Why Hindu nationalism threatens India’s free speech and secularism

Narendra Modi addressing All India Conference on Livestock and Dairy Development in 2013.Credit: narendramodiofficial/Flickr.
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Some of India’s most prominent scientists have signed a petition and returned awards to draw attention to India’s growing intolerance.

The petition accuses the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of curtailing free speech and stoking Hindu nationalism.

Signatories include Ashoke Sen, who won the Fundamental Physics Prize, the world’s most lucrative academic award in 2012. Pushpa Bhargava who founded the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad. D Balasubramanian, former president of the Indian Academy of Science. And Dr Vineeta Bal of the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi.

The statement reads: “It is the same climate of intolerance, and rejection of reason that has led to the lynching in Dadri of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and the assassinations of Prof Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Shri Govind Pansare.”

Professor Malleshappa Kalburgi’s murder shocked India. Who would murder a “straight-talking, rationalist researcher of ancient Kannada literature”? As local media described him. One theory is that Hindu nationalists murdered him in response to his criticisms of idol worship.

The founder of the right-wing Hindu group Sri Rama Sene, Pramod Muthalik, rejected any links to Kalburgi’s murder. He also threatened to cut off the tongues of writers if they continue to “insult” Hindu gods.

In February, Communist and rationalist Govind Pansare died from gunshot wounds near his home in Kolhapur, in the state of Maharashtra. The main suspect in Pansare’s murder is Samir Gaikwad, a member of the Hindu nationalist group Sanatan Sanstha. In the past, members of Sanatan Sanstha took part in a bombing campaign in Thane and Vashi in Maharashtra and Madgaon in Goa.

In 2013, unknown individuals murdered rationalist campaigner Narendra Dabholkar. It took two years to identify any suspects.

More worrying, however, is the possibility that all three murders are linked.

Critics point to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on the issue and interpret it as tacit approval – as he shares their ideology of Hindutva. A product of this ideology is anti-Muslim prejudice. It fuses cultural norms and the trauma of partition in north India and Bengal. The misuse of history allows these groups to reconfigure the frustrations of the Hindu middle classes. As Pankaj Mishra noted, Modi stokes this false sense of victimhood and chauvinism with the “old Hindu rage-and-shame over what he calls more than a thousand years of slavery under Muslim and British rule“.

Jyoti Punwani accused Modi of stoking anti-Muslim tensions during a recent assembly election rally. In his speech, Modi made various references to beef export figures and Bangladeshi ‘infiltration’.

Turning Islamophobia into a normalised, everyday prejudice is nothing new. Sumanta Banerjee highlighted this in 1991. For Banerjee, Hindu nationalists need this external enemy to justify their Hindu superiority and support base.

For the BJP, Hindutva has “awakened the Hindus to the new world order where nations represented the aspirations of people united in history, culture, philosophy, and heroes.

Hindutva successfully took the Indian idol of Israel and made Hindus realize that their India could be just as great and could do the same for them also“. The logic is also peppered with numerous anti-Islamic refrences.

Mohammad Akhlaq’s murder, on the belief that he and his Muslim family had consumed beef, in early October made global headlines.

Some Hindu nationalists came close to justifying Akhlaq’s murder. Sadhvi Prachi, a leader of the extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad, told local press that “those who consume beef deserve such actions against them”. It took days for Modi to break his silence on the murder and call for religious tolerance.

Mahesh Sharma, India’s culture minister and a local MP, told the Guardian that Akhlaq’s murder was a ‘misunderstanding‘. Sharma is no stranger to controversy. Last month he told India Today that the Bible and Qur’an are not central to India’s soul. Yet there are 172,245,158 Muslims (14.23 per cent) and 27,819,588 Christians (2.3 per cent) in India. Nor has India been immume from Islamisation conspiracies.

The furore over beef (though banned from export) risks damaging the profitable buffalo meat trade. Hindu mobs have attacked suppliers of buffalo meat on suspicion of possessing cow carcasses in recent weeks.

Graffiti advocating the hanging of beef eaters recently appeared in a Mumbai suburb. Within the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai resides, a ban on the slaughter and consumption of beef has existed since March. This caused tensions during the Islamic celebration of Eid-al-adha. To breach this ban in Maharashtra can result in a 5 year prison term or a fine of 10,000 rupees. A minority of states permit cow slaughter – including Kerala – which had its own recent beef scandal.

On a cultural note, organisers of a film festival faced government pressure to drop a documentary on the beef industry. The documentary, Caste on the Menu Card, was the only film the Information and Broadcasting Ministry did not clear.

Critics like Amartya Sen have accused the BJP of filling public and cultural institutions with party loyalists. Though the reasons are a little more complex. Other Hindu nationalists have lobbied to ban Muslims and other religious minorities from participating in festivals like Navratri.

More than 40 Indian writers have also returned their literary awards or written letters of protest in response to the “rising intolerance and growing assault on free speech”.

In a statement, the poet Surjit Patar said: “The practice of killing writers and thinkers in our multilingual, multicultural and multi-religious country is disheartening”.

 

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