Making India Great Again?

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi reacts as he speaks to members of the Australian-Indian community during a reception at the Allphones Arena located at Sydney Olympic Park in western Sydney November 17, 2014. Modi is on a three-day offcial visit to Australia following the G20 leaders summit which was held in Brisbane over the weekend. REUTERS/Rick Stevens​

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is merely the champion of a larger movement that seeks to push India in a more nationalist direction.

January-February 2018

The successor to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP, promptly attacked the legislation as another example of the Congress’s “pseudo-secularism” and propensity for “minority appeasement”—the latter term a dog whistle for churning up resentment against Muslims. Still, even those committed to secularism saw Rajiv Gandhi’s move for what it was: a blatant attempt to garner Muslim votes. This was not the only example of Rajiv Gandhi’s pandering to obscurantist religious forces. In 1988, when Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, and even before Iran issued its infamous fatwa against the author, Gandhi, responding to the outraged demands from Muslim clerics, banned the novel.

Meanwhile, the BJP was busy mobilizing its base. Among the high points was the September–October 1990 Rath Yatra, or Chariot Journey, by the party’s leader, Lal Krishna Advani—which Narendra Modi, then the BJP’s general secretary in Gujarat, played a major role in organizing. In a Toyota decked out to resemble an ancient chariot, Advani started his trip in Somnath, where, in 1026, Mahmud Ghazni destroyed a temple during one of his invasions from modern-day Afghanistan. Advani’s destination was Ayodhya, where, according to Hindutva lore, an ancient temple consecrating the birthplace of Lord Rama stood until it was destroyed in the sixteenth century under the Mughal emperor Babur to build the Babri Masjid (Mosque of Babur). Though Advani was arrested before reaching Ayodhya, the fanfare surrounding his stunt allowed the BJP to further publicize its Hindutva project.

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991, and his principal successor, Narasimha Rao, inherited a problem that the slain prime minister had created. Under attack for blatant pandering to the Muslim minority, Rajiv Gandhi had tried to mollify his critics by unlocking the gates to the Babri Masjid, thereby giving Hindu activists unfettered access to the site on which they had been campaigning to erect the Rama temple. Muslim outrage increased in 1990, after members of the VHP damaged part of the mosque. Rao’s efforts to appease Hindus while averting a violent Hindu-Muslim clash failed. Militant Hindus (many belonging to the RSS, VHP and related groups) stormed the mosque on December 6, 1992, and leveled it within a few hours. Some two thousand people were killed in subsequent violence throughout India, mainly Muslims.

Against this backdrop, in 1998, the BJP formed a coalition government. The party failed to make much headway on its anti-secular agenda, partly because it had to rely on various other political parties to maintain a parliamentary majority. Nevertheless a second anti-Muslim pogrom took place under the BJP’s watch, in February 2002—this time in the western state of Gujarat, where Modi was the chief minister. The chain of events leading to the bloodshed began with a fire (in the Gujarati city of Godhra) on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya after commemorating the anniversary of the Babri Masjid’s destruction. (The precise circumstances that produced the fire remain contested; word spread that Muslim vendors at the station had set it after an altercation with the pilgrims.) A number of pilgrims died in the blaze, and Hindu mobs rampaged through Godhra and other cities in Gujarat, attacking Muslim communities. As many as two thousand people, the vast majority of them Muslims, were killed, and many more were displaced. As during the 1984 anti-Sikh violence in New Delhi and elsewhere, local police mostly stood by.

Modi rejected any responsibility for the pogrom, and to this day he has expressed little to no remorse. In speeches given after the violence he appealed for calm, but focused on expressing outrage over the deaths of the pilgrims and attacking the unfair press coverage that Gujarat was receiving. Notable was the absence of any sorrow over the rampage during which many Muslims were killed. On at least one occasion Modi was downright callous: asked during a June 2013 interview with Reuters whether he felt remorse, he replied that he had experienced sadness—just as a passenger in a car would have, had the driver inadvertently run over a puppy. The analogy was invidious: the mass murder of Muslims in Godhra was likened to an accident, the victims to a puppy. Reuters translated kutte ka bachcha as “puppy.” While that word choice is not incorrect, it fails to convey that in Hindi Modi’s words also carry an offensive connotation—all the more because Muslims regard dogs as unclean. This did not go unnoticed.

Various court cases were launched against Modi, and the Indian Supreme Court eventually created a commission of inquiry. The report was submitted to a court in Gujarat, which concurred with the commission’s finding that there was insufficient evidence to charge him. Other than one or two members of his cabinet, who were implicated in the events, there have been no other indictments against the pogrom’s perpetrators.