The 2014 general election was a watershed moment for post-colonial India since it brought to power a national government that combines Hindu supremacism, economic neoliberalism and social conservatism. Today that government threatens the very idea of India. This has partly been helped by the global scene of unfettered neoliberalism and Islamophobia, a propitious blend for the Hindutva forces who present themselves as the bulwark against problematic Muslims and as exemplary Asian capitalists.
Much blood and ink has gone into reconstructing the Sangh Parivar’s communal Hindutva discourse for post-liberalisation India between the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and the Dadri mob lynching in 2015. Somewhere between those horrors came the rise of Narendra Modi, largely owing to the Gujarat riots in which his government was at worst complicit and at best remiss. A recent Yale University political science study of riots in India suggests that Hindu-Muslim riots are electorally costly for the Congress, but riots in the year prior to an election result in an increased vote share for ethno-religious parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Indian politics has been radically reshaped by the twin interests of the proto-fascist paramilitaries and the corporate sector, threatening the secular and socialist aspects of Indian polity. The Sangh Parivar-backed Brand NaMo – a mix of hardcore Hindutva, business interests and facile development talk – was tested in Gujarat (a shining example of what Christophe Jaffrelot calls “a typical case of growth without development for all”) before it was unleashed on the nation in 2014 when the BJP ran the most expensive election campaign in the history of India ($115 million), but managed only a 31% vote share, the lowest of any party that ever won majority. Modi’s corporate backers gained $1.3 billion on the stock markets in the single day when he won the elections (as a hedge fund manager said: “We have a new CEO for the country and he is a good CEO”). Meanwhile, in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, the number of voters pressing the NOTA button on the voting machine was higher than the national average and especially high in tribal areas.
The portents were there before. Before the general elections, in August 2013, some students of the Film and Television Institute were beaten up by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (a right-wing national student organisation) outside the National Film Archives of India building in Pune after the screening of Jai Bhim Comrade (a film about Dalit oppression) and a performance by Kabir Kala Manch (an anti-caste pro-democracy cultural organisation formed after the 2002 Gujarat riots). Calling them Naxalites, the ABVP attackers demanded that the FTII students say “Jai Narendra Modi”. When they refused, they were beaten up. The FTII media release in response said:
“This incident would not be seen in isolation and we are increasingly witnessing that any individual or organisation that takes an opinion contrary to the mainstream, is labeled as anti-national, and all efforts are taken to intimidate them which can also amount to murder, especially looking at the recent case of Dr Narendra Dabolkar.”
Since coming to power, the BJP government has appointed (or attempted to appoint) people with Hindutva links to the FTII, a move resisted by the students who have protested, been on strike for a large part of 2015, and faced police crackdown. Such is the level of repression and paranoia that a few weeks ago, a student wearing an FTII shirt at the International Film Festival of India in Goa was “roughed up, hauled into custody, his wallet searched and his life turned upside down, his cell phone deconstructed, including his email account and picture galleries”.
Or take this case: Modi has consistently refused to wear the skullcap, a Muslim symbol, equating it to “appeasement” of minorities. When questioned about this during the 2014 campaigning, he said that “If a cap is a symbol of unity then why Mahatma Gandhi didn’t wear any“. Within a week of his ascension to power, Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh, a techie from Pune, was bludgeoned to death allegedly by members of the Hindu Rashtra Sena because he was wearing a skull cap and looked Muslim. Subsequently, many Muslims in Pune shunned wearing skull caps for fear of attacks. Despite several calls to do so, Prime Minister Modi never condemned the murder of this young Muslim man.
Appropriation of symbols
The BJP win in 2014 has given India a government where the prime minister and numerous others in it are proud to be lifelong members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an all-male majoritarian paramilitary organisation that purports to be an NGO carrying out voluntary social service with the explicit aim of making India a “pure Hindu nation”. In 2014, an RSS publication in Kerala, Kesari, had an article by B Gopalkrishnan (who contested on a BJP ticket in the Lok Sabha polls) suggesting that Godse should have killed Nehru instead of Gandhi.
The Modi government made sure that Gandhi’s birthday in 2014 was not a holiday but the launch of the Clean India campaign – as an aside, note that his zeal for clean-ups is such that within a month of becoming prime minister, Modi ordered the destruction of 1.5 lakh historical files in the Union home ministry – and an occasion for the state broadcaster Doordarshan to inaugurate a new tradition of telecasting live and in full the speech by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. Not long after, Christmas was renamed Good Governance Day in honour of BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee and deemed a working day for the government.
In places, the Vishva Hindu Parishad is opposed to Santa Claus giving children chocolates and has insisted that statues of the Hindu goddess of learning, Saraswati, be installed in Christian schools. The VHP also defended the demolition of a church in Haryana, saying it was the spontaneous reaction of local people, and added that rape of nuns was part of Christian culture.
Building on its success in creating a caste Hindu electorate, the Sangh Parivar is now focusing on courting Dalits and adivasis: by suggesting that Dalits were a creation of Muslim invasion and that Islamic atrocities resulted in the emergence of untouchability, and by Hinduising the tribals through educational institutions that teach them to see Muslims and Christians as enemies.
In the run-up to the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections, this theme is reflected in the suggestion by other Sangh outfits such as the Hindu Mahasabha which wants Gandhi’s image on Indian banknotes to be replaced with Veer Shivaji, Maharana Pratap and BR Ambedkar. An RSS functionary has said that Ambedkar, who had publicly burned the Manusmriti and converted to Buddhism, was an opponent of Hindu conduct but not Hindu philosophy. Such logic is in line with RSS statements that Buddha himself never quit Hinduism. The statements give the sense that Hindutva organisations are in a contest to spread the most vitriol: the Hindu Mahasaha (condemning the RSS as weak) openly celebrates MK Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse by commemorating the day of his death as Balidan Divas (Sacrifice Day) and the day of Gandhi’s killing as Shourya Divas (Bravery Day). In the same vein, the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena celebrate the day of Babri Masjid destruction as Shourya Divas.
How can anyone claim that saffron terrorism does not exist when BJP MP Yogi Adityanath has been filmed at a Hindu awareness rally in Uttar Pradesh where his follower refers to his leadership and exhorts Hindu men to exhume the bodies of Muslim women and rape them and still the MP remains an unapologetic part of the ruling party? This is a sitting member of parliament who has not been punished for his part in the proceedings (on the contrary consider this from BJP national secretary Shrikant Sharma: “There is no case to be apologetic about Hindutva. It is a way of life and not a religion”). And who takes the responsibility when such incidents subsequently happen – when a Muslim woman is actually exhumed from her grave? The Indian apologists for the current sociopolitical climate have not a shred of decency that can cover her corpse.
BJP MP Adityanath has also said that those opposed to Surya Namaskar have no right to live in India. This is the context that gives a better picture of the Modi government’s efforts to create International Yoga Day (speaking of health priorities, there is now a Ministry for Yoga, while mid-day meals for malnourished children are being cut, not to mention a mysteriously delayed health survey that shows 41.8% of children in Gujarat are stunted and 43.8% don’t have the all the vaccinations they need). The BJP chief minister in Madhya Pradesh has opposed adding eggs to the diet of school lunch programmes (in a state where more than half the children are malnourished and underweight), saying that “the human body is meant to consume vegetarian food which has everything the human body requires“. This denying of eggs to malnourished children is common in BJP-run states to enforce the ideological beliefs of the ruling party.
Attempts to politicise food have also seen RSS members write to the Union government, demanding that there be separate canteens for vegetarian students at professional institutes such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management – since “non-vegetarian food leaves an adverse impact…leads to development of Tamas (dark and unrighteous) nature”. The Human Resource and Development Ministry forwarded the letter to the institutes asking them to take “necessary” action.
There are other examples of an anti-scientific outlook. A BJP Union Minister has suggested that to prevent AIDS Indian morals are better than condoms. Another BJP MP claimed in Parliament that Sage Kanad had conducted a nuclear test in the 2nd century BC (following the example perhaps of Modi, who has linked plastic surgery and genetic science with Hindu god Ganesha).
A BJP leader and Haryana state agriculture minister has said that farmers who commit suicide as a result of hardship are cowards and criminals not worthy of help from the government. Another BJP MP said that Gandhi’s killer Godse was a patriot (later retracting the statement), that “Hindu woman must produce at least four children in order to protect Hindu religion” and that “the concept of four wives and 40 children will not work in India”. Such attitudes towards women are widely held by Hindutva ideologues (including women), for after all, Mohan Bhagwat, the head of their ideological parent organisation RSS, has clearly said that women should do household chores and men should be the breadwinners, and that rapes do not happen in Bharat (rural areas), they happen in India (which is an urban westernised entity). The BJP home minister in Madhya Pradesh has said that rape is a social crime, “sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong”. The governor of Nagaland and Assam, a BJP politician, has said that all non-Muslim immigrants should be given Indian citizenship with voting rights while those from the Muslim religion can “slog and stay” in the country.
The majority’s goodwill
The Hindutva organisations have a self-appointed custodianship of Hinduism which they are enforcing on the body politic, seeking that all Indians identify as culturally Hindu first and foremost (regardless of their religion). This obviously entails that everyone accept their superior identity as Hindu, within a hierarchically ordered Hindu-ness with upper caste affluent Hindus at the peak. The organisations seek to transform Indian democracy so that people do not derive their rights and their access to justice as equal free individuals in a constitutionally guaranteed relation with the state, but from being pliant to majoritarian norms (as RSS/BJP’s Ram Madhav said on the Al Jazeera show where I was a panellist: minorities should earn the goodwill of the majority for their safety). Those who challenge the diktats that follow from a Hindutva notion of identity are labelled anti-national, Pakistani or Western agents. Depending upon the context and the vulnerability of the challengers, they can be killed, raped, physically attacked, maligned, harassed, bullied, or divested of any institutional or other power they may have.
Modi’s India has seen an unprecedented turning up of the volume of violence, intolerance and intimidation against those seen as the ‘Other’ by the majoritarian Hindu nationalists. Far from being accidental, this narrowing of the space of dissent in a democracy has been systematically enabled by a government that is closely aligned to the RSS and various Sangh Parivar affiliates and consciously chooses to ignore, downplay or condone the attacks against the person, property, beliefs and symbolism of those who are marginalised.
The regulatory norms of the Hindu body politic are focused both on identifying the Hindu self and guarding it against the enemy Other. There must be promotion of Hindutva values and a cleansing of cultural pollution. Thus, notwithstanding the principles of a liberal democracy or a secular nation, Hindus must take offence at the consumption of beef (which accounts for nearly 70% of protein intake of the poor in a country that is the world’s top exporter of beef), at live-ins, at gay rights, at certain freedom-affording behaviours of women and so on. They must avenge their “honour” in word and deed when Hindu women marry Muslim men (in addition to combating such “Love Jihad” by all means – including VHP/Bajrang Dal campaigns such as Bahu Lao-Beti Bachao – Hindu women must also have as many children as possible to counter the “overpopulating Muslim”); when anyone is suspected of being involved in cattle trade or beef consumption (as an RSS spokesperson said: “killing or smuggling a cow is equivalent to raping a Hindu girl”); when there is “appeasement” of Muslims, Christians, or other minorities; when Dalit bahujan rights challenge savarna hierarchies.
In order to carry out this agenda successfully, they must be helped by institutions pliable to their aims and instruments to actuate their threat of force against non-compliance. Hence, the heads of organisations are replaced by (often under-qualified) sycophants; textbooks are sought to be censored and rewritten (‘saffronisation of education’); writers and scholars are intimidated or killed or worse; and camps are organised to provide weapons training to the youth of both genders.
In addition, there have been problematic political moves such as bans on various activities; policy-making through the use of ordinances; central directive to clear forest land permission for Adani’s power project in Maharashtra; reinstatement of a suspended accused IPS officer in the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case by the Gujarat BJP government, reinstatement of another IPS officer accused in the Sohrabbudin Sheikh fake encounter case by the Rajasthan BJP government; successful recommendation to the Supreme Court of lawyer Uday Lalit (who represented Amit Shah in criminal cases) after the rejection of Gopal Subramaniam (who had assisted the government in the Sohrabbudin Sheikh case); considering P Sathasivam for appointment – contested by lawyers since he isn’t just the former Chief Justice of India but also a BJP appointed Governor of Kerala – as chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission; the passing of a bill to change the law and allow the appointment of former head of a regulatory body (Nripendra Mishra, retired telecom regulator) to the Prime Minister’s Office as Principal Secretary after retirement.
The Great Leader
Independent scrutiny of these policies is increasingly minimised. For instance, restricting the functioning of civil society organisations is a big plus, and so, 10,000-plus NGOs have recently had their licences cancelled or limited in scope (including a crackdown on some well-known ones such as Amnesty, Ford Foundation, Greenpeace and others); while RSS-linked NGOs can claim at government-backed seminar that LGBT orientation is a psychological disorder caused by Western/American lifestyle and can be cured by alternative medicine. Community radio stations are being disciplined. India now tops the Facebook content restriction request list. Moreover, journalists who question the right-wing agenda are labelled presstitutes (in itself a telling phrase in its gendered and sexual connotations) and, along with those in the wider public who raise questions, called “pseudo-sickular”.
Perhaps to address this comprehensively, the Modi government plans to spend Rs 200 crore to establish a journalism university based on the Chinese model (institutes that are an arm of the state where journalists can be trained – into propaganda machines). If all this fails, there is an army of virtual devotees, the Modi bhakts, who take it upon themselves to combat opposition by resorting to insult, innuendo or worse.
Contrary to the assertions of the Hindutva brigade, the atmosphere of violence, intimidation and narrowing of dissent is not a mere figment of the imagination. Rights activists have documented at least 43 deaths in over 600 incidents of communal violence in the first 300 days of Modi government, 149 targeting Christians and the rest Muslims. Recently, the former Navy chief Admiral L Ramdas wrote an open letter to the prime minister and the president reminding them of the oath to uphold the Constitution and saying that he felt shame at the RSS’ attempts to create a monocultural Hindu rashtra in India. The Hindutva response to such voices of conscience is whataboutery (ignoring conveniently that what we are witnessing now is not just violence, but a consistent and cohesive multi-spectrum attempt to enforce a fascist Hindutva agenda where the BJP government and the RSS have revolving doors) or the argument that this happens elsewhere too (Saudi Arabia is their favourite example).
The Hindutva ascendancy over the recent years will create a terribly toxic legacy for the future of India with a generation of young people inculcated in hate towards fellow citizens. New authoritarian traditions are being created, such as one where students are forced to listen to the prime minister’s speech on Teachers’ Day every year. A recent survey of 10,000 high school and college students from 11 cities all over India found that half would prefer military rule over democracy, 65% agree that boys and girls from different religions should not mingle, over half believed that women “provoke” men by how they dress, close to half believe that women have no choice but to accept violence and that migrants should go back home. One student is quoted as saying that the country needs an authoritative leader.
There is a Great Leader now. A leader who wears clothes emblazoned with his own name in gold, who jets around the world to spread his message but does not have 15 minutes in Bhopal to meet with the NGOs seeking justice for the biggest industrial gas leak disaster in his country. A leader with followers who are so enamoured of him that they make a temple to him where devotees recite Modi Chalisa. They make picture books of him as a child – Bal Narendra – that present him as a valiant hero in the making who can do no wrong. The chief of the national censor board makes a hagiographic video of him, while government-appointed head of the national cultural diplomacy organisation repeatedly says that the Leader is an incarnation of God.
Though there is an active resistance on several fronts, there are still many in India who are, for the moment it seems, willing to overlook everything around them – including the postcolonial state capture by fascist crony capitalism – in the name of building a powerful Hindu India serving elite class and caste interests while oppressing the religious minorities, secularists and critics.