Unrest in Modi’s India looks a lot like a pogrom...

Novelist Charu Nivedita on nationalism, vigilantes and persecution in India

By Charu Nivedita

Chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, arrives at Indian Parliament in New Delhi. Photo: Sonu Mehta. Courtesy Hindustan Times/Getty Images A silent vigil held demanding justice for Asifa Bano, April 2018. Photo: Tharaka Basnayaka. Courtesy NurPhoto/Getty Images


Life in India stinks in every way possible. The state of affairs post-Independence (1947) was bad, and it got worse during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency (1975–77), but in light of the present situation, those times were mild. India today reminds me of Germany in the 1930s and 40s. In the name of religion, marginal communities are being denied their staple food, and in many North Indian states, vigilantes are going after cowherders, cattle traders and slaughterhouses; even consumers have been attacked and killed on the pretext of cow protection. It has reached the point where the North Indian population, but chiefly the Muslims and the Dalits, are frightened to consume beef. The meat has been banned in places thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindutva leanings, the Hindu nationalism that drives the ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose leaders have declared that eating beef is ‘against the idea of India’. Yet the general public, unable to endure the corruption of the secular Congress party and the government-driven price hikes during its tenure, voted Modi and his party into power in 2014. While the critics of Modi had their Hindutva reservations about him, he had no qualms awarding Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honor, to a Hindu monk. It was a moment when Hindutva came out of the closet and was worn as a badge of honour. This closely followed Modi’s appointment of Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk and rightwing Hindutva firebrand, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Statements made by leaders have been used as licence by their supporters to attack large numbers of Dalits and Muslims

What do these actions communicate to Hindutva loyalists? Aditya was the mahant, or head priest, of a Hindu temple in Gorakhpur, as well as the founder of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a youth militia implicated in communal violence. This is how they describe themselves: ‘A fierce cultural and social organization dedicated to Hindutva and nationalism’. As soon as Yogi Adityanath was ‘appointed’ chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, he ordered a crackdown on illegal meat-processing units. The authorities quickly took illegal units to mean mechanised units, and started going after them. This created a fear among minorities who were primarily involved in the meat trade. They are now moving away from their traditional profession because of these repressive policies. On top of this, Gujarat, Narendra Modi’s home state, has increased the punishment for cow slaughter from seven years to life imprisonment. His counterpart in Chhattisgarh, Chief Minister Raman Singh, has said, ‘We will hang those who kill cows’. Statements made by leaders have been used as licence by their supporters to attack large numbers of Dalits and Muslims. When I visited Meerut, Moradabad and Rampur recently, I saw many Muslim-dominated villages whose residents’ primary occupation was cattle breeding. Fearing for their lives, they now rear buffalo instead of cows.

During the Congress party’s most recent stretch in power (2004–14), the lives of the Indian people did not show any signs of improvement; the gulf between the rich and the poor only widened. Villagers started losing their livelihood and were forced to migrate to cities. Being uneducated, these villagers had no choice but to stay in slums, thus becoming a marginalised faction. Many of the farmers who chose to remain in their villages eventually committed suicide. Hence the desperation for change. But the BJP has brought no respite, only peril, and dethroning Modi in the next election will not wipe out these dangers. He and his supporters have poisoned the masses with hatred, and purging it will take a century, maybe two.

Anything at variation with the mainstream ideology should be aligned with it so as to conform. If not, the opposers will be destroyed

The uniqueness of India is its multiplicity. Every state – every district, in fact – varies in its ways of worship. Each district has its own dialect. Before the British era, there was no such thing as the ‘Hindu religion’ in India. The genre of nationalism being propagated by Modi and his rightwing supporters is an attempt to unify the nation by feeding it the Hindutva ideology that prescribes one language, Hindi; one religion, Hinduism; one sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita; one dietary practice; and one culture. Anything at variation with the mainstream ideology should be aligned with it so as to conform. If not, the opposers will be destroyed. Today, fundamentalism is India’s greatest menace.

With the standard of life continuing to deteriorate, the majority of the Indian populace is turning fundamentalist. It is felt that Muslims are bad for the country and should hence leave. It is also feared that Muslims will outnumber Hindus and thus bring about the extinction of Hinduism. Consider the Kathua incident. Kathua is a city located 85km from Jammu, in the far north of India. Asifa Bano was eight years old. She went missing on 10 January this year and was killed on 14 January. Between her abduction and death, a gang comprising a Hindu temple custodian named Sanji Ram; Ram’s unnamed juvenile nephew; Ram’s son Vishal; Vishal’s friend Parvesh Kumar, alias Mannu; and special police officers Deepak Khajuria and Surender Kumar raped her repeatedly. Asifa was kept in the small temple where Ram worked. To ensure she was silent, they forced Asifa to take sedatives and drugged her with manar, a locally available variety of cannabis. On the nights of 13 and 14 January, the juvenile, Vishal and Mannu removed the victim from the temple for the purposes of killing her and disposing of her body. Unable to organise a car for transport, they returned her to the temple. Khajuria, the special police officer, wanted to rape her one last time before she was killed. Her body was found on 17 January in a forest. Asifa belonged to the Muslim Bakarwal community, and the aim of the kidnapping, the suspects told investigators, was to frighten and drive away the nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal communities from the Hindu-majority area.

Following these crimes, local head constable Tilak Raj and sub-inspector Anand Dutta were given Rs 5 lakh by Ram to destroy crucial evidence. Not only that, the accused were trained, by BJP lawyers, to throw investigators off the track. Further, the lawyers of the BJP hindered investigators from submitting their reports to the court, which forced them to go directly to the judge. We can also see to what extent this country has gone to the dogs when we consider that Deepika S. Rajawat, the lawyer fighting Asifa’s case, has said that her life was under threat. In her words, ‘I don’t know how long I will be alive. I can be raped, my modesty can be outraged, I can be killed, I can be damaged. I was threatened yesterday that “we will not forgive you”. I am going to tell the Supreme Court tomorrow that I am in danger.’ They also said to her, ‘You’re a Brahmin; the accused are also Brahmins. So, you must not fight for Muslims.’ Sanji Ram requested that Rajawat’s security be removed. At the same time, he said, ‘I did not commit this crime. I am fit to be Asifa’s grandfather.’ Two BJP ministers in Jammu and Kashmir participated in a rally to support the accused (later they were forced to resign). A group calling itself Hindu Ekta Manch organised several such rallies in Jammu and Kathua. The national flag was carried by those participating in the rallies, a sign of fast-growing nationalism. It is now in vogue to hoist the national flag on tall masts. In Faridabad, BJP president Amit Shah unfurled the national flag at a height of 75m. During my visit to North India, I saw such huge national flags flying in every city.

Even three months after the crime, Modi still had not issued a statement. Only when international media and the UN registered their criticism did he make a speech, in which he claimed that Asifa was like his daughter. Turning to Tamil Nadu, where I reside, conditions are worse than those in other Indian states. Recently, an audio recording of one Professor Nirmala Devi, who was trying to lure her female students into prostituting themselves, was released. The words ‘sex work’ did not come up in the speech, but it was clear what she was on about. Although the students expressed their uninterest, she continued to try to persuade them: “If you provide favours to some of the big shots of Madurai Kamaraj University, you will get better marks and a lot of money. Give me your account numbers. Thus, you can come up in life. Think and give me a positive response.” She also said she knew “Governor Thatha”. When the thatha (‘grandfather’ in Tamil – though the full quote is interpreted by some as implying that Devi knows the governor intimately) was questioned, he denied knowing anything, but later got himself into a different soup. He gave a female reporter a light pat on the cheek during the press meet. When she broadcast this on her Facebook page, the governor tendered an apology to her, saying he was like her grandfather. Said governor is also the head of the investigating committee in the Nirmala Devi case. (Devi herself is currently being held without bail.) This is commonplace in India: the main accused can also be the head of the investigating committee.

What is most dangerous is that even the educated masses are following a fundamentalist line of thought, as we have seen from the ‘Governor Thatha’ incident. An actor who is a member of the BJP posted a message he had received: ‘Why do you girls make such a fuss about the fact that the governor patted one of you? You all wound up in your positions only after sleeping with your superiors.’ The actor issued an apology following condemnation in the press. In a responsible civil society, who is giving these people the right to raise such obnoxious voices and be heard?

In Roman Polanski’s movie The Pianist (2002), a young officer is walking down the road. An old Jew walks towards him, and though he steps aside for the young Nazi to pass, the latter summons him back and slaps him, asking why he did not salute. India in its current state reminds me of this particular movie scene. When Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Kanhaiya Kumar used the word azadi – independence – in a speech, it was wilfully misrepresented as antinationalist by the Modi government, which booked him for sedition and sent him to prison (he was later cleared). Frightening, really.

Charu Nivedita is a writer based in Chennai