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 historian Malleshappa Kalburgi, a critic of Hindu nationalism and religious superstition, suffered a worse fate: he was assassinated in 2015. So were two other writers—Narendra Dabholkar, in 2013, and Govind Pansare, in 2015. Most recently, in September 2017, the journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead outside her home in Bangalore for likening RSS-style Hindu nationalism to fascism. The promiscuous use of the “anti-national” label to demonize the BJP’s critics, on occasion to deadly effect, has led dozens of Indian writers, filmmakers and artists to return their official awards, and others to protest the climate of intolerance. Hindu nationalist organizations have not been formally charged for these deaths, and may well not have been involved—but as with the attacks on those suspected of eating beef or raising cattle to supply the beef industry, their charged rhetoric has fostered an enabling climate of intolerance.

PREVIOUS INDIAN governments have certainly contributed to the Indian secular state’s erosion. Yet their decisions, though corrosive, were aimed at winning votes. The BJP’s Hindutva project, by contrast, is an ideologically driven movement to remake India’s polity and society by taking aim at its cultural, religious and intellectual pluralism.

Some of Modi’s critical political appointments make this abundantly clear. For example, in March 2017, Modi chose Yogi Adityanath—a firebrand Hindu priest with a number of criminal cases pending against him, including a charge of attempted murder—to serve as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which contains nearly thirty-nine million Muslims, more than any another Indian state. Infamous for his inflammatory statements, Adityanath has, among other things, compared the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan to a terrorist, declared that if a Muslim kills a single Hindu then a hundred Muslims will be killed in retaliation, and claimed that Mother Teresa “was part of a plot for [the] Christianization of India.” Within hours of becoming chief minister, Adityanath ordered the closure of two slaughterhouses in the state. Ostensibly he did so on environmental grounds. But the real reason was all too apparent: these slaughterhouses were owned and operated by Muslims. Not surprisingly, online applications for RSS membership soared soon after his appointment.

The atmosphere of hostility toward Muslims that has emerged under Modi has seen a rash of attacks on hapless Muslims transporting cattle in various parts of the country, even when the animals were not intended for slaughter—which most Indian states ban. Among the egregious examples was the killing of a Muslim man, Pehlu Khan, in Rajasthan in April 2017. Even though he and his associates were legally transporting dairy cattle, a mob attacked their trucks and proceeded to beat them. Khan succumbed to his injuries. The police then registered cases against Khan’s associates, as well as his assailants. Modi has spoken out against such attacks, but has also made clear that he adamantly opposes the slaughter of cattle for beef—even though cow-slaughter bans in every BJP-ruled state deprive Muslims, Christians and a substantial portion of Dalits of a vital source of cheap animal protein.

Although the BJP’s anti-secular offensive operates at multiple levels (political, social and cultural), it is alarmist to draft requiems for Indian liberal democracy. The BJP has doubtless acquired considerable clout, but it nevertheless faces a range of obstacles. One is Hinduism itself. Ironically, the Hindutva faithful seem blind to the pluralism that marks their religion. Unlike most other faiths, Hinduism lacks a common scripture or universally agreed upon places of worship, and its capacious pantheon accommodates as many as 330 million deities, many confined to particular parts of India and unknown beyond them. As the American anthropologist Milton Singer argued decades ago, while some Hindus in northern India pay homage to the Sanskritic “great tradition” of Hinduism, what animates the lives of millions of Hindus across the country and beyond are the religion’s “little traditions.” They cannot easily be effaced or even absorbed into the monolithic Hinduism envisioned by the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar.

The BJP’s efforts to create a Hindu state have also faced vigorous resistance from many quarters within India—and will continue to do so. Prominent Indian writers, public intellectuals and courageous journalists have spoken out against its anti-secular agenda despite risk to their own professional reputations and even personal safety. The new stories and nationwide protests that followed the murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh attest to the continuing feistiness of India’s civil society and press. Hindutva-inspired efforts to restrict Indians’ freedom of speech, religious practices and diets will encounter legal barriers as well. In August 2017, the Indian Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the right to privacy constituted a constitutional right, and is moreover essential for securing other freedoms. In a similar vein, in a 2016 judgment totaling more than one hundred pages, the Madras High Court rejected the petition to ban Perumal Murugan’s book. The jurists declared archly, “If you don’t like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book. Literary tastes may vary—what is right and acceptable to one may not be so to others.”