May 14, 2022

How Narendra Modi is remaking India into a Hindu state | The Economist May 14, 2022

 The Economist

How Narendra Modi is remaking India into a Hindu state

The prime minister and his party are laying waste to the secular underpinnings of the constitution


THE PATTERN is plain to see. On the occasion of a religious festival, youths affiliated to the sangh parivar, or the Hindu-nationalist “family of organisations”, march through a densely packed slum. When the rowdy young men, sporting saffron-coloured clothes or flags and brandishing swords, reach a mostly Muslim neighbourhood, their chants turn to taunts and insults. Muslim boys start throwing stones. In the ensuing fight shops get looted, houses burned and lives lost. Reporters tally the damage. This is typically lopsided, inverting the proportions of India’s 79% Hindu majority and 15% Muslim minority. No matter. The sangh gleefully choruses its mantra: “Hindus are in danger! Unite!”

Over the past 50 years, Indian governments have repeatedly dampened such local eruptions by mouthing words of regret, paying a bit of compensation and tapping some retired worthy to write a soon-forgotten report. No longer. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which rules both at the centre in Delhi, the capital, and in about half of India’s states, is itself a child of the sangh. Many of its top leaders started as foot soldiers in just the sort of gangs that so predictably spark trouble.


Small wonder that as a bigger-than-usual spate of nasty communal clashes broke out across a swathe of central India during this spring’s festival season, BJP officials made scant effort to calm things. Instead they loudly invoked the right of Hindus to “practise their faith”, blamed Muslims for the violence and demanded exemplary punishment. Following a mini-riot in Delhi on April 16th, provoked once again by sword-waving youths menacing a mosque, Kapil Mishra, a local BJP leader, quickly spun the events as a Muslim conspiracy. “They should be identified and their homes should be bulldozed,” he declared. A few hours later bulldozers duly rolled in, smashing Muslim property for alleged building-code violations.

The increasing use of summary collective punishment is disturbing enough—the demolitions in Delhi followed identical post-pogrom targeting of Muslims in three other BJP-ruled states. More telling still has been the response from higher up in the party, and in particular from Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister. The leader’s reaction to months of sporadic communal violence and rising social tension, and to loud calls from activists, politicians and even retired civil servants for him to do something has been absolute silence.
India has long stood out proudly in Asia, precisely because of its success in building a nation from an extraordinary diversity of religions and ethnicities. It has enjoyed both democracy and relative peace, even as its neighbours succumbed to majoritarianism. Pakistan tried to shove the Urdu language down Bengali throats, sparking a bloody war that gave birth to Bangladesh. Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority sought to lord it over the island’s ancient Tamil minority, triggering a 26-year civil war that left 300,000 dead. Even tiny Buddhist Bhutan hounded out its entire Nepali Hindu minority—a sixth of its population—in the 1990s. Majority muscle-flexing has reduced all too many Asians from citizenship to tenuous subjecthood.

With its robust democracy, independent courts, noisy press and fissiparous diversity even within big categories such as Hindus, could India really embrace majoritarian rule? Surely this goes against the grain of its own history. In the messy partition at the end of British rule in 1947, Muslims who feared Hindu majoritarianism created the new state of Pakistan, while those who hoped for an all-embracing, secular country remained with India.
[Over the decades, however,] Hindu-nationalist dogma has filtered into mainstream discourse by a slow-drip process. This has been propagated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, a volunteer service corps founded in 1925 and once regarded by many Indians as cranks. Myriad affiliated groups (including the BJP) with tens of millions of members, amplify the word. Their main message, that Hindus must unite to face imminent danger, may sound absurd in a country with an unassailable preponderance of Hindus. But the urgency and passion of the cry, set against the heroic narrative of a Hindu reconquista after centuries of Muslim and European rule over Mother India, is irresistible for many.
At the most extreme end of the Hindu-nationalist spectrum, speakers at public rallies across northern India in recent years have launched bidding wars of threats against Muslims, from mass rape to mass expulsion. On May 7th Hari bhushan Thakur Bachaul, a BJP politician in Bihar, in eastern India, declared that Muslims should be burned alive just like effigies of the Hindu demon Ravana.

All but a tiny portion of Hindus regard such talk as madly over the top. Yet in part because of the reluctance of either Mr Modi or his RSS mothership to intervene, the demonising tone has become commonplace, and not just regarding the Muslims minority. Other groups such as Dalits, leftist activists (dismissed as “urban Naxalites”) and liberal do-gooders (smeared as “libtards” and “pseudo-seculars”) have become the targets of digital troll armies and, dismayingly often, of the law.

The large Christian (35m) and Sikh (25m) minorities are not spared, either. False rumours of conversion, in many cases fanned by BJP-appointed officials, have led to mob attacks on priests and church-run schools. When farmers, many of them Sikhs from Punjab, protested against farming reforms last year, the BJP tried to link them to Sikh separatist groups that mounted an armed insurgency in the 1980s.
So far, India’s Muslims have responded to the accumulating humiliations with remarkable cool. When the city’s bulldozers growled into a Muslim part of Delhi on May 9th for more punitive “enforcement of building codes”, residents simply surrounded them in such numbers that they could not move. But it would be foolish of Mr Modi to imagine that more and more wood can be piled on a pyre, without risk of burning the whole village down.

Excerpted from: https://www.economist.com/asia/2022/05/14/how-narendra-modi-is-remaking-india-into-a-hindu-st