Despite Nehru’s own initial opposition, the country also resolved, through the States Reorganization Act of 1956, another issue: the demand that India’s states be organized on a linguistic basis. Nehru had originally opposed this idea, fearing that it could balkanize the country. However, he changed his mind when faced with relentless pressure, including the death of Potti Sreeramulu, an activist who fasted to death in December 1952 during the struggle to gain statehood for what would later become Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh. The success of this legislation laid the groundwork for the accommodation of similar demands based on cultural diversity and distinctiveness, and mostly without violence. Notable among them is the persistent requirement that a proportion of admissions to educational institutions and governmental job openings be earmarked for India’s disadvantaged castes and tribal peoples.
Despite these successes, the first few decades of Indian independence were hardly free from ethnic and religious tensions. Hindu-Muslim riots erupted periodically, Muslims faced discrimination in various walks of life (as did lower-caste Hindus), social intermingling among the communities was limited and the push to declare Hindi the official language provoked riots in the south. Still, the apparatus of the Indian state did not regularly harass or intimidate Muslims, nor give Hindu zealots license to demonize or persecute them. That it does so now is owed to the atrophy of the Congress Party, which controlled the central government almost continuously from 1947 to 1977, when Indira Gandhi’s electoral gambit backfired and led to a coalition government headed by the Janata Party.
It was Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, who opened the floodgates to the anti-secular tide now sweeping India despite a personal commitment to secularism (she married the parliamentarian Feroze Gandhi, a member of the miniscule Zoroastrian community known as Parsis). Her father had carefully fashioned and nurtured a range of institutions suited to reconciling India’s great cultural and religious differences through bargaining, promoted mores of civil discourse, and cultivated a nationalism unmoored from religion and ethnicity. In marked contrast, his daughter eventually undermined many of these institutions and values, sometimes in response to crises and at other times driven by electoral opportunism.
Worse, as her popularity dwindled and Congress declined as a political force, she pandered to sectarianism. Perhaps the most momentous example was her promotion of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a violent but charismatic Sikh preacher in the state of Punjab, in order to undermine the Akali Dal, a local political party and member of the Janata Party–led coalition government. Her ploy boomeranged to deadly effect once the Congress Party regained power in 1980. By then, Bhindranwale had become a formidable political persona and a proponent of a separate Sikh state. He and his followers commandeered the Golden Temple, one of the holiest Sikh shrines, turning it into a command post for a statewide ethnoreligious insurgency. Unable to quell the rebellion using the police and paramilitary forces, in June 1984 Gandhi deployed the Indian Army to evict Bhindranwale and his acolytes from the temple. Bhindranwale was killed during the shoot-out, but became greater as a martyr than he ever was in life.
Worse was yet to come: two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards took revenge by assassinating her on October 30, 1984, which in turn unleashed a pogrom against Sikhs in New Delhi, leaving three thousand Sikhs massacred and many dead in other cities. Their property was pillaged, and Sikh women were raped. Key individuals within the Congress Party egged on or even joined the attackers, and police failed to protect the victims—or, some say, were even complicit.
Indira Gandhi’s political heirs did little to roll back the forces she had unleashed. Her son and immediate successor, Rajiv Gandhi, a political neophyte and former airline pilot, made a feeble attempt to restore the Congress Party’s vitality and original spirit. However, once he encountered resistance from party stalwarts he quickly abandoned those efforts. Moreover, he too had a tendency to indulge divisive impulses. For instance, when the Indian Supreme Court issued a judgment in 1986 granting an indigent Muslim woman, Shah Bano, alimony, he used his parliamentary majority to overturn the judgment—a decision made with an eye on the orthodox Muslim vote.
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.
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.