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  • Writer's pictureDonna Straver

The Hindu-nationalist agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party is harming India’s democracy

Religious extremism is on the rise. Around 84 percent of the world's population affiliates with a specific religion. And with all these believers comes a new spike in religiously motivated violence. According to Pew, in 2018 over a quarter of the world’s countries witnessed a sharp increase in hostilities motivated by religious hatred, terrorism, religious-related mob violence, and harassment of women for not following strict religious traditions. This increase in religious violence is not particular to any regime or country and is happening around the globe. That being said, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have especially raised concerns. India, which is ironically founded on tolerance and secularity, has always experienced religious tensions and violence. However, due to a very Hindu nationalist agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, the biggest democracy in the world made up of 80 percent of Hindus and 14 percent of Muslims, has been experiencing a new peak in Hindu-Muslim aggression.

This October, anti-Hindu attacks in Bangladesh left seven people dead. These attacks inspired, among others, the right-wing Hindu group Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) in the Indian state of Tripura to terrorize Muslim residents by way of torching Muslim shops, and vandalizing at least 16 mosques. The spokesman of VHP, Vinod Bansal, stated they only held peaceful protests and that these reports were false and spread by “jihadists”. Even the police, accused of allowing these violent rallies, denied the happening of any riots and refused to let victims file cases against the responsible VHP. Nonetheless, witnesses saw more than 3000 people marching through the streets of Tripura carrying swords, sticks, and cans of kerosene, attacking Muslim homes and businesses. Next to that, they saw them placing pork outside of mosques and planting Saffron flags (a symbol of Hindu nationalism) on several others.

Citizens of India have (on paper) the freedom to practice any religion they want. That being said, under Prime Minister Modi’s rule India has become a prominent concern regarding the freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), especially for the Muslim minority. Similar to the Bangladesh-Tripura incident of October, attacks against a religious group in either Pakistan, Bangladesh, or India, often inspire hateful crimes in one of the neighboring countries. The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Kahn, has spoken out against attacks in Pakistan with unfortunately little effect. He blamed PM Modi for “unleashing a reign of fear and violence against India’s 200 million-strong Muslim community.”(Mashal, 2021b) Supporters of PM Modi often use footage of anti-Hindu violence in for instance Pakistan to justify policies seen as discriminating against Muslims. One of the policies that causes concern is the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which PM Modi’s government passed in December 2019. The CAA enables irregular migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to obtain Indian citizenship, excluding Muslims. This discriminatory act led to peaceful protests across India, which were treated with arrests and detention.

These clearly discriminatory policies and the Hindu-nationalist agenda of PM Modi and his civil servants incite extreme followers to do anything they want to stop Muslims from living a normal life in India. In February 2020, the influence of this agenda was showcased when mobs killed 50 people in attacks against Muslim neighborhoods in Delhi with police either standing by or participating, and this is just one incident. The New Yorker reported that communal violence has jumped 28% under PMModi’s rule. Certain extreme Hindu-nationalist mobs are, under the pretense of defending Hindu values, lynching and killing people whom they expect to be eating or trading cows, the holy animal in Hinduism. Furthermore, The government and police have done close to nothing to stop them. In 2017 an incident was filmed and shared on social media where a violent mob attacked Muslim traders in Rajasthan for allegedly transporting cattle, in which one dairy farmer was killed. The Hindu trailer driver of this transport was allowed to leave safely, which led to people questioning what the real aim of this attack was. Rajasthan’s home minister, Gulab Chand Kataria refused to label the farmer’s death as a murder, as he blamed both sides for the violence, and even said that “the cow protectors did a good job by protecting cows from smuggling”. On top of that, after attacks like this, the victims are often hit with lawsuits for killing or possessing cows. In March 2017, legislation was introduced that increased the sentence time for cow slaughter from seven years in prison to a possible life sentence. Some people have gone out to say that it is safer in India to be a cow than to be Muslim.

The fact that PM Modi is allowing and possibly endorsing this violence against religious minorities is not surprising. PM Modi is a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization. It is the largest paramilitary organization in the world with over six million members, of which the founder admired Hitler for ensuring the purity of the race. This shows the fascist nature of this organization meddling in politics. The RSS also helped portray member of the BJP, Yogi Adityanath, as the face of Hindutva (a form of Hindu nationalism) ahead of the 2021 elections in Uttar Pradesh. According to Agra City Congress President Devendra Kumar Chillu, the RSS was trying to divert people’s attention from Adityanath’s mismanagement of Covid, which led to thousands of deaths, destroyed businesses, and orphaned children. Chillu went on to say that “it is in fact, a pseudo-political organization, which will not be allowed in its designs to break the country on religious lines once more.” Adityanath’s mismanagement of Covid is not the only thing that makes him worthy of concern. He also started the extremist Hindu Youth Organisation, which was accused of instigating communal tensions in 2005. The organization also called the Aligarh Muslim University “a nursery of terrorism”. Adityanath has not tried to hide the fact that he is anti-minority. In 2015, he compared the famous Bollywood actor Shak Rukh Khan to Pakistani terrorist leader Hafiz Saeed. Furthermore, he claimed that Mother Teresa was a part of a conspiracy to Christianise India. Some of India’s worst incidents of anti-Muslim violence have happened in Uttar Pradesh under Adityanath. Regardless of his anti-minority speech and actions, Yogi Adityanath was re-elected last year.

It does not stop with the BJP turning a blind eye to violence against Muslims and endorsing it, which is in itself enough reason for concern. PM Modi is showing traits of authoritarianism, as he is for example altering schoolbooks to glorify and serve Hindu history. Not long after PM Modi was elected, the RSS formed a committee with the purpose of Indianizing the education system. The head of the committee was Dinanath Batra, who had specialized in rewriting Indian history according to Hindu nationalism. Among other things, Batra pressured the University of Delhi to remove an essay that contradicted a Hindu nationalist notion. Next to that, the education minister of the BJP’s government was clear about how he wanted the history textbooks to hold the focus on imparting nationalism. The BJP clearly wants the teaching of their history to serve their desire of a Hindu nationalist spirit in school students through prioritizing certain communities and individuals.

Furthermore, the free press of India has been under attack since the election of the BJP, ranging from small-scale local journalists to big news anchors. On March 6, 2020, regular broadcasting from The Media One, a station with around five million viewers in India’s Kerala State, was shut down after just a few minutes. The screen went blank with just a message telling the viewers that there was no signal. India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had decided to block the broadcasting station for 48 hours after The Media One had covered the mob attacks on Muslims in New Delhi (one of the biggest stories of that month) in a manner that seemed “critical toward Delhi Police and RSS”. Events like this happen all too frequently now in India, with PM Modi trying to control how he is portrayed through e.g. the cutting of funding and blatantly putting stations on mute. Unfortunately, the BJP is supported by an intense amount of people online who harass journalists by sending them abuse and rape threats. It is even suspected by the police that Hindu nationalists were behind the murder of Gauri Lankesh, a female journalist and activist who was seen as very influential.

Clearly, India is crossing some lines in regards to international law and human rights. In 2011 the Human Rights Council introduced Resolution 16/18 with the aim of “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against, persons based on religion or belief.” Even though these resolutions are not legally binding, they are meant for political commitment. The 16/18 is supposed to make their member states, like India, actively battle the incitement to violence and criminalize incitement to immediate violence based on religion or belief. Next to that, it called on member states to implement the goals of 16/18 through countering religious profiling, preventing discrimination by civil servants, and appointing a section within their governments to monitor and address tensions between religious communities. Looking at the facts, one could say the BJP has not succeeded very well in relieving these ‘tensions’, the opposite being the harsh reality.

Regardless of all his wrongdoings, PM Modi’s BJP had a history-making victory in the 2019 elections by establishing a simple majority in the Lok Sabha (the Indian lower House). After this landslide win, PM Modi addressed the people on Twitter saying “Good times are coming” and “with all and development for all, will be my government’s motto and not an empty slogan”. Under PM Modi’s rule, new cooking gas connections were delivered to over 72 million low-income families, and over 110 million toilets were built, which relieved big health concerns for many people. These obviously needed and impressive actions are great. However, the “Good times” PM Modi mentioned are maybe a reality for the 80 percent Hindu Indians but surely not for India’s religious minorities.

Even though the Genocide Watch began warning of genocide in India in 2002, the international community has been lacking to actively get engaged and address the issue. PM Modi’s BJP has been able to pursue their Hindu nationalist agenda and give the impression to their extremist supporters that violence against Muslims or any other religious minority is condoned and that they should go on to defend Hindu values. The protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, supported by people from all across the religious spectrum show that there are people standing behind these victims of religious harassment. A lot of things are needed to try and lessen the intensity of this problem. Religious and interfaith groups need to be proactive in preventing violence and promoting peace among their members. The effectiveness of this comes down to how well the leaders of these groups are able to work with policers within their communities to pinpoint the wrongdoers and prevent these escalations from happening. Undoubtedly, the actions of local religious communities are not going to solve this complicated issue that spreads itself over every part of society. International organizations and institutions must get involved and address the authoritarian government the BJP is becoming/is so that India can stay the tolerant and secular democracy it is supposed to be.

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