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India under Hindutva Violence

Asoka Modi’s book offers a scathing critique of the rise of Hindutva-led violence in India following the 2014 election of Narendra Modi as prime minister

by Khaled Ahmed

In India is Broken: A People Betrayed, Independence to Today, author Asoka Modi has penned a severe critique of India under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), alleging that violence spread quickly after Narendra Modi’s election to the Prime Minister’s Office in late May 2014.

Less than a month after Modi’s election, he writes, a mob in Pune lynched a 24-year-old Muslim technology professional after falsely accusing him of posting offensive videos on Facebook. July 2014 saw a boost to the social media presence of Hindutva’s digital soldiers. Their trolling targeted all perceived opponents, with Arun Shourie—a Modi critic who served as minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP government—complaining that “Hindutva warriors had abused his disabled son.”

The violence continued. In August 2015, M.M. Kalburgi, a scholar and Hindutva critic, was gunned down at his home in Dharwad, Karnataka. That October, a mob in Greater Noida outside Delhi murdered a Muslim man after accusing him of eating beef. In late March 2017, the BJP won the elections in Uttar Pradesh, with 44-year-old Yogi Adityanath—popularly known as the Yogi—becoming the new chief minister. Supporters described the Yogi as “a Hindu sher” (lion) who would unfurl “the Hindu nationalist flag across UP.”

Sectarian support

As Hindutva entrenched in India, Modi increasingly relied on stoking the religious sentiments of his supporters. He took a “holy dip” at Kumbh, saying he had prayed for the well-being of all Indians. He also paid his respects at Hindutva’s holiest site, the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the movement’s patron saint Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was interned by the British. Unlike in the 2014 elections, the promise of economic development was all but gone and the drumbeat of the “Gujarat economic model” forgotten. Ahead of the 2019 elections, it became clear Modi’s campaign was now built on a strongman image in dealing with alleged Pakistani militancy and a more enduring bond through the promise of Hindutva. According to Asoka, a disillusioned former BJP insider who once handled the party’s social media analytics told him that the 2014 elections were fought on the plank of development; in 2019, this shifted to polarization.

As the April/May elections approached, Facebook and WhatsApp blocked some inflammatory posts but allowed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and senior BJP politicians to continue unrestrained. Facebook, argues Asoka, spread the most vicious hate, confirmed by internal Facebook documents made public by whistleblower Frances Haugen. For the first time, he says, Indian election campaign expenditures exceeded those of the most recent U.S. presidential and congressional cycle. At the same time, the share of Lok Sabha members with serious pending criminal charges—including murder, kidnapping, extortion—increased to 29 percent, with a former election commissioner warning this was likely an undercount, as criminals are able to use their influence to scrub past misdeeds from the judicial record.

The Yogi factor

Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh, the Yogi was advancing the Hindutva platform he had launched in 1998 under the Gau Raksha Manch, or “Cow Protection Platform.” Asoka writes that Yogi Adityanath recruited in large numbers “young and restless Hindu men,” resulting in an uptick to the frequency and intensity of rioting in his home city of Gorakhpur. For the Yogi, he argues, Hindutva was always prioritized over economic development. This reflects the prevailing Hindutva view. In Writing with Fire, a documentary, a reporter asks a sword-brandishing Hindu Yuva Vahini leader about his aspiration for India’s youth. After a reflective pause, he says “young Indians should protect cows.” To the reporter questioning how this would help achieve economic progress, the leader replies that as it would fulfill a Hindu religious duty, economic progress would follow “automatically.”

Yogi Adityanath and Indian politics

The Yogi also personified another destructive trend in Indian politics—that of the criminal-politicians. Twenty members of his cabinet—45 percent—faced serious criminal charges. He himself faced charges of criminal intimidation, attempted murder, and rioting. This was playing out nationally, with Hindutva adherents silencing critics with fierce brutality. In July 2017, two riders on a motorcycle pulled up behind journalist and vocal Hindutva opponent Gauri Lankesh as she was parking her car outside her home in Bangalore. One of the riders shot her thrice, leaving her dead in a pool of her own blood. Hindutva trolls on Twitter celebrated. “A bitch has died a dog’s death and now all the puppies are wailing in the same tune,” posted 38-year-old Nikhil Dadhich, one of the 1,779 people Narendra Modi follows on Twitter.

The most disturbing use of state power in the aid of Hindutva began with an event on Jan. 1, 2018 in Bhima Koregaon, a small village in western Maharashtra. This was a major event for low-caste Dalits, whose forefathers had—200 years earlier on Jan. 1, 1818—won a battle there against the Brahmin Peshwa king, symbolizing a triumph against historical injustices inflicted by higher-caste Indians.

Hindutva and Dalits

This celebration, however, proved intolerable to Hindutva followers, as it undercut their narrative of Hindu unity. Hindutva organizations—comprising cadres of unemployed youth—attacked the Dalits. This was followed in August 2018 by Maharashtra police arresting five Dalit sympathizers after accusing them of being Naxalites engaged in a larger plot to assassinate Narendra Modi and overthrow his government. The arrests were under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, denying them the right to a speedy trial or bail. Their cases are still pending.

But Modi’s strong-arm tactics were not restricted to the mainland. Shortly after his re-election, in August 2019, he fulfilled a long-standing promise of Hindutva leaders to dismantle Kashmir’s special constitutional status. Stripping away the small amount of autonomy that the Kashmiri government had in comparison with other state governments, he allowed non-Kashmiris to buy land in the disputed region, paving the way for demographic changes. Splitting the region into two parts, he downgraded them both to “Union Territories,” essentially placing the areas under his control. The state also cracked down on local resistance, detaining large numbers of potential Kashmiri protesters and shutting down internet and mobile phone connections. When human rights organization Amnesty International pointed out that cutting off communications would endanger lives, the government threatened it with regulatory retaliation. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court watched silently, in seeming alignment with the government over challenges to eliminating Kashmir’s special status and splitting it into two union territories.

Validating the view of the Supreme Court acting in concert with the government, it approved in November 2019 the Hindutva aim to build a temple for Lord Ram in Ayodhya on the site where the now-destroyed Babri Masjid had once stood. In doing so, the Court acknowledged the trail of illegalities that led to the mosque’s demolition in 1992, even though it admitted there was little foundation for the claim that the site had always been venerated as the spot of Lord Ram’s birth. Invoking Article 142 of the Constitution, which enables the Supreme Court to take extraordinary measures when the interests of “complete justice” demand, it cited the “faith and belief” that Hindus held in the site as birthplace of Lord Ram as sufficient ground to construct the temple. This triggered an outpouring of celebration by Hindutva’s young soldiers. The turning tide saw many Indian leaders joining a “soft” Hindutva bandwagon, with Congress Party’s Rahul Gandhi coming across as a devout Hindu Brahmin.

Muslim migrants/refugees

In December 2019, Modi shepherded the Citizenship Amendment Act through parliament, paving the way for Indian citizenship for non-Islamic refugees and immigrants from neighboring countries. The law specifically excluded Muslim refugees and migrants from the possibility of Indian citizenship, triggering hate-filled, anti-Muslim messaging on social media for months. A protest led by women students warned that this might be a step toward a Hindu state. It was swiftly shut down by police, who arrested protesting students across the country and shut down mobile networks in Delhi. In violent confrontations between Hindutva groups and protesters, a junior minister in the Modi government incited his goons to “shoot the traitors.”

In Karnataka, the police arrested a teacher on the charge of sedition for helping primary school students stage a play critical of the new citizenship policy. In what was by then a recurring theme, the Supreme Court maintained silence on a constitutional challenge to the Citizenship Amendment legislation.

According to author Asoka Modi, India under Hindutva has seen GDP growth inch toward the dreaded 3 percent annual rate, with zero tolerance for critics. After veteran industrialist Rahul Bajaj criticized the government for inaction on economic policy and unwillingness to hear criticism, as well as slamming the violence and intimidation encouraged by Hindu nationalists, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman accused him of harming the national interest. The heavy-handedness continues to-date though there is some light on the horizon. Earlier this month, the BJP lost the elections in Karnataka, with analysts suggesting this could spell trouble for Modi as he works toward securing a second decade in power.

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