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 BJP-LED coalition government, known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), lost power in 2004, and a Congress Party–dominated coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), then managed to complete two successive terms. Though the quality of the UPA’s governance was mixed, there were few instances of egregious violence between Hindus and Muslims. In the latter part of its second term, numerous financial scandals came to light. These malfeasances aggravated an already disaffected public and tilted voters toward the BJP, which, under the leadership of Modi, pledged to restore fiscal probity and deliver effective governance.

During the 2014 election, aside from a few swipes against illegal (Muslim) immigrants from Bangladesh, Modi downplayed the BJP’s Hindu nationalism and instead touted his economic record in Gujarat—a choice that may have contributed to outright victory for the BJP, which won 282 seats in India’s 543-member parliament. But following the victory, Modi, as prime minister, quickly got down to business on the cultural front. One of his first, and most misguided, directives required that all official correspondence involving the national government, including on social media, be in Hindi, which is mostly spoken in northern India, and is the native tongue of only 41 percent of all Indians. The status of Hindi had for all practical purposes been dormant. Modi not only resuscitated a volatile dispute that had produced bloodshed in years past, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, but also challenged the national consensus that the Indian state should respect linguistic diversity. Modi, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, however, consider Hindi the national language, and making that status official remains central to their mission of safeguarding Indian culture and unity. This objective ignores the sentiments of non-Hindi speakers, and risks reviving the unrest that erupted in the 1960s.

Not surprisingly, the reaction from the state of Tamil Nadu to Modi’s edict was swift and negative. Muthuvel Karunanidhi—whose party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK, or Dravidian Progress Federation), was at the forefront of the 1960s protests against enshrining Hindi as the national language—remarked that “the pm should focus on development rather than on promoting Hindi,” adding that the BJP’s stance on language policy “amounts to an attempt to treat non-Hindi speakers as second-class citizens.” Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, likewise warned Modi that his linguistic directive was “against the letter and spirit of the law” and “causes disquiet to the people of Tamil Nadu who are very proud of and passionate about their linguistic heritage.”

While the BJP’s fervor for recognizing Hindi as the national language may have diminished, the consequences of its victory on other cultural fronts are disturbing. Since Modi’s election as prime minister, there has been a sharp increase in attacks on Muslims (as well as Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung in India’s caste system) accused of eating beef or selling cows to the beef industry. According to Indian press reports, there have been sixty-three attacks since 2010, with twenty-eight people killed (the vast majority of them Muslims). 97 percent of the murders occurred after Modi’s election in 2014, more than half of them in states ruled by the BJP. Even a casual survey of Indian newspapers shows that violence by self-appointed guardians of the cow has been on the upswing and become a prominent topic of public debate. Opposition to slaughtering cows has been a longstanding priority for the BJP, the RSS and the rest of the Sangh Parivar. While Modi and other BJP leaders have certainly not ordered any violence, or even encouraged it directly, their Hindutva project and related cultural campaigns by the RSS and others have undoubtedly created a political atmosphere suited to a rise in vigilantism by Hindu extremists.

Modi has warned that resorting to violence to defend the cow violates the law and will not be permitted. But missing, just as it was after the 2002 bloodletting in Godhra, has been a forthright defense of Muslim rights or even an acknowledgement that the vigilantes’ victims have overwhelmingly been Muslim. As observed by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one India’s most prominent public intellectuals, dwelling on the tally of attacks misses the point. “These lynchings,” in his view,

“are fiendishly redefining citizenship. The significance of this violence is not just the number: Whether it is 15 incidents or 50. . . . This violence establishes a new political dispensation, where a group of people claim direct sovereignty: They act above formal law and order institutions, they feel entitled to enforce the morality, and their impunity comes from the fact that they can now stand in for the ‘authentic people.’”

The result has been the emergence of “a monstrous moral order . . . irrigated by the blood of our citizens.”