The BJP government in India has unabashedly embraced an intolerant, majoritarian ideology
Muslims comprise roughly 20 percent of the Indian population. Living conditions in post-Partition India have rarely been satisfactory for them. However, life has become excruciatingly painful for them under Narendra Modi’s regime. Every passing day brings more slings and arrows shot at them by the Hindutva ideology.
In December 2021, some of the far-right Hindu leaders called for genocide against Muslims at a three-day religious summit of Hindu Mahasabha in Haridwar, a northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. Pooja Shakun Pandey, a senior member of the Mahasabha, aka Annapurna Maa, said, “Even if as few as a hundred of us become soldiers and kill two million of them, we will be victorious… only if you stand with this attitude, will you be able to protect Sanatana dharma (true faith).” Pandey told a cheering crowd: “to protect Bharat Mata and Sanatana Dharma, you will have to become soldiers. Leave the books aside and pick up weapons”. She warned that “we will wage a battle far scarier than the battle of 1857.”
On January 1, 100 prominent Indian Muslim women were put on an auction app, Bulli Bai, “for sale as maids”. This was seen a brazen gesture to sexualise, humiliate, and force into silence socially prominent Muslim women.
In recent past, the BJP government has launched an eviction drive against Muslims in Assam, after declaring them illegal settlers on public land. The police shot a protesting villager, Moinul Haque, and then attacked him with batons. A photographer, identified as Bijoy Bania, stomped on what appeared to be the lifeless body.
There can be little doubt that the unprecedented increase in the demonisation of the Muslim minority in India under the Modi regime has the tacit approval of the BJP government. In 2018, Amit Shah, now minister for interior, described the immigrants and asylum seekers from Bangladesh as “termites” and promised that the BJP government would “pick up “infiltrators” one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.” In 2019, the Indian parliament passed legislation allowing immigrants from three neighboring countries a path to citizenship as long as the applicants were not Muslims.
The Indian prime minister, too, has suggested in his public speeches that Indian Muslims must be held responsible and punished for the crimes committed allegedly by their ancestors. Several BJP-curated WhatsApp groups highlight the sins of the past Muslim rulers as sufficient reason to punish the entire Muslim community.
Muslims are routinely prevented from praying in the mosques. Far-right Hindu nationalists openly tell Muslims that they are no longer seen as equal citizens in the country. Their dietary habits and religious rituals are attacked, even criminalised. The “cow vigilantes” have killed dozens of Muslims for consuming or slaughtering the cows after Modi’s government banned the sale and slaughter of cows nationwide in 2017. Many of these murders remained unpunished on account of the delay in police investigation and the rhetoric of ruling party politicians.
According to writer Ghazala Wahab, the life of the post-Partition Muslims in India has been reduced to “an irrelevant vote bank.” She says their insecurity in their ghettos is “perpetuated by illiteracy, poverty and unemployment”. The general backwardness of the community has led to “a loss of identity” among the Muslims.
Given that Hindutva is a rallying cry of the far-right Hindus, it is worth exploring its broad contours. Hindutva is an extreme form of Hindu nationalism in India. As a political ideology, it was first articulated in 1923 by Savarkar. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishva Hindu Parishad, the BJP and some other political outfits that champion the cause of Hindutva are collectively called the Sangh Parivar.
Not all Hindus subscribe to Hindutva; many complain that Hindu supremacists try to equate it with Hinduism. Some Hindus see it as being akin to European fascism in Nazi Germany, promoting a personality cult and authoritarianism. Hinduism, they point out, is primarily concerned with religious practices and beliefs.
The sheer toxicity of Annapurna Maa’s narrative in calling for genocide raises many questions about the Hindu Mahasabha to which she is affiliated. Mahasabha is one of the oldest political parties in India. It was founded in 1907 at a time when differences between the Muslims and Hindus were intensifying. Hindu Mahasabha did not support British rule, but it did not back India’s freedom movement led by Gandhi either.
Even today, some Mahasabha members worship Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse. The official website of Hindu Mahasabha declares India the “National Home of the Hindus.” Should it come to power, it promises, it would force the Indian Muslims to leave for Pakistan and reform the country’s educational system to align it with its version of Hinduism.
Previously, some Indian governments have sought to promote religious harmony and pluralism. The BJP government, however, has unabashedly embraced an intolerant, majoritarian ideology. It rejects the policy of the previous governments as pointless appeasement of Muslims and a threat to the Hindu identity of India.
Given that India has historically taken pride in its pluralism, diversity, and democratic and secular credentials, a sudden change in the state’s attitude towards the Muslim minority raises many disturbing questions. Why has the Indian state turned its guns on a minority? According to one view, the demonisation of Muslims in India is an electoral strategy to create religious tensions and activate religious polarisation to consolidate the Hindu vote. There is a widespread perception that the governance failure has given rise to right-wing extremism.
Under the BJP government, dispossession, demonisation and demoralisation of Muslims have been increasingly normalised. Most Indians have thus started taking the anti-Muslim vitriol for granted. The press has also been complicit in stamping out democratic and syncretic norms once touted as the greatest strength of a diverse India.
One reason why the BJP gets away with human rights abuses is that the world opinion has not reacted to these. The developed world has chosen mostly to refrain from condemning India for its crimes against religious minorities because it is seen as an important strategic ally against China and a significant trading partner.
A sobering lesson from the past is that when the international community remains silent over violence against persecuted communities, it paves the way for genocide. This is what happened in Rwanda and Cambodia. Gregory Stanton, the human rights professor and founder of Genocide Watch, believes that it would be a mistake to dismiss the hate speech in Haridwar as the opinion of a fringe element. He says that even if it is not very likely that India will experience mass killings like Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan, the danger of mobs carrying out “genocidal massacres” in India is very real.
Early Warning Project at the Centre for the Prevention of Genocide at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, undertook a risk assessment of mass killings in 162 countries. India ranked at number two in 2021-2022 in its report. The Early Warning Project analysed information about the systematic discrimination against Muslims, ban on the internet and anti-dissident measures in Kashmir, and the “promotion of nationalist and exclusionary ideologies” and reached the conclusion that there was a 14 percent probability of mass killings of Muslims beginning in 2021 or 2022 in India.
Though the world, in general, and the OIC, in particular, have given scant attention to the plight of the Muslims in India, the Indian Muslims are no longer taking the attacks against them lying down. When 100 Muslim women were put on sale on an auction app, they filed a series of FIRs and the police were forced to arrest four suspects.
Many Muslim journalists and activists have recently documented the atrocities inflicted on Muslims in the form of video recordings. The authorities are therefore finding it hard to ignore the hate crimes committed against Muslims. They are also trying to make sure that the call for genocide does not go unpunished. The OIC and the world leaders, too, have a responsibility to take measures to prevent a human catastrophe of epic proportions.
The writer is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus