The rise of majoritarianism fueled by Hindu ultra-nationalism threatens India's pluralistic, rich and diverse traditions. Muslims have become targets in India and their oppressors enjoy impunity and oxygen from the government.
In Narendra Modi's India, it seems as if a new anti-Muslim dog whistle emerges in the political theater every odd month. The aims of India's Hindu extremist agitators are simple: to consolidate the disparate Hindu vote, leveraging animus toward Muslims, and further ostracize the country's 200 million Muslims, effectively erasing them from the public sphere.
The pattern is blatantly obvious.
It began in 2014 with "ghar wapsi," which translates as "homecoming," but serves as a euphemism for a campaign to convert Muslims "back" to Hinduism. Then there came agitation against "love jihad"—the supposed surreptitious use of romantic relationships by Muslim men to convert Hindu women to Islam. This was then followed by the issue of the slaughter of cows, an animal revered as holy by Hindus, but also an affordable protein source for its minority population.
Today, these issues pop up simultaneously, but it is the anti-cow slaughter campaign that is most persistent and violent, leading to the murder of Muslims in the livestock trade by Hindu extremist mobs. Other issues, such as the Islamic call to prayer and Muslim women's divorce rights, have taken center stage in India's frenzied media debate.
On the streets, the anti-Muslim campaign is led by the network of Hindu extremist (Hindutva) groups, including Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On the screens, the digital mob is led by major television networks allied with the BJP.
Muslims are brought on Indian news channels only to be put before a firing line, interrogated by hosts and guests alike. They have become India's official "other."
Muslims make up around fifteen percent of India's population, but judging from the Indian media, it appears that not only are they the only group beset by social maladies, but that the greatest challenge India faces today is that of the "Muslim problem."
A talk show on India's pro-BJP Zee News channel—hosted by a self-identified Muslim funded by Islamophobes—purportedly addresses contentious issues within the Muslim community, but mainly relishes in lampooning Muslim clerics and blaming Muslims for why their community lags behind on most human development indicators.
The BJP, whose activists rape and murder Muslim women during pogroms, are casting themselves as defenders of Muslim women's divorce rights. Yet they are silent about the high rates of wife abandonment among Hindus—i.e. separation without divorce. Prime Minister Modi himself is guilty of having abandoned his wife over fifty years ago.
Similarly, Indian news channels—dominated by upper-caste Hindus—rarely discuss the enduring bigotry embedded within the Hindu caste system.
Dalits, deemed as born "impure," have been made to transport human waste for centuries and face daily indignities from upper-caste Hindus. Each week, it seems, a Dalit has to brave upper-caste intimidation for merely riding a horse, as per tradition, during a wedding ceremony. They are to remain humbled and debased for eternity.
The goal of the Indian right's anti-Muslim discourse is not merely electoral. Over time, the aim is to create a Hindu "rashtra" (nation)—a New India that is proudly Hindu and nothing more.
The idea is to bully Muslims into submission and force their assimilation into the Hindu fold. Subramanian Swamy, a senior official with the BJP, has in the past said that Muslim voting rights should be made contingent upon Muslims "admitting" that they are Hindu by blood. Indianness equals Hinduness, Hindutva activists claim.
The appointment of Yogi Adityanath, the head of a violent Hindutva vigilante group, as chief minister of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, signals that Modi is not distancing himself from Hindutva extremism. He himself is a Hindutva hardliner. And he sees the Hindu nationalist card as critical for reelection in 2019.
Broadly, the Hindutva movement sees itself as a historical corrective. It seeks, in the words of Modi, to redress India's "twelve hundred years of servitude"—painting not only the British as colonial aggressors, but also the Muslim rulers who came as invaders but built a uniquely composite culture and indigenized Islam in South Asia.
For Hindutva extremists, Islam remains an outsider. It is not an "Indic" religion despite having been in the region since the 7th century.
This is ultimately a revolt against history. Not just against the Muslim, whose mind and blood is "polluted" with the remnants of invaders past, but also the Nehruvian secular—derided as "sickular" or "Lutyens' Delhi" liberals—who, in the words of Modi, "appease" the Muslim "vote bank."
India is a rising power but its fundamental problems endure. Caste and religious bigotry limit social mobility and incentivize wedge politics that is paired with violence. In the wake of demonetization, India's growth has slowed. It is still in the healthy six percent range—if Indian governmental data is accurate. But job growth has been dismal.
And herein lies the danger: as the dream of a New India goes unrealized, unemployed young men with useless degrees will vent their anger and frustration through the mob. Scapegoats, such as Muslims, will be prime targets. Social media and low-bandwidth communications tools like WhatsApp have made mob mobilization even easier, even in rural India. But government too will be the recipient of youth anger. We see this already with young agitators such as Hardik Patel of the Paditar caste in Gujarat and Chandrashekhar leading Dalits in Uttar Pradesh through the Bhim Army.
The challenge of the New India will be generational. The Indian middle class has rejected the Nehruvian India that took pride in a commitment to a version of secularism. They have chosen Modi's India: an India in which religious conservatism is on the rise and Hindu "godmen" fuse Vedic righteousness with jingoistic nationalism and consumerism.
The consequences will be borne by India's minorities, its neighbors, and, ultimately, the majority population whose false hopes will by shattered by the grimness of reality.
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