When I heard Arvind Limbavali speak, he struck me as a reasonable man, an engineer closely associated with non-partisan issues of urban transformation in my benighted metropolis, Bengaluru. The twitter feed of the former Karnataka health minister and sitting legislator is populated with his involvement in bike-sharing initiatives, Anganwadis, lakes and roads. In the state Assembly, the Bharatiya Janata Party politician speaks mainly on garbage, electricity and education, according to an evaluation by Citizen Matters, an independent media platform.
From all accounts, the usually genial Limbavali is a sane, sensible politician. But these are times when sense and sanity are easily sacrificed at the altar of paranoia and delusion.
On March 1, Limbavali put out this uncharacteristic tweet:
A sampling of WhatsApp groups, primarily from Hindu families, and school, college and community groups, reveals a similar sentiment: get the traitors. These traitors include the media, opposition parties, Muslims, especially Kashmiri Muslims, and other minorities.
These are views that find greater resonance in politics and larger swathes of Hindu society than ever before. Some of these views can be ascribed to delusion, some to design. These views are radicalising Hindu society at an ever-increasing pace, and, if unchecked and not confronted, they threaten India’s unity, diversity and its ability to survive as a multicultural and multi-religious nation.
This week, the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said India’s economic growth could be weakened by its “divisive politics”, as she spoke of a larger, growing intolerance. “We are receiving reports that indicate increasing harassment and targeting of minorities – in particular Muslims and people from historically disadvantaged and marginalised groups, such as Dalits and Adivasis,” said Bachelet, former president of Chile, in an annual report.
At the heart of this divisiveness is a politically supported majoritarianism that protects violent Hindu groups, among whom a culture of impunity has flourished. The Hindu radicalisation project has hastened under the veneer of nationalism, which is now used as a dog whistle to attack minorities and anyone who questions the government and the ruling party.
The delusionary aspect of Hindu radicalisation has been evident for some time: that invaders ruined Hindu society, and it is somehow payback time; that Hindus – who have privileged access to education, public and private jobs and justice – are discriminated against in India; that minorities, particularly Muslims – among India’s poorest and most marginalised communities – have been appeased for decades. But these were mostly fringe beliefs, laughed at or not discussed openly when Narendra Modi came to power.
Today, almost everyone I know reports that these mass delusions are common among family, colleagues and friends. The delusions pervade conversations and WhatsApp groups. My family is no exception, and a media group I belong to recently revealed itself to have delusionary, radicalised individuals.
Singing the same tune
Radicalised Hindus follow a common line of argument.
First, they insist the country is doing better than it has in “70 years”. Second, present facts that prove otherwise and they say they don’t read the media any more because they don’t believe it. Third, you point to the worst aspect of the Modi era, which is the growing attacks against minorities and, worse, the open acceptance of a “keeping them in their place” philosophy involving Nazi Germany tactics – as the Meghalaya governor suggested for Kashmiri Muslims. This is when the mask falls and the bigotry beneath shines forth. They might say, what about our subjugation by invaders for 800 years, or, as a friend declared recently, “What about the intolerance Muslims and Christians displayed for 70 years?”
Many of these thoughts, by design, have been created and weaponised by the Sangh Parivar, which now has a nationwide network of “IT cells” – jargon for paid and unpaid online trolls and once-fringe-now-mainstream groups. These groups inhabit a WhatsApp universe that allows for swift mobilisation and deep radicalisation. They promote “Hindu” concerns such as an imaginary “love jihad” conspiracy, cow protection, and accuse minorities, the media – the few independent outfits left – and sundry “anti-nationals” of being in the pay of Pakistan.
Most of the evidence for these accusations is either exaggerated, manipulated or plain fake news, which is, by design, promoted by ruling party politicians, including the prime minister, who is often criticised for saying or doing too little, too late or not saying or doing anything at all. The narrative could be different if the media did their job, but most of India’s mainstream media – including yesterday’s beacons of journalism – have either been terrorised into silence or they have given in to protect advertising or business interests. Simultaneously, the rise of nationalism has led to much manufactured fervour by primetime television anchors, jingoistic films, songs and slogans, many of these glorifying Hinduism or running down minorities.
In such conditions, in a country reported to have more fake news than anywhere in the world, it is relatively easy to snuff out the lights of truth, hope and sanity and embrace the darkness. In this gloom, delusion and design merge easily, and it takes only a trigger for an explosion of public hate and rage, of the kind India is now witnessing.
Yet, the darkness can be dispelled, the tide of hate can be stanched. This requires Indians – Hindus more than anyone else – to resist. In the series of videos in which Kashmiri students and traders were hectored and attacked across North India after the Pulwama attack, the most depressing and ominous aspect was the inaction of onlookers. An exception came this week, when a passerby intervened, as a Kashmiri dry fruit seller – his wares spread on a small cloth on a Lucknow street – was being attacked by saffron-clad assailants for being Kashmiri.
Is there hope yet?
Though growing numbers of Hindus have succumbed, I would like to believe the majority reject and refute such bigotry and violence. I would like to believe there are hundreds of millions who stand for the Constitution and the founding ideals of India. I would like to believe – against current evidence – that there is hope.
When Limbavali talked about identifying “internal enemies”, a local civic group that has worked closely with him, Whitefield Rising, responded forcefully. “As our elected representative, we are extremely disappointed at this open threat you have issued to citizens,” they said in a tweet. “Pray tell us, what are the contributing factors that will make one a #gaddar? Is it asking questions? Asking for evidence? Could you please clarify.”
The legislator did not back off because he knew many of his constituents would have no problem with such a witch-hunt, and he knew his party approves. But Whitefield Rising did not back off.
“So let the police, RAW and the Army do their job,” argued Whitefield Rising. “They are experts in this field. AND they have been doing this for a long time. Have they asked for making a list? Why are you calling for a #GaddarList?”
They were soon joined by other local people. “As elected representative, you know difference [between] prosecution & persecution? Open calls like yours on twitter only instigate mobs leading to latter,” said one. Another added, “Your choice of words are [sic] poor and distasteful.”
India’s future as a secular, sane nation may depend on such voices – many millions of them.
Samar Halarnkar is the editor of IndiaSpend, a data-driven, public interest journalism non-profit.