If you read or heard it without context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments at an election rally on Sunday would seem unobjectionable. Hindus and Muslims should be treated the same, Modi said. If cemeteries are being built, crematoriums should be set up too. There should be no discrimination. What could possibly be wrong with that?

But political dog-whistles are meaningless without context. They are often meant to sound straightforward and untoward, while sending a message to a specific constituency. In light of that, it is important to understand just what Modi was doing with his qabristan-shamshaan comments.

What did Modi say?

“Gaon me qabristan banta hai to shamshaan bhi bananaa chahiye. Ramzan me bijli aati hai to Diwali me bhi aani chahiye. Agar Holi mein bijli milti hai, to Eid par bhi bijli milni chahiye. Bhedbhav nahi hona chahiye.” (If a graveyard is made in a village, it should also have a cremation ground; if a village gets electricity during Ramzan, it should also get the same during Diwali. If there is electricity during Holi, there should be electricity during Eid too. There should be no discrimination.)

A bare reading would make that comment hard to object to. Who could be in favour of discrimination? And indeed, if it were Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati saying the same thing, except regarding Dalits and caste Hindus, it would not seem problematic. Even a Congress leader reversing the dog-whistle, talking about giving Muslims the same rights as Hindus, would earn less flak than Modi’s comments.


What is wrong with the comments?

If this would be okay coming from another politician, is it just proof that what is “secular” for liberals becomes “communal” if it attributed to the Bharatiya Janata Party?

Look at the central narrative that Modi’s demand for no discrimination is reinforcing. If Mayawati asked for the same for Dalits, it would be based on inarguable proof that scheduled castes have been oppressed and discriminated against for centuries. When a politician demands equality for Muslims, this is built on evidence most comprehensively laid out in the Sachar committee report that India’s largest minority is still at a massive disadvantage, even 60 years after independence.

Portraying the Hindu population as the victim, however, simply taps into a right-wing majoritarian narrative that has little evidence to back it up. According to this storyline, successive governments in the state have privileged minorities over the Hindu majority, giving Muslims all the jobs, development and protection when law and order breaks down.

How does this narrative work?

A common manifestation of this trope is the belief that the ruling Samajwadi Party’s laptop scheme only benefited Muslims, a BJP charge that has little evidence. Similarly, the BJP and broader Sangh Parivar’s love jihad campaign attempted to spread the falsehood that Muslim men are being permitted to ensnare vulnerable Hindu women with impunity.

In this case Modi specifically mentions graveyards and crematoriums, Ramzan and Diwali, Holi and Eid, setting the narrative up as a clear Hindu-Muslim divide. The suggestion is that Muslims run the show in the state and that Modi and the BJP will end this discrimination. But Uttar Pradesh is not colonial-era Sri Lanka, for example, where the minority Tamil population had disproportionate access to education, jobs and government posts over the Sinhalese majority.

There is no doubt that discrimination against Hindus does occur in Uttar Pradesh, and at a large-scale. But this is, by and large, intra-Hindu discrimination, most often on the basis of caste.

While the BJP does bring up caste concerns – as Modi himself did in the same speech – its larger project is an attempt to consolidate Hindus across castes and classes, ideally in opposition to the Muslims. Since Hindus constitute nearly 80% of the state compared to just under 20% for Muslims according to the most recent census, any electoral plotline that manages to unite a majority of Hindus would be a winning prospect for the BJP and Modi.

Is there any basis to the comments?

Modi is aided by the fact that his comments don’t come out of the blue. The Samajwadi Party in particular has been charged with favouring Yadavs, the community from which its top leadership hails, and Muslims.

The mention of the electricity taps into a general impression, for example, that the Samajwadi Party ensures electricity to Muslim households during its tenure, at the cost of Hindu neighbourhoods. The charge was in fact troubling enough that the Uttar Pradesh government felt the need to release data on Monday, pointing out that 24x7 electricity was provided to religious sites of all religions and that more electricity was provided on Diwali than on Eid.

The impression nevertheless exists, and has proved to be true in the past for the Samajwadi Party, except for two things:

  • It is not a Hindu vs Muslim narrative, as the BJP would like it to be, but one of specific communities. Yadavs, a prominent Hindu community, are alleged to get even more preference under SP rule than even Muslims.
  • That charge has been less effective after UP Chief MInister Akhiliesh Yadav’s remarkable image makeover in the state over the last year. Akhilesh’s public spat with his father, former UP Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, was used an opportunity to sell the idea that the son’s vision of the party is of development for all rather than just the Muslim-Yadav combine that was once the SP’s stronghold.

Why is Modi saying it? (And why is it especially problematic coming from him?)

Add more context, and the statement gets even more problematic.

Modi has used this sort of dog whistle over and over again over his political career, not appearing to say something untoward, while actually sending a message to his right-wing Hindutva base, as he did in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Those familiar with American politics might liken this to the use of “All Lives Matter” as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s an attempt to blunt genuine pushes against oppression under the garb of equality.

Coming from a political leader with less of track record in indulging the Hindu Right, this statement might seem much more innocuous. When Modi says it, however, the comments have to be judged against his past record on this front. Add still the fact that, despite 20% of Uttar Pradesh’s population being Muslim, the BJP doesn’t have a single candidate from that community.

Moreover, being prime minister assures propagation of your remarks, which means Modi has wilfully chosen to add to the dangerous narrative that Hindus are under siege and discriminated against, despite being the majority.

The timing of the remarks, meanwhile, might have more to do with electoral trends within UP. India’s largest state is getting into the middle phases of polling, in the eastern sections of the states, where there is less communal polarisation and relatively less support for the BJP.

It was about mid-way through the Bihar elections in 2015 that Modi’s BJP decided to go big on similar Hindu-focused tacks, passing its opponents off as cow-stealers and insisting that crackers would be burst in Pakistan if the BJP lost. In an election without a clear wave or one strong emotive issue, Modi might be hoping to create one that could consolidate what might otherwise be a fragmented electorate. The Bihar attempt ended in abject failure and has retroactively been seen as a sign that the BJP knew it was flailing and attempted this as a last-ditch approach. Will the same be said for the BJP in UP? We will only find out when results are announced on March 11.