NEW DELHI: When two spokespeople from India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) committed blasphemy, it prompted an international firestorm.
The incident led to protests among India's Muslim minority in several states. Some Muslim-majority nations summoned their India ambassadors. India's foreign ministry said the comments did not reflect the views of the government, and the officials involved -- one of whom later withdrew her remarks -- faced disciplinary action.
But for India's 200 million Muslims, these comments were not an isolated incident. Rather, they were the culmination of the BJP's "engineering hatred of a common enemy," says bestselling Indian author Arundhati Roy. "India's tragedy is not that it's the worst place in the world -- it's that we are on our way there.
We're burning down our house. India is an experiment that is failing dangerously," she told CNN. "Many, many of my beloved friends -- poets, writers, professors, lawyers, human rights activists and journalists -- are in prison, most of them charged under a dreaded law called the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, all of them for speaking up for minorities, Dalits and forest-dwellers facing displacement and state terror.
"Among them are people I consider to be India's most important minds. It makes one wonder what living as a free person in the time of fascism means. What does it mean to be a bestselling author when the world is breaking?" writes Roy.
In this email interview, Roy says Indian politics has something in common with the US Capitol riots, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is stoking hatred, and talks about who the real power in India lies with. About BJP officials' derogatory comments, she says it reveals how successfully the clear and present existential threat posed by Hindu nationalism in India has been masked by the face it presents to the outside world.
You know the people in strange clothes, the man in furs and antlers who stormed the US Capitol? We're being ruled by their equivalent here. The difference is that they are not a collection of random lunatics.
They are members of the most powerful organisation in India -- the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), whose founding ideologues openly admired Hitler and likened the Muslims of India to the Jews of Germany. RSS is the real power in India. Roy says the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), considered to be one of the richest political parties in the world, is only the front office of the RSS.
Founded in 1925, the RSS, traditionally controlled by a handful of Brahmins, now has millions of members including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been a member since his teenage years, and most of his cabinet ministers. It has its own vast militia, its own schools, labor unions and women's organisations.
It's not a political party, it's something of a shape-shifter, a master of double-speak, its sources of funding are amorphous and leave no legal trail, it works through an array of affiliates, but it's a nation within a nation.
The RSS believes that India should be declared a Hindu nation, just as Pakistan, Iran and several countries in the Persian Gulf are Islamic nations, just as Israel is legally the "nation-state of the Jewish people."
In fact, the RSS believes in what it calls "Akhand Bharat," a sort of fantasy that is futuristic and ancient all at once -- a future Ancient India which includes Pakistan and Bangladesh which will be conquered and subject to Hindu rule.
To flatten India's mind-boggling religious, socialand subnational identities, more diverse than all of Europe, into the strict hierarchy of a moribund, caste-bound Hindu nation is an unimaginably violent process.
It means setting aside the constitution and undoing the very idea of India. First in the line of fire is the Muslim community. Close behind are Christians -- a tiny minority that is also being brutalised. Last year alone there were more than 400 attacks on Christians.
Churches have been vandalised, priests and nuns beaten up, their congregations threatened and humiliated. In the last two national elections, in 2014 and 2019, the BJP has shown that it can win a solid majority in the national parliament without the votes of India's 200-million-strong Muslim community.
That has effectively resulted in a sort of disenfranchisement and political isolation of Muslims, which is extremely dangerous. Roy says there is also a new anti-Muslim citizenship law, a sort of refugee-manufacturing policy in which those who cannot produce a mandated set of "legacy papers," which few people have, can find themselves deprived of citizenship.
Nearly 2 million people in the state of Assam have already been struck off the National Register of Citizens. Massive detention centers for those who have been stripped of citizenship are being constructed all over the country.
But isolating Muslims is not enough. Creating an artificial majority out of a very diverse Hindu community that consists of thousands of castes and ethnicities is equally important if the BJP is to remain in power.
The cement for that is engineering hatred of a common enemy. This requires an incremental ratcheting up of bigotry. Apart from the mass killings and lynching of Muslims by Hindu vigilantes in recent years, we have the steady drumbeat of hatred and outlandish disinformation beamed into peoples' homes by approximately 400 TV channels and countless newspapers.
On social media handles viewed by millions of people there are open calls for the genocide of Muslims -- and videos demonstrating how it should be done. We regularly see provocative demonstrations by thousands of sword-wielding Hindu men marching through areas in which Muslims live.
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