“They make nude photos of our sisters and daughters and we cannot even murder them? Those who try to stop this panchayat, we will kill them, whoever has drunk his mother’s milk can stop us. Muslim brothers? What brothers? These bastards are butchers…they say Section 144 [prohibitory orders forbidding a gathering of more than five] is in place, arre impose whatever orders you want, who is ready to face cases? Raise your hands…every Hindu has the ability to enter your home.”

Suraj Pal Amu may sound like your average, bigoted Hindutva troll, the kind who skulks behind a computer screen and rages against Muslims and worships Narendra Modi, the kind that social-media giants like Twitter and Facebook are reluctant to block or act against for fear of offending India’s ruling party.

But Amu, 53 – a man with a flowing beard and a penchant for hate speech and buttoned up Jodhpuri suits with epaulettes – does not hide himself or his prejudices, and he rarely mentions Modi. He delivered the speech I have quoted from earlier this month before an approving crowd of thousands in rural Haryana, a state ruled by his own Bharatiya Janata Party.

That Amu could make this speech without fear of the police and defy them in violating, as he did, Covid-era restrictions on public gatherings and a raft of laws on incitement or promoting hatred, is an indicator of three realities.

One, that he has the support, tacit or otherwise, of India’s ruling establishment, which thrives on such divisiveness. Two, however embattled Modi may be after getting almost everything wrong in handling the pandemic, Rahul Gandhi, who got almost everything right, is not likely to be the preferred option. Three, virulent as Hindutva has been, there are signs that a new Hindutva is at hand, more virulent and more easily prone to anti-Muslim violence.

Grievances and enemies

The BJP has correctly identified that ideology in India is temporary. Bigotry, used cleverly, is more enduring. In Bengal, BJP cadres are drawn from former Communists; in Uttar Pradesh, they are poached from the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, from castes once inimical to each other; in Assam, they are former foot soldiers of Assamese identity. What they have in common is that they are Hindu.

The BJP makes Hindus believe their way of life is in danger, it has given them grievances and enemies, invokes ancient glories and a leader who promises – despite serial bungling – a glorious future.

Of the bungling, there is little doubt. Under Modi, the economy was in decline before it was ravaged by Covid-19, but the effects were greater in India than in other Covid-hit nations during the pandemic because of his heavy-handed lockdown at four-hours’ notice, his lack of vaccine planning, reluctance to work closely with states and refusal to listen to scientific counsel.

Modi does not accept criticism, questioning or responsibility for failure and frequently obfuscates the truth, as he did last week when he falsely blamed states for seeking control of vaccine purchases (only West Bengal had) and made fake claims about India’s inability to get vaccines quickly from aboard.

Why a vast number of Hindus continues to stand and swear by Modi despite obvious failure is a question that carries an uncomfortable answer: they approve of his animosity towards Muslims and trust him keep them cowed, corralling state power where needed.

The police are reluctant to act against people like Amu and the crowds that flock to him because as a rabble rouser he has an undeclared immunity from prosecution. A BJP spokesperson in Haryana until 2019, Amu got away with offering a Rs 10-crore bounty to behead actor Deepika Padukone for acting in a movie that had a romantic scene between a Hindu queen and Muslim king.

A clear signal

He was briefly arrested when his men burnt school buses demanding a ban on the movie, but there were no charges of terrorism and sedition, of the kind routinely used by Modi’s government against peaceful protestors and dissenters. The signal to men like Amu is clear: if you speak for the Hindu cause, you will be protected, however violative of the law, morality, or decency your actions may be.

The BJP knows that grievance and hate are powerful unifying factors, especially in troubled times. That is why there are strong indications they will be deployed more liberally than ever as Indians struggle to deal with their post-Covid trauma, and the party prepares for crucial state and general elections ahead.

While thousands mourn their dead, Modi and his support system hope the vast mass of Hindus will forget their ordeal, which Indians often tend to. The BJP’s strategy appears to be that even if they do not, they can, perhaps, be persuaded that no one could possibly have been prepared. Hence the references by Modi and others around him to a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Wherever and whenever the pandemic eases, expect more attempts to polarise society. India witnessed a surge in Islamophobia during Covid-19, and there is an uptick in attacks against Muslims in northern India, such as the one that killed a gym trainer called Asif, the killers of whom Amu now defends.

These empowered soldiers of the new Hindutva have thriving online communities, routinely spewing hate against Muslims, ready to be activated at a moment’s notice. Under Modi, many are emboldened to freely translate their prejudices to real life, hence the steady rise in anti-Muslim lynchings and other hate crimes.

It could be that Amu’s much-publicised defence of Asif’s killers and the silence of the police is intended to prepare the ground for crucial state elections next year in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa, Gujarat and sprawling Uttar Pradesh, where Chief Minister Adityanath’s successful majoritarianism faces serious challenges after thousands died, and bodies of Covid-19 victims floated down the Ganga.

Yet, there is evident and unsurprising silence over government failures, hate crimes and hate speech. That India now finds it hard to accept or even debate the failures of Modi and his men is because his government and party have prepared the ground well by eviscerating the opposition and the media.

The era of Modi is not unique. It has many similarities with Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, but state oppression during that period now appears amateurish: en masse secular incarcerations that included everyone from politicians to teachers, and obvious, ham-handed government censorship.

Modi’s repression is far more sophisticated that Indira Gandhi’s. Only intellectuals, students, artists and academics with no political heft are imprisoned, Muslims are singled out for special attention, and the media have been persuaded to self-censor. One point in common is developmental propaganda. Indira gave India 10-point, 13-point and 20-point programmes, Modi gives India acronyms.

A cloak of development

As Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil, argue in their masterful history of the Emergency, India’s First Dictatorship, Indira Gandhi’s politics missed fear and rage – there was too much paternalism for that, they say. Modi mixes paternalism with fear and hate, dressing them up in a cloak of development.

This is not to say that the Congress is a paragon of virtue – far from it. Before and after Indira Gandhi, the Congress set in place and liberally used some of India’s most draconian laws, it crushed rebellions and insurgencies ruthlessly, allowing alienation to fester, even deploying it for political ends, and it winked at numerous communal riots and massacres.

I refer you to an account provided by lawyer Suchitra Vijayan – who worked on United Nations war-crime tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda – in her new book, Midnight’s Borders, of one of India’s worst pogroms in Nellie, Assam, where 3,000 Muslims, mostly women and children, were slaughtered in 1983. Asked why she had not acted promptly to the massacre Indira Gandhi replied, “One has to let such events take their own course before stepping in.”

In the new India, things are more subtle than Nellie: the occasional riot, a steady daily dose of localised violence and hate speech, transmitted through rabble rousers like Amu protected from the law, and the misuse of laws against protestors or victims from minority communities. The BJP strategy of radicalisation has carried Modi through his missteps, and it is why Rahul Gandhi, despite being right about the big issues, finds himself a hard sell.

It is unclear what impact Modi’s pandemic bungles have had on his base, but in times of trouble, modern Hindu society has revealed itself to be uniquely vulnerable to its dark side.

Indeed, there are darker forces waiting in the wings, people that Amu represents. Many are average working Hindus who flock to what the media still like to label the “fringe”, which cannot, any longer, be regarded as such because was it not just the other day that men like Adityanath never appeared to have electoral prospects beyond obscure towns like Gorakhpur? These are increasingly voluble sections of Hindu society, the new Hindutvadis, who believe that let alone Modi, even Adityanath is too moderate.

Samar Halarnkar is the editor of Article-14.com, a project that tracks misuse of the law and the hope it offers.