I am currently visiting India, and the political atmosphere in the country today reminds me of that prevalent in 1990. In that year the BJP, now the ruling party but then in opposition, began agitating for building the Ram temple in Ayodhya on the site of the 470-year-old mosque known as the Babri Masjid. Agitation over the Ram Mandir (temple) has soured the communal atmosphere in India as no other incident had since the partition of British India in 1947.
In September 1990, the senior BJP leader L. K. Advani began his famous Rath Yatra (Chariot March) to mobilize India’s Hindu majority to build the Ram temple at the spot where many Hindus believe that the Hindu deity Ram was born. However, this could not be achieved without demolishing the Babri mosque, built during the reign of the first Moghul emperor Babur in the 1520s.
The Hindu nationalist BJP seized upon this emotive issue to reverse its dwindling electoral fortunes by galvanizing Hindu religious fervor on its behalf. Additionally, upper-caste BJP leaders, afraid that lower-caste political mobilization, which was happening rapidly at this time, would render them irrelevant to Indian politics, latched on to this issue with great zeal.
Since upper-caste Hindus numbered less than one-fifth of the Hindu population, the BJP top brass needed a plank that could bind the entire Hindu community into a monolith. The construction of such a monolith was essential for them to continue to enjoy their caste privileges, as well as dominating leadership of the Hindu majority , threatened by lower-caste political parties, especially in the large northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. However, in order for this strategy to succeed, they needed to manufacture an “other” that could be portrayed as challenging the power and privilege of the Hindu majority. Muslims, the principal religious minority in a country already suffering from the stigma of partition, were conveniently at hand.
The Ram Mandir agitation succeeded beyond the BJP’s wildest expectations. The Rath Yatra rolled through several Indian states, not only mobilizing the Hindu masses on behalf of the Ram temple but also creating bitter divisions between Hindus and Muslims. Advani and his colleagues had achieved their goal by firmly implanting the image of the Muslims as an “other” to be both feared and loathed in the minds of large numbers of Hindus.
The process reached its culmination on December 6, 1992, when a thousands-strong Hindu mob led by Advani and several of his BJP colleagues descended on Ayodhya and demolished the Babri Masjid with bare hands in a matter of hours. The Congress government in New Delhi, led by Narasimha Rao, remained a mute spectator during the entire episode, violating every article of the Indian Constitution that guaranteed protection to religious minorities in India.
The demolition immediately set off communal riots, mostly initiated by kar sevaks (literally “volunteers for a good cause”) returning victorious from Ayodhya and targeting Muslim people and property. Approximately two thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed. The BJP took full advantage of this Hindu mobilization around the Ram temple issue, eventually coming to power for the first time in New Delhi in 1998. It remained in power until 2004, when it was ousted by a coalition led by India’s Grand Old Party—the Indian National Congress, popularly known as the Congress Party.
2018 appears uncannily similar to 1990. The only marked difference is that the Hindu nationalist BJP is no longer in opposition, but has been ensconced in power in New Delhi for four years. It is also in control of most states. The BJP, therefore, has the entire machinery of state at its command to use for its own narrow political purposes. (This is an established Indian tradition and the Congress had done the same thing when in power.)
Since 2014, when the BJP won the national elections, there has been a marked rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric in India, especially in electronic media. The multiplicity of private TV news channels competing with each other for audience share has encouraged sensationalization, not only of news, but of commentary as well. This has meant that outrageous and irresponsible comments have become the order of the day. Incendiary remarks against Muslims often go unchallenged by anchors with hidden BJP sympathies. There is also organized trolling in the print media by Hindutva groups aimed deliberately at denigrating Islam and Muslims.
The entire atmosphere has become viciously communalized, and anti-Muslim comments that would have been unthinkable even two decades ago are openly expressed in public speeches and private conversations. Senior BJP politicians have several times openly cast aspersions on the loyalty of Muslim Indians to the country. The latest example is the pronouncement by a prominent BJP member of parliament, Vinay Katiyar, on February 7 that Muslims “should go to Pakistan or Bangladesh. What are they doing here?” This statement echoed that made by another senior BJP leader, Giriraj Singh, in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections. In a thinly veiled reference to Muslim Indians, Singh declared that all those opposed to Narendra Modi, the BJP candidate for prime minister, should go to Pakistan, as they have no place in India.