It is a measure of contemporary, radicalising India that Raghvendra Vikram Singh, a senior Uttar Pradesh bureaucrat, felt intimidated enough by a flood of abuse to take down a Facebook post he had written on a worrying trend he had observed.
“Ajab rivaz ban gaya hai [A strange custom has taken hold],” wrote Singh, an officer of the elite Indian Adminstrative Service and the district magistrate of Bareilly, in western Uttar Pradesh. “Muslim mohallo me jabardasti julus le jao aur Pakistan murdabad ke nare lagao. Kyon bhai, ve Pakistani hain kya? [Take a procession by force into a Muslim neighbourhood and shout anti-Pakistan slogans. Why, are they Pakistani?]”
Singh was referring to a riot in the Uttar Pradesh town of Kasganj, where radicalised Hindu youth on motorcycles insisted on disrupting a Republic Day celebration in a Muslim neighbourhood at a square named after Abdul Hamid, a war hero. Among the slogans that were shouted that day were: “Is desh mein rehna hoga to vande matram kehna hoga [If you want to stay in this country, you will have to say Vande Mataram],” and “Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan. Katve bhago Pakistan [Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan. Cut guys (a derogatory reference to Muslims) run to Pakistan].”
But the trend Singh pointed to – the deputy chief minister said the officer was talking like a politician – is now common, as formerly fringe but now mainstream Hindu groups make public their antipathy to most minorities, especially Muslims. This empowerment of the Hindu fringe and the growing radicalisation of Hindus has been led from the top by an unceasing string of bellicose statements from state and central ministers, other elected and unelected representatives and, indeed, the prime minister himself. As eight states go the polls this year, and India prepares for general elections in 2019, that rhetoric is being amped up. The goal is clear: to build a Hindu vote bank larger than the 31% of voters who chose Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party and their allies in 2014.
Although Modi has led a reasonably competent government that consolidated economic gain and pushed significant reform, there are two complicating factors. One, with the mandate he received, Modi could have done more; he did not and his great failure – compounded by the disaster of demonetisation and shoddy implementation of the Goods and Services Tax – has been the economy’s failure to generate jobs for the million Indians who seek them every month. Two, his narrative of growth is consequently in danger of coming unstuck, which is why the moderately successful sales pitch of development is proving substantially more successful as the art of distraction, practiced with determination and skill by Modi’s supporters.
A deadly distraction
It appears Hindu India embraces no distraction as eagerly as it does incitement against its Muslim minority. Cow-related violence and killings reached a peak in 2017, with eight in 10 people killed by lynch mobs since 2014 being Muslim as the IndiaSpend hate-crime database reveals. These killings are no longer headline news, and if they are debated on some of India’s radicalised television channels, blame is often ascribed to the victims.
“It is frightening and tragic that lynching and killing of Muslims is today being discussed on media as part of a reasoned debate,” said a statement from a citizen’s group in Delhi that protested the lynching of Muslims last month. “Muslims are being stripped of their rights as citizens of India to life, dignity, equality and the freedom of religion and belief. As citizens of India it is time we stood up for the rights of our fellow citizens and said in one voice – I am Muslim, I am India.”
On every issue – whether triple talaq or a riot – Muslims must somehow provide proof of patriotism. In the eyes of India’s emerging nationalism, the only way to automatically be Indian is to be a Hindu, unless you express opposition to Modi or the BJP, in which case you must be a Muslim- or Pakistani-loving traitor.
Hindus who hate and demonise Muslims – and Dalits and Christians to a lesser extent – have found new confidence and courage among the baying mobs on social media. Those mobs include politicians, bureaucrats, soldiers and journalists, formerly pillars of moderation. Caution and circumspection are thrown to the winds, as right-wing editors and professors feel emboldened to circulate fake news and rouse the crudest of passions in Hindus. Every day brings a new low and reveals a growing willingness to fan new flames. Listen to this 2014 election video, which gained new life in Kasganj and now tops 4.4. million views. “Har ghar pe bhagva chayyega [Every house will fly the saffron flag],” it says.
On mobile phones, on television news, in movies and in everyday conversation, the radicalisation of Hindus gains momentum. Implicit and explicit is that radicalisation is to seek the submission of Muslims. “Topi wala bhi saar jhuka ke jai shree Ram bolega [Topi wallahs (or Muslims) will also say jai shree Ram],” says another video circulating in Kasganj:
Things have worsened so much that, like Singh of Bareilly, normally reticent folk feel they must speak up. “It appears as if there is a growing climate of intolerance that is aimed primarily at Muslims,” said an open letter from 65 former bureaucrats to their serving colleagues, judges and politicians. “In the face of a rising authoritarianism and majoritarianism, which do not allow for reasoned debate, discussion and dissent, we appeal to all public authorities, public institutions and constitutional bodies to take heed of these disturbing trends and take corrective action. We have to reclaim and defend the spirit of the Constitution of India, as envisaged by the founding fathers.”
It does appear that India is at the threshold or an inflexion point in defending its minorities, founding ideals and its democracy. It is a defence that is weakening. During every new battle against Hindu radicalism, ground is ceded, a concession is made, retreat is sounded. The appeasement of Hindus is India’s new political creed.
In another time, the movie Padmavaat – the target of violent ire by some Rajput groups for reasons that make no sense to a sane person – may have been pilloried for anti-Muslim bigotry. Before unleashing savagery, for instance, the snarling, sinister meat-eating Muslim sultan always chants “bismillah”, giving life to the stereotype that radicalised Hindus enthusiastically propagate about Muslims being violent zealots. Instead, as the Karni Senas and other fanatic Hindus ran riot, silently urged on or strategically ignored by BJP state governments and politicians, Muslims were too cowed to protest about Padmavaat. Even the Congress, that traditional mouthpiece of Indian secularism – but to afraid to say it any longer – stayed mostly silent. Other right-thinking Indians were too involved in the fight for the right to free expression to realise that the movie actually eulogises Rajputs and demonises Muslims.
Wilful ignorance is a weapon deployed with great success by radicalised Hindus and their political patrons, who refuse to accept facts that do not fit in their meticulously constructed jigsaw of hate. They now refuse to accept that Muslims should be neighbours, that there are millions of patriotic Muslims like war hero Hamid, that Islam has been a part of India’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural tradition and society for centuries, and that there were and are millions like the Urdu poet Seemab Akbarabadi who enriched those traditions of belonging:
“With his refreshing and soothing flute,
Krishna sings his songs of love,
Sometimes he does it
in the vein of a prophet,
And sometimes as a wandering milkman
Promoting love in human hearts;
He made the land of India
reverberate with his melodies, as composed in the Gita.”
There is yet hope because many Hindus still embrace India’s shared history and destiny. But many more need to emphasise what Singh said in Bareilly, soon after he was forced to take down his post about those angry Hindu mobs. The defiant IAS officer put up another post, echoing beliefs that are – hopefully – still widely held. “Muslims are our brothers,” he wrote. “Our blood, our DNA.”