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Islamophobic Strife in Modi’s India

Hal Conte March 31, 2020

Source: Xavier Galiana/AFP via Getty Images

It started with a tweet. “A three day ultimatum to the police,” wrote Kapil Mishra, an Indian politician allied with Prime Minister Narendra Modi – to clear the roads and after that please do not try to convince us, we would not even listen to you.”

The result? Beatings, shootings, looting arson, over 49 killed, and international condemnation.

The incidents have drawn global world attention to the perilous state of civil order in what has often been described as the world’s largest democracy, but what is more and more seen by even its own leading intellectuals as at risk of becoming something else – if it isn’t already too late.

The real purpose of Mishra’s announcement, made under the rationale that roads in the Delhi area needed to be free of people ahead of Donald Trump’s visit to the country, was well-understood as an attempt to get rid of the millions of people protesting the country’s new Citizenship Amendment. Critics of the law have compared it to “fascism” and apartheid for excluding Muslims.

In response, anti-Muslim pogroms and lower-level “communalism” – strife among ethnic groups – have been whipped up by the millions of people in favor of the law and the worldview it encapsulates.

Since the 1947 partition, the Muslim minority in India has faced periodic episodes of immense bigotry, with riots in Gujarat in 1969 and in Bhiwandi in 1970s serving as a reminder that even in the early era of Indian democracy, strife was not absent.

However, at the time, this violence was not condoned by the government. On the contrary, secularism was enshrined in the country’s constitution from day one and reaffirmed by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1976 with an additional amendment.

Today, though, top Indian generals have called for detention centers for “radical” Muslims, while members of the ruling party have cooked up conspiracy theories of “love jihad” – supposed plots by Muslim men to seduce non-Muslim women to join the religion of Allah. The conspiracies claim these ideas are served to the voting public, stirring division and poisoning relations between groups. Trump, who has a higher approval rating in India than in the U.S., drew his loudest applause after invoking the efforts by his administration to deter Islamic terrorism.

Much of this hate is being orchestrated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha, a far-right paramilitary group established in the 1920s as a volunteer organization. The RSS’s ideology, Hindutva, posits that contrary to the constitution, India should be a Hindu nation exclusively, and the organization’s founder was fond of Hitler and Mussolini. A former member of the RSS, Nathuram Godse, killed Mohandas Gandhi. The RSS was briefly banned by Indira Gandhi during her controversial period of emergency rule in the late 1970s, but has led attacks on Indian Muslims for decades.

Since gaining mainstream popularity as part of the motley coalition which defeated Indira though, it has been a driving force in India’s politics, gaining ironclad influence under Modi’s tenure, as his party, the 180-million strong BJPis considered the political arm of the RSS, with the same beliefs and anti-Muslim animus.

Longtime Indian intellectuals, including Vijay Prashad and Arundhati Roy, have deplored the BJP, and hashtags describing Modi as dishonest have been popular on social media. But poll ratings for the opposition, including the once-mighty Congress and the Communist Left Front, have remained anemic, and activists have been quoted in U.S. and Indian media alike as describing their response to the riots as either cowardly or inept. Modi’s outriders and likely successors, including Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, make his brand of populism look tame.

Modi has one of the largest and most effective online troll armies of any world leader. In her book “I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army,” Swati Chaturvedi writes that the BJP centrally commandeers millions of phoney accounts and paid individuals to “constantly peddle hate tweets and conspiracy theories and slander journalists.”

Nonetheless, some of this bullying is a sign of weakness – the Indian economy has done badly in recent years, and despite chest-thumping moves last year, including strikes against nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan, Indian influence and prestige abroad has declined significantly since the Nehru-Indira era, with the country’s non-aligned stance largely jettisoned in favor of fealty to the U.S..

The coronavirus provides an odd bit of respite for now – it may be used by the Indian authorities to shut down demonstrations in the future, but xenophobic mobs may not turn out either, according to the BBC.

At the same time, though, it has also led to the re-imposition of controls on Kashmir, the Muslim-dominated territory claimed by both India and Pakistan and subjected to controversial constitutional changes by Modi last year.

COVID-19 has largely avoided India for now, but Roy and some other left-leaning intellectuals take little solace in that.

“This is our version of the coronavirus, we are sick,” Roy, an internationally renowned novelist, said, addressing protestors. “There is the fire in the ducts. The system is failing.”