12 people and things that have ruined India
Even before the riots, Narendra Modi’s India was a sectarian battleground.
Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu-fundamentalist prime minister, struts upon the global stage, preaching his country’s virtues. These include democracy, economic growth, the “demographic dividend” of a youthful workforce in an aging world, and, sweetly enough, yoga.
Yet with an economy that’s lost its luster, large-scale youth unemployment, a collapse of political rights, and thugs from Modi’s party practicing the pogrom-asana in their dealings with Muslim fellow-citizens, India has become a land of civic and moral decline.
Remarkably, parts of Delhi rioted and burned unchecked even during a recent state visit by U.S. President Donald Trump, with 42 people — mostly Muslim — hacked, beaten or shot to death. What follows is a list of a dozen people, institutions and ideas that have turned India into a sectarian battleground.
1. The unholy trinity of Hindutva
The credo of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is “Hindutva,” a word that translates awkwardly as “Hindu-ness.” Its prime ideologues were V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar, admirers of Hitler who operated in the first half of the 20th century, and L.K. Advani, who became the most polished purveyor of religious intolerance in that century’s last quarter. Savarkar offered the theory that Hindus could not live alongside Muslims, and Golwalkar — more explicitly — depicted Muslims as enemies of the Indian nation. Advani, the BJP’s leader in the 2009 election, was the man who led rumbustious Hindutva caravans (called “rath yatras”) across India. His most infamous one, in 1990, stoked religious riots along the way. His aim: the tearing down of a 16th-century mosque, the Babri Masjid, believed to have been built on the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. It was razed by Hindu fanatics two years later.
2. Indira Gandhi
India’s original elected autocrat, Indira Gandhi ran her Congress party like a family fiefdom for most of her years as prime minister, grooming her younger son as successor. When he died in a plane crash and she was assassinated in 1984, her older son stepped into the office. When he, in turn, was assassinated in 1991, his wife became the party leader (but not prime minister, since she was Italian) whose bidding was done by yes-men. Indira’s grandson Rahul — a decent lad, but feckless and mollycoddled — helmed the once-great Congress party in the 2019 election. Laid low by dynasticism, and lacking a clear ideology beyond a mealy-mouthed form of welfare state, the party that led India to its independence is no match for Modi.
3. The English-speaking elite
India is a country where English is spoken fluently by a privileged few, badly (but functionally) by an aspirational substratum, and not at all by most. The Anglophone elite — administratively and culturally dominant for the first four decades after independence in 1947 — lost ground inevitably in a land where political power is conferred by universal franchise. Diminished, first, by the politics of the caste system, and wrongfooted next by Hindutva, the elite — which had turned its back on ordinary India — has been the architect of its own destruction. In dissing this elite as decadent, the BJP scoffs also at secularism, which it regards as a Western construct unsuited to India.
4. Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath
These two men are the remorseless enforcers of Hindutva in India. While Modi travels the globe — packing Wembley Stadium and Madison Square Garden with adoring crowds of overseas Indians — Shah and Adityanath go about the ugly business of consolidating a majoritarian idea of India. The former, as minister of home affairs, is in charge of India’s internal security. For the country’s minorities, this is the equivalent of letting a drooling fox manage a poultry farm, as recent events in Delhi have shown. The city’s police chief — whose force disgraced itself not merely by letting an anti-Muslim pogrom rage unbridled, but by actually participating in the carnage — takes his orders from Shah. Adityanath, a self-styled “yogi,” or Hindu ascetic, is chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state — home to 38 million Muslims, as many as in Iraq, Morocco or Afghanistan. An unabashed Hindutva triumphalist, his state police treats Muslim citizens as aliens. The “yogi” has prime ministerial ambitions, and should he succeed, he could make Modi look like a milksop.
5. Godmen and pseudoscience
The freewheeling nature of Hinduism — there is no equivalent of the Bible or Quran, or of the pope — has made the religion fertile ground for soi-disant holy men through history. These are often hucksters who are in it for the money, sex or political influence (or all three). With the coming to power of Hindutva, godmen are thriving in India like never before, none more so than Baba Ramdev, who has made billions peddling a range of therapeutic products of dubious value, all with the government’s blessing. The rise to prominence of men like him — and myriad others — has been accompanied by a rise of Hinduist pseudoscience. These include claims by prominent members of the BJP that ancient Indians flew airplanes, possessed nuclear weapons and practised plastic surgery, as well as assertions that the urine and dung of the sacred cow are cures for coronavirus.
6. Ranjan Gogoi
Gogoi, recently retired as chief justice of India’s Supreme Court, is, by wide consensus, the worst of the 47 chief justices to have served since independence. Pliant to a fault, he kowtowed to the Modi government at every opportunity, turning one of the few untarnished institutions in modern India into a complaisant cheerleader for the prime minister. He ceded the power to appoint judges (which, in India, has always been the right of the court’s “collegium”) to the executive; presided over a judgment that handed over the land where the Babri Masjid, the mosque demolished in 1992 by Hindu fanatics, once stood to the very parties who demolished it; and showed a depressing disregard for habeas corpus. Breathtakingly, when a young court employee accused him of sexual harassment, he set up a panel to evaluate her complaint — which he headed himself. Nemo iudex in causa sua? Not in India.
7. The Election Commission
An autonomous body charged with overseeing India’s mammoth elections, the Election Commission, until recently, enjoyed a global reputation for democratic integrity and operational excellence. That reputation now lies in tatters, with the commission having become — like so many other Indian institutions — a handmaiden of the BJP. Incendiary speeches made by Modi during the 2019 election campaign were ignored by the body. Under pressure from the opposition to censure the prime minster, the commission hastily found Modi not culpable of hate speech, but failed to offer proper reasoning. It also permitted the BJP to run a propaganda channel — NAMO TV — during the election campaign, even though its contents were in brazen violation of the laws against political advertising during an election.
8. Arnab Goswami and the mainstream media
A self-satisfied bully who makes the U.S. commentator Bill O’Reilly look like a lollypop lady, Arnab Goswami is the exemplar of the TV anchor who has poisoned political debate in India. His shows are brawling affairs where up to 10 guests shout at once, with Goswami’s own voice bellowing self-righteously above them all. A cheerleader for the BJP, his brand of nationalism is crude (although his diction is polished), and he has yet to make an utterance that he does not, himself, regard as irrefutable. Much of India’s television and print media kowtows, as does Goswami, to Modi’s vision of the country. Protesters are always “anti-national.” The government is always acting in the “national interest.” India’s media is at its lowest ebb in history. Not even during the Emergency — decreed by Indira Gandhi from 1975-1977, during which free speech was severely curtailed — was the media in such craven lockstep with the national government as it is today.
9. Swapan Dasgupta
A Bengali academic-turned-politician, Swapan Dasgupta is a former fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford (where he was a protégé of the psephologist David Butler). Improbably cosmopolitan for a high-ranking member of the BJP, he can tell his claret from his Burgundy, and is one of the few senior Indian politicians with a sense of humor. These qualities serve him well in his role as the principal intellectual enabler of Hindutva, which he performs with relish both in the upper house of parliament — to which he was nominated by Modi — and in his prolific columns in the newspapers. Close to L.K. Advani, he has sought to whitewash the excesses of Modi and Amit Shah, both at home and abroad. His English is perfect, rare in a party of provincials from the northern Indian Hindu heartland. Although his critics regard him as the Heidegger of the Modi regime, Dasgupta is good for the BJP’s “shop window.”
10. Bipin Rawat
Bipin Rawat, the former Indian Army chief, was recently appointed India’s first chief of defense staff (with command over army, navy and air force). His selection to the post came as no surprise, as he has been closer to Modi than it is seemly for a general to be in the assiduously apolitical traditions of the Indian armed forces. The first army chief to have explicitly supported a ruling party, he is an outspoken man who wades freely into the political debates of the day. (Rawat called recently for Kashmiri youth to be sent to “deradicalization camps”). His fondness for politics does not augur well for the armed forces, the last of India’s institutions — in the minds of many — to have maintained its distance from political squalor.
11. Arvind Kejriwal
The chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal is a beacon of hope to many who yearn for a viable alternative to Hindutva. After all, his seemingly liberal Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party) defeated the BJP in Delhi’s elections last month. And yet, he has shown himself to be just as capable of heavy-handed suppression of free speech as the party of the prime minister. Within days of becoming chief minister, he moved to prosecute a firebrand, leftist student leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, for sedition, for a blistering speech made in 2016. Kejriwal had, at the time, praised the speech as “brilliant” and lauded Kumar for his “clarity of thought.” (Bemused by Kejriwal’s U-turn, Kumar has demanded “a speedy trial.”)
India’s politics is conducted not in parliament but on Twitter and WhatsApp, where the BJP’s trolls vilify journalists, political opponents and anyone in whom they detect a whiff of secularism. (It is certain that this article — and its author — will cop their share of bile.) As Shashi Tharoor, a prominent and combative Congress party MP wrote in a recent column, India’s social media serves as a recycler of prejudice. Social media, he said, “reinforce people’s worst beliefs by exposing them to prejudices they might not have dared to express in the past, but that now no longer seem rare and disreputable.”