Intolerant India

24th Jul 2020
Intolerant India

Ibrahim Musa

Is it just me? I thought as I pondered on the recent Eid al-Fiṭr celebrations. In a time of 24-hour social media with its constant message, photo and video notifications there was total silence on one of my usually busy WhatsApp groups, my kid’s school group.

My boy goes to a private, ‘secular’ school in Mumbai. It’s supposedly non-denominational, non-religious, imparting a modern education an international curriculum.

The majority of his classmates are Hindu as are most students in school. In India, public holidays are a regular occurrence, during which this WhatsApp group is full of messages with parents wishing each other happy Diwali, Ganesh and various other Hindu festivals. Indeed, happy Christmas and Halloween as well as to my immense amusement, Valentine’s Day messages also crop up.

It’s why I sensed a deafening silence during Eid— not a single ‘happy Eid’ message was posted on this group. My wife, a born and raised Mumbian noted in her schooldays, all festivals were equally celebrated and all her Hindu friends would felicitate her on Eid. The fact our son isn’t experiencing this is remarkable, she agreed.

I thought we alone were noticing this until an article published in The Wire on June 3 caught my eye. In her piece titled ‘A growing indifference around the festival of Eid al-Fiṭr’ Kolkata- based writer Maria Uzma Ansari, echoed my observation of the alienation.

After noting crass Islamophobic comments on Twitter against Eid being celebrated in India, she notes, “The number of Eid Mubarak messages from friends of different communities have declined significantly over the years and none of this feels purely coincidental.”

So, it isn’t just me, I thought. The sense that attitudes towards Muslims in India have changed in the past six years has grown in me gradually as time has passed. Ignorance can be excused. But willful exclusion and downright hostility and hatred are what we are now up against.

If I were to date this change in attitudes I can confidently say it happened after the election of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister with the victory of the BJP in 2014, and matters deteriorated after his re-election last year.

A party with a nakedly pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim mandate is in power and for six years has step-by-step implemented a makeover of society and politics neither unheard-of nor seen since India’s independence from Britain in 1947.

The BJP and its various allies are part of a larger grouping under the umbrella of the RSS, an ultra-nationalist right-wing paramilitary organization that has been the progenitor of many Hindu religious and social organizations, of which the BJP has been acting as the political arm.

The avowed aim of the RSS is to impose its brand of ultra-nationalism based on its fanatic interpretation of Hinduism.

This ideology known as Hindutva has a Hindu rashtra [nation] as its ultimate goal. The consequence of this ideology is a totalitarian political and social control of India.

The BJP as the avatar of the Hindutva forces in the political realm is under Modi carrying out this agenda through its control of all the levers of political power in India.

An aspect of this control is the almost complete takeover of the print and digital media, which has become compliant to the dictates of the new order.

This extends to social media where various cells linked to the BJP and its allies have been hyperactive in misinformation and disinformation campaign aimed primarily at Muslims.

Anyone needing insight must read ‘I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army’, written by the award-winning journalist, Swati Chaturvedi. In the book, Chaturvedi investigates the ties between the BJP and troll accounts.

She interviews a former BJP volunteer, Sadhavi Khosla, who details the tactics used on social media to target opponents. “It was a never-ending drip-feed of hate and bigotry against the minorities, the Gandhi family, journalists on the hit list, liberals, anyone perceived as anti-Modi,” said Khosla.

It is a never-ending drip-feed. Any incident, however small or large, which can be used to tarnish Muslims, is exploited.

The BJP, its allies and its acolytes, in the official media and social media, have kept up a constant barrage of stories alive to create a perception that Muslims are responsible for any ills affecting India.

Thus, the coronavirus outbreak is presented as ‘coronajihad’! Its inception and spread in India are wrongly attributed to the Tablighi Jamaat, which held its annual meeting at its centre in South Delhi in mid-March.

This convention was attended by about 8,000 participants, including hundreds of foreigners. Unknowingly some participants contracted the virus and unwittingly carried the disease to their home towns and villages.

The TV channels mostly toeing the BJP line used this incident to present the coronavirus as a Muslim ‘jihad’ on India, even though other non-Muslim foreigners, as well as visiting Indian ex-pats, were also carriers of the virus at the time.

Following this media campaign, there was a spate of attacks against Muslims in the southern state of Karnataka. Local BJP MP, Anant Kumar Hegde, publicly and unashamedly denounced the Tablighi Jamaat as “terrorists”.

On cue, shortly thereafter, an audio clip was widely shared over WhatsApp, asking people to bar Muslim food vendors from their areas, alleging that they were spreading the virus through their produce.

The campaign was soon translated into action when seven Muslim volunteers were assaulted by a gang of local BJP members in the first week of April, as they tried to distribute food to impoverished people in the Marathahalli and Dasarahalli districts.

There are so many similar instances reported from across the country. In Shastri Nagar in, Delhi a video taken in early April captured residents talking about banning Muslims from entering their neighbourhood.

In the western state of Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is a part), messages went viral on WhatsApp urging the boycott the entire Muslim community in the town of Buldhana because Muslims were among the locals who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The hate and bigotry created by these campaigns often result in ludicrous claims. Recently, a pregnant elephant in Palakkad district (Kerala) died a painful death after inadvertently eating gunpowder-laced pineapple.

The media went on overdrive by deliberately highlighting that it died in a Muslim dominated area and giving it a communal anti-Muslim angle! The anti-Muslim drive has also spread to the Indian diaspora abroad. Millions of Indians, both Hindus and Muslims, work in the Gulf.

Over the past few months, there have been several cases of Hindu workers being exposed for posting hostile anti-Muslim remarks on social media. They have as a consequence lost their jobs and deported, especially from the UAE which has a strong policy against religious intolerance.

This trend hasn’t gone unnoticed among the political class in the Gulf. A princess of the royal house of Sharjah and a Kuwaiti MP also noted this trend and there have been public calls for the expulsion of Hindu workers from the Gulf countries.

This demonization of Muslims via official and unofficial anti-Muslim hate speech has achieved its aim in creating divisions in society and generating fear and anxiety among Muslim communities across India.

Little surprise then that none of the parents on my son’s school WhatsApp group bothered to wish us happy Eid. This in Mumbai home of Bollywood and a city that could until recently proudly proclaim itself as the most cosmopolitan and outward-looking city in India. Alas, no more. The cosmopolitan character is fast disappearing under a forced refashioning of society by Hindutva zealots’ hell-bent on creating a new social and political order built on a hatred of Muslims.

The TV ads on Western channels promoting tourism to India under the banner ‘Incredible India’ are out of touch with the reality on the ground; the India of today has instead become ‘Intolerant India!’

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