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India’s deepening polarization will be tough to reverse

The political discourse, which demonizes minority groups and opponents, has fueled a disturbing rise in hate and violence
Bharatiya Janata Party workers and activists carry a portrait of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they wait to see him during a road rally held in Bengaluru on May 6 ahead of the Karnataka Assembly election

Bharatiya Janata Party workers and activists carry a portrait of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they wait to see him during a road rally held in Bengaluru on May 6 ahead of the Karnataka Assembly election. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 12, 2023 11:51 AM GMT
Updated: May 12, 2023 12:23 PM GMT

As he rested anticipating a massive victory in 2014 after a whirlwind campaign documented as the most vicious and poisonous ever in India’s election history, the then Gujarat state chief minister Narendra Modi sought to calm fears about the future of religious minorities under his rule.

He, after all, had been banned from entry to the United States for his governance which saw over a thousand people, mostly Muslims, killed and their women raped in a riot, allegedly state-sponsored. Justice is yet to be delivered to the riot victims.

Modi said his government would represent all Indians whether they voted for him or not and religious minorities had nothing to fear. In the general elections in 2019, Modi and his major-domo, Federal Home Minister Amit Shah, were to use the same rhetoric.

They would sweep the election again, albeit with a sobering decline in popularity. Once again, he would promise India was a safe haven not just for Hindus, but also for Muslims and Christians, the two Abrahamic faiths that in popular parlance are deemed “foreign” and not respectful of the ancient Indian civilization.

In the recently concluded elections to the Karnataka state legislature, Modi and Shah fell back on pounding the hapless Muslim again, though a passing effort was made to keep Christian bishops happy.

Every attack on the rival Congress party, seeking to wrest the southern state from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ultimately ended up with Sonia Gandhi, born a Catholic to Italian parents, and Rahul Gandhi, billed once again as the Italian’s son, accused of appeasing minority sentiments, and thereby being anti-national themselves.

The results may shock Modi if the exit polls are to be believed. The state currently ranks second to Uttar Pradesh in being the most unfriendly towards Muslims and Christians, with special laws against the hijab head scarf worn by Muslim women and against religious conversion.

It is difficult to translate into English, or even into many Indian languages, the full import and bigotry of the words and innuendos these two top politicians use. Taking a cue from them, even the federal information minister had dared to galvanize the hordes by openly calling to shoot “traitors.”

The leader and half his council of ministers would face criminal charges if police in the provinces were to obey the orders of the Supreme Court of India, which a fortnight ago, chastised the government for not acting against hate speech.

“State is impotent, state is powerless; it does not act in time. Why do we have a State at all if it is remaining silent?” asked Justice K. M. Joseph.

“The minorities,” he said, “also have rights under the Constitution recognized by the founding fathers… Most important thing for a man is dignity; not wealth, or health. If it is being demolished on a regular basis…Some statements are made, like, ‘Go to Pakistan.’ They are those persons who had actually chosen this country. They are like our brothers and sisters…If we want to become a superpower, the first thing we need is the rule of law…It speaks about brotherhood.”

Justice Joseph ordered that the state "have to take further action" other than just filing a complaint against hate speech.  

On how this can be stopped, Justice Joseph said: “The moment politics and religion are segregated all this will stop.”

Therein lies the real danger. The main electoral plank of Modi and BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been the rhetoric of polarizing the Hindu electorate. They blame the Muslims for every setback – poverty, because they have so many children; security, because they are loyal to Pakistan; and cultural homogeneity, because they insist on hijab and live in ghettos labeled as “mini Pakistans.

“Bricks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt us,” the Muslims and Christians may possibly say. And they would be wrong. The impact of targeted hate has been documented to some extent by civil society groups such as those headed by Teesta Setalvad, Shabnam Hashmi and Harsh Mander.

The last nine years have seen a systematic subordination of school and college education system, police recruitments and bureaucracy in the states ruled by the BJP. And, if someone thought the judiciary was beyond the reach of targeted hate, the judgments and pronouncements of judicial officers in various states and district courts show how deep the rot has set in.

If there was any doubt, it was set to rest when Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS which is sworn to build a larger India without the presence of the Muslim – and Christian – citizens, was invited to address the valedictory function of India’s premier juridical academy in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

India’s mainstream media, much of it owned by two of the world’s richest persons who are also close friends of Modi, does not research or report these erosions on the soft power infrastructures. The environment of fear that is all-permeating prevents any of the think tanks and universities from researching this with academic rigor.

The international media and such groups as the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom and the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Religious Freedom produce annual documents. India rejects with automatic regularity all critique of its record of religious freedom and human rights. Its economic leverage as the biggest buyer of military equipment, informational technology hardware, and oil makes it impervious to any pressure.

Civil society experts feel it will take more than one generation after Modi is finally defeated or retires, for some semblance of sanity to return to the governance system. The biased police forces--they run into the millions in the states--cannot be transformed with the press of a button.

The percolation of RSS ideology in the education system will be much harder to reverse. Already Muslims are being erased or air-brushed from school textbooks. In its place, the books are reimagining India’s past on what thinkers of the Hindutva ideology and the founding fathers of the RSS think.

Some years ago at an international seminar, a scholar from Pakistan told his Indian audience: “We suffer because our police and military have been taught a history that begins with the birth of Pakistan. They have been fed and weaned on this rhetoric in which religious pluralism has no place and hatred for India as an enemy is a guiding principle. India should not tread that path.”

Is anyone listening?

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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1 Comments on this Story
Dr John Dayal's analysis need to be studied and deeply contemplated as it gives sharp focused points. In my book Religious Freedom and Saffron Agenda (2028) I had concluded that divided They eill stand and united They will fall. Coming time is going to ve tougher for Christians minority in comparison to Muslims. .
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