As the fourth polling phase in India’s election just came to an end, the country is gearing up to complete the massive democratic exercise amidst an increasingly toxic atmosphere. Vitriolic social media posts, fake news, real-life aggressions, and clashes, especially in West Bengal, Kerala, and Kashmir where a boycott has been called, have marked this ballot.
Nevertheless, the spike in religious violence that has characterized the run-up to the 2014 elections does not seem to have (till date) triggered communal riots this time around.
The current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is aiming at a second term in office with the slogan “NaMo again” and full set merchandise. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing organization representing the Hindu-nationalist sentiment, has put up an aggressive rhetoric to stay in power, centred on the cult of its frontman and political face, Modi, his role as a defender of national security (especially after the Pulwama terror attack last February) and his economic achievements.
Selling the image of a humble self-made-man, in juxtaposition to the privilege-soaked Gandhi family and their corrupt rule, turned out as a winning strategy in the past polls.
The BJP is today India’s largest party, rivaling the historic Indian National Congress (INC) of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, that has been in power for most of India’s republican history until the 2014 BJP’s landslide victory.
Backed by its hardliner sister-organization, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the paramilitary voluntary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in the latest campaign the BJP has silently shifted the political narrative from vikas – the mantra of “development” which lured voters in 2014 victory – towards a more muscular nationalism, normalizing a communal rhetoric that can jeopardize India’s diverse and delicate social fabric.
When just days ago the news broke that Sadhvi Pragya Thakur would contest election from the Bhopal constituency with the BJP, a wave of discontent spread across the media. The sannyasin (Hindu ascetic) and political activist are among the accused of the 2008 Malegaon blast case in West India, where 37 people died and hundreds got wounded, and is widely seen as the “fringe” of Modi’s religious agenda, that is slowly becoming mainstream.
The bombs were placed in a cemetery next to a mosque: most of the victims were Muslim pilgrims. Sadhvi Pragya, who was never acquitted of the charges but granted freedom on bail after 9 years in prison, is hailed as a martyr by the Hindu right-wing.
Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasi minorities
Since the BJP has been in power episodes of violence against the many minorities of the country have increased exponentially, especially against Muslims (which represent the 14.2 per cent on a population of 1.3 billion), Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”, the lowest section of India’s rigid social stratification), and Adivasi (indigenous) communities.
They represent the “other” compared to the uniform idea of India advocated by the Hindutva, “Hinduness”, the doctrine that sees Hinduism as the only religion of the subcontinent.
Ever since the polarizing Modi rule, hate speeches and the targeting of already oppressed groups by frenzied groups, led to the rise of a new kind of violence, the so-called “mob lynching”.
“For the international community, the dominant narrative of India under Modi has been a story of economic success, not an account of religious violence and repression”, wrote the US journalist and author Eliza Griswold in an article on the New Yorker.
According to government data analysed by IndiaSpend, there has been a 28 percent increase in the number of incidents of communal violence between 2014 and 2017, often propagated by fake news and social media rumors. Violence and hate crimes have become the new normal in India, so much so that the country has been called Lynchistan.
As many as 2,920 communal or caste-based incidents were reported in India between 2013 and 2017, in which 389 people were killed and 8,890 injured, according to the Home Ministry’s data, whose figures are often lower than those collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous state, headed by the Hindu-hardliner turned politician Yogi Adityanath, who claims there were no communal riots under his tenure – reported the most incidents: 645 over the last four years. Incidents in UP have increased by 47 percent, from 133 in 2014 to 195 in 2017 where, in comparison with other states, the most dramatic rise was registered.
A report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned of the growing climate of hostility, intimidation, and violence towards some communities and the sense of total impunity that follows these incidents. Members of the BJP have increasingly used communal and religious rhetoric, spurring a violent vigilante campaign against beef consumption, says the report.
The cow is a sacred animal for Hindus, who constitute 80 percent of India’s population, therefore many (mainly high cast) refrain from eating while cow-slaughtering is forbidden in many states. Since the BJP is ruling the country, cow protection groups have mushroomed all over India targeting the communities traditionally linked to the trade: Muslims and Dalits.
According to the report, between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people – among them, 36 Muslims – were killed across 12 Indian states over cow-related issues.
Over that same period, around 280 people were injured in more than 100 incidents spread across 20 states. “Calls for cow protection may have started out as a way to attract Hindu votes, but it has transformed into a free pass for mobs to violently attack and kill minority group members,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Five years more of BJP rule could further fuel social tensions
In July 2018, India’s Supreme Court issued a series of directives for preventive, remedial and punitive measures to address the lynchings. According to HRW, in almost all of the cases, the police initially stalled investigations, ignored procedures, or even played a complicit role in the killings and cover-up of crimes.
“The most malignant legacy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five years in office is that he has made India a more frightening and dangerous place for its religious minorities”, asserts Harsh Mander, a renowned writer, activist, and founder of the think-tank Centre for Equity Studies, who has investigated hate crimes thoroughly.
He draws a global parallel between the lynchings in India and the racial terror against African-Americans in the American South in the late 19th century. “The motive of both was/is to target people because of their identity, to instill fear, and to convey a message of violent dominance”, he claims.
Events like the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and the following communal violence that claimed thousands of lives or the pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, among the darkest pages in India’s recent history, are still open wounds in the collective memory.
Narendra Modi, who has militated with the RSS since a very young age, was the Chief Minister of Gujarat with the BJP when religious riots exploded, killing more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. He has been accused of not having done enough to stop the anti-Muslim pogrom, triggered by a train arson in Godhra where 60 Hindu pilgrims lost their lives.
Today, in a growing scenario of minorities’ harassment, the arrest of activists, murders of journalists and brutal repression of dissent by labeling any stance as “anti-national”, the fear is that another five years of BJP rule could further fuel social tensions and sharpen the divisions along communal, caste and religious lines.
Academics, intellectuals, artists, and scientists from all over the country have issued statements ahead of election urging the society not to fall prey of hate politics and divisive discourse. Many in India believe this ballot has the potential to change the country as we have known it: a secular, liberal and inclusive democracy.
Photo: Biju BORO / AFP
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