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.”
THE COMMITMENT of the BJP and other groups to revamping the school curriculum and rewriting textbooks is a second front in the culture war. Soon after the 2014 election, Modi appointed Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, a historian active in the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (BISY, or All-India History Reform Project) as the head of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the main governmental organization that funds research and scholarship in history. Rao—whose credentials have been questioned by some of India’s most eminent historians, including professors Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar—soon added three historians, all members of the BICY, to the historical research council. The motive underlying such appointments is clear. Mahesh Sharma, the minister for education, vowed to
“cleanse every area of public discourse that has been Westernized and where Indian culture and civilization and culture need to be restored—be it the history we read or our cultural heritage or our institutes [i.e., cultural and educational institutions funded by his ministry] that have been polluted over the years.”
One can be forgiven for concluding from this statement that India’s cultural heritage, thousands of years old, faces a mortal threat.
The BJP’s cultural revolution has not been limited to purging Western ideas. In BJP-ruled Rajasthan, textbooks featuring British writers and poets have been replaced with ones including (justly celebrated) authors such as Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda. But also dropped were the writings of Ismat Chughtai, a feminist who wrote in Urdu (the language of Indian Muslims), despite being part of Indian culture, as well as Hindi stories deemed to contain too many Urdu words. The revised schoolbooks on political history give short shrift to the role of Jawaharlal Nehru and even Mahatma Gandhi in India’s struggle for independence, portrays the Congress Party as initially ambivalent about the end of British rule, and elevates the role of Hindu nationalist personages such as Veer Savarkar, Gandhi’s rival. In Gujarat, which is also run by a BJP government, schools use textbooks on moral education suffused with Hindu philosophy at the expense of India’s other religions, authored by Dinanath Batra. Batra, for some of whose books Modi has written the foreword, drove the campaign that bullied Penguin India into withdrawing acclaimed University of Chicago historian Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, in 2014, on the grounds that she presented a sexualized interpretation of the religion. Similarly, Batra hasn’t shied away from redrawing maps of India to include the rest of South Asia (plus Tibet and Myanmar), in keeping with the Akhand Bharat (Undivided India) concept associated with Hindu nationalists.
No less insidious has been the outright falsification of educational materials. Some examples include the exaltation of Vedic science to the point of having children learn that it invented airplanes, with Rama’s flight from Sri Lanka to Ayodhya in the Hindu epic Ramayana constituting proof; that stem-cell research originated in ancient India; and that the Hindu monarch Maharana Pratap was not defeated by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 1576 Battle of Haldighati—in which, incidentally, Akbar’s troops were led by a Hindu warrior, Raja Man Singh of Amber—but emerged victorious. Another textbook fails to mention that Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister, or that Gandhi’s assassin was for many years a member of the RSS (as well as of the Hindu Mahasabha, another Hindu nationalist organization)—and indeed may have remained one, despite the movement’s insistence that he resigned in 1946.
Another feature of the Hindu nationalist cultural campaign has been attacks on intellectuals and students deemed to be “anti-national,” which effectively means that they dare to condemn the BJP and other Hindu nationalist organizations, or express ideas that supposedly besmirch Hinduism. What’s dangerous about the “anti-national” tag is that it verges on depicting criticism of a political party, its government, its leader and the idea of Hindutva as tantamount to treason. Figures well known in the West, such as novelist Arundhati Roy and the Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen, have been vilified. But so have those who are well known in India but not necessarily abroad, like the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. After the RSS demanded that he be arrested and that his novel Maadhorubaagan (published in English as One Part Woman) be banned, the harassment and intimidation that followed led him to announce that he would stop writing altogether, urging his publishers to cease issuing his works and his readers to burn them.
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.