Muslim world calls out radical narratives from India’s BJP
In a few short years, under the stewardship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has lurched from secular democracy to demagogic theocracy.
Although Hinduism has traditionally coexisted amicably with many other religious beliefs, India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party champions Hindutva — until recently a radical fringe ideology committed to rendering 276 million non-Hindus second-class citizens, or even non-citizens.
The BJP’s primary target has been India’s 200 million Muslims, and the eradication of India’s cultural heritage as a synthesis of Islamic and Indic traditions.
Muslim-majority states have demonstrated this month that BJP incitement against the Prophet Muhammad is a red line, with assertive diplomatic demarches and spontaneous public support for boycotts. The Gulf states are among India’s largest trading partners. With billions of dollars in remittances from over eight million Indian workers throughout the GCC keeping the Indian economy afloat, this is a warning shot for the BJP’s anti-pluralism agenda. The Gulf states potentially wield a powerful economic veto over the BJP and other Asian leaderships who seek to oppress or eradicate their Muslim populations.
Nevertheless, many BJP-affiliated commentators who routinely incite hatred against Muslims question why the Indian government “compromised” with Muslim states by sidelining the officials responsible for the most recent offensive comments. Despite more than 20 nations from the Islamic world speaking with one voice, BJP firebrands offensively accused these states of acting on behalf of Al-Qaeda and fomenting Hindu-Muslim conflict.
The BJP and Al-Qaeda feed off each other’s extremism and fearmongering. Despite the resolutely moderate nature of Indian Islam, Al-Qaeda is energetically exploiting BJP extremist policies by radicalising and recruiting. Although Indian Muslims have mostly been unresponsive to such propaganda, if young people find themselves under constant attack they will inevitably be seduced by such murderous narratives.
The truth is that India is diversity personified. On my visits there I have always been struck by the extraordinary richness and variety of cultures, languages, ethnicities, and forms of artistic expression. Attempts to impose a single theological ideology can only end badly.
In 1984 I was the last journalist to interview Indira Gandhi, hours before she was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for bloody incidents a few months earlier at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. She expressed optimism to me that a society rooted in religious tolerance would overcome these tragic events. She recalled her own upbringing, going trekking with her father in Muslim Kashmir as an example of how India’s cultural traditions and diverse peoples were intrinsically interlinked.
Tensions, pogroms and communal bloodletting in India will only worsen; Modi is likely to win a third term in 2023 through his populist stoking of endless culture wars, and the BJP figures most likely to ultimately succeed him are even more radical and divisive than he is. The Congress party, long dominated by the Gandhi family, is in complete disarray after performing dismally in the 2019 elections.
In India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, there have been dozens of murderous attacks by Hindu mobs who often accused their victims of cow slaughter. The BJP inevitably sided with the killers. When the party won the 2017 state elections a radical Hindu cleric responsible for inciting these vigilante actions became chief minister. Modi’s unilateral redrawing of Kashmir’s status in 2019 has dramatically escalated levels of repression in this troubled region. Tensions have also soared around the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, which was destroyed by Hindu nationalists in 1992; authorities have now given the go ahead for construction of a Hindu temple on the site.
The V-Dem Institute in Sweden has categorised India as an “electoral autocracy,” and it has tumbled to 53rd position in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Both reports blame the BJP for assaults on civil liberties. Evidence has been faked to justify the detention of activists and political opponents, and media suppression is blatant and routine; over the past decade hundreds of legal cases have been filed against journalists using a colonial-era sedition law.
Incompetent responses to the COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to mass burnings of bodies. Botched lockdowns prompted millions of destitute migrant workers to flood out of cities, accelerating the spread of the virus, while Modi encouraged maskless political rallies and super spreader million-person Hindu pilgrimages. As the authors of a recent book on India observed: “The pestilence hadn’t gutted India’s health system, it merely showed it for what it was.”
The Gulf states potentially wield a powerful economic veto over the BJP and other Asian leaderships who seek to oppress or eradicate their Muslim populations
Militant BJP-affiliated academics claim that India invented nuclear weapons, stem-cell technology, aircraft and the internet — thousands of years ago! It is one thing for BJP members to wallow in such ultra-nationalist nonsense, but when this constitutes the raw material for school textbooks, we should fear for future generations.
Post-independence India always seemed like a miraculous impossibility: Of the world’s 10 most populous nations, only the US and India are long-established democracies. For decades this immensely large but immensely poor nation organized orderly elections and smooth transitions of power, while constituting a pillar of the global non-aligned movement.
Modi nevertheless finds himself feted by the West as a bulwark against China and Russia. Western leaders appear to believe that they can combat belligerent autocrats in one location by cosying up to equally dangerous figures elsewhere. Just witness those politicians who argued that an oil boycott against Russia could be achieved by slashing sanctions against Iran.
Developments in India run in parallel to populist tendencies elsewhere. A US Congressional investigation is currently laying bare how close America came to a coup by its sitting president on Jan. 6, 2021. The reliance of some Republicans on “white grievance” to mobilize their supporters has exact parallels in the BJP’s Hindu supremacism.
Likewise, Israel’s apartheid policies reduce Palestinians to precarious non-citizens. Just as in India, Israel devolved from decades of being politically dominated by the centrist Labor Party to surrendering its democracy to ever-more ruthless and messianic extreme-right coalitions. Elsewhere, there are similar demagogic playbooks operating in Iran, Turkey, Russia, Hungary and Brazil.
Thus, the BJP is just one manifestation of a populist pandemic that has infected the planet. This fever will break only when citizens wise up and choose real leaders who are genuinely committed to making lives better — not quasi-fascists who cling to power by triggering race wars, inciting genocide, and pouring fuel on the fires of hatred and intolerance.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.