CANBERRA – Indian politics and society continue to be troubled by a raging — and highly politicized — debate over increased Hindu intolerance since the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
India has shown remarkable durability, strength and resilience since independence in 1947. Many other formerly colonized countries have splintered, drifted into dictatorships or been ravaged by large-scale sectarian killings and civil wars. Defying the odds, India has survived and more recently prospered as a vibrant multilingual democracy despite deep pockets of poverty and unmatched diversity. The three great institutions of democracy, federalism and secularism have helped India to evolve a uniquely adaptable system of power sharing, accommodation and peaceful political transitions based on the ballot box.
Before directing harsh criticism at Modi, the Congress Party should look in the mirror. Over six decades of misrule, successive Congress governments perverted the meaning and practice of secularism by pandering to the Muslim vote bank. This was widely derided as “minorityism,” or endless appeasement of Muslims, to the point where many Hindus began to feel like second-class citizens in their own land.
Polygamy was abolished for all groups, including Hindus, but not for Muslims, leaving demagogues free to warn of Hindus being drowned by demographic changes. In a celebrated case, in 1986 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi kowtowed to reactionary mullahs to amend the constitution retroactively to reverse a 1985 Supreme Court judgment on alimony due to a poor Muslim divorcee. India was also the first country of note to ban Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” in 1988, which set off the as-yet-unstopped cycle of demands for banning any literary or artistic work that any group is offended by, turning India into a Republic of Hurt Sentiments.
The single worst outbreak of sectarian killings since the partition riots was the murder of around 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination by Sikh bodyguards. Senior Congress Party leaders were directly implicated in instigating the riots, but neither they nor the party have been held to account. In light of this, all complaints from Congress against Modi’s role in the Gujarat 2002 riots that killed around 1,000 Muslims reek of hypocrisy.
Moreover, successive Congress governments steadily politicized and corroded the institutional integrity of India’s bureaucracy, police and intelligence services, and neglected the capacity development of the judiciary, so that justice is rarely seen to be done. For Congress now to demand the transfer of the most routine cases from state police to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is a massive self-indictment of decades of malfeasance by Congress rule in many states as well as New Delhi.
The foregoing context may explain but cannot justify the subtext of Hindu militancy today. Doing the math, claims of more frequent outbreaks of religious intolerance with more casualties is likely wrong. But in an age of instantaneous communications and social media, every incident is amplified in the amphitheater of public consciousness. This is why mere numbers do not tell the whole story about the climate of fear enveloping some minority groups.
Two film stars —Bollywood royalty —articulated the growing unease among Muslims at rising Hindu intolerance. Shah Rukh Khan, whose father was an Indian freedom fighter, pointed to extreme intolerance and said religious intolerance would take India back to the dark ages. Aamir Khan, recalling the horrendous riots of 1984, said his wife had felt a sense of growing disquiet and despondency and wondered if for the sake of their children they would need to consider emigrating.
Instead of a civil hearing and a respectful response that speaks to their expressed concerns and thereby reassures the apprehensive masses among India’s minority populations, both were vilified and advised to leave the India that had given them so much and live in Pakistan or another Muslim country. BJP National General Secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said Shah Rukh Khan’s “heart beats for Pakistan.” BJP lawmaker Yogi Adityanath compared him to Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed. He and others advised Aamir Khan to relocate to Pakistan, mobs protested outside his house and one group filed sedition charges against him.
Critics clearly lack the wit to see how the ill-tempered reactions validated the essence of the claims of heightened intolerance that has narrowed the space for a measured dialogue on a critical issue of public policy.
The irony is that the most extreme nationalists — the Hitlers, Mussolinis, Milosevics and pre-1939 Japanese imperialists — tend to cause the most acute damage to their nations.
As it happens, both Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan are married to Hindus and have worked out means of productive religious coexistence within their family structures and routines, including sharing religious rituals and jointly celebrating religious festivals. Their families therefore are standing refutations of the core idea of Pakistan. By contrast, uprooting them from India and forcing them to migrate across the border would validate the ideological premise of Pakistan. So who is being a patriot and who the traitor to the very idea of India?
As senior Congress member (and former U.N. Undersecretary-General) Shashi Tharoor has remarked, stories of intolerance are defaming India in the community of nations and the government campaign to pitch “Make in India” to foreign investors is undermined by the “Hate in India” campaign at home. Every story of a Muslim victim at the hand of Hindu fanatics, of an assault on the inherent dignity of any Muslim, of derogatory statements about any minority religion, lowers India’s global reputation.
Speaking in the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of Parliament) on Dec. 1, Modi said: “If there is any incident of atrocity against anybody, it is a blot on all of us, for the society as well as the nation.” Warning that there could be “many excuses for disintegration in a diverse country like India,” he added: “Unity and harmony is the tradition of India.” Referring obliquely but unmistakably to recent cases where some people, including from the ruling BJP, said Muslims feeling unsafe should leave the country, Modi clarified that of the 1.25 billion citizens of the country: “Nobody needs to give certificates of patriotism.”
Fine words. They would have been more effective in nipping the intolerance controversy in the bud had Modi uttered them at the start of all this nonsense. The standard of incendiary and derogatory provocations that a prime minister ignores in political discourse is the standard that his party faithful entrench as acceptable public etiquette. Still, better late than never.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
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