Rising Intolerance in Modi's India

Recently, Indian media was embroiled with the ink attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni, speechwriter for former PM A. B. Vajpayee. Kulkarni had invited former Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, to launch his book “Neither a Hawk, Nor a Dove: An Insider Account of Pakistan's Foreign Policy" in Mumbai, India. Members of Shiv Sena, a Hindu Nationalist organization, took responsibility for dousing Kulkarni in black ink, accusing him of having “the blood of soldiers” on his hands for inviting a former Pakistani leader. They continued to brag of the attack comparing Kulkarni to Kasab, a terrorist involved in the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai. And while Kulkarni attended all the events of the day covered in black ink as protest to the absurdity and communalist behavior that Shiv Sena is often associated with, this is just one of the recent examples of the rising intolerance against minorities in Modi’s secular India.

Former Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ran one of the most successful election campaigns in 2014 resulting in the biggest win by any party in the last three decades. He rejuvenated the promise of “India Shining,” which was marked by his campaign on economic optimism. He promised his electorates of economic growth, stable business environment, development and more jobs. However, the social landscape of India is experiencing a different of kind of shift under Modi. PM Modi, on cue from Obama’s words against religious intolerance in India, ensured his government’s commitment to the “complete freedom of faith” and vowed to protect any targeted religious groups. This was also in light of attacks on churches in the capital and protests by Christian groups. Almost nine months since that promise, there seems to be no end to this surge of intolerance.

The success of India as a rising power in South Asia and in the world is being questioned because its secular structure is dysfunctional. Only last week, Shiv Sena forced the cancellation of Pakistani Singer, Ghulam Ali’s concert in Mumbai and Pune, and Pakistani Sufi Rock Band, Mekaal Hasan Band’s concert in Ahmedabad. These cancellations are the mild form of bigotry and anti-Pakistani, anti-muslim sentiment. An extreme example came earlier in October when Mohammad Ikhlaq was beaten to death by a mob in a village in Uttar Pradesh. The 50-year-old man was suspected of slaughtering a cow and storing its meat. This was a tragic incident as a result of the imposition and spread of the ban on beef in states like Haryana, and Maharashtra. Shiv Sena as well as another Hindu nationalist organization, RSS (Rashtriya SwayamSevak Sangh) supported this ban. However, the frequency of these incidents is getting closer together and is on the rise. One of the most absurd documented incidents is caprured a video of the Kashmir State Assembly that went viral. Elected members of parliament of the BJP were caught beating up a Muslim member accused of eating beef. During a session of the assembly these elected representatives showed their thug-like behavior that is being used to impose the beef ban. And this intolerance isn’t limited to the beef ban. Last year in the city of Pune, after “morphed pictures of the late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackery, Chhatrapati Shivaji and other Hindu gods” surfaced on social media, some Hindu groups were outraged. Members of Hindu Rashtra Sena, who were later arrested, beat and murdered Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh. The 24-year-old Muslim IT professional was in no way connected to the morphing or the distribution of the pictures. It was clearly a hate crime. This seamless string of communal violence has been a constant feature within Modi’s time in office. These recent incidents have triggered a national debate in the country over Narendra Modi’s affiliation and continued support to the RSS, while Modi’s economic optimism has not been enough to fill the empty rhetoric of protecting religious minorities.

It almost seems that the RSS and Shiv Sena and other Hindu nationalist organizations are protesting on the basis that their feelings are hurt because any wisdom other than their own is morally wrong and not within their value structure of India that is 80-81% Hindu. Arnab Goswami, host of Newshour Debate on Times Now hosted a debate on the Beef Ban, exposed a crucial point in the debate of the specific ban on beef as a reflection on banning movies, books, or food based on religious sentiment; in a country like India, if every single religious sentiment was to be kept in mind during legislation, 90% of the food items would not be available to the public. Saba Naqvi, journalist and panelist on the debate, also mentioned that the “upper caste hegemonic imposition” of these religiously motivated laws is not democratic and can’t be the basis of lawmaking. This intolerance towards supposedly dissenting religions (other than Hinduism) is anti-democratic, and by Nehru’s conception of India, anti-Indian as well.

These incidents cannot be ignored in the larger context of the campaign of Hindu revitalization of India. It goes much beyond violence against Muslims or Christians. There is an active emphasis on the “Ghar Vapsi” or “homecoming” initiative supported by organizations like Shiv Sena, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and others mentioned earlier. This is a floundering crusade that targets the rural poor by providing monetary incentives to Muslims and Christians to convert to Hinduism. The campaign has two platforms. First, to facilitate conversions to Hinduism by providing daily Shakhas or training camps, mass "reconversion camps,” emphasis on Sanskrit diksha (education) and learning of old traditions. This has been prevalent most recently in the State of Kerala and Uttar Pradesh, converting 59 families in Kerala and 315 individuals in the latter. The second platform is based on a hardline against conversion to another religion (other than Hinduism). There has been support for Anti-Conversion bills in different states by these organizations. A leader of RSS, Dr Manmohan Vaidya, went on to call mass conversions of Hindus to Islam and Christianity fraudulent and coerced. The hypocrisy is obvious when he claims that conversion to Hinduism is “a natural urge” to “reconvert” back to original roots. This surveillance of conversions to other religions has been accentuated. When almost a 100 tribal families in Jharkhand converted to Christianity in part due to their oppression by upper caste Jats, or when almost 80 Dalit families converted to Islam in New Delhi, the VHP protested and launched investigations into the possibility of coercion and possible exploitation of the low socioeconomic class. And while this rising intolerance continues, there has been a significant development of opposition.

After the beef ban killing of Ikhlaq, President Pranab Mukherjee’s recalled to a “tradition of tolerance” in India and there has been an increasing opposition to rising intolerance from scholars, writers, Bollywood and politicians as well. In disapproval of a weak protest by the Modi government, around 41 Indian writers have returned their literary awards and honors as a unique protest to bringing attention to the issues of food politics and censorship. This also came as a response to the killing of an atheist blogger, Malleshappa M. Kalburgi, who criticized idol worship and superstition. Karnataka Chief Minister called this incident “highly condemnable.” And BJP MP, Mahesh Sharma called the murder of Iqlakh in relation with the beef ban “an accident.” This kind of response is not surprising as it runs parallel to Modi’s national rhetoric of having downplayed similar tragedies as simply “unfortunate.” The Indian government along with state governments needs to investigate these extremists groups and religious hardliners. The political leaders must improve their rhetoric to condemn these acts of violence against minorities. There should be a smooth and quick justice system response to these attacks in order to de-incentivize these groups to continue exploiting and murdering individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs.

Currently, this conflict remains unabated and unresolved. While PM Modi’s voice is heard loud and clear while talking of “Digital India” and “Swach Bharat” (Clean India) and “Acche Din Aayenge” (Good days are on their way) in India and his missions abroad, there is poor rhetoric condemning these bans, and for the most part there seems to be a deafening silence.