A wound has festered in India since its partition in 1947. Now it has broken open.
A FRIEND OF MINE, an ad filmmaker from Mumbai, called me last week. He was trying to work on a commercial, and his shoot had been stalled for a day. He is fairly apolitical, but on this project he had insisted on a Muslim name for his protagonist, a soldier in the Indian Army. Similar portrayals have drawn backlash: Last October, a jewellery brand owned by the multinational conglomerate TATA withdrew an advertisement that promoted communal amity with its portrayal of a Hindu woman getting along with her Muslim in-laws. The brand commissioning my friend’s work didn’t want similar treatment, but my friend wouldn’t budge, and so he lost the project.
His fear was not unwarranted. On the 19th of October, roughly a week after my filmmaker friend was shown the door, Fab India, one of India’s leading clothing brands, withdrew an advertisement after right-wing nationalists denounced the brand for endorsing pluralism, and for using a Urdu term for a Hindu festival—a kind of signifier that India’s far right loves to brandish as evidence of minority perfidy.
A wound has festered in India since its partition in 1947—a communal polarisation encouraged by ultra-right-wing groups, who believe that India ought to to be a Hindu nation, with the rest of its faiths subservient to Hinduism. It is this ideology that led the country to re-elect Narendra Modi, the star kid of the right-wing nationalist organisation, the Rashtriya SwayamSevak Sangh, whose member Nathuram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.
Modi, Prime Minister since 2014, was described in April 2004 by the Chief Justice of Supreme Court of India as a ‘Modern-day Nero who looked the other way when helpless children and innocent women are burning’. The year before, the court declared it had lost faith in Modi’s government of the Indian state of Gujarat, months after a thousand Muslims were massacred by Hindu nationalists under his watch in February 2002. It was this judgment—and sustained pressure from human-rights activists—that barred Modi from entering the United States.
But by 2013, Modi was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for prime minister, and India’s minority community shuddered in fear at the prospect of an even greater Hindu radicalisation. Modi campaigned as the face of the anti-corruption movement in India, promising to lift the country out of a chaos of graft and unemployment. Centrists and liberals at newspapers run by big businesses developed amnesia: They conveniently ignored Modi’s past and asked Indians to give him a chance to build an inclusive India.
Today, under Modi, the man who assassinated the Mahatma, Nathuram Godse has become some sort of a nationalist hero. On Gandhi’s birth anniversary , October 2, as Modi paid lip service to his greatness, his supporters praised and celebrated independent India’s first radical Hindu terrorist, Nathuram Godse. Indian filmmaker Mahesh Manjrekar tweeted a poster of his forthcoming film, Godse. The tagline on the poster reads ‘Heartiest wishes on your birthday, sir. Yours, Godse.’
IN AN IDEAL WORLD, glorifying a terrorist this way would get you raked over the coals by the public. But not in India, that treatment is reserved for minorities and activists who seek to protect civil liberties Here, a 28-year-old student Gulfisha Fatima has been behind bars for more than a year on charges of sedition and terrorism for staging a peaceful protest against the discriminatory Citizenship bill and the National register of Citizens that seeks proof of nationality from its Muslim population. In another case, journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested on his way to cover the gang rape of a lower-caste girl in the Northern State of Uttar Pradesh in India; he has been behind bars for a year and was forbidden from visiting his mother before her death. Gulfisha and Kappan do not just have activism in common—both have Muslim surnames, and, in India, that is enough reason to terrorise them.
Don’t believe me? Consider the events of just the last month:
- Last Friday, prayers in the national capital of New Delhi were disrupted by Hindu nationalists chanting ‘When they slaughter Muslims, we will raise glory to Lord Ram.’
- In Chattisgarh, a mob of three thousand nationalists defied a curfew and marched with swords, lathis and other weapons, raising cries of ‘Glory to Lord Ram!’ as they attacked homes and vehicles owned by Muslims and ransacked properties.
- In the state of Assam, two Muslim men, 30 and 19, were brutally shot dead at a protest by the armed forces. When the Muslim man was killed, a photographer embedded with the police force jumped and kicked the dead body.
- In the same month, Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India, mocked Muslims publicly, saying the Modi government was no longer Indian Muslims’ ‘abbajaan’ (the Hindustani Muslim word for father).
- Hindu nationalists attack and arrest Muslim men, whom they believe are involved in a wild conspiracy called a ‘Love Jihad’, seducing Hindu women and forcing them to convert so that they can marry their Muslim lovers. It’s part of a broader conspiracy theory on the nationalist right: That Muslims are trying to increase their population and take over India by 2050. (A quick glance at publicly available demographic data on the internet will show otherwise.)
- On October 1, in the southern state of Karnataka, Arbaaz Aftab Mulla, who had been in a relationship with a Hindu woman, was found decapitated. His hands were tied, and his body had been mutilated and thrown on the railway tracks. Karnataka cops have detained 33 people associated with a Hindutva group called SriRam Sene, who they believe were behind this murder.
- In the last ten days, Hindu nationalist outfit Bajrang Dal has forcibly shut down meat shops and attacked the homes of Muslims who sell and eat non-vegetarian food during the Hindu festival of Navratri.
- According to a report in news website The Wire, on the 18th of October a Hindu nationalist leader was seen assaulting a Muslim man in a train and shared the video on his facebook page where his caption reads ‘thrashing a Jihadi snake.’
- In Madhya Pradesh, a ten-day curfew was imposed and two dozen people were arrested after a clash erupted over the presence of 10-year-old Muslim boy at a Hindu festival.
These are just the events of the last month. If one were to document every attack on the community since Modi assumed power in May 2014, there would be enough material for a book. When Muslims are not forcibly put in their place on public streets, they are maligned and demonised on the silver screen by the Hindi film industry, which depicts them as barbaric invaders. A high-profile film director told me that popular culture could not be separated from the politics of present day India: ‘Almost every big film director, producer , actor has an Income Tax [or] enforcement directorate notice [pending] against them. They are summoned, made to sit for hours, and threatened. To buy peace, they agree on enabling the agenda of the government by producing propaganda material. Those who do not have been silenced.’ The director says he wants to leave the country, as he feels claustrophobic living under a dictatorship.
Those who choose to stay and still refuse to cooperate with the Modi administration are punished. ShahRukh Khan, the biggest movie star in India, makes a point of taking roles that challenge Islamophobia, and he speaks out bravely about the increasing intolerance in the country. On the 2nd of October, Khan’s 23-year-old son, Aryan Khan, was arrested on a cruise, along with his friend, by the Indian Narcotics Control Bureau. At the alleged drug bust, Bharatiya Janata Party functionaries seemed to be ‘guiding’ the Narcotics officials, as I reported in the Washington Post. Their presence at the arrest was flatly illegal. The younger Khan has been imprisoned for 18 days and has not yet been granted bail.
Khan is one of the most high profile Indian Muslim celebrities. He commands an obsessive following. If somebody like him has been made to pay the price of defiance, one can imagine how much worse is the plight of people who neither have Khan’s clout nor the financial resources necessary for a court battle. Student activist Safoora Zargar was jailed in New Delhi’s Tihar jail in the peak of her pregnancy for participating in a students protest in the National Capital. In February 2020, a few days before former US President Donald Trump visited India, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders like Kapil Mishra held a rally where they gave incendiary speeches against traitors and anti-nationalists (by which they clearly meant Indian Muslims). The inflammatory speeches triggered an anti Muslim riot, as Trump and Modi indulged in an obscene bonhomie in the National Capital. Modi’s police force was discovered enabling the riot, in one video they are seen beating a bunch of injured Muslim men and forcing them to sing the national anthem. One of the men later succumbed to his injuries
But instead of arresting the perpetrators, the Delhi police, in the midst of a raging pandemic, started picking up students like Safoora Zargar for organising protests against the discriminatory citizenship bill that sought to delegitimise the existence of Indian Muslims. Zargar was made to sleep on a cold floor, denied basic rights through her pregnancy. When she was given bail, she told me that she continues to live in a living, breathing, nightmare. She is unemployed and sees no source of sustenance as she has been tagged as an ‘accused’.
IN VOL. 1 OF “I WILL BEAR WITNESS,” Victor Klemperer writers, ‘”It’s not the big things that are important, but the everyday life of tyranny, which may be forgotten. A thousand mosquito bites are worse than a blow on the head. I observe, I note, the mosquito bites.”
Thanks to all the bigoted mosquito bites, many Indians feel claustrophobic in their own country. Ordinary citizens do not feel safe speaking to each other on their normal cell networks, but prefer Whats App or Signal—encrypted communications that will keep any word of complaint about the regime from being recorded or used against them. To help fight India’s communal polarisation, platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have tried little to stave off what we are now witnessing, a hate so normalised that most journalists see so little novelty in it that they don’t even bother to write about it. Those of us who do write about this pervasive cruelty in our columns get labelled alarmists who exaggerate the events on the ground.
Frances Haugen, a senior Facebook employee, confirmed our fears in testimony to Congress earlier in October. Haugen told Congress about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological arm of Modi’s BJP: The RSS encourages hate crimes against Muslim in India by using pages on Facebook dedicated to spreading lies based on cruel stereotypes. A leaked Facebook document uploaded on the CBC news website reads, “RSS Users, Groups, and Pages promote fear mongering, anti-Muslim narratives targeted pro-Hindu populations with V&I (violent and incendiary) intent…. There were a number of dehumanizing posts comparing Muslims to ‘pigs’ and ‘dogs’ and misinformation (claiming that men have been urged to rape their female family members).”
Hatred is not limited to talk on social media and WhatsApp. Indian Hindus are being radicalised, and it has begun to overwhelm the rest of us in this country. What explains the deep-rooted hatred of a photographer dancing over the body of a dead man in Assam, where thousands of Muslims are being expelled from their homes of their forefathers? This hatred was simmering within so many of the Hindu majority; now they have been given a license to express it, to vocalise it with impunity. A well-meaning neighbour, our local physician, that friendly beautician—even the former principal of a prominent college who lives next door to me, who sends vile, bigoted WhatsApp messages in the neighborhood WhatsApp group. His grandson tells my nephew that he has been asked not to drink water from a Muslim household. They have all stopped hiding their disdain for ‘us’. Colleagues who were always civil now proclaim their hatred in public on social media, fully aware that it will be seen by their Muslim and Christian friends.
For years, Indian Hindu nationalists have longed for the supremacy over Muslims that was taken from them by democracy and secularism—by Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. Now, they believe the day of that supremacy has finally arrived, and their man is in power. Our descent into fascism is complete. India is now officially a fascist, Hindu-fundamentalist state, and impotent superpowers like America have blood on their hands. Narendra Modi, the prodigal son of Hindu nationalists has finally realised their dream.