[Photo: Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photographer: Rangilo Gujarat. Creative-Commons]
The first 18 months of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s Government has been defined by a rise in attacks on ordinary liberties, suppression of any form of dissent and an atmosphere of increasing intolerance in India.
The basic freedoms enshrined in the Indian constitution, beginning with what one can eat, whom one can marry, what one can wear, what one can say in public, what one is allowed to think and which religion one is allowed to practice and how, are all being violently stifled by Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Emboldened by the fact that they have come to power for the first time with a single party majority, BJP ministers, MPs, workers and supporters have seen this as an opportunity to turn India into a Hindu state. Their main targets are religious minorities ie Muslims and Christians, and secular Hindus who would like see India continue to be a country where all religions and communities are equal. An atmosphere has been created whereby if you don’t believe in their worldview then at best you will be abused and at worst killed by party workers or supporters.
Various controversies are being created and then used to malign and attack people with. Muslims have been accused of conducting a ‘love jihad’, a term coined by the BJP and its mother organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) propagating the idea that Muslims boys are seducing Hindu girls, converting them to Islam, marrying them and then making them bear lots of children in order to change the demographics of the country. Inter-religious couples have been singled out for ‘special’ treatment by RSS/BJP workers with Muslim boys being arrested for allegedly abducting Hindu girls and forcibly marrying them.
Beef has also become a convenient stick to beat Muslims with. Cow slaughter is banned in most states in India as Hindus consider the cow a holy animal. However, Muslims and Christians do eat beef in India which basically consists of buffalo meat. Three Muslims have been killed in the last two months, scores beaten up, houses and businesses burnt down by mobs falsely alleging that a cow has been killed and the meat surreptitiously eaten.
Christians are accused of converting poor and illiterate Hindus luring them with education and money to join their fold. “The anti-Christian and anti-minority activities of radical Hindu nationalist groups across India have seen a dramatic escalation, since Modi came to power,” says Regional Manager for South Asia of International Christian Concern, William Stark. Churches are looted and burnt, cemeteries and graves vandalised, nuns are raped, priests are beaten up and congregations are threatened if they attend Christian services. Just in the last two months of September and October, 23 such hate incidents have been verified by Christian groups, with many more going unreported.
Hindu liberal and secular writers have also come under attack and three rationalist thinkers Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi have been killed.
It was the murder of Kalburgi and the public lynching of Mohammed Akhlaque, a 52-year-old blacksmith, for allegedly eating beef in his home that have become symbols of growing intolerance in India and which finally broke the silence of civil society. More than 40 eminent writers have so far returned prestigious awards given to them by various Government institutions as have some filmmakers and actors as a mark of protest against the Government’s silence and tacit support of the attacks on civil liberties.
Men and women, young and old starting from the President of India, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, renowned scholars, scientists, innovative creators of wealth, writers in English and regional languages, filmmakers, actors to ordinary citizens have begun to raise their voice at the rapidly-spreading intolerant atmosphere being created in the country.
Actor and Hindi film icon, Shahrukh Khan, added his voice on his 50th birthday when he said in a TV interview that “debate was not respected in India anymore” and there was an “increase in intolerance”. BJP MPs retaliated immediately calling him a traitor, anti-national, and telling him to leave India and go and live in Pakistan.
Abuse and taunts to go to Pakistan is the standard reply by the BJP to anyone who does not share their ideas. Instead of condemning the violence and killings, BJP ministers and MPs have come out with comments like “if Muslims want to live in India then they must stop eating beef”, “if writers feel they cannot write in this atmosphere then let them stop writing”. The award-returnees are accused of ‘manufacturing a protest’ and the media of being anti-national for highlighting the debate and thereby ‘damaging India’s image abroad’.
Through all this cacophony, the Prime Minister, known for Tweeting about everything he thinks or does, remained silent. After a lot of prodding Modi broke his silence with “Hindus and Muslims must decide if they want to fight each other or poverty”. Without admonishing his ministers, members of his party or the perpetrators of the crimes, Modi turned the onus onto the victims, as if they must be doing something wrong and that is why they were attacked or killed. It is this very shield of impunity that Modi and his Government provide to the radical elements in their party that encourages intolerance and violence.
The BJP has argued that all these are stray incidents and comments by fringe elements and therefore should not be taken seriously, but the hate speeches are given by ministers in Modi’s Cabinet or people who hold responsible positions in the BJP and who are certainly not fringe.
Modi does not like being questioned and so refuses to hold press conferences in India. It took a trip to London for the British media to ask him about the growing intolerance to which he gave an evasive reply that India is the land of Mahatma Gandhi and Buddha. No one, neither in India nor in the UK is questioning Gandhi’s or Buddha’s tolerance, it is Modi’s and the BJP’s intolerance which they are worried about.