In balmy Goa, from June 14 to June 17, 150 Hindu organisations (I did not know there were that many, but this is what they claim) will meet to discuss how their common goal can be achieved – the creation of a Hindu rashtra, a Hindu nation, by 2023. That is six years away.

At the turn of this decade, such ideas attracted derision. Although 79.8% of India is Hindu, the country never seriously considered declaring itself a Hindu nation. If this is now a possibility, it would imply that the majority of Hindus is considering the idea. It is hard to say if this is the case, but it is equally hard to say it is not.

There is little doubt that what were once considered nutty, fringe organisations – and fringe, extreme beliefs – have gone mainstream. This did not begin with Narendra Modi’s ascent to power in 2014. The empowerment of popular hate began, I wrote last year, after the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. Instead of taking a stand, the Congress often pandered to emerging prejudice – soft Hindutva, as some call it – allowing it to become a part of Indian majoritarian thinking. A sharp acceleration is evident since Modi became prime minister three years ago. The most proximate evidence is from Uttar Pradesh, which appears to have gone even more extreme with the installation of Adityanath – an unabashed Hindu supremacist with a police record for stirring up violence against Muslims – as chief minister in March.

“The recent election of Adityanath, who is a strong proponent of Hindu rashtra, with a brute majority shows that people want a Hindu rashtra in India,” Uday Dhuri, spokesperson of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, told the Hindustan Times ahead of the Goa conclave. The Samiti’s agenda, available on its website, is a good example of the priorities of a Hindu rashtra, should it emerge.

Some issues: how to create an “awakening” of dharma (duty), which includes lessons on how to worship, dress, comb one’s hair “as per Hindu culture” and the “futility of Bharatiya democracy”; how to counter “love jihad”, the notion that Muslim men want to marry and convert Hindu women as part of a conspiracy to Islamise India; conversions by Christians and other acts by “anti-Hindu sects”; how to defend yourself – “trainers” are available – with sticks, catapults, nanchakus (to mention anything deadlier may invite unwanted attention, but members of the Samiti’s sister organisation, the shadowy Sanatan Sanstha, have dabbled with improvised explosive devices, and on which the Maharashtra government, in 2016, sought a ban); how to oppose “symbols of slavery”, from trying to stop Valentine’s Day to changing the names of some cities, such as Aurangabad and Osmanabad; how to protect temples; and of course, cows.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. (Credit: Press Information Bureau)

Greater acceptability

None of this is exceptional, and it is no longer easy to laugh off such beliefs as fringe fantasies. It is remarkable how many in India’s political and administrative mainstream now appear to concur with the nuttiest ideas. As I write this, Justice Sivasankara Rao of the Hyderabad High Court declared that cows were “substitutes to mother and God”. Last week, his learned colleague, Justice Mahesh Chandra Sharma of the Rajasthan High Court, in the course of suggesting that the government declare the cow India’s national animal, said that the cow’s bellow destroys germs, its dung destroys cholera germs and its horns acquire cosmic energy – and later expounded on the celibacy of peacocks. “No crime is more heinous than cow slaughter,” said Sharma, ignoring, like most Hindu apologists, the barbaric lynchings by Hindu mobs. Also, last week, a Rajasthan minister spoke of the “miraculous medicinal properties” of cow dung, milk and urine.

These seemingly bizarre thoughts mask darker, more widespread feelings, many of which are held closely by Hindus in the so-called mainstream. There is no evidence to back this, but there seems to be a greater acceptability than ever to the idea among many friends, fellow Hindus, who otherwise show no evidence of bigotry but whose minds appear ready to be moulded. As I heard a character in a Broadway show (it was the Wizard of Oz, actually, explaining his hold over the good people of the Emerald city) say recently: People believe the lies they want to believe.

Conversations that begin with the latest extreme view propounded by a minister, judge or official – another example from last week, the Uttar Pradesh police chief’s order to invoke the National Security Act, reserved for terrorists, against those who slaughter or traffic cows – somehow find their way to this question: But tell me, what is wrong with a Hindu rashtra? Are we not a nation of Hindus after all?

When I point out the vile, disturbing events that accompany the building of the Hindu rashtra, the killing of Muslims and Dalits suspected of transporting or eating cattle, this is the somewhat befuddling response: I do not watch the news. But they do watch the news. They read tweets, Facebook posts and WhatsApp forwards – many hateful and fake – believing what they want, discarding pieces that do not fit with the puzzle of the Hindu nation taking shape in their minds.

No laughing matter

The next time someone stays silent as the jokes fly about celibate peacocks and divine cows, you will know what they might be thinking. To be sure, there is no way of knowing if the majority of Indians actually supports a Hindu rashtra. Modi was voted in because voters wanted change, and they believed in his message of change. How many are now disillusioned? How many, along the way, are prepared to exchange dwindling economic expectations for a perceived Hindu religious revival? How many will settle for a temple at Ayodhya and the declaration of India as a Hindu nation? We do not truly know, and we will not know until the next general elections in 2019.

During the era of racial segregation in the United States, when the white majority refused to see what was happening to the black minority, Martin Luther King Jr said: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” This much we know – the silence among India’s good people is growing.