The Indian elections and religious fascism in South Asia: troubling times ahead

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The Indian elections are around the corner, and with it comes the high (and blood-curdling) likelihood of a dyed-in-the-wool religious fascist, Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, becoming the Prime Minister of India. It’s not a certainty – the Indian electorate has surprised us with remarkable independence of thought on numerous occasions before – but poll after poll shows the BJP-led coalition coming out on top in this round of parliamentary elections, usurping power from the current ruling coalition led by the corrupt, dynastic Congress Party. It is something that should worry all of us. One doesn’t have to go very far back to see why. Numerous pogroms have been conducted by Hindu nationalist groups throughout the 20th century, soon after their founding under a virulent ideology known as Hindutva (roughly translated as Hinduness) that attempted to homogenize a remarkably rich and diverse body of philosophy, rational thought, and faith into a dangerously narrow, religo-cultural, ethnocentric vision for India. The meteoric rise of the political wing of the Hindutva brigade, the BJP, started in 1992 when Hindu nationalist groups destroyed the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, resulting in yet another pogrom against Muslims in the country, particularly in the city of Mumbai, the economic centre of India and home to Bollywood, among other things. But it was in 2002, when the Hindutva brigade had consolidated power in the center, that we saw the worst that they had to offer when they went on a rampage against Muslims in the North Western state of Gujarat, following the tragic death of 58 Hindus who were killed when two compartments of a train caught on fire. Without investigations or proof, the deaths were squarely blamed on Muslims and, with the blessings of the Gujarat government and the active collusion of the Gujarat police, over two thousand Muslims were slaughtered across the state by Hindu fascist groups, some in the most heinous ways imaginable, with macabre cases of brutality and sexual violence.

Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat at that time. He still is. A 2007 investigative journalistic exposé by Tehelka magazine, documented grassroots fascist leaders speaking openly about how he “blessed the anti-Muslim pogrom” and made efforts in his capacity as the Chief Minister to ensure the rioters were “given three days to do whatever [they] could.” (If you have the stomach for it, check out Tehelka’s The Truth: Gujarat 2002 for a particularly chilling read.)

This very man is going to become one of the most powerful men in the world in another few weeks.

But neither he nor his cronies and enablers among the various Hindu fascist groups are alone in their ability to engineer popular support via the vehicle of religious nationalism in the subcontinent. Indeed, I’m going to try and pre-empt the inevitable accusations I normally get of being a “Hindu-hater” or “anti-Indian” (probably delivered by software engineers sitting in Silicon Valley…much of the funding for the Hindu fascist groups in India comes from a right-wing section of the Indian diaspora). But I’m going to do so by comparing them to that which they probably reserve the greatest amount of hatred for – Pakistan. So I will briefly switch to exploring the longstanding program of Islamization that has gone on in that country, pretty much from the day it was born, despite the fact that the founding father, Jinnah, was a remarkably secular, forward-thinking man who is probably rolling in his grave right now. Founded as a secular republic in 1947, Pakistan very quickly became an Islamic one, but it was under the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq starting in 1978 that the most poisonous integration of religion and state occurred in the country. This brought about the widespread persecution and killings of Hindus, Christians, Ahmadiyyas and other minorities across the country. The program included the dreaded Hudood Ordinance that could legally have people charged with theft getting their arms or legs cut, and female rape victims charged with adultery. Thousands of rape victims were put in jail under Zia’s dictatorship because they could not comply with the Islamic condition requiring them to have numerous male witnesses of their victimization, often resulting in the victims getting charged with adultery and the rapists set free. Part of the Islamization project were the dreaded blasphemy laws that came with the threat of death for saying derogatory remarks of the prophet Mohammed and life imprisonment for defiling the Quran. And while no one has actually been convicted of any of these charges, thousands have been charged and many have often been killed by frenzied street mobs. Two prominent figures assassinated for their opposition to the blasphemy law included Shahbaz Bhatti, the Roman Catholic Federal Minister for Minorities, and Salman Taseer, the Muslim Governor of Punjab. Both times, the assassins were treated like heroes and lauded for their acts, with thousands of lawyers tumbling over each other to defend them for free.

So the Hindu nationalists don’t have to look far to see models for their virulence. In fact, like religious nationalists of any ilk, be they Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, the Hindutva brigade would find a fair bit of congruence with other like-minded groups. After all, each of them rely on the basest, most cruel, instincts of people. Some apologists for the Hindu nationalists might state with a touch of smugness (or envy?) that the legislation of Hindu nationalism hasn’t occurred in India, what with it being such a staunchly secular republic and all, the same way the legislation of Islamic nationalism has happened in Pakistan. They’d be wrong, because it’s already started. It’s just a matter of scale and time. Till date, five states in India, and not all of them under BJP control, have legislated anti-conversion laws aimed at targeting Muslim and Christian religious activities. Legislation that targets freedom of expression and speech continues slowly but surely in a number of states, even nationally. Every once in a while these have ludicrous results, like when the Indian government banned Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternate History, resulting in increased publicity and sales for the book before Penguin could carry out the court order of pulping all their copies. And make no mistake, resistance to Hindu fascism in India, like resistance to Islamic fascism in Pakistan, has been strong and courageous. But in another few weeks, it is almost certain that we will have a Hindu nationalist guilty of gratuitous crimes against humanity becoming the elected leader of India, and in charge of one of the most powerful, nuclear-armed, militaries in the world. Nuclear-armed Pakistan lies next door.

If you’re not worried, you should be.

[Visit Sriram’s blog here and check out his recently published autobiographical novel about the 2002 Gujarat pogrom: Across the Sabarmati]

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