 15 percent of the country’s 1.25 billion people, is on course to challenge the Hindu majority, which represents 80 percent of India’s population. Maharaj poses the solution of using the bodies of women to slow this imminent demographic threat. Indeed, in a video widely shared on social media, a right-wing leader is seen proclaiming in front of MP Adityanath that the bodies of dead Muslim women should be exhumed and raped.
Even giants of Indian history are not immune from indirect attack. BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj stoked a major controversy when he declared Nathuram Godse, an RSS member who assassinated Mohandas Gandhi, a “patriot.” While many Hindu nationalists have long venerated Godse for his dedication to a vision of an undivided India—prior to the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, this was the first time an elected politician openly called him a patriot, with the subtext that Gandhi unjustly appeased separatist Muslims.
Bhagat similarly drew a firestorm of controversy with his remarks that “Mother Teresa did good work and service, but the aim was to convert the poor to Christianity.” The RSS ideologue echoes the dogma ingrained in Hindu nationalist groups that all Christians in India have been duped by foreign missionaries into conversion through bribery and deceit. But far from simply condemning missionary activity, the RSS and its affiliates have taken an active role in solving the problem of religious diversity.
CONVERSIONS & RE-CONVERSIONS
Various offshoots of RSS have targeted Christian and Muslims for ghar wapsi, or homecoming ceremonies, for many years, with the goal of converting them to Hinduism. After the BJP’s electoral success in 2014, Hindu nationalists issued public calls for mass conversion ceremonies in nearly every corner of the country. Forty-two Christian families in the state of Bihar sought police protection to defend themselves from intimidation, threats of violence, and raids conducted by VHP and Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of RSS. Impoverished villagers, who had converted to Christianity in 2007, were warned that they would be deprived of government benefits and driven out of the village if they did not re-convert to Hinduism.
Similar threats made by the same groups yielded greater success in Agra, where 250 Muslims in an Agra slum were duped into conversion. In Modi’s home state of Gujrat, 200 Christians threw their crosses in a Hindu holy fire in exchange for promises of ration cards. Bhagwat stated, “We will bring back our brothers who have lost their way. They did not go on their own. They were robbed, tempted into leaving.” Even if a practicing Christian’s family converted from Hinduism more than three generations ago, he or she is still deemed to be blindly following a foreign religion. However, the subsequent public outcry against the ceremonies drew the scrutiny of the national and international media, which in turn scuppered Adityanath’s own plans to convert 4,000 Christians to Hinduism in Aligarh on Christmas Day.
At the same time, Amit Shah, President of BJP, “dared” the furious secular political opposition in Parliament to support national anti-conversion laws such as those already in place in six states led by the BJP. As Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, told World Policy Journal, these laws, ironically called Freedom of Religion Act(s), have been specifically crafted to prevent missionary efforts by Christians and Muslims and therefore “dismantle freedom of religion.” He elaborated further that on an unofficial visit to Gujarat last year, he found those who wanted to convert to a different religion were required to report to state authorities their intentions and motives, as well as the names of those who invited them to convert, all of which creates a “climate of intimidation totally in contradiction to freedom of religion or belief.” The “freedom to remain in your inherited religion would not be an act of freedom unless you have the possibility to also reconsider [your beliefs]. This is something that deserves to be respected unconditionally, so [the anti-conversion laws are] a slap in the face of everything freedom of religion or belief represents.”
A central feature of the crescendo of vitriolic rhetoric and violence that’s targeted minorities after the BJP victory is the overall silence of the prime minister. There have been only two exceptions. In his August 15 Independence Day address, he called for a “ten year moratorium on violence” on the basis of religion and caste. After several months of continued attacks on religious minorities, international media scrutiny, a gentle rebuke by President Obama on the tail-end of his historic trip to India devoted to solidifying relations between the two countries, and finally, a blistering BJP defeat in the Delhi assembly elections, Modi finally announced that “[his] government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith” and that it will “not allow any religious group to incite hatred against others overtly or covertly.”
But the RSS and its various subsidiaries were never singled out. While ghar wapsi campaigns have disappeared from the news, invective even from members of his own party has continued unabated, with recent calls for the revocation of voting rights for Muslims from MP Maharaj. Until Modi is able to restrain the RSS and publicly condemn its Hindu nationalist rhetoric, any promises he makes to religious minorities are devoid of value. Yet this is unlikely to happen given that Modi was himself a member of the RSS since childhood.
Dr. Surendra Kumar Jain, spokesperson of the VHP, the religious-paramilitary offshoot of the RSS, explained, “Obama should be ashamed of the comments that he made against religious intolerance in India. He owes an apology to India. You see, there is an international conspiracy to defame India. America and the West should look at themselves first.” Further, attacks on Christian institutions are part of the conspiracy hatched by Christian missionaries. And violence visited upon Muslims, he concluded, is attributable to a “Muslim conspiracy to turn India into Dar-al-Islam.”
To blame Modi alone for the sharp rise in extremist activity in the country would be shortsighted. Although freedom of religion is, to a certain extent, enshrined in the Indian Constitution, an undercurrent of Hindu fundamentalism has festered in the country for more than a century and has been a recurring, looming threat to its religious minorities. The ideology was originally conceived during the British colonial period in order to lend structure and uniformity to a religion that had neither. Hindus in different regions of the country had disparate beliefs with different preferences for religious scriptures based on the identities of discrete sects. The need for a common Hindu ideology was born out of a perceived existential threat posed to the religion by a far more unitary Christianity and Islam.
According to South Asia expert Christophe Jaffrelot, director of the Centre d’études et de Recherches Internationales (CERI) at France’s Sciences-Po, this ideology became the concrete ethnic nationalist doctrine of Hindutva in the early 20th century when it formulated a national identity that hinged on the religion, culture, language, and territory of the country’s majority community, coining the motto “Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan.” This doctrine holds that the Hindu majority represents the entire nation because it is the largest and oldest community, while religious minorities are deemed outsiders with foreign loyalties. Whatever their private beliefs may be, in the public sphere, more than 200 million Indian Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists must pay allegiance to Hindu symbols. As Friar Dominic Emmanuel, the spokesperson of the Delhi Catholic Archidiocese explained, a BJP MP recently told him pointedly on national television, “if you want to live in this country, you will have to abide by what the majority Hindus say.”
But while religions originating in the subcontinent may be gradually assimilated into the fold of Hinduism, a problematic notion, Christians and Muslims should either be converted or expelled to make India a Hindu nation, as the RSS believes. Established in 1925 to foment a movement to this end, the RSS successfully propagated this extremist ideology in towns and villages across the country. Over a period of decades, the organization opened local chapters and spawned various subsidiary organizations, known as the family of the Sangh, to disseminate its dogma among strategic target groups. It formed the VHP to mobilize the country’s Hindu religious leaders and Bajrang Dal to target its youth. Then, in 1980, the RSS came one step closer to achieving its ultimate ambition—ruling India from the top down—when it established a political wing, the BJP.
Modi, its most famous politician to date, became highly adept at using divisive politics to advance BJP electoral campaigns when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002. State and local institutions, including the police, were heavily penetrated by BJP politicians and sympathizers of the Hindutva agenda. And at that time, one of the worst cases of state-sponsored mass murder in India’s history unfolded. A train full of Hindu activists was halted and set ablaze near the railway station in Godhra, a poor Muslim neighborhood. More than 50 people were burnt alive. Although the government’s own investigation later concluded the fire was accidental and started from inside the coach, Muslims were immediately blamed by religious nationalists, with Modi declaring it was a “pre-planned violent act of terrorism” when this had never been established. That very evening, the government ordered the bodies to be publicly displayed in the state capital. Angry mobs of saffron-clad, armed Hindu men summarily attacked Muslim residential and commercial areas in cities and villages across the state. Human Rights Watch has detailed the gruesome way in which more than a thousand people were killed, the vast majority of them Muslim and as many as 125,000 others made refugees. Homes were flooded and families electrocuted. Women were gang-raped, mutilated, and set ablaze in front of their children, before the children, too, were burnt alive. Similarly, fetuses were cut from the bodies of pregnant women before their mothers were killed. And worst of all, these murders were framed simply as the consequence of “riots.”
But the rapid speed and organization with which the mobs engulfed Muslim neighborhoods, the lists of individuals targeted on the basis of voter registration, the use of trucks and gas cylinders, the methodical use of cell phone communications all suggest elaborate, centralized planning. The use of “riot” to describe such violence shifts the locus of responsibility from Hindu nationalists to spontaneous airborne hatred between two groups, arising from an historical vacuum.
Modi, the consummate politician, used the divisive atmosphere and turmoil in the wake of the riots to call for early elections. Partnering with the VHP, Modi began a hate-filled campaign to further polarize tensions and exploit the Hindu solidarity by delivering vitriolic anti-Muslim speeches at hundreds of rallies across the state. In the end, he won the election decisively, and BJP dominated the state parliament for the third time in a row.
Modi modulated this approach in the national elections last year, in part because he was already under international scrutiny, even banned from entering the United States, for his role in the Gujarat massacre. Moreover, in 1998, the only other time a BJP member was elected prime minister, Prime Minister Atul Behari Vajpayee adopted moderated versions of the more radical political stances of his party to form alliances with regional parties. Unlike Vajpayee, however, Modi’s appeal to business elites and a populist appeal to the middle class were enough for the BJP to win a clear majority of seats in parliament. While this may be beneficial to the agenda for liberalizing the economy, it has begun to tear apart much of India’s social fabric.
GHOSTS FROM THE PAST
Part of the haunting legacy of mass communal violence in India is the fracturing of centuries-old, diverse communities along religious lines, with Hindu nationalist politicians being the greatest beneficiaries. The worst outbreak of state-sanctioned religious violence since 2002 occurred in the district of Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh in September 2013, several months before the general election when Modi was elected. The violence in this instance was sparked by the death of two Hindus and a Muslim in an altercation on September 7, 2003. Over the next three days, sectarian clashes led to some 60 deaths, and more than 40,000 were driven from their homes into squalid refugee camps without food or running water. The vast majority were Muslims.
A deeper probe of the situation in a fact-finding exercise completed by the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Analysis reveals that in the two months prior to the outbreak of violence, there had been a concerted campaign of inciting communal tensions. BJP leaders were involved in spreading rumors against Muslims through strident accusations of “love jihad”—Muslim men accused of wooing Hindu women in an effort to reduce the growth of the Hindu population. To thwart this demographic threat, the center’s report continues, BJP leaders encouraged attacks on Muslims. Beyond this, rampant rumors about the slaughter of cows, considered sacred in Hinduism, inflamed tensions further. Against the backdrop of this tension, all it took was a single altercation to spark explosive violence. Once again, communal violence and an exodus of Muslims to refugee camps outside Muzaffarnagar helped the BJP win the general election seat for Muzaffarnagar in 2014.
Sabir Ali, 50, who owns a small cycle repair shop in Muzaffarnagar lamented, “the saffron fanatics sparked the attacks, but the state government watched patiently. No one can say that the UP [Uttar Pradesh] government instigated the riots. Allah knows. The saffron goons burnt houses, killed people. But who controlled UP? Who sits in the office? It’s his duty to control his people. People from both sides died. Hindus also died. This should have never happened. We all suffered.”
India’s supreme court ruled that “the state government [of Uttar Pradesh was] responsible for being negligent at the initial stage in not anticipating the communal violence and for taking necessary steps for its prevention.” It ordered the arrest of 16 politicians from a variety of parties for inciting violence.
Such court orders, however valuable, have done little to mitigate the enduring harm caused by the upending of the social and economic order on which the poorest segments of society relied on for subsistence. Anwar, 30, a displaced agricultural laborer from Muzaffarnagar who now drives manual rickshaws in Delhi, explained that as a sharecropper he used to live on the land that he farmed with the consent of the Hindu landowners. Immediately after the violence, when homes were burned and impoverished farmers killed, politicians “came in the cars, clicked pictures with mobile phones, gave speeches, then went away.” Asked if he would like to return, he uses his scarf to wipe his eyes, welling up with tears. “Our backs have been broken,” he says. As for thousands of other landless Muslim farmers from Muzaffarnagar, it is unsafe and unfeasible to return home.
Perhaps the most striking of all instances of recent communal violence occurred just over a year later in Trilokpuri, a slum in East Delhi. Months before the Delhi assembly elections, a seemingly trivial dispute caused by a Hindu worship ceremony organized in front of a mosque, triggered stone throwing and burning of shops. There were multiple reports that former BJP state lawmaker Sunil Kumar Vaidya aggravated the tension for his own benefit by announcing that a Hindu temple be constructed on a location near the mosque. Vaidya denies the allegations.
Although this time it did not lead to any deaths, the political incentives for the violence were apparent. Eighty percent of the locality’s population is comprised of Dalit Hindus, and since this group can be relied on to be a long-term stable vote bank, political parties vie for their support, even if it is at the expense of alienating religious minorities.
Aashiq Hussain, 60, the owner of a dilapidated shop selling stationery and used bicycle parts, explains that since the violence, he earns less than half of the $30 daily sales he used to make. During the violence, “shops were burnt, homes pelted, and police charged us with batons. A fire of hatred was in the air.” Now former customers “look at our beards and don’t want to let us enter their houses,” he says.
Then with a pained expression, he adds that the past haunts him. “In 1984, in Trilokpuri, when [former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi] was killed, so many Sikhs were brutally murdered. I was a young man then. They took away my Sikh neighbors in front of my eyes. So many of them were burned alive. Now Trilokpuri says we are not welcome.” Arranging his skull cup over his head, he smiles dimly.
As is often the case, the ghosts of India’s past violence against religious minorities continue to haunt future generations. Hussain’s observation reveals a complex truth. Separating the BJP and Congress parties into mutually exclusive categories of religious and secular is a false dichotomy. While the BJP’s proximity to RSS and its hateful ideology poses a far greater risk to religious minorities than the Congress Party, it must not be forgotten that 30 years earlier, at least 3,000 Sikhs were killed by organized mobs with the backing of the ruling Congress party and even collusion by Hindu nationalists. At a minimum, a modicum of security for religious minorities can only be guaranteed once the perpetrators of past massacres are held accountable even if they belong to the BJP and Congress parties. Without accountability for past violence, a culture of impunity will prevail, and history will continue to repeat.
For all of the turmoil it causes, Hindutva-inspired communal violence is not the only threat to India’s future. With the state apparatus championing a Hindu nationalist cause, repercussions are manifold, and often unpredictable. In the vacuum of viable secular parties, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM), a Muslim political party based in Hyderabad, has begun to see its power rise in the Lok Sabha. MP Asaduddin Owaisi, president of AIMIM and a barrister at law, says the recent ban on the sale, consumption, and procurement of beef in states like Maharashtra disproportionately harms Muslims. “Muslim families are dependent on beef trade for their livelihood,” he says, since it is mainly Muslims who slaughter and sell beef in India. “By banning it, you have effectively made them jobless. The Modi government came to power with the promise of jobs. For the tannery industry, it’s Muslims and Dalits who run their small businesses.” When Hindutva ideology is channeled to further economically marginalize religious minorities, it is only rational that they too will employ identity-politics to assert their own power, granted that in the process, the notion of a secular Indian politics increasingly becomes a relic of the past.
The end of secularism, it seems, would be a boon to the Hindu nationalists, who are already revising the Indian educational system so that future generations of Indians become indoctrinated with Hindu supremacist dogma. As Sugata Bose, Harvard professor of history, puts it, “The autonomy of educational and cultural institutions is under threat from an ideology based on religious majoritarianism of the current government. The appointment of persons lacking credibility as scholars will result in diminishing the quality of these institutions and lower India’s prestige in the world.”
Further, as the political tide turns in favor of Hindutva forces, the incipient danger of permanent damage to the country’s legal system begins to grow more ominous. Advertisements issued by the Modi government to commemorate India’s 66th Republic Day in January excluded two crucial words from the preamble to the Constitution that were added in the 1970s—“secular” and “socialist.” If it foreshadows what is on the BJP agenda, this removal risks altering India’s religious and cultural landscape permanently with grave implications for freedom of religion and for the poor. Indians citizens would no longer be regarded as individuals, as the country’s founding fathers intended, but instead as members of religious communities.
In a written objection to the Chief Justice of India holding the Chief Justices Conference on Good Friday and Easter, both national holidays, Supreme Court Justice Kurian Joseph told The Hindu, that he expressed “pain, anguish, and concern about the way secularism is being tinkered with” in the world’s largest democracy. Similarly, former West Bengal governor, and grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, Gopal Krishna Gandhi aptly observed recently, “Today, when intolerance has, in a sense, got anointed through a democratic election, you can’t but help remember Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s words about the possibility of a landslide victory turning a democratic leader into a dictator.” Yet despite India’s rightward trajectory, international criticism has been limited. On his historic second visit to India in which he pledged $4 billion in investments and loans to release the country’s “untapped potential,” President Obama issued a veiled rebuke to Modi’s Hindutva ideology. “India will succeed as long as it’s not splintered along religious lines,” he stated.
But less than three months later, the president penned a tribute to the prime minister in Time curiously entitled “India’s reformer in chief,” in which Modi is romanticized and coddled as “[transcending] the ancient and the modern” as a “devotee of yoga” who connects with his constituents through Twitter. The hateful rhetoric in the halls of Parliament, the apparent BJP electoral campaign strategy of sowing the seeds and harvesting the fruit of communal discord, the pattern of violence against religious minorities, and the threat posed to the Indian social fabric by anti-constitutional forces were all laid to rest in the statement that the “diversity of backgrounds and faiths in [the two] countries is a strength [the two leaders] have to protect.”
Consistent with their approach to promoting religious tolerance in other parts of the world, India’s allies must directly and consistently confront Modi about his party’s hate speech targeting religious minorities and his failure to hold them publicly accountable. Communal harmony is not simply an accoutrement of a vibrant pluralist culture. It is the bedrock of a functioning democracy. Prioritizing economic interests above religious pluralism in India is an ill-fated decision that will come back to haunt all parties involved in the long term. Additionally, the specters of India’s violent sectarian past can only be put to rest once the guilty parties are held accountable. Without unrelenting international pressure to hold those guilty accountable for pogroms in Gujarat and elsewhere, incidents of state-sanctioned mass communal violence are likely to increase as India drifts to the right.
Jas Singh is a graduate of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. A Lucknow-based writer assisted with research and reporting in Uttar Pradesh.
[Photo courtesy of Gordontour]