Indian leaders love to talk up Mahatma Gandhi when they travel abroad. It plays well to the popular notion of India as a land of peace and love, and boosts its moral authority as a responsible democracy on the world stage. So, Gandhi and his ideas came up a lot as Prime Minister Narendra Modi stepped out of India recently for the first time in about one and a half years.
Meeting Modi at the White House on Sept. 24, President Joe Biden said Gandhi’s “message of non-violence, respect, and tolerance matters today maybe more than it ever has.” In his own speech to the United Nations, Modi rued that “the world faces the threat of regressive thinking and extremism,” and underlined his country’s democratic credentials. To reinforce his point, he even coined a new sobriquet for India: “the mother of all democracies.”
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No one knows what that means, least of all one Indian mother still trying to make sense of the death of her 12-year-old boy. He was felled by a stray police bullet in the northeastern state of Assam at the same time as Modi was pontificating in America.
“They killed my son,” a dazed Hasina Bano kept repeating between sobs when journalists visited her at a remote village on the banks of the Brahmaputra river. The boy, Sheikh Farid, was hit when police opened fire at Bengali Muslim villagers protesting the forced eviction from their land that the government now wants to give to Assamese Hindus, whom it calls the “indigenous community.” Ironically, moments before Farid died, he had collected from the post office a national biometric identification card establishing his own indigeneity.
The death of a child in such a manner should be the stuff of national disgrace. But the same eviction drive resulted in even more horror when a neighbor of Farid charged at the police with a stick, in a blind rage after they dismantled his home along with those of 5,000 others. The heavily armed policemen, who far outnumbered Moinul Hoque and could have easily subdued him, instead shot him dead at point blank range.
It was all captured on a widely circulated video [Warning: Graphic and distressing scenes]. The images show police raining baton blows on him even as he collapsed, taking turns with Bijoy Baniya, a Hindu photographer accompanying the police team. As Hoque’s life ebbs away, Baniya fiendishly jumps and stomps on his motionless body in an “act of performative depravity.”
Baniya is merely the latest face of India’s state-driven Hindu radicalization. In a country where 84% of the population is Hindu, and just 14% Muslim, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has achieved the astonishing feat of creating a deep sense of Hindu victimhood, stoking the othering of Muslims via disinformation, hate speech, opening old religious wounds, manipulating a servile media, silencing progressive voices, and empowering Hindu supremacist vigilante groups. “Hindu khatre mein hain” (Hindus are in danger) is a right-wing refrain that resonates deeply today.
As a result, many Hindus have now been persuaded to believe that India’s biggest problem is its Muslims. Before Modi took over in 2014, most citizens thought their chief concerns were poverty, insufficient economic growth and corruption. He rode to power on the promise to fix all that. But as the economy has continued to worsen, and unemployment and poverty have risen under him, the BJP has increasingly fallen back on supremacist politics to deflect attention and evade responsibility. To keep winning elections, it needs to keep polarizing Hindu voters against Muslims, and spinning ever more outrageous campaigns to demonize Muslims.
Muslims apparently lust after Hindu women, procreating rapidly with the aim of overtaking the Hindu population and establishing an Islamic state, and necessitating new laws against “love jihad.” Similar regulations against religious conversions and the slaughter of cows, which are sacred to Hindus, have encouraged vigilantism. Muslim hawkers and workers have come under increasing attack from Hindu supremacist groups calling for a boycott of Muslim businesses.
Indian social media today is filled with videos of self-appointed protectors of Hinduism calling for the lynching of Muslims—an act so common that it hardly makes news anymore. High-profile Hindu supremacists are seldom booked for hate speech. Muslims routinely face random attacks for such “crimes” as transporting cattle or being in the company of Hindu women. Sometimes, the provocation is simply that somebody is visibly Muslim. As Modi himself has told election rallies, people “creating violence” can be “identified by their clothes.”
The persecution of Muslims in Assam is just the beginning
But Baniya’s malevolence has a history longer than India’s descent into the abyss of hate. Assam, the setting for his ghoulish death dance on the body of a Muslim, is where this construct of the Muslim as the unwanted, dangerous outsider has been honed and mainstreamed. The fear of being overrun by “outsiders” has almost been genetically encoded there over centuries, dating back to the time the British started clearing the state’s lush forests for tea and other plantations. The clearances triggered the inward migration of Bengali peasants from densely populated adjoining regions in search of easily obtainable fertile lands.
Much to the discontent of the ethnic Assamese, the migrations have continued in recent decades as a result of the violent partition of the subcontinent, economic hardship, political instability and wars in what is now known as Bangladesh. Climate-related factors have also driven a steady exodus out of flood-prone, deltaic Bangladesh into Assam.
With the rise of Modi, historical Assamese resentment towards non-Assamese speakers has mixed with the politics of Hindu nationalism in a dangerous brew of xenophobia and patriotism. Stomping on a Muslim corpse now has a gloss of patriotic righteousness to it, which is why it is flaunted on camera. Bigotry is now a badge of honor. In his head, Baniya was protecting India and policemen are seen hugging him in the video after Hoque’s death. His behavior says much about the way Modi has weaponized history and valorized and incentivized hate.
Assam is Modi’s grand laboratory, where he is putting Muslims to the litmus test of a citizen verification drive—separating the trueborn from the chaff—before taking it national. The BJP says it simply wants India to be rid of “Bangladeshi migrants”, but it uses it as a code for Indian Muslims. Nearly two million people have been disenfranchised in the state, with no clarity as to what is to happen to them. The closest regional parallel to such large-scale, government-dictated statelessness in recent times was the 1982 mass disenfranchisement of the Rohingya in Myanmar, before the massacres and exodus years later.
And it is only the beginning. In neighboring Bihar, the government is asking people to report “suspected illegal migrants” and officials have been ordered to create awareness of the issue on “an urgent basis.” The state’s high court has demanded a detention center to house migrants, reminding the government that “deportation of illegal migrants is of paramount importance and in the national interest.” Bihar’s 17 million Muslims are on edge about their future. In next-door Bengal, which borders Bangladesh and is home to nearly 25 million Muslims, the BJP has been promising an Assam-like citizenship verification drive if it comes to power in the state.
The chief minister of India’s biggest and most politically important state, Uttar Pradesh, recently blamed Muslims for cornering government-subsidized food. Uttar Pradesh, along with Assam, has introduced a two-child policy blaming Muslims for a supposedly runaway population growth that officials say accounts for the backwardness of these states. The claim is not rooted in reality. Fertility rates among Muslims have in fact been falling rapidly.
But reality is no longer important. It bends to the requirements of the ruling party’s dehumanizing narrative against Muslims. As Jews in Nazi Germany were called “rats” and Tutsis in Rwanda in the 1990s were called “cockroaches,” so BJP members now refer to Indian Muslims as “termites” eating away at India’s resources, denying Hindus what is due to them in their own land.
The destruction of Gandhi’s legacy
The foundations of the secular republic that Gandhi died defending are thus being hollowed out ever more frantically. While Modi pays ritualistic homage to Gandhi, BJP leaders openly glorify Gandhi’s killer, who was a Hindu fanatic. Modi’s ministers and legislators freely call on people to shoot “traitors” and start pogroms, and are promoted rather than penalized for their actions. Modi himself partly owes his fan following and ascent to his lack of remorse over the 2002 pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, when he was chief minister. Hundreds of Muslims were killed and thousands rendered homeless.
Noticeably, not only did the current chief minister of Assam not apologize for the police excesses, he in fact trivialized the deaths of Hoque and Farid, calling Hoque’s death “just 30 seconds” of a three minute video. He also carried on with the eviction drive and even proudly tweeted photos of the rubble of the four mosques destroyed in it.
While the Bidens of this world still talk about Gandhi, India’s role models have changed. So have the standards of acceptable discourse in public and social life. Genocide is now openly demanded at public rallies. The “need” for ethnic cleansing can pop up in casual conversations on politics among friends or family. Death threats are used like punctuation marks in debates on social media.
On Oct. 2, Gandhi’s birthday was celebrated with much fanfare as the International Day of Non-Violence. Two new books on his assassination in 1948 were launched. In Karnataka, meanwhile, a 25-year-old Muslim man was found beheaded for his affair with a Hindu girl, allegedly by a local Hindu vigilante group.
Gandhi continues to be killed in a million ways in today’s India. Bijoy Baniya just added a flourish to it.
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