Hindutva’s Republic of Fear

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M Saeed Khalid*

*The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.

India’s foreign exchange reserves crossed $424 billion in early April, 2018. The GDP growth rate stays around 7 per cent. Exports stood at over $300 billion and the remittances from Indians abroad rose to nearly $69 billion. However, the BJP-led government is seen as failing to deliver on its key electoral slogan of “development for all”. In his defence, prime minister Narendra Modi claims a number of achievements to his credit, saying that the General Sales Tax and demonetization of large denominations were not his only accomplishments. Expansion of power and gas connections, construction of toilets, bringing more people into the banking system, and increasing fertilizer supply are among the areas he likes to cite as landmarks of his tenure since May, 2014. He also refers to measures taken for greater financial inclusion.

Seen in the back drop of these populist measures, it is no surprise that Modi has retained his popularity among the electorate. Whereas the BJP leader talks ambitiously, and takes risk with bold decisions, the opposition has largely failed to offer alternate plans to attract the voters. His success in the general elections to be held next year appears as a given, short of any dramatic developments.

A Pew survey revealed that the public opinion largely supported Modi and clearly approved his government’s performance as compared to the Congress Party by large margins. Some of the data from that survey is reproduced here.

Subject

Approval rating

BJP

Congress

Unemployment

81

46

Terrorism

78

51

Corruption

78

45

Helping the poor

81

48

Communal relations

55

29

Rising prices

62

35

Situation in Kashmir

65

40

The Congress and other opposition parties have failed to put up strong resistance to the BJP’s hold on the core Hindu electorate. The latter now governs a majority of India’s 29 states including the most popular Uttar Pradesh where a Hindutva zealot Yogi Adityanath is holding the office of the chief minister.

The BJP’s critics claim that millions have been hit by demonetization and the General Sales Tax imposed by the government. Thousands of farmers facing starvation have committed suicide. Protests by farmers, students, the Dalit minority, even the supreme court judges have taken place. The well known journalist Harish Khare, writing for The Wire says that “at the end of Modi’s fourth year in office, most segments of Indian society have a reason to be unhappy, angry and emotionally exhausted” as the unfulfilled promises of 2014 “have given way to a feeling of disappointment and disenchantment, a sense of being taken for a ride.”

Aijaz Zaka Syed, an Indian journalist is of the view that “as things turn from bad to worse on all fronts” and “India hurls itself towards 2019, the only option before the BJP is to do what it does best: stir the communal cauldron more vigorously than ever before.” (The News, April 6, 2018). In another piece published on April 27, Syed sums up that when he swept to power in 2014, “Modi had been offered a historic mandate and rare opportunity to break free from his past and that of his party to make a new beginning for a new, inclusive India.” That he has squandered.

This, however, is only part of the story. The wounds inflicted by the Hindu supremacists to a pluralist India are too evident to be ignored. In a commentary in The Guardian that coincided with Narendra Modi’s visit to Britain in April 2018, Amrit Wilson wrote that “It is Hindutva, the ideology of the BJP and of the family of right wing Hindu organizations that it belongs to, which is today attempting to profoundly transform India into a monolithic Hindu nation from which minorities and dissidents are forcibly excluded.”

Wilson emphasized -what is already well known- that the preachers of Hindutva are responsible for brutal mob-lynchings of Muslims and attacks on Dalits. “The preachers of Hindutva are feted not punished” he laments. According to him, these developments are not due to religious hatred but “a systematic move towards a fascistic Hindu state”. The origins are traced among others to the writings of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the icon of Hindu right who suggested that the rape of Muslim women is justifiable and that not to do so when the occasion permits is not virtuous or chivalrous, but cowardly. Such writings legitimized the rape and murder of Muslim women in Gujarat in 2002.

South Asia Solidarity Group, one of the key organizers of protests against Modi in London, claimed that India is turning into “a republic of fear” but people across India are resisting this courageously. “Their voices need to be heard – we are protesting here to support them, and to give Modi the message loud and clear that he is not welcome.”

There are signs that saner voices within India are resisting Modi & Co’s republic of fear. Yashwant Sinha, a veteran BJP leader who served as finance and foreign minister in earlier BJP governments quit the party on 21 April 2018 because according to him its policies were undermining democratic institutions and that “democracy in India is in grave danger.” Sinha’s denunciation came as Modi prepares to lead the BJP into a general election in 2019, with high hopes of securing a second term.

Sinha’s decision points to the deep malaise that has set in secular and democratic circles in India. He plans to lead “a movement to save democracy in India.” Earlier, in a an open letter, Sinha had criticized the Modi government on a range of subjects, urging the prime minister to speak and act more forcefully on vital issues, including the recent horrific rapes reflecting badly on the BJP. Sinha said India’s religious minorities had become alienated, and the weakest sections of society exposed to atrocities as never before, as guarantees given to them in the constitution were threatened.

Sinha did not spare the government’s performance in the social and economic sectors. Aside from the plight of farmers and small businesses, high youth unemployment, and an increase in banks’ bad loans, Sinha noted that savings and investments had fallen drastically over the past four years. The veteran BJP leader is also known for strong criticism of Modi government’s repressive measures in Jammu and Kashmir. He also led missions of politicians and civil society figures to the occupied territory to support a policy of moderation and negotiations with the Kashmiri leaders to help improve the situation.

What continues to unravel in the second half of Modi’s term was foreseen from the time he ascended to power in 2014, because of his track record as an extremist sans scruples. His plans to promote Hindutva as the hallmark of patriotism raised serious concerns about India’s 200 million Muslims and other minorities as well as vulnerable communities like the Dalits being reduced to a subservient role. Muslims represent 14 per cent of the Indian population as compared to its Hindu majority of 80 per cent. Yet, the Hindutva brigade deliberately lays claims of a rising Muslim population.

The campaign against Muslims carrying out a love jihad by marrying Hindu women and more violent attacks in the name of cow protection have increased ostracism of Muslims across the country. There are efforts to convert the Muslims to Hinduism under the garb of ‘ghar wapsi’. The most brazen evidence of hatred for the Muslims came in the state election of Uttar Pradesh in 2017 where no Muslims were given BJP tickets despite their 20 per cent share of the electorate. A rabid Hindu revivalist Yogi Adityanath, backed by the RSS, muscled his way to the top slot of chief minister.

Some critics of the concept of Hindu nation feel that the anti-Muslim campaign is also aimed at discouraging the Dalits from embracing Islam in protest to their humiliating treatment by caste Hindus. Hate mongering towards Muslims and oppressive tactics against the lower castes are seen as pressure tactics to impose Hindu raj and do away with the secular system for ever.

In a change of tack, the RSS asserted that upper caste Hindus “through their lack of interaction with the weaker sections of the Hindu society were allowing the leaders of other religious communities to exploit them to change their religion.”

Jammu and Kashmir have faced the worst violence since the BJP won a landslide victory in the Indian election of 2014. It manipulated its way into the coalition headed by Mehbuba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party in Kashmir. Modi attended the oath-taking ceremony as the BJP became a coalition partner in Jammu and Kashmir for the first time, despite ideological differences with the PDP. Contentious issues like Article 370 have been deferred but not dropped. The coalition partners are poles apart on a host of other issues and in the final analysis the two parties represent the interests of their Muslim and Hindu constituents.

The result of greater repression in Kashmir has heightened frustration among the Kashmiri youths and, as a result, they are more willing than before to take up arms in their struggle for freedom. Saner elements in India have condemned the BJP’s resort to force, urging the government in Delhi to open negotiations with the Kashmiri leaders. Kashmiri leaders of both the PDP and the opposition National Conference have shown their support for dialogue with Pakistan to seek a peaceful solution to the most contentious issue between the two countries.

The Jammu and Kashmir High Court gave a landmark ruling in 2015, rebutting India’s claim of the disputed territory being a part of India. It further ruled that Article 370 of the Indian constitution, accepting a special status for J&K ,is beyond abrogation, repeal or amendment.

The situation in India is very different from the period of the previous BJP prime minister A B Vajpayee, who acted as a visionary and peacemaker within and without India. Considering the diversity of faiths and ethnicities in a huge country like India, the goals and objectives of a narrow ideology can only disrupt the social peace.

The saffron brigade takes courage from the rise of anti-Muslim leaders in the West to intensify its own discriminatory policies. This goes against the grain of a pluralist India where tolerance for religion was practiced by the Muslim rulers for the best part of the millennium. Indeed, the spectre of an India filled with communal tensions erupting into violence is a nightmare scenario for secular minded Indians as well as defenders of human rights, regardless of creed or caste.

Alarm bells are ringing about the BJP’s efforts to strengthen its hold on power and crush opposition. It is also contemptuous of the constitution because of its secular character. In an article published by Dawn on April 23, 2018, Latha Jishnu lamented that the Modi regime’s intolerance of political opposition and its cavalier attitude is killing Indian democracy. According to her, the BJP is eviscerating autonomous institutions like the Election Commission to ensure its stay in power at any cost.

“The refusal of the supreme court to allow a petition seeking an independent inquiry into the death of a special judge hearing a case involving BJP chief Amit Shah has brought to a head the simmering problems in the judiciary, the last bastion to have fallen as the BJP tightens its power over all pillars of democratic governance,” Jishnu wrote.

She concluded that “the BJP that was spawned by the Hindu supremacist RSS, considers the Indian constitution as an albatross that must be shaken off, primarily because it embodies the Nehruvian values of secular liberalism. Many of the BJP leaders openly talk about changing it as does the RSS which is working on a new template to include the Hindu ethos.” She doubts that democracy and elections can defeat the BJP’s designs and quotes professors Levitsky and Ziblatt of Harvard about elected autocrats “who maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance”. Even democratic institutions are turned into political weapons “wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not”, they cautioned in their recently published book, How Democracies Die.

The Modi government is planning to celebrate its four years in office in a grand style. Modi will be addressing rallies to highlight the achievements of his government. The party will also hold rallies in several states to showcase decisions and projects aimed at the masses. That would deflect some of the criticism of the failure in achieving greater investment, especially in attracting more foreign investment under the ‘Make in India’ slogan. Projects to encourage entrepreneurship have shown modest results and these are seen as inadequate to generate more jobs. The BJP claims to encourage private initiatives to modernize the age old production system but their supervision is still with a bureaucracy notorious for its inertia.

Countdown to 2019

Barring some unforeseen factors, the opposition parties in India stand little chance of defeating the BJP in the 2019 elections. According to opinion surveys, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is likely to acquire 335 seats as against Congress-led UPA projected to win 89 seats. The only way to substantially change the equation would be for the Congress to forge smarter alliances before the election. The BJP is pushing the line that the pro-Modi wave would emerge even stronger by election time.

A majority of Indian voters feel that Modi has failed to fulfill his promises. They, however, have an even dimmer view of the capacity of the Congress and its allies to deliver, hence the scant likelihood of their mounting a credible challenge to the NDA. Opinion surveys also show that Modi remains India’s most popular leader. Despite the demonetisation and a nationwide general sales tax, 79% of those polled said they will vote for Modi. Only 20% said they would vote for Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a contest with Modi.

An analytical piece in the National Herald published on 6 November 2017 said that the BJP had firmed up its strategy for ensuring victory in the 2019 polls. Ayodhya and Ram Temple will be projected as major issues in the coming election by arranging a series of events aimed at highlighting the features of Ram Temple and Ayodhya. Hindutva based polarization is encouraged, notably in Uttar Pradesh, by giving saffron colour to government buildings, buses, even bed sheets in government hospitals.

The article noted: “Many political analysts believe that Modi is an expert in polarizing any election…planning Ram Rath Yatra may as well be an effort to polarise the electorate.” It also states that Yogi Adityanath was made the chief minister of the UP so he could work on spreading Hindutva while Modi spoke of development. Modi had to concede to this directive from the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) to promote Hindu extremism.

Manoj Joshi argues that the RSS wields great influence through an array of organizations dealing with diverse fields. The electoral success of the BJP led by Modi “does not necessarily reflect the success of the RSS’s Hindutva national agenda.” Although the BJP won 282 out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, it only received 31% of the votes. It was a vote for good governance and economic dynamism compared to the Congress-led UPA’s lack luster performance (American Interest, March 22, 2018).

Joshi notes: “The RSS mission is to unite Hindus under its leadership which, of course, would provide an unassailable electoral majority for the BJP ad infinitum. Four years after Modi’s victory, there is reason to worry that he is steering the country to that ideological position where nationalism is defined in anti-Muslim terms, with Pakistan and Muslim being used synonymously. India under Modi has featured new social restrictions banning the slaughter of cows and eating of beef, vigilante attacks on the Muslim community… a foreign policy hostile to Pakistan, and a global campaign against terrorism seeking to highlight the dangers of Islamism (read: Muslims and Pakistan).”

Another manifestation of anti-Pakistan venom was in evidence when its founder Jinnah’s picture in Aligarh University was forcibly removed by Hindu zealots in May, 2018.

The RSS’s goals to wipe out the Congress party – implying elimination of Nehruvian polity giving space to all religions and honoring India’s diversity – have alarmed the minorities and secular minded Hindus. The BJP has also attacked the Congress party for encouraging a distinct identity for Jammu and Kashmir. The exclusionist drive of Hindutva’s high priests is receiving criticism at home and abroad. A recent report issued by the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has placed India in Tier 2 countries of particular concern along with Afghanistan, Bahrain, Cuba, Iraq and Egypt.

The Commission’s Report stresses that conditions for religious minorities in India have deteriorated due to a multifaceted campaign by Hindu-nationalist groups like RSS, Sangh Parivar and Vishva Hindu Parishad to alienate non-Hindus or lower caste Hindus. It further says that these policies are used to polarize society and convert animosity into votes and popular support. “It is through such perception management that often Hindutva militants get away with horrific atrocities and eventually are hailed as guardians of Indian Hindus.”

The victims of this campaign include Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Budhists and Jains, as well as Dalit Hindus, who belong to the lowest rung in the Hindu caste system. The USCIRF annual report notes that “during the year, Hindu nationalist groups sought to ‘saffronise’ India through violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindus and Hindu Dalits.” The report said approximately one third of state governments enforced anti-conversion and anti-cow slaughter laws as mobs attacked Muslims or Dalits whose families have been engaged in the dairy, leather, or beef trades for generations, and against Christians for proselytizing.

Modi is held responsible by USCIRF in so far as members of his party have affiliations with Hindu extremist groups and many have used discriminatory language about religious minorities. The report urges the US government to integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral discussions with India, including the framework of future strategic dialogues.

Jawed Naqvi, a veteran Indian journalist, when asked by a Pakistani Television network about the likelihood of the Hindutva brigades fulfilling their agenda to eliminate secularism, argued that “secularism is very much a part of India’s DNA and Hindu extremists will not succeed in their designs of turning the country into a Hindu Rashtra.” Others are not that sanguine when they see the RSS, the BJP and their affiliates fomenting and relishing greater polarisation on religious and caste basis and successfully turning it into electoral advantage.

Tracing the history and activities of Hindutva movements for nearly a century, the well known Indian jurist A. G. Noorani has warned: “The future seems bleak. The divided opposition parties show no sign of giving battle to Modi’s regime. Though Civil Society speaks up, it is, hard to predict what all this spells for India’s secularism and for its democracy” (Hindutva: Its Past and Future – Criterion, July-September, 2017).

Conclusion

It is extraordinary if not shocking that the champions of Hindutva are brazenly marching ahead to build a polity based on hate and discrimination against more than one third of the inhabitants of a country that claimed to be the world’s largest democracy since 1947. The RSS and its affiliates vow to impose a fascist system overruling all pleas for sanity including from within its political offspring – the BJP. Narendra Modi’s slogans like ‘development for all’ sound hollow when on the ground, the minorities and lower castes are treated as second class citizens.

If not reviewed, these policies can lead to India’s perdition like it happened before. Asoka the great emperor abandoned Hindu religion and embraced Buddhism to bring down the infernal cycle of violence. India’s strong backlash to extremism and an exclusionary system weakened the state and society with nothing to motivate the bulk of its members. It would be invaded and conquered repeatedly by Muslim armies and European colonialists. It will be a great shame if an independent India harks back to its past of caste system and religious bigotry. The world’s biggest democracy will be undone from within rather than by outside invaders.