This is the third article in a three-part series on Dangerous Speech. Click here to read the first article, which considers the line between offensive speech and speech with a direct link to violence, and here to read the second article, which explores the masked xenophobia in the rhetoric of France’s National Front party.
By Jas Singh
As Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enters his second year as the 15th prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, his tenure in office may well be the most pivotal in India’s recent history, but not for the reasons he typically trumpets. Contrary to the grand promises of economic development for which he was elected in a landslide victory, his party’s ascendancy signals the forceful unraveling of the liberal, pluralist social order on which India was founded. The BJP’s trademark combination of sustained vitriolic hate speech and thinly veiled divisive policies directed at more than 172 million Indian Muslims has begun to undermine the country’s stability in a conflagration of vigilante violence, targeting not just impoverished Muslim communities, as in the past, but also elites who subscribe to a secular vision of India. If there is any room for optimism, it is in the unified response of an array of civil society groups who have condemned the violence and voiced support for an inclusive, liberal Nehruvian India. In the balance lies the country’s fate.
Beef Bans and Vigilante Rule
After coming under intense international scrutiny in the past year for its Ghar Wapsi ceremonies—fraudulent religious conversion campaigns—as well as its pronouncements against the perceived scourge of interfaith marriages known as “love jihad,” the BJP and its right-wing affiliates have shifted their focus to the ostensibly less offensive issue of beef bans while still achieving the same divisive end. Under the prime minister’s stewardship, the BJP has pushed for expansion of state-level beef bans and moved aggressively to enforce them in Delhi, where police are under the control of the central government.
The cri de coeur against the sale or consumption of beef is hardly new in a Hindu-majority country where the cow is considered sacred. The BJP is simply leveraging beef bans as an instrument in its time-tested formula for harvesting votes by sowing sectarian strife. One of the chief architects of this electoral strategy was none other than Narendra Modi himself, who angrily declared in several speeches in his 2014 election campaign that the rival Congress party was promoting a plan to profit from the slaughter of more cows—a “pink revolution”—in order to appease religious minority groups.
Although Modi has been quieter as of late about the “pink revolution,” the campaign to eradicate cow slaughter has been embraced by radical members of his party and its myriad affiliate groups with horrific consequences. In October of last year, 18-year-old truck driver Zahid Rasool Bhat in Kashmir was burned to death when a Hindu mob, suspecting him of smuggling cattle, threw a gasoline bomb into his vehicle. Another vigilante group in Manipur beat to death Mohammad Hasmat Ali, whom they suspected of stealing cows. A similar group killed another Muslim for allegedly smuggling cows in Himachal Pradesh.
Perhaps most revealing is the BJP response to the Sept. 28 Dadri lynching. When vigilantes from Save the Cow—a group with informal links to the BJP—heard a rumor about a cow’s slaughtered remains in their village near Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, they quickly mobilized a group by circulating texts, placing calls, and alerting the local Hindu priest to make an announcement over the temple loudspeaker. Approximately 1,000 men answered the call. After advancing to the home of one of the only Muslim households in the village, they viciously attacked an entire family of three, resulting in the murder of 52-year-old Mohammed Ikhlaq.
In response, Mahesh Sharma, Modi’s culture minister who also represents the area, stated that Ikhlaq’s death “should be considered as an accident.” The state’s BJP president, Lakshimikant Bajpayee, stated that “the blame for this incident lies squarely with the state’s administration, and the law and order machinery, its police,” insinuating that if the BJP were in power in the state, the lack of accountability for cow slaughter would be a moot issue. After more than two weeks of silence and a growing chorus of opprobrium, Prime Minister Modi himself replied that the incident was “sad” and “not desirable,” but that the central government had no role in such attacks.
Yet it is that assertion precisely that is most portentous of all. The steady dissemination of a virulent, hateful ideology that targets the country’s religious minorities can easily lead to an unpredictable, even irreversible, cycle of violence that spirals out of control. Modi ought to pay heed, in this respect, to the lessons of the proliferation of extremist ideologies in India’s neighborhood. One cannot parrot a hateful ideology, then wash one’s hands of the ensuing bloodshed.
Targeting the Intelligentsia
It is important to note that radical Hindu fundamentalist outfits are invested in cleansing the country not only of its religious minorities but also of all those who stand in the way of the ideology that undergirds their vision of a fascist, homogenously Hindu India. The primary casualties in this latter effort have been intellectuals who vocally advocate an alternate, pluralist vision of India.
Among these was 81-year-old Communist Party of India leader Govind Pansare. Despite multiple threats on his life by Hindu nationalists, Pansare continued to speak out against intolerance as well as the mythology the Hindu supremacists rely on to popularize their hateful agenda. He was summarily executed by gunmen on motorbikes while taking a morning walk in February of last year.
Similarly, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, a renowned scholar and rationalist of Karnataka’s literary capital was gunned down in his own home in August. Kalburgi was known as an authority on Indian literature and had authored over 100 books. Like Pansare, he too ran afoul of the radical Hindu outfits for dissenting with their religious views, namely by criticizing idol worship.
In both cases, police acted painfully slowly to even attempt to apprehend those responsible.
Civil Society Backlash
If there is any room for optimism, it is in the voices of a host of civil society groups that have emerged in solidarity with the victims of Hindu nationalism over the course of the past few months. Acclaimed author Nayantara Sahgal, niece of the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, returned her National Academy of Letters Award in a protest against the attacks on the right to dissent in India. In a direct gibe at Modi’s “Make In India” campaign, she titled her statement “The Unmaking of India,” with the subtext that core pluralist and liberal values of the country were coming undone.
Sahgal has been joined by hundreds of other writers, scientists, and filmmakers who have also returned awards and joined their voices in protest against the fascist direction the country has taken since Prime Minister Modi’s rise to power. In explaining why she was giving up her only national award for Best Film on Social Issues, Nishtha Jain explained that “this award has become a daily reminder of the gap between the way the state looks at us as filmmakers and how they treat us as citizens who dare to dissent.”
Even Bollywood actors have joined the chorus of protests. Amir Khan expressed alarm at the lack of accountability and justice for incidents of mob violence and targeted killings perpetrated against Muslims and secular elites. Shah Rukh Khan stated in an interview that religious intolerance would take India to the Dark Ages, and that “we will never be a superpower if we are not going to believe that all religions are equal.”
It remains to be seen if these voices of dissent will snowball into a public outcry that steers the Modi government on a different course or whether the BJP will proceed to eviscerate its grand economic promise through its own doing. In any case, it is clear that in the current atmosphere of Islamophobia that has engulfed even the country’s closest allies, India must rely mostly on herself in choosing her own destiny.
Jas Singh is a graduate of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr]