It was the best, and perhaps the last chance to thwart the spread of Hindu nationalism, which has tarnished Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s short tenure.
Speaking a few days ahead of the elections in India’s critical state of Bihar, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a biographer of Modi, told Newsweek Middle East that if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins, it will signal to Modi and the BJP that its track record of ignoring religious intolerance is working, at least at the polls.
“The Bihar verdict will determine the precise orientation of the BJP in the short run,” Mukhopadhyay said. “Future electoral strategy in coming elections will see a mix of development promises with practical promotion of religious sectarianism.”
But on Sunday, things took an unexpected turn. Despite surging early in the polls, the BJP lost in Bihar, India’s third largest state, a place often considered a bellwether for Indian political trends. While his name was not on the ballot, this election was seen as a referendum on Modi, the controversial leader who came to power in May 2014 after a historic, landslide win.
When Modi campaigned for the position of prime minister, he set out to carefully distance himself from the firebrand nationalism that had marked his rule as chief minister of India’s western state of Gujarat.
In 2002, months after Modi came to power, nearly a thousand people were killed in religious rioting. But as Modi set about to win India’s highest office, the consummate campaigner altered his tone, reached out to minorities, and promised that development would be his main focus. Today, fewer believe his promise and as the year draws to a close, a growing number wonder if it is in fact religious intolerance, not development, that could be the byproduct of Modi’s rule.
In the past six weeks alone, four Muslims have been lynched because they allegedly ate beef, the latest killing occurring on November 2 when a 55-year-old man was beaten to death after rumors circulated that he stole a cow. But Muslims aren’t the only target. On August 30, the notable South Indian rationalist, 77-year-old M. M. Kalburgi, was shot dead outside his home. It’s unclear who killed Kalburgi, but the author, born a Hindu, had angered nationalists in the past.
It’s not what is said, but rather, what is not said in Modi’s India. Modi’s conspicuously muted response to these incidents prompted over 50 writers, scientists and film-makers to hand back their government-issued awards in protest over its refusal to reign in the intolerance.
Arundhati Roy, the Booker winning novelist, returned her award, saying, “These horrific murders are only a symptom of a deeper malaise. Life is hell for the living too. Whole populations—millions of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and Christians—are being forced to live in terror, unsure of when and from where the assault will come.”
The awards—or rather, the returning of them—have unsettled the nation. The timing coincided with iconic Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s birthday. He had little reason to think that the week would end with his Indian patriotism being questioned. On November 1, the eve of Khan’s 50th, thousands gathered outside his home in Mumbai, some holding cake but many more with mobile phones in hand, hoping to take a selfie with the man known simply by his initials, SRK. “I saw him! I caught a glimpse of SRK,” an adoring fan screamed at a television camera. “I can die now.” The following day, Khan, who has a net worth of $600 million, gave an interview to the well-known Indian journalist, Barkha Dutt. Sitting in his house in front of a wall of trophies he received during his 23-year career in Indian cinema, Dutt asked Khan about the growing trend of Indian artists giving back their awards. Khan was candid in his response, a rare departure for someone who often evades current affairs. “Religious intolerance, or intolerance of any kind, is the worst thing and will take us to the dark ages. Indians lose face over the questions that are asked. I think it’s very brave of those returning their awards. I am on their side,” Khan said. His comments sent shock waves in a country unaccustomed to hearing its megastars speak out, and earned the ire of India’s right wing; the actor was told to go to Pakistan.
Earlier this year, several churches were attacked across India, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to issue a rebuke in a speech he delivered standing next to Modi. In February, the Aam Aadmi Party, the anti-corruption group, defeated Modi’s BJP in the Delhi elections.
With the Bihar elections, many hoped Modi would change his approach, heed criticism to curb his party’s nationalism, and focus on the economy, as he did during his 2014 campaign. Instead, Modi and his BJP resorted to the chauvinist slogans it had used to win three elections in Gujarat.
Amit Shah, Modi’s chief election strategist, organized the BJP’s campaign in Bihar, at one point warning a crowd that if they do not vote for the BJP, “firecrackers would burst in Pakistan.”
In December 2002, as Modi faced international criticism for his inaction during the anti-Muslim pogrom earlier that year, he told crowds in Gujarat during his state election campaign that if they vote against him, they would be voting for Pakistan, India’s Muslim majority neighbor which often serves as India’s scapegoat.
But now that the BJP has lost two critical elections in the same year, the question remains: will Modi change tack?
Mukhopadhyay, one of the few journalists who has extensively interviewed Modi, is not optimistic.
“Modi will not reverse the process of cultural and academic reorientation of India whether he wins or loses. It must be recalled that [Modi] has made no departure from the definition of nationhood on the basis of cultural nationalism and not territorial nationalism.”
Recent incidents reinforce his claim. On Saturday, at the “March for India” led by veteran Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, a group gathered to protest those who call India, and Modi in particular, intolerant. But at the event, a journalist named Bhairavi Singh was hounded for asking a question of the protesters, an incident caught on camera. Singh later posted on Twitter: “First was called a prostitute, heckled, chased just for saying that the Indian creative world is divided on this issue (of intolerance).” Kher later apologized but others at the rally, some of whom were given a private audience with Modi later in the day, such as Rahul Grover, were unrepentant. “When it comes to media, I support violence,” Grover wrote on Twitter. “They r [sic] responsible for riots in our country, they must be beaten up…”
In the past week, Moody’s Analytics, The New York Times, and The Economist have each issued scathing criticisms of Modi’s refusal to combat intolerance. An economist from Moody’s Analytics, which tracks global economic trends, recently noted, “While Modi has largely distanced himself from the nationalist gibes, the belligerent provocation of various Indian minorities has raised ethnic tensions. Modi must keep his members in check or risk losing domestic and global credibility.” The Indian government dismissed these claims as being the mere opinion of a junior economist, prompting Moody’s to re-affirm its concerns. Many in India’s social media then went after the report’s author, Faraz Syed, insinuating that Syed might be related to the opposition Congress party, or perhaps to the renowned scholar and Modi critic, Irfan Habib. The allegations were false but the damage had been done.
Ghanshyam Shah, a retired 75-year-old political scientist who lives in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, believes the reason India is facing these problems stems from the narrow idea of India advanced by Modi.
“The BJP does not want to rid India of its Muslims and its non-Hindus. To the contrary, it needs Muslims and non-Hindus to stay in India so that [it] can boast to the world, and especially to its neighbors, that it is secular and diverse,” Shah said.
According to Shah’s theory of Hindu nationalism, a Muslim like Khan is free to act and to dance in India but the moment he offers his view of the nation, he is told by some Hindu nationalists that he ought to be quiet. There are few radical Hindu nationalists who dwell on the idea that the minority must accept the majority’s monopoly on speech.
In the controversial 1968 book Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, the flawed early leader of the Black Panther movement in America believes the boxer Muhammad Ali struck a nerve with white Americans—and earned adoration among black Americans—because Ali was unwilling to present himself as just a sports star.
White Americans were ready to accept black athletes, Cleaver argues, so long as black athletes did not speak or articulate their grievances. Their job was to entertain and to only entertain. By refusing to succumb to this narrative however, Muhammad Ali paved a new model for black celebrity in America, one that refused to acquiesce to white notions of “acceptable behavior.” The narratives used against Khan, and other Muslims in India, share striking similarities.
In the next few days, many on India’s left, as well as groups like Bihar’s victorious Grand Alliance led by Nitish Kumar that defeated the BJP, will rejoice. Some may even call this a turning point for India and a new beginning for Kumar’s campaign to unseat Modi in the next prime ministerial elections in 2019.
But Rohit Chopra, a professor at Santa Clara University who grew up in India, believes that intolerance has become so widespread that it is now the norm. Perhaps what is needed, Chopra feels, is a new approach to understanding intolerance.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of Between the World and Me, offers a unique framework for understanding prejudice that may be applicable to India. One of the reasons why Coates has emerged as a towering figure because he has pushed Americans to shift their understanding of what is racism. When racism presents itself in a ugly package such as using a racial slur, we jump to condemn it—and rightfully so. This racism is obvious, at least to most, and speaking against it is more widespread because the bigotry is clear.
But Coates reminds Americans that racism is not just calling someone a racial epithet—it is also the institutionalized patterns that, for example, makes it difficult, and in some cases, impossible for a black man like Coates to obtain a loan for a house. This type of bigotry, Coates argues, is too often excused, ignored, and trivialized because it so often implicates a wider range of people and systems.
“The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion,” Coates writes.
A similar pattern is often employed in India to justify intolerance. After the Hindu nationalist politician insulted Shah Rukh Khan, for example, the BJP politician said he was “misunderstood.” Arun Jaitley, a member of Modi’s cabinet, even suggested the chorus of people calling Modi intolerant illustrates that Modi is in fact “the worst victim of ideological intolerance.”
Modi, after his party lost in Bihar, called his political foe, Nitish Kumar, and conceded defeat, a gracious gesture following a heated campaign.
Meanwhile, some members of Modi’s own party are comparing his government to that of the Indian National Congress, an ineffectual party that ruled India for most of its history. It might also be too late for Modi to reverse the changes he set in motion since he came to power.
What really worries scholars of India like Chopra, is that the climate of politics, and in particular the religious chauvinism employed during the Bihar elections, signals an alarming trend in Indian politics, and in Indian society, that may be here to stay.
“This climate of intolerance is an enormously worrisome development, because it suggests a new normal in our political discourse, one that involves a debasement of our rights as Indians to be who we are or want to be without apology,” he said.