July 27, 2016
BY SHANOOR SEERVAI
The resounding victory of Hindu nationalists at India’s federal polls in May 2014 is attributed to one man: Narendra Modi. Fed up with the corruption and complacency of the Congress—the party that led India’s anti-colonial struggle and governed for much of its independent history—the world’s largest democracy voted for a leader who promised an era of growth.[i]
The Modi “wave” that swept India cannot be chalked up to his political platform alone. It was the result of artful public relations and dogged hard work, which gave the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the biggest majority for any single party in thirty years.[ii] One of the advertising gurus who played an instrumental part in the BJP’s media strategy told me in an interview in July 2014 that Prime Minister Modi’s election campaign was modeled along the lines of a US presidential one.[iii] “This was a situation where Narendra Modi equaled the BJP,” he said.
Modi’s first post-victory speech to a sea of adulating supporters included a declaration that “to run the country, we need to take everyone with us.”[iv] But his past casts a shadow over his will to quell religious violence. Over one thousand people (mostly Muslims) were killed in religious riots in 2002 during his tenure as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.[v]
Some critics say he did not do enough to stop the violence; others believe he strategically engineered the massacre of Muslims. While a Supreme-Court-appointed investigation did not find sufficient evidence to convict Modi of wrongdoing, [vi] many senior officials of the Gujarat government were convicted of crimes including murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy.[vii] Modi, in a New York Times interview he gave in 2002—his last one—offered no consolation to the state’s Muslims and expressed satisfaction with his government’s performance. The only regret he voiced about the carnage was that he did not handle the news media well.[viii]
Two years after Modi’s triumph, it remains unclear whether he has any intention of fostering tolerance, religious or otherwise, in India. While Hindus are the majority, almost 250 million people—more than 20 percent of India’s 1.21 billion-strong population—belong to religious minorities. Muslims are the largest minority, at 14.23 percent.[ix] India is one of the globe’s most diverse countries, with a historical commitment to secularism tracing as far back as 270 BC, when Buddhist emperor Ashoka ruled a largely Hindu country.[x]
The Hindu right in more recent times has worked to thwart this history of plurality, but the tenuous nature of its political power (until 2014, the BJP had never held a majority in Parliament) always curtailed its opportunities for unfettered sectarianism. With Modi at the helm today, however, senior politicians make bigoted remarks with distressing frequency, stoking perpetually simmering embers of a fear that India’s government prescribes to a bigoted brand of Hindu nationalism.[xi]
When Muslim computer engineer Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh was killed in western India a week after Modi took office, I interviewed the head of an umbrella organization for Muslim groups in New Delhi. “I’m glad you are talking about this case,” Zafarul Islam Khan told me. “But this is only one of several other, silent, undocumented acts targeting Muslims across North India.”[xii] Modi never publicly acknowledged Shaikh’s murder.
Emboldened by the Hindu government at the center, local BJP leaders have preyed on Muslims with a systematic attempt to prevent consumption of beef. Hindus believe the cow is sacred, and in its 2014 election manifesto the BJP pledged to increase “protection and promotion of cow and its progeny.”[xiii] Expanding a 1976 law that prohibited the slaughter of cows, a law passed in 2015 bans the slaughter and possession of bull and bullock meat in the western state of Maharashtra. Other states are following suit with similar laws.[xiv] Such bans on beef hurt not only religious minorities like Muslims and Christians, but also lower-caste Hindus, who eat beef and work in industries related to cattle slaughter.[xv] More worrying than exercising legal muscle or illegal vigilantism over what people eat, is the violent manifestation of intolerance.
Hindu mobs beat to death a Muslim man in September 2015 for allegedly eating and storing beef, which was later discovered to be goat meat.[xvi] Modi was studiedly silent as national outrage erupted; he did, however, find time to tweet a famous singer to condole her son’s death.[xvii] He waited more than two weeks to acknowledge the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq—and when he did, he called it “sad” and “unfortunate,” but implied the federal government is unable to do anything to prevent such violence.[xviii]
No Room for Dissidents
In the weeks after Akhlaq was murdered, writers started to revolt. Indian authors and poets returned prestigious awards from Sahitya Akademi, the National Academy of Letters, to speak out against the “violent retrogressive forces dictating terms in the field of literature and culture.”[xix] The protest was also inspired by a series of endeavors to silence writers with alternative interpretations of religion. One writer posted on his Facebook page in early 2015 that he would stop writing after facing harassment from right-wing Hindu groups for his book depicting an ancient ritual.[xx]
The BJP government’s willingness to clamp down on dissent is perhaps most insidious in the case of Teesta Setalvad. One of India’s best-known human rights activists, Setalvad has tirelessly worked to bring justice to the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots; her network of organizations is widely credited with helping prosecutors win more than one hundred convictions against those responsible for inciting the violence.[xxi]
Setalvad has been the subject of a string of investigations since she began her work, including allegations of tampering with witnesses, and a more recent federal investigation into alleged financial irregularities of her organizations. One reason India’s Central Bureau of Investigation is persecuting Setalvad is that her organizations spent funds from the Ford Foundation to create “communal disharmony,” tantamount to threatening national security.[xxii] Setalvad told me in an interview in December 2015 that these funds, a tiny fraction of what she has received from donors over the years, were used to build a human rights archive. “It has been very difficult to continue with our justice work… their intention is to get us bogged down,” Setalvad said, referring to the time she spends defending herself against criminal charges.[xxiii]
The trend of rolling out criminal charges against dissenters resurfaced with teeth as this piece went to press. Protests broke out across India in mid-February 2016 over the arrest of a student at a prestigious university in New Delhi on charges of sedition. Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the student union, was arrested after a discussion about capital punishment to mark the anniversary of the execution of a Kashmiri man convicted of a 2001 attack on India’s Parliament.[xxiv] The BJP government justified the arrest with allegations that in speaking about the hanging, and the expressed desire of some Kashmiris to secede from India, Kumar and other students were making anti-national claims that were seditious and could not be allowed. Clamping down on the freedom of students to demonstrate at an institution of learning strikes at the very core of democracy. In his column about the arrest, political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote, “Nothing that the students did poses nearly as much threat to India, as the subversion of freedom and judgement this government represents.”[xxv] As of two weeks after the arrest, Modi had nothing to say to the public.
Modi’s ties to the Hindu right
What’s frightening about Modi’s silence is that it could be read as tacit approval of the mobs leading the charge against minorities, writers, and activists. It is no secret that Modi relies heavily upon the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization, for ideological support and manpower during elections. The RSS is a grassroots movement with thousands of local branches. Millions of volunteers across India serve its mission to create a militant Hindu state.[xxvi]
Hindutva, the incarnation of Hinduism as national identity, got a boost when in 1992 BJP leader and former RSS member Lal Krishna Advani led the charge for mobs to demolish a mosque in North India. They claimed it had been built on the same land where a temple to the Hindu god Ram once stood. The Congress government in power did nothing to prevent the destruction or stem the nationwide religious riots that followed.[xxvii] Hindutva dates back further; even as the country celebrated its independence, RSS activist Nathuram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. In 2014, less than a year after Modi had been in power, there were murmurings of RSS-affiliated parties building a temple in honor of the assassin.[xxviii]
Modi began his political career as part of the student wing of the RSS, and rose rapidly through its ranks.[xxix] Many believe he does not oppose the RSS’s blatant attempts to drive its agenda because he subscribes to it. As rationality and secularism are slowly being bled out of Indian education, he has endorsed the views of those rewriting textbooks to depict science and history as a glorified Hindu past.[xxx] He has also given his minister of human resource development free rein to appoint (often unqualified) RSS ideologues at key institutions of academic research.[xxxi]
A Brief History of Intolerance in India
Regardless of whether Modi is too secure in his power to care about the handful of voices raising concerns about intolerance, or fully endorses the censorship, witch-hunts, and cultural appropriation, it is too convenient and simplistic to exclusively blame him. India is no stranger to sectarian tension. When the subcontinent divided into India and Pakistan in August 1947, more than a million people were killed.[xxxii] The Congress leaders of independent India built secular principles into the Constitution, but friction between religious groups has diluted these in practice.
Supporters of the BJP are quick to point out that Congress’ record on minority rights is hardly pristine. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi responded to the anti-Sikh pogroms after his mother Indira Gandhi was killed in 1984 with the words: “Once a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it shakes.”[xxxiii] More than thirty years later, perpetrators of the violence have not been prosecuted.[xxxiv] Congress remained in power and won subsequent elections.
It is no wonder, then, that even those Indians opposed to communalism were able to forget or intentionally ignore the accusations against Modi for the 2002 riots. Many believed that in the decade that followed, he turned his attention to economic development in Gujarat, evidenced in the state’s rapid GDP growth and relative ease of doing business. In the process, Modi forged close relationships with Indian industrialists, opening doors to oil-refining and auto companies while other Indian states remained mired in red tape.[xxxv]
The BJP’s 2014 watershed election victory was in large measure because many Indians want to see across the country the economic success Modi rolled out in Gujarat. With a majority in Parliament, the BJP is not beholden to a coalition partner and can push its sociocultural agenda. “What were fantasies in Vajpayee’s day can become a reality in Modi’s day,” explained writer Salil Tripathi, referring to the prime minister under India’s only other long-standing BJP government.[xxxvi] Both Tripathi and activist Teesta Setalvad were quick to point out the fallacy in arguing that Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Home Minister L.K. Advani were more moderate than Modi and his top officials. They attribute any restraint the previous BJP government displayed to its political inefficacy.
Despite being ostensibly inclusive, India’s track record on freedom of expression has always been poor, Tripathi told me in an interview in December 2015. “Indians are very tolerant of intolerance,” he said.[xxxvii] The “right to freedom of speech and expression” is a fundamental right under the Constitution. But due to fears of the recurrence of religious violence India witnessed at partition, its criminal law includes several provisions, including ones on obscenity and religious offense, which restrict this freedom. India was the first country in 1988 to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, under a government led by the professedly secular Congress. Almost three decades later, Rushdie has voiced concern about the “real grave danger” to discuss ideas freely in India under Modi’s leadership.[xxxviii]
Where the right to express oneself ends and the right to practice one’s religion begins is an enduring question facing most modern societies. In January 2015, after murders at the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the magazine returned to publication a week later with its iconic “Je Suis Charlie” cover.[xxxix] News outlets across the world carried the cartoon to show solidarity, but an Urdu newspaper in India was forced to shut shop after it published the image. One of its editors lost her job, and has since been unable to find work as a journalist.[xl]
India’s poor record on tolerance notwithstanding, the long list of encroachments on freedom of expression, the climate of fear, and the systematic targeting of dissenters under Modi are alarming. But is this reading too much into the hate speech and stray acts of a handful? Politicians everywhere, after all, say outrageous things to attract and retain public attention.
But in India, the hot air is accompanied with poison gas. Senior political leaders not only say that Indian Muslims should go to Pakistan, they also have been known to compel Muslims to renounce Islam through conversions, thereby violating their constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion.[xli] With public encouragement from the RSS chief, mobs of Hindu nationalists in North India forced hundreds of Muslims to “reconvert” to Hinduism in late 2014. These Muslims, the hardline Hindu groups argue, have strayed from their path and are returning home to the Hindu fold.[xlii] True to form, Modi had nothing to say about these forced reconversions. Months after they began, he paid lip service to “complete freedom of faith” in India.[xliii]
Throughout repeated assaults on freedom of expression, Modi has remained stoic and stony-faced. When he does address the public, he uses banal phrases instead of taking a stance against bigotry. He cannot be held accountable for every instance of intolerance; undoubtedly, many take place out of his purview. But his typical, ostrich-like response, of saying nothing or tweeting platitudes when something serious or disturbing happens, is inadequate. It raises the question: what stake does Modi have in an intolerant India?
Modi is a master politician—his public appearances are a performance of thundering oration and rainbow-colored garb. But beneath the sweeping statements about India’s bright future lurks his unresolved past. Perhaps ambiguity is part of his master strategy—his critics are right to read into his track record in Gujarat, muteness on growing intolerance, and alignment with the Hindu doctrine of the RSS. His moderate supporters can seek solace in his silence, and pin their hopes on his assurance of rapid economic growth—although he has yet to deliver his avowed miracles.
In the interim, Modi must confront the impatient churn of Indian democracy. The Congress is currently in disarray, but the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP), founded in 2012 on anti-corruption principles, trounced the BJP in local elections in the capital, New Delhi, in February 2015.[xliv] The AAP’s leader has his eyes set on the next federal polls, and while it is too early to gauge the party’s national appeal, it may give the political establishment a run for its money.
In November 2015, the BJP also lost state elections in the poor, densely populated eastern state of Bihar, in spite of Modi’s vigorous campaigning across the state.[xlv] The defeat was more likely the result of an unexpected but effective alliance of rival political parties that contested the BJP rather than the rising tide of intolerance in India, but it implies that Modi is not invincible. State elections in crucial states in East and South India in 2016 may indicate growing discomfort with his brand of politics.
Modi may continue to enjoy his power as prime minister even if he ignores threats to freedom of expression, but in the long run may lose some of his shiny popularity and perhaps even a second term in office. He may not care about convincing his detractors that he is not spearheading a movement to turn India into the unified Hindu nation his supporters want to create. But he should care about respecting and preserving the religious tolerance to which India has always aspired in spite of its unmanageable diversity. At the very least, he should be concerned about his legacy—not only of leading India into an era of economic growth, but also of deepening openness and tolerance.
Shanoor Seervai is a Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a Freedman/Martin journalism scholar and the Editor-in-Chief of the Kennedy School Review. She previously reported for The Wall Street Journal’s South Asia Bureau, where she covered India’s 2014 federal election, gender-based violence, urban development and rural health care. Her writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Guernica Magazine, The Caravan and The Indian Express. She is also the author of ‘Daughters of the Red Light,’ a Kindle Single about the women and girls of Mumbai’s brothels.