The Hindu right has brazenly launched a multi-pronged attack, simultaneously targeting Christians, Muslims and other minorities along with anyone who speaks against the BJP regime.
The irony rang out perhaps as loudly as the jingle bells this Christmas day. Marking the Christian festival, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a statesman-like statement, recalling the teachings of Jesus Christ while appealing for harmony among people of all religious faiths.
However, hordes of right-wing Hindu fanatics who form the core of the support base of Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spared no effort in spreading fear and discord that very same day.
From the town of Agra in the north to Mandya in the country’s south, Hindu zealots descended on the streets in droves to disrupt Christmas celebrations and strike terror. They barged into churches and prayer halls and noisily halted congregations. At some places, they assaulted pastors and people who had come to pray. In one particular town, they staged a demonstration chanting slogans against Santa Claus. They dispersed only after setting on fire an effigy of the legendary bearded character known to shower gifts on children the world over.
The hatred on display across India that day was shocking, but not entirely surprising. Modi’s BJP believes in Hindu majoritarianism and wants to convert India into a nation where Hindus enjoy primacy over people of other faiths.
Ever since Modi propelled it to power – first in 2014 and then again in 2019 – the party’s offensive to get Hindus to call the shots in a country whose constitution swears by secularism has gotten louder. The party’s allies and associates, including activists drawn from various outfits aligned with RSS – considered the ideological fountainhead of the ruling BJP – have also become brazen and bolder.
Emboldening the Hindu zealots are obviously the doublespeak of the BJP leaders, including Modi. For record’s sake, they strike the correct notes and stress the need for cultural amity and religious harmony from time to time.
But alongside the posturing that makes for good optics and burnishes their stature globally, the party top brass also allows the religious hotheads to have a free reign within the country’s boundaries. For them, it makes immense political sense to rally their core support base and keep them primed for political battles.
Crucial state elections are due next year in several states, and BJP hopes to reap electoral dividends by exploiting religious fault lines that have always existed and polarising the electorate further. The simple calculation is that Hindus would vote for BJP that fashions itself as a Hindu nationalist party.
The objective being so obvious, the footsoldiers of the cause for Hindu supremacy are on overdrive. India, consequently, is awash with instances of religious thuggery and bigotry.
Just two weeks ago, several Hindu organisations came together to host a religious summit in the pilgrim town of Haridwar in Uttarakhand state where speaker after speaker – all dressed in ochre robes and claiming to be monks – spewed venom against other minorities. While one called for Hindus to take up arms to defend their faith, another argued for a Myanmar-style cleansing of other faiths. According to him, the violent persecution of Rohingyas was a template worth emulating.
The hatred freely voiced in Haridwar is echoing elsewhere too. In another meeting in capital Delhi, a notorious television anchor known for bigotry administered an oath to the participants for being prepared either to kill or be killed in defending their faith. Fed on such toxic speeches, many are already acting on them and minorities – both Christians and Muslims – are increasingly coming under attack.
According to estimates, some 300 churches have been targeted across the country between January and September this year. The cow, considered holy by Hindus, has also become a polarising animal. According to a 2019 Human Rights Watch report, some 44 people have been lynched in the country by cow vigilantes for either cow smuggling or possessing beef.
It is not that such mindless violence fired by misplaced beliefs is a recent phenomenon. They pre-dated Modi, and hundreds were lynched, for example, in the eastern state of West Bengal for an assortment of reasons in the 1980s. Christians, too, were periodically attacked.
But what sets the current round of lawlessness apart is perhaps the complicity of the establishment in condoning them. For one, the police took no less than four days to register a complaint against the hate speeches made in Haridwar, and no arrests have been made to date. And when a Muslim bangle seller was assaulted by Hindu vigilantes in the city of Indore for daring to stray into a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood, it was the victim who spent months in jail for ‘outraging’ the modesty of a girl based on the accusations of his assailants.
This pattern of government ‘patronage’ is playing out regularly with petrifying consequences for the minorities. A Christian pastor who was assaulted was himself arrested on a host of charges ranging from disturbing the peace to encouraging religious conversions.
In Gurugram adjacent to Delhi, mobs of Hindu fanatics have disrupted Muslim Friday prayers at designated open spaces week after week without much consequence. In fact, the chief minister of Haryana – the region’s highest elected official – has batted for the disruptors, saying prayers at public places would be banned.
The Hindu hotheads believe they are defending their faith in a country where Hindus make up an overwhelming 80 percent of the population. But a recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that their religion is under no kind of danger; religious conversions are rare, and Hindus gain as many people as they lose. For the fanatics though, these are just inconvenient details that they can ignore as they lead India down the path of mobocracy.