Senior figures from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party are using alarming election campaign rhetoric that alienates and endangers Muslims.
India is in the midst of general elections that will take place over seven phases. These elections will decide whether the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, will come back to power or not.
In 2014, Modi raced to the top by promising change, development and “achhe din” (good days). This year, they seem to be singing a different tune.
The party seems to have gone back to what it is known best for during any election - consolidating ‘Hindu’ votes against the “enemies” and “outsiders”. The campaign for the current elections is being run on fear and hatred for the ‘other’, with the most common target being the Muslims.
When the senior-most leadership of the party makes derogatory remarks against a particular community, it becomes evident that it is well-planned and a targeted strategy.
Late last year, Amit Shah, the president of the BJP, went on a tirade against illegal immigrants in multiple rallies. At one of the events, he likened the immigrants to “termites” and said they are harming India’s future by infiltrating into the country. He also accused the “infiltrators” of taking away jobs and conspiring with terrorists to endanger national security.
Many reports suggested that Shah was primarily talking about Bangladeshi immigrants in the context of the implementation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the north-eastern state of Assam. The NRC, simply stated, is a register containing the names of all “genuine” citizens of Assam. The most recent exercise of updating the list took place in 2017-2018, and the cut-off date was decided to be March 24, 1971, specifically to address the issue of immigrants from Bangladesh.
Earlier this year, while launching the election campaign in the eastern state of West Bengal, Shah attacked the state government by saying that it is fond of infiltrators.
“I want to assure all refugees living in Bengal - Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh - that they need not be afraid. We have brought the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill to grant citizenship to every Hindu Bangladeshi,” he said.
Shah further added that those who have been persecuted in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh - whether they are Buddhist, Sikh or Christian will be granted citizenship under the Narendra Modi government. Shah repeated similar words in yet another rally in West Bengal earlier this month when he said that BJP would throw the Bangladeshi immigrants out after it comes to power for a second term.
It is not hard to notice the particular omission of the word ‘Muslims’ from Shah’s speech, who form 14.2 percent of the total population according to the 2011 Census. The community is also excluded from the provisions of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2006, which seeks to provide citizenship to migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, who belong to Hindu, Jain, Parsi, Sikh, Buddhist or Christian communities. In a recent rally in Assam, Modi said he was committed to passing the bill once his party returns to power.
It is also not hard to draw comparisons between the vitriolic campaign that was run by Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election and what is happening in India right now. The demonisation of a particular community over imagined or half-baked concerns sets a dangerous precedent and attacks the very innate nature of our constitution which includes the word ‘secular’ in it.
The last few years have seen a rise in the number of hate crimes and mob lynchings related to rumours of cow slaughter or smuggling. According to a 2017 report by IndiaSpend, a data-driven news website, 97 percent of the attacks between 2010 and 2017 took place after the BJP government came to power in 2014. The report also revealed that most of the victims were Muslims.
Shah is not the only person from the party who has been providing a staple diet of majoritarian views. Maneka Gandhi, the Union minister of Women and Child Development in the Modi government, recently issued a subtle threat to Muslims while campaigning from a constituency in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
While addressing a crowd, she was caught on camera saying, “I will win these elections anyway. But I will not like it if I win without the support of Muslims. If after that Muslims will come to me for work, I’ll think 'what difference does it make?'.”
This statement does not only alienate Muslims as the ‘other’ but also shows gross apathy on the part of Gandhi when she indicated that she would not work for a particular section of the people when she wins. A member of parliament (MP) should represent everyone from her constituency, irrespective of who did or didn’t vote for them.
This kind of rhetoric being used so close to elections shows the unabashed confidence that the BJP has when it comes to riling up majoritarian sentiments.
The polarisation of votes based on religion is an old trick that the party uses from time to time when it sees other options failing. Recent reports and studies have revealed the loss of jobs, the failure of demonetisation in achieving what the government said it would and the effects of the hasty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax.
In terms of economic progress, the government does not have much to say outside of reverting to bottom of the barrel communalism.
Not surprisingly, the BJP manifesto for 2019 stated that “We reiterate our stand on Ram Mandir” (on the disputed site in Ayodhya where Babri Masjid was torn down in 1992). Since the mosque’s demolition, that led to riots and many communal flare-ups in the country, the Ram Mandir is regularly used as bait in BJP’s electoral campaigns.
The threats are not just restricted just to what Shah and Maneka Gandhi have suggested. Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh said at a rally that if this government wins the election, it will make the provisions of the sedition law so stringent that it will “send shivers down the spine”. In 2016, students of a public university were accused of sedition and termed “anti-national”, taking some videos as evidence, which were later found out to be doctored.
The sedition law of India is a repressive colonial law which should have been done away with a long time back. In recent years, it has done nothing but stifle dissent. Now, a senior minister is talking about making the law even stricter.
The politics of marginalisation and majoritarianism is what rules the current electoral campaign in the 'world's biggest democracy', and it would not be an overstatement to say that it has taken an ugly turn. The election will end the government will be formed, with or without Modi, but the divisive rhetoric will continue to create divisions for years to come.
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