Saffronization of India
Nisaar main teri galiyon pe ai watan ke jahan
Chali hai rasm ke koi na sar utha ke chale
Jo koi chahane wala tawaaf ko nikale
Nazar chura ke chale; jismo-jan bacha ke chale
(My salutations to thy sacred streets, O beloved nation!
Where a tradition has been invented
That none shall walk with his head held high
If at all one takes a walk, a pilgrimage
One must walk, eyes lowered, the body crouched in fear)
So the new order now dictates that none shall walk with head held high. In the times we live in now, even the innocuous Ashoorah procession now grates on nationalist nerves and is a “nuisance,” as a BJP leader put it.
Although Muslims may be divided over the Muharram rites, in India it has been an occasion to bring Hindus and Muslims together.
Muharram has for centuries been one of the most secular events in the subcontinent. Some of the finest lines hailing the sacrifice of Hussain (may Allah be pleased with him) have been penned by Hindu poets. Back home in Hyderabad, Hindu families turn up in large numbers to watch and take part in the procession, with many of them offering water to the participants.
All that, as with everything else, may be history soon as the saffron brigade goes about painting India in its own, overpowering hue. This year several neighborhoods in Delhi decided to ban Muharram processions. Addressing a grand council (mahapanchayat) in Bawana, local BJP MLA ruled Muslims were free to “celebrate” Muharram in their homes and ghettos but would face consequences if they dared to come out on the streets.
In full view of massive police presence, speaker after speaker ranted against a terrified minority, accusing it of all the familiar crimes and some more. “In Bawana’s JJ colony, home to the majority of Muslims in the area, residents said they were going to lock themselves inside their homes to avoid any confrontation. “We have decided to stay home for our children’s safety,” said Mohammad Muzir, a resident,” reported the Times of India.
A similar “mahapanchayat” in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, not far from Delhi, last year had sparked unprecedented riots, killing scores of Muslims and driving thousands of families from their homes who are still languishing in makeshift camps.
What is going on in Delhi, right under the nose of Narendra Modi, who promised “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas” (Participation and Progress of All) in the costliest electoral campaign in history, is not happening in isolation though. There is an emerging national pattern.
Even as the prime minister remains all reason and sweetness personified, devoting himself to singing paeans to noble profundities like hygiene, cleanliness, yoga and rediscovering India’s lost glory, there have been low-intensity communal conflagrations all across the country including a full-scale riot last month right in Delhi’s Trilokpuri.
What began as a ridiculous canard suggesting a grand Muslim conspiracy of targeting innocent Hindu maidens to transform the demographic profile of a Hindu-majority nation has turned into a rising crescendo of hate campaign and witch hunt.
Television networks are out to make a killing as they endlessly report “love jihad” cases from across the country followed by furious nightly debates. That each one of these has turned out to be a hoax, or worse, seems to make no difference. This has coincided with the usual suspects being caught “red-handed” plotting against the nation with bomb trails leading to Pakistan or Bangladesh.
All this may not exactly be designed to drive out the country’s 200 million Muslims but the message is clear and unequivocal: “Lie low and keep your head down in your ghettos. This is Hindu country!”
It is reiterated ad infinitum in love letters to yours truly and others of his ilk.
In his annual Dussehra speech, telecast for the first time by the public broadcaster Doordarshan, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat called for declaring India a Hindu nation and all Indians Hindus. There is new-found hubris in Hindutva-speak as the Parivar revels in the rise of the BJP and saffron surge across the country with one Congress-ruled state after another falling into Modi’s lap. A Times of India report this week talks of the swelling RSS ranks in the length and breadth of India. The organization once identified with Gandhi’s assassins is suddenly seen as cool.
Not surprisingly, it is not just a tiny, lunatic fringe that views the nation’s largest minority with unrestrained hostility and hatred; the sentiment appears to be fast gaining currency and legitimacy in media narrative and public perception.
The communal polarization that began long before the 2014 elections is at its most fearsome today. Social and intellectual space for minorities and minority opinion is fast shrinking. In a recent Indian Express piece, Rajmohan Gandhi, Mahatma’s grandson, noted that 2014 reminded him of 1947.
The Project Saffron has taken off with a bang in all seriousness with Modi leading the charge to dump the Gandhian-Nehruvian idea of a secular and inclusive India and instead raise the Hindustan of Hindutva’s dreams.
Modi is on a mission and on a roll. In his deliberate actions, speeches and approach, he reminds you of early years of the Fuhrer, out to fashion the Third Reich. Every single word he speaks and every single step he takes has a careful, well-thought-out purpose and a message. Like those clever art works by Leonardo da Vinci, even regulation photo opportunities have their own hidden clues and messages. Those who do not pay attention do so at their peril.
As my friend Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal argues, from appropriating national icons like Gandhi, dumping him down to a cleanliness drive and the humble broom, and projecting Patel as the new national icon above Gandhi and Nehru, the Parivar is pushing its agenda: “The icons are strategically picked up, suitably distorted and recreated in a manner that is gradually and subtly bringing the Hindutva agenda to the fore through historical falsehoods and propagandist tactics that have begun squeezing space for any dissent and challenge.”
In his latest New York Times piece, Pankaj Mishra warns that the kind of retrograde 1920s-style nationalist dogma that appeared in Europe, Russia and Japan is making a big comeback in India as Modi “stokes old Hindu rage-and-shame over what he calls more than a thousand years of slavery under Muslim and British rule.”
Mishra writes: “In Madison Square Garden, in New York, last month, more than 19,000 people cheered Mr. Modi’s speech about ending India’s millennium-long slavery. But hundreds of millions of uprooted Indians are also now fully exposed to demagoguery. Interestingly, it is not the RSS khaki-shorts-wearing volunteers but rather quasi-westernized Indians in the corporate-owned media and mysteriously well-funded think tanks, magazines and websites who have provided the ambient chorus for Mr. Modi’s ascent to respectability.”
It seems by the time Modi is done with India — or India is done with Modi, which looks like a distant possibility given the total decimation of the opposition and the messianic role he imagines himself — it would not be the same country and nation again. It has already changed in the past few months in ways one never thought possible. And the ride has just about begun.
— Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer.
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