Modi’s Mussalman problem

When the government is based on one party, it follows that party’s philosophy of governance

Shahid Javed Burki May 06, 2024
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


Having tried hard to create a nation out of extreme diversity, India had initially succeeded in the effort. That was the conclusion reached by the Indian-American historian Sunil Khilnani. His book, The Idea of India, was based on the assumption that India had created a system of governance that had, by and large, accommodated religion, language, caste and ethnic adversity into the political and economic structures that were inclusive. The Indian Constitution whose principal author was the Untouchable lawyer Ambedkar granted several rights to the people who were not mainstream Hindus.

This began to change, first gradually and then quickly as Prime Minister Narendra Modi gained political power. Modi, after having served as the Chief Minister of Gujarat in India’s west, became prime minister in 2014. By winning the majority of seats in Lok Sabah, the lower house of the Indian parliament, Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was able to form a government of its own. Previous administrations were coalitions of several parties with Congress in the lead. Coalition rule means accommodating different points of view. When the government is based on one party, it follows that party’s philosophy of governance. That has happened in India.

Modi came to Delhi with a reputation of being a Hindu communal leader. In 2002, a fire in a train killed 59 Hindu pilgrims. Although there was uncertainty about the cause of the fire, violent Hindu mobs targeted the Muslim community, leaving more than 1,000 people dead, several burned alive. Modi as Chief Minister could have prevented the slaughter, but he looked the other way, allowing the mob to pick up Muslims from their houses.

By winning a larger majority in the 2019 elections compared to 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, decided that India was ready to adopt Hindutva as the governing philosophy. This approach held that India was a Hindu nation and should, therefore, base governance on the Hindutva concept of governing. Adopting that as the governing approach, India began to give low status to minority religions even when their numbers were large as was the case with the Muslim population. In 2021, the number of Muslims were estimated at 200 million in a population of 1.4 billion people.

Hindu extremists in Indian politics sharpened their attacks on Muslims, encouraged by senior functionaries in the Modi government and the BJP. According to a report filed on February 8, 2022, by The New York Times journalists from the city of Haridwar, “before a packed audience and thousands watching online, the monks called for violence against the country’s minority Muslims. The monks’ speeches in one of the holiest cities of the country promoted a genocidal campaign to ‘kill two million of them’ and urged an ethnic cleansing of the type that targeted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.” The event was organised by Yati Narsinghanand, a Hindu extremist, who continued to make speeches that were regarded as spreading hate. He saw India’s Muslims who account for 15 per cent of the country’s population as the enemies of the Hindu state and, given their higher birth rate compared to the Indian average, would turn India into a Muslim state within a decade.

Once regarded as fringe elements in Indian politics, the extremists were more blatantly taking their message into the mainstream. This provoked hate in a push to reshape India’s constitutionally protected secular republic into a Hindu state. Modi and his top leaders chose to remain silent. “You have persons giving a hate speech, actually calling for genocide of an entire group, and we find reluctance of the authorities to book these people,” Rohinton Fali Nariman, a recently retired Indian Supreme Court judge, said in public lecture. “Unfortunately, the other higher echelons of the ruling party are not only being silent on hate speech, but almost endorsing it.”

Hindu extremists celebrated Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin. Pooja Sahkun Pandey, a monk at the Haridwar temple, held reenactments of Gandhi’s assassination, firing a bullet into his effigy as blood ran down. Godse was member of the Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh, RSS, a century old right wing Hindu group that borrowed heavily from the Nazi Party in Germany. Modi is also a member of the RSS. The current campaign was led by Narsinghananad, an extremist, who gained attention following the adoption by the parliament of a citizenship amendment seen as discriminatory against Muslims. When the Muslim community protested, Narsinghananad called for violence using the language of a “final battle”. He had no problem encouraging his followers to murder Muslims. “They are Jihadis and we will have to finish them off.” His agenda and of those who agreed with him was to rewrite the Indian political system. “This Constitution will be the end of Hindus, all one billion Hindus,” he said in one address. “Whoever believes in this system, in this Supreme Court, in these politicians, in this Constitution, in this army and police — they will die a dog’s death.”

The tension between Hinduism and Islam in India has been increasing since the arrival of Narendra Modi in the prime minister’s residence. He has used the ownership of places of worship as one way of exciting Hindus against the Muslim community. It was his party’s campaign that led to a crowd of Hindus to demolish the Babri mosque built at a place called Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The Indian Supreme Court awarded to the Hindu community the land on which the mosque was build centuries ago. A large temple was built on that land. There is now another dispute concerning a 17th century mosque called Gyan Vapi in Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest city. A court found a relic of a Hindu deity on its premises. The area was sealed by the order of the court and large prayer gatherings were banned.

The Hindu efforts to reclaim Muslim places of worship aren’t primarily about litigating about the past, experts say. “For Hindu nationalists, there is no place for Muslims in India’s future except as oppressed, second-class citizens whose rights are routinely denied,” said Audrey Truschke, a professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University. A local Indian scholar expressed the same kind of view. The Hindu nationalist view of history is “extremely prejudiced and totally motivated by the desire to inculcate blind pride in oneself and blind hatred of the other,” said Tanika Sarkar, a historian who taught at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2024.

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