After a long, harrowing drought, you wait with aching, desperate hope for the monsoon rains. You expect it will quench your parched arid fields, it will heal your land, feed your starving cattle, your skinny children, and restore them all to life. But when its time comes, you stare at the sky and find that there are no rain clouds, only a pitiless burning sun. You slowly realise with foreboding that there will be no life-giving rain, that you need to brace and fortify yourself, to endure an even longer, more savage summer, and a merciless drought.
This is how I felt when in numb disbelief I watched the television screens as excited anchors announced the results of the general elections on May 23. My initial disbelief gave way to a sombre realisation that nothing is going to change for the better: it will instead get much worse. There will be no escape from the scorching sun, no oasis, no shade, no pools of cool water.
A much larger number of voters than even in the watershed 2014 elections have placed the country’s destiny in the hands of Narendra Modi. There could be many reasons that led voters to choose Modi, and the party which he so energetically led. The uninspiring opposition – fragmented, divided, and above all lacking in the courage of their convictions – may have pushed many voters into the arms of the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party, which by contrast displayed coherence, decisiveness, a clear and consistent ideology, and an appetite for power.
A massive and expensive public relations campaign, backed by big corporate money further helped pave the way for Modi’s stunning success. But the intensely shrill and divisive midsummer election campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party should leave little doubt that the verdict of 2019 will be interpreted by the leadership of the BJP, and indeed its ideological lodestar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, as an overwhelming mandate for the triumph of the politics of hate and fear. They will believe that the people of India have opted unambiguously for a political and social order which condemns the country’s religious minorities – Muslims and Christians – and disadvantaged castes to a life of settled second-class citizenship; and one which regards progressive thought and resistance as treason.
I therefore write this open letter to my Indian Muslim brothers and sisters, to my Christian and Dalit brothers and sisters; to my left and liberal comrades – human rights and peace workers, thinkers, writers, artists. And also to those Modi voters who do not endorse ideologies of hate, and only sought a “strong” and cohesive “nationalist” government.
I am anguished by those among us who indeed voted for hate and fear, or those who are indifferent to what hate speech, lynching and majoritarian rhetoric have done to pulverise so many of our countrywomen and men. I regret that all efforts in civil society to resist and fight the rise and rise of majoritarian politics, and to build a kind and just society, have not prevailed.
These profound breakdowns are the outcome both of clamorous majoritarian aggression and the fanning of prejudice of the BJP-RSS combine, and of the abject failure of the entire range of opposition parties to come together, to stand tall and firm against the divisive and dangerous politics of hate. I am in horror and dread about what future lies ahead for us in the next five years, and beyond. But I assure you that we will not let hope die. We will only redouble our resolve to resist, with solidarity and struggle.
India clearly has travelled a very long way from the country of Mahatma Gandhi at the time of India’s freedom. Despite the bloody creation of a Muslim Pakistan and the death of a million people in Hindu-Muslim riots, we the people of India opted in our Constitution for a secular, inclusive and humane democracy, in which religion and caste were irrelevant to one’s equal citizenship. It would be a country that belonged as much to its Muslim, Christian and Dalit citizens as it did to its upper-caste Hindu people.
Today upper-caste Hindus continue to dominate politics, the economy, the media, the judiciary, academia, and yet they have been persuaded by the BJP and the RSS that they are discriminated against and short-changed, making growing numbers among them resentful, angry and perennially aggrieved. As a result, the country stands bitterly divided down the middle. Muslims and Christians are now firmly on the other side – the underclass, the outsider, the other, the lesser citizen.
Until 2014, I held fast to my belief that India would never become a majoritarian Hindu state, because the majority of Indians, Hindu as much as Muslim, would pursue their own faith but never support a politics of hate against each other. My belief was badly shaken in 2014, but I was still prepared to believe that many of Modi’s supporters were simply aspirational, and harboured no ill-will against Muslims.
However, as the years of Modi’s first term as India’s prime minister unfolded, my foreboding mounted. Most of all I was troubled by the India that I saw in our travels of the Karwan e Mohabbat. We have made 28 wrenching journeys to 14 states, visiting families in distant villages and towns who have lost loved ones to lynch mobs and hate violence. I saw everywhere that we travelled, evidence of extreme and normalised communal hate.
Not just would men be lynched: families would be returned the bodies of their loved ones badly mangled and mutilated, their ears cut off, their eyes gouged out, their genitals stoned. These video-taped lynchings would play out by crowds of attackers, instigators and onlookers, which often included teenagers, and even women, armed with rods, sticks, daggers, sometimes even screw-drivers to torment the victims until they died.
I found nowhere remorse or compassion in local communities, and was intensely troubled by the question why this was so. The ruling establishment legitimised, normalised, even valorised hate violence, and the opposition parties chose with utter moral bankruptcy to stay silent, and to look away. The many political parties which trace their legacy to Mahatma Gandhi – the Congress and socialists –forgot his example of walking courageously to sites of fevered communal violence to share the pain of the victims, to douse the fires of hate, to heal and restore trust and peace.
This was a New India I did not know, one fevered with hate, bereft of empathy, empty of kindness.
Soul of New India
Therefore, I awaited the 2019 election results with intense trepidation. For me, it was not only competing political parties who were on test – all unworthy in many ways; it was the people of India. This time I feared that if the BJP led by Modi attracted a large vote-share, it would prove that I was wrong in my dearly held lifelong conviction that the majority of Hindus would not support – or be indifferent to – the persecution of their Muslim compatriots.
I have no idea about how many of Modi’s voters actively support this campaign of hate. But the others at least did not care enough to prevent the rise of a regime which would malevolently condemn their neighbours, a section of their fellow-citizens, to live with violence and fear. A government whose icons were Amit Shah, Adityanath, Giriraj Singh and Pragya Thakur.
For me, consequently, the 2019 elections were not simply about Modi’s continuing popularity and influence. I looked to it as a bellwether of the soul of India’s majority Hindu people. I believed it would reveal whether they remained people who were tolerant and respectful of people of other faiths and belief systems, or whether this civilisational comfort with diversity in many hearts had got corroded with resentment and hate. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I missed the many reasons that make people vote. But I still fear that the election results reveal more hate and bigotry in many more hearts than I could have hoped.
It was in this sense that I saw the 2019 elections more than anything else as a referendum on India’s secular democratic constitution. On one side of the political divide, election speeches constructed and advocated a chilling new idea of India, dominated by an angry and resentful majority, subverting India’s constitutional promises of equal citizenship. On the other side, political parties of the opposition fought each other, and they spoke to voters of jobs, the farm crisis, corruption in defence deals, but not of defending the equal citizenship of India’s minorities and disadvantaged castes.
Hope over hate
In 2014, I was clear about what the politics of the BJP led by Modi represented, because of what I had learnt during more than a decade of my work among the survivors of the Gujarat carnage of 2002. I had seen a leader who consistently taunted and demonised Muslims and Christians in his election speeches; who had presided over a brutal massacre which continued for weeks; who stood between the survivors and justice.
And I witnessed the consequences of this, of religious minorities resigned to live with everyday discrimination and fear, socially and economically boycotted and expelled to ghettos. I had also seen the consequences of his economic policies, which favoured big business but gravely neglected social spending in health, education, nutrition and agriculture.
But many in the country were still willing to give Modi the benefit of the doubt. He spoke of “achhe din”, of “sab kaa saath, sab kaa vikaas”, promising a galloping economy, a surge of job creation, and ending both crony capitalism and farmer suffering. I believe that there were some, possibly many in the 31% of voters who opted for Modi, who chose him for hope rather than hate.
However, the 2019 elections were entirely different. Vikas, jobs, the economy and the farm crisis rarely entered Modi’s fiery oratory in his tireless election campaign. There were no mirages of a better life for India’s youth, farmers and the poor on display in his words. What was on offer instead was stark and unambiguous: it was muscular Hindu nationalism.
Hate speech peaked during the campaign. The targets were unequivocal. Muslims were the enemy within, demonised as loyal to the external enemy, Pakistan. Those who rose in their defence – left and elite liberal intellectuals, activists and students – were the Trojan Horse, who needed to be exposed and crushed.
I wondered that if people still supported Modi who had not demonstrated the capacity and imagination to alter the destinies of India’s young people, farmers and working classes, did many among them do so because they endorsed a vision of India which is the antithesis of the pledges of India’s secular democratic constitution?
This was evident also from the hate speeches of Modi and his political leaders; the promises to extend the National Register of Citizenship from Assam to the rest of the country and to change citizenship laws to give citizenship to Hindu, Sikhs and Buddhist immigrants but not Muslims; and the candidature of a hate-spouting terror-accused to Parliament.
I hoped desperately that the majority of Indians would reject hate politics. The opposition had many flaws. Many communal massacres have occurred on the watch of Congress governments. But whatever their failings and mistakes, it would not be their ideology to bludgeon their minorities into fearful second-class citizens. They would not destroy the social contract which underpinned the constitution of the Indian republic. I clutched my hopes even after the shock-and-awe exit poll outcomes were announced.
But as the results flooded in, it was evident that despite failures in the economy, in job-creation and the agrarian crisis, Modi’s support had risen spectacularly, as he added 20 seats to his already impressive 2014 score, and the vote-share for the BJP swelled by 8%. This time, I believed that a much larger proportion of Indian voters than in 2014 opted for Modi because they were attracted to his belligerent, resentful and wrathful Hindutva nationalism, or at least that this was not a disqualification for their support for him.
I worry because I see a massive expansion of publicly aired bigotry among those among us who are the most privileged, by caste, class and education. The emphatic burgeoning support that Modi got from voters across North, Central and East India would be interpreted at least in part as a vote for the idea of a majoritarian Hindu state, and the reversal of India’s secular constitution, in spirit if not in letter.
“Is this the true face of India?”, people might ask. Are we revealed as a people who choose leaders who allow our worst selves to surface, and not our best selves? The answer is both yes and no. The Indian people have indeed revealed capacities for both hate and love, for indifference and resistance.
Where do we go from here?
Despair for me is not an option. A renewed resolve to resist is the only way to combat hate and fear in the long years ahead of this burning summer of drought. We have to fight harder, more thoughtfully, more collectively, more resolutely. We have to resist in many ways, with courage, with perseverance, and with love.
The first pillar of our resistance must be the resolve to stand even more steadfastly in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who will most directly face the onslaught of majoritarianism. I see after the election results were announced dread and despair written on the faces of my Muslim friends, and a silence descending on Muslim settlements. We assure you, and our Christian and Dalit fellow-citizens as well, that India is still not recast into the Hindu Rashtra of the imagination of the RSS, of the BJP and of Modi. We will not allow this to come to pass. There are millions of Indians – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, non-believers, privileged, working class – who are fiercely opposed to majoritarian hate, who will fight violence and injustice against minorities and Dalits as though these were chains on themselves.
This does not mean excluding or stigmatising the Modi voters. It means engaging with them, especially the young voters, and trying to understand and reason with them, while always closely listening to them. It means trying to rebuild a climate of mutual respect and trust, however arduous and challenging this task may be. It means trying to reach out even to the perpetrator of hate violence, recognising that they too are our brothers. Even as we fight what they do, we don’t reject them. This is something we have not done enough of, and we must learn much better how to fight hate without hate.
The third column of our resistance must be in our public resolve to reclaim, defend and celebrate the idea of secularism. It is worrying and instructive that in his first public address after the massive 2019 mandate, Prime Minister Modi spoke of secularism as a mask which has been destroyed by this verdict. But secularism is not a mask. It lies at the core of the Indian republic. Without it, India will lose its soul. The central failing and betrayal of this election campaign was that no opposition party mentioned the word secularism, let alone built their campaigns around it. It is also worrying that even progressive civil society increasingly became defensive in the past five years about publicly defining their beliefs as secular. Think back of Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and Maulana Azad, and their spirited and brave vocal defence of the secular ideal even amidst the frenzy of hate and blood-letting of India’s Partition.
There can be little doubt that all forms of progressive dissent will be crushed even more determinedly than in Modi’s first term. Senior leader of both the RSS and the BJP Ram Madhav has already begun to speak ominously of eliminating “the pseudo-secular/ liberal cartels” and the “Khan Market cacophony” from “India’s academic, cultural and intellectual landscape”. Therefore, those who oppose majoritarian nationalism and crony capitalism must have the courage to continue to publicly speak the truth, whatever may be the consequences. Amidst the burning heat of majoritarianism, publicly and resolutely enunciating the truth itself becomes a revolutionary act, an act of patriotism, a high public duty.
The other revolutionary act in times of hate and bigotry that is led from the top, is radical love. It is the resolve to battle power and dominance to restore civility, goodwill, trust, compassion, and fraternity to social relations in the country. The personal being political, resistance would also entail fighting to build an understanding of and commitment to fraternity and contesting hate whenever and wherever we encounter this – in communities, in classrooms, in workplaces, in living rooms, in newsrooms, in television studios, and in family WhatsApp groups. The challenge I think is to learn ways to live the fraternity that we, the people of India, wrote into our constitution 70 years ago, but which today is so profoundly threatened.
Indeed, as Martin Luther King Jr, the world’s greatest Gandhian after Mahatma Gandhi reminded us, the arc of the moral universe is long, but in the end it bends towards justice.
A poet friend sent this message to my mail-box this morning. I share this with you, my sisters, brothers and comrades, in this moment of gloom and darkness. Jean Paul Sartre, he wrote to me, had declared, “You don’t want to fight fascism because you are going to win, you fight fascism because it is fascist.”