Narendra Modi and the BJP: Hindutva on the march

Fergus Peace

There was a time in early 2014 when Western media was greatly preoccupied by the rise of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader, Narendra Modi. Many column inches were spent worrying about the implications of a newly ascendant Hindu nationalism, and telling the world about the darkest moments of Modi’s time as Chief Minister in Gujarat. But since the BJP won (as expected) an electoral landslide in May of that year, Indian politics has largely slipped off the radar again.

If we were expecting the worst – a repeat of the large-scale anti-Muslim violence that wracked Gujarat in 2002, with Modi complicit at the very least through complicity – then the lack of attention is perfectly justified.

But the more likely scenario was always a more subtle and pervasive extension of the BJP’s Hindutva ideology throughout Indian life. The BJP’s rapid political growth since the early 1990s has centred on an awkward coalition of traditionalist Hindu organisations and a growing, globally-oriented upper-middle class. The glue that keeps these elements together is a vision to remake India as a strong, muscular nation, with a powerful economy and military built on the power of cultural unity.

This ambition manifests itself in three policy agendas: a pursuit of rapid, disruptive economic modernisation, military and political escalation against Pakistan, and the depiction of Hinduism as essential to Indian identity. As Modi’s government draws to the end of its third year in office, all three have been proceeding apace.

On the economic front, the government has finally succeeded in pushing through a national Goods and Services Tax, meant to come into force in April and replace a range of state and federal sales taxes. No doubt a sensible reform, it was heralded by Modi as putting an end to ‘tax terrorism’. The same kind of overheated rhetoric has surrounded the even more controversial ‘demonetisation’ policy, Modi’s bolt-from-the-blue announcement that 500 and 1000 rupee notes would no longer be legal tender. The chaotically implemented move appears to be aimed at jolting Indians to keep more money in banks and use electronic payments rather than cash, in order to modernise the country’s economy by increasing financialisation. But government figures have defended the policy – and the immense pain it’s inflicted, particularly on the poor and those in rural areas – as part of a national campaign against corrupt, ‘anti-national’ elements. Demonetisation is increasingly referred to as ‘note bandhi’, recalling the similarly disruptive (though much more violent) ‘nas bandhi’ policy of forced sterilisation implemented in the 1970s. In the week after announcing demonetisation, Modi gave a speech darkly commenting that “the forces up against me … may not let me live”. Nobody knows quite what he was referring to – certainly there hasn’t been any attempt on his life – but the language fits perfectly into what is, across the world, a common nationalist theme: that the country needs to be restored to its past glory by a period of shared sacrifice to fight a common enemy.

The most obvious enemy for Hindutva, of course, is Muslim Pakistan. The BJP is yet to follow through on its election promise to review India’s no-first-use nuclear policy, aimed at deterring Pakistan fromsparking a conventional conflict. But there has been escalation by other means. After a September terrorist attack along the de facto border in Kashmir, the PM gave a speech in which he claimed to be ‘reaching out’ to Pakistani citizens. In reality, Modi’s words – “Pakistan, ask your leaders that both the nations became independent at the same time, but why is that India exports software while Pakistan exports terrorism?” – were aimed at the old Hindu nationalist goal of portraying Pakistan as a constant menace to Indian security, to unite Indians against it. A few days later, the Indian Army launched a military operation inside the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir, widely feted as a ‘surgical strike’ by BJP politicians. Firing across the border has occurred at an increased rate ever since; in the aftermath the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association has banned Pakistanis from working in Bollywood and a number of sporting associations have cut off bilateral ties.

And demonising Pakistan as an object of national anger is a short step from the continuing Hinduisation of Indian life. When Modi announced a crackdown on irregular migration from Pakistan and Bangladesh, he made an exception: Hindu and Buddhist migrants would be allowed to stay, but not others – that is, Muslims – who he accused of having ‘political purposes’, leaving implicit what those nefarious purposes might be. By and large, the government itself has been cautious around religious issues, but the broader family of Hindu nationalist organisations – the Sangh parivar, of which the BJP is one part – has stepped up its activity. The Bajrang Dal, a youth Hindu organisation, has engaged in vigilantism to enforce a ban on cow slaughter. The RSS and VHP have organised a series of mass conversions to Hinduism, often under a cloud of coercion when people were brought to ceremonies on the pretence of signing up to receive government benefits. Revealingly, the campaign is titled ‘Ghar Wapsi’ – Hindi for “homecoming”, reflecting nationalists’ view that all Indians are Hindu by rights and that conversion to Hinduism isn’t conversion at all, just a return to your origins. Modi himself maintains silence on most of these issues, but a number of other BJP politicians have been enthusiastic supporters of ‘reconversion’ and bans on cow slaughter. The Hindutva goal of fusing Hindu religiosity with India’s national identity has not been so far advanced since the demolition of a major mosque in 1992.

Nationalist victory, that is to say, has not plunged India into theocratic authoritarianism. But it has caused a steady advance of a militarised, aggressive idea of Indian nationhood and the increasing marginalisation of those outside the religious majority. It may be a worrying sign for the rest of the world 2017 that the West’s fear of the worst can seemingly blind us to a less extreme but still deeply troubling reality.

India and Pakistan: From Bad to Worse

Saim Saeed

The South Asian press these days is dominated by good news about the India-Pakistan relationship. Geeta, as the local press calls her, is a deaf and mute Indian woman who spent the last decade stranded across the border in neighboring Pakistan. Recently, she was repatriated from Karachi, Pakistan, to New Delhi, where she was received by the Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj herself. “I thank the government of Pakistan from my heart,” she said. Geeta’s story gained attention because it resembled the plot of a Bollywood summer hit, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, in which the lead, an Indian man, tries to reunite a mute Pakistani girl stranded in India with her family back in Pakistan.

Amid the celebration and self-congratulation, one can almost forget just how terrible relations between the two nuclear powers actually are. It is an unfortunate fact that only the handshakes between heads of state, the exchange of sweets at the border, and stories like Geeta’s actually end up making the news. The status quo – constantly being on the brink of war – seems to merit less attention internationally and at home. Since India’s independence and violent partition in 1947, which carved out India and Pakistan as two different polities, the two countries have fought multiple wars with each other and countless skirmishes. Such conflicts tend to emerge over the disputed region of Kashmir, which both countries claim as a part of their territory. This is to say that at no point have relations between the two countries actively been ‘good’, but in recent years they have become even worse.

‘Epicentre of Terrorism’

In Pakistan, the military plays a dominant role in politics and it insists on portraying India as the enemy, partly as a justification for its inflated operational budget. Even token measures by the civilians to better relations with India – a process they call ‘normalisation’ – are rejected. For years, Pakistan has tried to ratify an agreement that would grant India ‘most favoured nation’ status, allowing for more goods to be traded. In a bid to make it sound less threatening, they renamed it ‘Non-discriminatory Market Access’, but that still did not help. Under pressure from the military, the Pakistani ambassador to India backtracked on the proposal and scuttled the agreement.

In 1999, there was a historic meeting between then (and current) Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in Lahore, Pakistan, which claimed to herald a new era of friendly relations. Unknown to both Sharif and Vajpayee at the time, former Pakistani army chief Pervez Musharraf had launched a covert operation in Kashmir near the town of Kargil, cutting off Indian access to roads and communication. What followed was an intense battle with thousands of casualties and the threat of nuclear war. For good reason, then, India is sceptical of Pakistan’s commitment to normalisation.

India also argues that it has found very little evidence of Pakistan’s commitment to combat terrorism, which, it argues, is a prerequisite for dialogue. Hafiz Saeed is the leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant organisation that frequently targets India, most notably during the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 which killed 166 people. Saeed walks freely in Lahore under government protection despite a $10 million bounty on his head. Another militant, Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi, known as the ‘mastermind’ of the Mumbai attacks, oscillates between detention and probation as a lackadaisical prosecution dithers over his case. Meanwhile, suspected cross-border attacks in India continue, including an attack in July this year on a police station that killed 10 people in Indian Punjab, close to the border with Pakistan. The former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh called Pakistan the ‘epicentre of terrorism’ at the UN General Assembly in 2013, and from India’s perspective, it is still true today.

India’s ‘Muscular’ Foreign Policy

Pakistan’s troubles with militancy are not new, and it argues that a negotiated political solution to end tensions is only possible if both countries continue to engage in discussions. Under India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi, that has never seemed less likely. During his time in the opposition, Modi accused India’s former Congress-led government of being ‘soft’ on terror and on Pakistan, and promised a ‘muscular’ foreign policy once in government. He has delivered. Since his ascension to power a year ago, cross-border skirmishes have increased, and so have the number of casualties on both sides, forcing villagers to evacuate from their homes. For Modi, peace with Pakistan is not a priority. Even token gestures like the annual sideline meetings between Indian and Pakistani leaders at the UN General Assembly did not take place this time despite Pakistan’s eagerness. The Indian government also cancelled high level talks scheduled for this August, accusing the Pakistani government of meeting Kashmiri leaders, a traditional practice that had never precluded talks before.

Modi’s own foreign policy aims to elevate India to a higher global status. He has reached out to affluent Indian diaspora communities all over the world, including Silicon Valley, in an effort to attract talent and capital back to India. He has prioritised military and economic competition with China, multilateral trade with Southeast Asian economies, not unlike the United States’ Trans-Pacific Partnership agreements, and greater investment in defence expenditure and military technology. In essence, having seen the costs India has incurred by being bogged down by regional politics, Modi aims to transcend the region itself.

But two factors prevent him doing so. First, and due to his deliberate inattention, regional security has deteriorated. Since December 2014, when the Taliban attacked on a school in Peshawar that killed 150 people, mostly children, Pakistan has been able to mobilise both public opinion and its military against terrorism. The fallout from the military operation currently going on in Pakistan’s tribal areas is yet to be fully understood, but both India and Pakistan, as demonstrated time and again, are vulnerable to further attack. The potential disintegration of the border ceasefire may escalate, and with such trigger-happy militaries straddling the border, calm, effective leadership is essential. Token gestures like announcing a $10 million reward via Twitter to the Pakistani foundation that housed Geeta (they subsequently refused to accept) is not sufficient. War, never far away in South Asia, may actually be a product of his negligence.

Second, communal tensions between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities have risen under Modi’s leadership. These tensions risk both its relations with Pakistan as well as India’s standing abroad. As the leader of a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, Modi’s record as a custodian of Indian secular values is poor. It was under his watch as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 that communal riots killed more than a thousand people, mostly Muslims. Although the courts absolved him of any crimes, he has refused to take any responsibility for the violence. As prime minister, Modi oversaw a beef ban in the populous state of Maharashtra, which has a sizeable Muslim community. It is a contentious issue, since cows are sacred in Hinduism, but their slaughter serves religious purpose in Islam. In recent months, Muslims have been lynched by Hindu mobs for allegedly keeping beef in their homes. Since Pakistan was founded as an answer to the perceived persecution of India’s Muslims, both its leaders and citizens would be far less eager to engage with a government that treats Muslims badly (Pakistan’s own atrocious record of protecting its Hindu citizens notwithstanding). Alleged crackdowns on the media, writers, publishers and comedians have also raised concerns over free speech. Reports of human rights abuses against marginalised castes and activists in Kashmir and the northeast are also ever-present. Touted as ‘the largest democracy in the world’, that moniker looks increasingly tenuous.

Not Just a ‘Sibling Rivalry’

All of this is to say that the India-Pakistan relationship matters, and leaders of both countries have clearly not done enough to salvage it to prevent an escalation of conflict, if not anything else. At present, neither side seems interested in doing that. Because bad relations have always been the status quo, citizens and politicians of India and Pakistan – as well as the international community – has always just accepted it. Some observers also believe that since both have the nuclear bomb, they will not fight a war because of the deterrent. The problem is that has proven to be empirically untrue. The Kargil war took place after both countries conducted nuclear tests, and was close to becoming nuclear. Given the stakes, the blasé attitude that South Asian politicians and the international community has towards India-Pakistan is criminally negligent. Belittling the conflict by calling it a ‘sibling rivalry’ is not just condescending, it also obfuscates the gravity of the security threat faced by the billion and a half people who inhabit the Subcontinent. Those people deserve greater efforts to live free from the fear of nuclear war.