Written by Sajeda Momin.
When I returned to India at the beginning of October after my last visit to London, two very dear friends asked me why I had come back when I had the option to live abroad. “If I could live anywhere but here, like you, I would leave right away,” said one friend who was totally disgusted with the way the Narendra Modi-led, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was trying to change the India she so clearly loved. The other was just as disappointed and said “we had expected in May 2014 when Modi won that the Hindu-right will try to implement its Hindu Nationalist or Hindutva agenda, but we didn’t expect it to happen so quickly and so nastily”. Neither want me to identify them because of the barrage of abuse from BJP trolls or as writer Salman Rushdie calls them “Modi’s toadies” , that they will receive, describing the sense of fear and oppression they feel.
The main take away from the last 18 months since Modi was elected Prime Minister with a massive mandate has been a rise in intolerance, suppression of any kind of dissent and an attempt to curb basic freedoms that people living in the largest democracy in the world have got used to and cherish. Emboldened by the size of the electoral victory, the BJP believe they have also received the mandate to implement their cultural agenda, ignoring the fact that Modi had fought and won on an economic development platform, and has not been given the go ahead to turn India into a Hindu-theocratic dictatorship.
Starting from whom people can fall in love with and subsequently marry; how and where they can display their affection for each other; what they can wear (particularly women) in public; what they can eat even in their own homes; what they can say; what they can think and of course which religion they can practice, are all areas that the BJP and its affiliated groups in the mother organization of the RSS have violently interfered in over the last one and a half years.
Whether it is ‘love jihad’, a phrase coined by the BJP/RSS to propagate the idea that Muslim youths seduce Hindu girls in order to marry them, convert them and bear lots of children and increase their population in the country; or telling woman to stop wearing jeans, skirts or ‘western’ clothes in public otherwise they are asking to be raped; or being picked up by the police because they were holding their wife/girlfriend’s hand in public or displaying any kind of affection; or beating up and killing people on the alleged rumour that they ate ‘beef’ in their home; or killing writers because they did not accept the BJP/RSS views on caste, superstition and sectarianism; and of course most importantly being told that as an Indian the only religion one can and should practice is Hinduism and if you are either Muslim or Christian than you cannot be a true patriot as your allegiance lies outside of India, either in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Rome, the BJP/RSS has tried to infringe upon each one of these personal freedoms enshrined by the Constitution.
They have taken the forms of ‘hate speeches’ by Modi’s ministers, MPs, MLAs and those holding positions of responsibility in the Government or the Party, police action at the behest of their political masters, attempts to change laws, emotional and physical harassment, assassinations by ‘unknown assailants’, targeted burning down of homes and shops, and assault and public lynching by so-called ‘mobs’. Three people have already lost their lives to the demand for a ban on beef and three rationalists have been killed for their writings.
While all these atrocities are being carried out by an emboldened BJP, the Prime Minister known for his constant presence on the social media, maintains a studied silence. When he is pushed for a response, instead of taking action against members of his Government and Party indulging in the hate-mongering, he comes out with a very wishy-washy condemnation that actually says nothing to soothe people’s fears but in fact shows his tacit support to the BJP/RSS’s campaigns.
Modi, known for his autocratic style of functioning, issued a dictat from virtually the day he took office to his ministers and MPs that no one was allowed to talk to the press or issue statements and that everything would be routed through the Prime Minister’s Office – that set the tone for where power would lie. He let his party know that he would allow no dissent and that the government would be run according to his wishes. By extension curbing personal freedoms, civil liberties and any type of dissent comes naturally to him and therefore he doesn’t see anything wrong in what his colleagues are doing, in fact one can say they are doing it with his consent.
As the number of ‘hate’ incidents continue to mount in the last couple of months the ‘intolerance’ debate in India has become louder. The public lynching of Mohammed Akhlaque, a 52-year-old Muslim living in Dadri village just 45km from New Delhi, based on the false rumours spread that he had kept and consumed beef in his home – tests showed that the meat found in Akhlaque’s home was in fact goat meat and not beef – became the catalyst for civil society to raise its voice against what was happening. Academics, writers, film-makers and film stars have begun returning awards given to them by earlier Indian government as a mark of protest and disgust at the way the current government is functioning. Instead of trying to get to the root of the problem, the award-returnees are being abused as traitors by BJP members and told that they are doing it with political motives to defame Modi’s government.
Even popular Bollywood icon Shahrukh Khan has not been spared when in a TV interview to celebrate his 50th birthday a few weeks ago, he said ‘differences of opinion and debates were not respected in India’ and there was a rise in ‘intolerance’ in the country in the last 18 months. Khan was promptly called a traitor and a Pakistani agent by MPs in Modi’s government, and he began receiving hate mail and threats on the social media from BJP supporters.
Ever since Modi took up office an atmosphere has been created that the only way to live in India is that defined by the BJP/RSS’s version of Hinduism. While Muslims and Christians are naturally feeling oppressed, even Hindus who do not tow the BJP’s line are feeling stifled.
Yesterday afternoon the same two friends called me sounding a little happier. The cause for their joy was the BJP’s rout in the state election in Bihar at the hands of the Grand Alliance, a coalition of the Congress and two regional parties, the JD(U) and the RJD. “Thank God, Bihar has shown that all of India doesn’t think in the same narrow-minded, intolerant way that Modi and his party view life,” said one friend, while the other simply said “Thanks to Bihar I feel I can breathe again”. Let me clarify that both these friends are Hindus, and practicing ones at that.
From being called ‘the butcher of Gujarat’ to being elected Prime Minister of India, Modi’s march to power has certainly been spectacular. However he must remember that the electoral mandate he received was to bring about economic development for all Indians, not just a select few. For the last year and half there is very little evidence of Modi fulfilling his promises viz a viz the economy, and more signs of his party fulfilling its Hindutva agenda. The Bihar state election results are a warning shot for Modi. Only time will tell whether he will heed the warning!
Sajeda Momin has a M.Sc in International Relations from University of Southampton. A journalist by profession, she divides her time between UK and India where she has held senior positions in The Telegraph, The Statesman, The Asian Age, DNA and The Bengal Post. This article forms part of an Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies special issue on Hindu nationalism in India. Image credit: CC by Narendra Modi/Flickr.