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.

Western Media and ISIS Terror Attacks

Emily Dillistone

Charlie Hebdo, a controversial French magazine that publishes satirical cartoons, was never considered particularly heroic before the 2015 ISIS attack that killed 12 in their headquarters. The reporting on this event, along with the numerous fatal attacks that have occurred over the past few years, forms a powerful and essential part of terrorism’s tyranny over people’s psychology across the world. The current attacks hark back to 11 September 2001 and 7 July 2005 when the Western World was shaken by a foreign and terrifying force. Since these traumatic events, the West, and increasingly the whole world, has begun to live in fear of attacks. These past few years have seen a multitude of terrorist attacks across Europe and central Asia. To put it in context, while the Global Terrorism Database recorded 1,395 attacks in 1998, in 2012 this figure reached a record high of 8,441. Likewise, the total number of casualties from terrorist attacks in the past 15 years has soared from 3,387 to 15,396.

Since Bin Laden’s attack on the Twin Towers, the world has witnessed an increasing hostility towards Muslims, with islamophobia forming the backbone of the rhetoric propounded by Trump’s Presidential Campaign, Britain’s UKIP, France’s Front National, and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland. Fear and anger, along with resentment of the establishment, have propelled Europeans towards a far-right extremist politics with a keenness to ‘protect their own’ from foreign terrors. Extremism and extremist politics seem to be on the rise, not just in Europe, but globally.

Terror attacks are unique in their kind due to several factors: the organization required for them to take place, and the visibility they reach in the media. Media threats are reported, no matter whether they are small or large. Michael Jetter, an academic researcher in Germany and the US, analysed more than 60,000 terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2012 and found that terrorist attacks drew a disproportionate amount of media attention. He discovered that 42 people die every day from terrorist attacks, compared with 7,123 children who die from hunger-related causes, yet the former receives far more attention.

In the early 2000s, terrorist organizations relied on pamphlets and video cassettes while media appearances were seldom, so the few pieces of propaganda that were released tended to hit big. In 2004, Zarqawi, a formerly unknown ex-convict, became a world-famous Islamic militant when his video of the execution of a young American contractor called Nicholas Berg was downloaded half a million times in 24 hours. In 2006, the 3-minute video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging was leaked and viewed by millions around the world. Even more so today, groups such as ISIS manipulate the media and new technology to their advantage. Many of the attacks in Paris were reported using photos and videos taken by passers-by and people targeted by the attacks. ISIS no longer needs to equip its killers with cameras because the public will publicize the event for them. And this soon becomes a vicious cycle: research shows that sensationalist media coverage of terrorist acts results in further acts of terrorism.

Terrorism is commonly defined as criminal acts intended to create a state of terror among a group of people deemed by the terrorists to be ‘morally objectionable’. But here is where one must be careful with terminology. A key component to terrorism is that it is a foreign threat, and therefore terrorism is and by nature subjective and situational. During the Indian struggle for independence, for example, those who fought in the resistance were a kind of ‘terrorist’ to British soldiers, but for the people of India they represented freedom.

In the West, ISIS’ brand has more than tainted the image of the supposed Religion of Peace. Muslims have become an all too easy target for racial abuse and many Western newspapers pounce on any new opportunity to exacerbate the already well-embedded islamophobia prejudices that exist in Europe and the United States. A key example of this is the Bastille Day terror attack in Nice earlier this year on 14 July 2016. A man drove a lorry down the Promenade des Anglais, killing 84 people. The Telegraph’s headline read “Nice terror attack: 'soldier of Islam' Bouhlel 'took drugs and used dating sites to pick up men and women'”. Newspapers were determined to depict the attacker as a sleazy ISIS-supporter, despite the lack of hard evidence to link his attack to the terrorist organisation.

Reporting on the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris was similarly misleading. In the immediate aftermath of the attack the journalism firm was masqueraded as the modern proponent of free speech. Facebook even enabled its users to change their profile picture to a French flag to ‘stand in solidarity’ with the people of France. The reaction to the attack was so far-flung that when Ankara was attacked a few months later on 10 October, many people on social media asked why there was no such public outcry in response to the attack. With 103 dead and 400 injured on 10 October, later 13 dead and 125 injured at the bus stop bombing on 13 March 2016, and on 17 February 2016 29 dead and 60 injured left by the military convoy attack, Ankara is the city that has suffered some of the greatest losses of any ISIS attack. So where is the hashtag #benakarayim?”

Of course, from the UK’s perspective, the Paris attacks are more alarming due to the city’s geographical proximity: Ankara is almost 3000km further away from London than Paris is. However, this is not simply an issue of geography. Facebook’s headquarters are in the United States, yet while on 13 November 2015 people in France could mark themselves “safe” to reassure their friends and family, no such function was provided to the survivors of attacks in Ankara. This is not for lack of Facebook users in Turkey; according to Reuters, in 2011 Turkey already had 30 million Facebook accounts, making it the fourth largest country of Facebook users in the world. Numerous other attacks have occurred in the East, such as the June 2015 Dayarbakiir rally bombings, in which four were killed and 400 were injured, and the suicide bombings in Istanbul and Bursa, which also had high death tolls. Yet none were reported with as much fervour and panic as were the attacks on the West. Between 2015 and 2016, the attacks that made headline news were the attack in Brussels, the Russian plane attack, the Paris attack, and the San Bernardino attack. It is worth noting that the lattermost attack was the smallest of the major ISIS attacks. The issue cannot be ignored: the Western media overwhelmingly opts to report on white deaths and casualties comparatively to deaths and causalities in countries where white is not the dominant race.

The discrepancy is evident still in issues extending beyond race. In January 2015 Paris witnessed several attacks, but the attacks on Jewish supermarkets seemed to almost pass the international news stations by. On 9 January French police were called in to deal with two hostage-taking situations taking place in Jewish supermarkets in Paris, yet this was not deemed altogether that newsworthy. By contrast, the attack of the high-speed Thalys train on 21 August 2015 made international news, though, likewise, there were no fatal casualties. A notable difference: the involvement of three US citizens, two of whom were soldiers.

Many will remember the tragic case of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 girls in Nigeria in April 2014. The group have since kidnapped over 2,000 girls. The hashtag #bringbackourdaughters reached Michelle Obama, but the case still did not receive even half as much attention as the abduction of 3-year-old Madeleine McCann in 2007, despite the fact that this is a time when social media and online reporting were not half as developed as they are now. The truth is, the abduction and rape of hundreds of black women is not half as appealing to a Western audience as the disappearance of a cute little American white girl.

This August the suicide bombing of a hospital in Quetta yet again brought to the fore the double standard the West manifests in its news reporting. The bombing left at least 70 dead and more than 100 wounded, making the attack one of the most fatal to have been carried out in Pakistan. Survivors of attacks in the East are rightfully outraged by the comparative lack of coverage and recognition of their suffering in the rest of their world. So what is to be done? The French media has stated that it will not show pictures of terrorists, but one could argue that the damage of racial profiling has already been done: the ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ stereotypes are so regularly conflated and misrepresented that the two have become virtually indistinguishable in the mind of the Western citizen. Moreover, it is somewhat difficult to support the notion that France is successfully dealing with its prejudices given Marine le Pen’s standing in the presidential polls. It seems evident after this discussion that the most proactive way forward is to cease using the term ‘terrorism’ to describe attacks, as it seems to obscure the crime. Moreover, naming the perpetrator of a crime a ‘terrorist’ can sometimes afford the killer more attention than necessary. So is it the fault of the media? I believe that news sites do have a responsibility, though not a mandate, to be objective, and to report news fairly and without bias. Efforts to be disinterested when it comes to reporting attacks is yet to manifest itself in many Western newspapers, and it seems to me that this is the main factor fuelling racial hatred and prejudice in the Western world in 2016. 

Have media conglomerates suffocated the ‘perfect information’ dream?

Tom Stevens 

Prior to the late 1970s, mass media was a public service to inform and educate populations on domestic and foreign affairs, shaping a general consensus and justifying policy. The BBC encapsulated this model, a state-owned enterprise that was exploited by Anthony Eden in the late 1950s to incite popular support to overthrow Egypt’s General Nasser throughout the Suez Crisis.

Free marketeers rallied against the public sector media monopoly during the 1970s. These outriders gradually shifted attitudes internationally and the floodgates for widespread privatisation and deregulation were opened by Carter, Reagan and Thatcher’s policies. The 1996 Telecommunications Act in the US permitted cross-ownership across multiple media platforms, with the aim of creating a pure, competitive communications market. Neoliberals envisaged a free ‘marketplace of ideas’ open to everyone, a pluralistic community devoid of bias – a system of ‘perfect information’.

The rise of the conglomerate, however, has disillusioned many to deregulated international media.  Multi-national corporations, most notably Rupert Murdoch’s expansive News Corporation empire, operate a model of vertical integration, allowing them to cross-promote and cross-sell their brand through their many channels of production and implementation. The British and Australian populations may be all too aware (or perhaps more worryingly, unaware) of the influence Murdoch possesses in domestic politics, however the role of conglomerates as international actors is perhaps more sinister still.

It is generally agreed that the greater the number of parties in a state, the higher degree of media pluralism and transparency of information. Conglomerates’ frightening power to mould public opinion towards foreign policy within the US and UK throughout the Iraq War in 2003 revealed the enormous potential for disinformation in two-party states. Harvard’s political commentator Matthew Baum has proven that independent newspapers were far more likely to publish ‘hard’ stories focussing on policy success and military issues during the Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo conflicts, than media conglomerates who far more frequently wrote ‘soft’ articles about personalities and humanitarian issues. This pattern is only being continued through the dissemination of hostile rhetoric towards migrants from Sudan and Syria from Murdoch’s US Fox News and the UK’s The Sun, rather than the degree of success of Angela Merkel’s integration policies. The lack of concrete information broadcast by these elite corporations are a massive threat to the accountability of the West’s foreign policies, with public scrutiny constantly being squashed by their framing of public discourse.

At the dawn of the internet, neoliberals looked forward to the formation of inter-connected ‘digital boroughs’ of international groups sharing political values. Ironically, digitised news corporations have frequently sought to entrench national particularism within the countries they operate in, with the alarming effect of creating online echo chambers in which a collective consciousness of ‘us’ against ‘others’ is perpetuated. Analysis by Oxford researcher Vyacheslav Polonski on the internet behavioural patterns of the opposing campaigns in Britain’s EU referendum has demonstrated how these communities are as distinct and separate online as they are in reality. The echo chambers of Brexiteers were housed on media conglomerates’ websites, whereas Bremainers were more disparately spread across many platforms. Few would contest that these self-affirming echo chambers are not harmful to the international ‘democracy of ideas’ vision that a deregulated, digitised media promised.

Has globalisation and the information revolution accidentally caused a regression into national self-assertion? Are global media elites allowing governments’ foreign policies to go unscrutinised? These questions will doubtless cause a campaign for greater public ownership of the media, but for now it is clear that conglomerates have tarnished the neoliberal dream of an open, transparent market place of ideas. Indeed, their power as international actors continues to swell unchecked.