India Flirts with Fascism

On this day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the United States for the first time since his visa ban was lifted. On this momentous occasion, Cornerstone revisits the implications of Modi’s rise to power. 

Image: Narendra Modi

Image: Narendra Modi

By: Anamika Kumar

The landslide victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Mr. Narendra Modi in the recent parliamentary elections in India was seen by many as the beginning of the promised acche din or good days. Mr. Modi, a man widely believed to be complicit in the killing of over 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, led a sharp, divisive attack against the Congress Party to lead his party to a historic win.

Yet, within the first few weeks since the elections, India’s commitment to democracy has already suffered some serious blows. 

The BJP is the political arm of the umbrella Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps or the RSS), and it espouses the ideology of Hindutva, as promulgated by RSS ideologue Savarkar. In his book, “Who is a Hindu?” Savarkar says a Hindu or an Indian is only one who regards the land spread from river Sindhu to the seas (India) as his both fatherland and holy land.Hindutva is, therefore, reverence for a common culture and common civilization. The patriotism of the non-Hindu, especially the Christian and the Muslim, therefore becomes suspect as their holy lands lie outside India. This skewed understanding of nationalism has called for and led to frequent attacks on Muslims and Christians.

The election of the BJP to the Center has only made these voices more shrill and the attacks more violent and frequent. The BJP has inducted several senior RSS leaders into its fold and has repeatedly thanked the “organizations” who helped it win the elections. And now it is a payback time.

The day after being appointed to office, Ms. Najma Heptullah, the sole “Muslim” leader in the cabinet of Mr. Modi, declared that Muslims could hardly be considered a minority, given the size of the population. 

In another instance, a young Muslim boy was killed in Pune by men from the Hindu Rashtra Sena (Army for Hindu Nation), with an ominous message circulated, saying “the first wicket [as in Cricket] has fallen.” A member of parliament belonging to the Shiv Sena, a BJP ally, was caught on camera forcibly feeding a young Muslim who was observing a fast for Ramadan. The northern state of Uttar Pradesh has been on the boil due to ongoing tensions between the so-called lowest “caste” Dalit Hindu and Muslim communities for several months. 

In the central state of Chhattisgarh, over 50 villages have banned the entry on “non-Hindu” preachers. Christian groups have also reported a sharp increase in attacks across the country. 

Senior leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), Ashok Singhal, has made several comments against the Muslim community, asking them to learn to respect Hindu sentiments. “If they keep opposing Hindus, how long can they survive?” 

The VHP has also declared it will target “love jihad” and religious conversions, to bring back Hindus who have converted to Islam or Christianity. Love jihad refers to an alleged activity under which young Muslim men target young non-Muslim girls for conversion to Islam by feigning love.

Media reports quote the coordinator of a social organization (Religious Awakening), an RSS affiliate, as saying, “In two-three years, the rural hinterland will be free of Christians.” Asked how he planned to convince people to become Hindus, he said: “It will be a test of who is stronger. Hindus or them. You just wait and watch.”

Moreover, many see the appointment of Mr. Y.S. Rao as the Chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) as an attempt to Hinduize India’s history even to the extent of justifying the caste system

In the western state of Gujarat, the State government has issued a circular to all 42,000 primary and secondary schools, prescribing compulsory reading of six of Dr. Dinanath Batra’s books. Dr. Batra, a longstanding RSS member, is better known as the author who was responsible for the pulping of American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book. True to form, his books advocate for the teaching of Sanskrit and akhand bharat or “undivided” India and argue that birthday cakes are against Indian culture. 

However, it not merely religious minorities that are wary of the new government. Civil society also has reasons to be cautious. An Intelligence Bureau report “leaked” to the media called for greater scrutiny on non-profit organizations working on the issues of development, advocacy, and religious freedom. Several members of the public have been arrested for making statements, circulating photographs, and comments against the Prime Minister. 

Yet, in spite of a rather tumultuous “honeymoon” period for the minorities, there are many who still refuse to see the writing on the wall. I wonder what else they wanted Mr. Modi to do? 

The man on the street may have voted for what he or she perceived as Modi’s agenda for chan
ge, in the hope for “better days” for us and our families. But dare we forget that a country cannot prosper while certain sections of the society are subjugated and marginalized? Surely history has taught us that.

Anamika Kumar is a human rights activist and has actively advocated for the rights of religious minorities in India for over 12 years. 

This piece was originally authored on August 14, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.