India's Rising Intolerance

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

India's Rising Intolerance

Posted on: 1st July 2014
Sumit Ganguly
Indiana University, Tagore Professor

During the campaign for India's sixteenth general election, some members of the Congress Party and a host of Indian and foreign intellectuals sounded the alarm about the seemingly irresistible rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) leader, Narendra Modi. Their principal concern focused on his record as Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat where an anti-Muslim pogrom had consumed the lives of over a thousand individuals in February 2002.

Their misgivings were not entirely misplaced. When questioned about his views on the tragedy during the campaign, Modi reportedly stated that the sadness he felt for the victims was comparable to what one might feel if a car were to run over a puppy. His supporters, of course, were quick to underscore that the Indian Supreme Court had exonerated Modi after an investigation failed to produce sufficient incriminating evidence linking him to the tragic events.

This aside, both he and at least one of his closest associates, Amit Shah, made statements during the campaign that bring into question his commitment to a plural, secular India. Shah, for example, suggested that Azamgarh, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and a Muslim-majority area, was a base for terrorists. On at least one occasion, Modi himself suggested that while Hindu migrants from Pakistan were welcome, he couldn't understand why the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had given shelter to illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh.

Once again, his followers seemed either comfortable with these statements or inclined to dismiss them as mere campaign rhetoric. His detractors, however, saw them as important portents for the future. Regardless of their import, the fact remains that he is now firmly ensconced in office as the elected prime minister of the country.

However, Modi's ascension does not mark the beginning of concern for India's constitutionally secular future. Even before Modi took office there were indications of the emergence of increasingly intolerant social and political mores. Dusting off a colonial era law earlier this year, a Hindu activist, Dinanath Batra, successfully sued the Indian branch of Penguin books to stop the distribution of the work of a University of Chicago based scholar, Wendy Doniger. This was not Batra's first foray into confronting intellectuals whom he deemed hostile towards Hinduism. In 2008, he ensured the removal of work on the Ramayana (one of Hinduism's two most important religious epics) by a noted Sanskrit scholar, A.K. Ramanujan, from Delhi University's history syllabus on similar grounds.

The UPA remained curiously silent about these blatant attacks on intellectual freedom. And these were not isolated incidents. The highly regarded Indian modernist painter Maqbool Fida Husain, was subjected to periodic attacks owing to his putatively obscene depictions of various Hindu icons. Faced with continuing harassment, including death threats, he eventually left India and in 2010, shortly before his death, was granted Qatari citizenship. It should again be noted that a government supposedly committed to the upholding of India's secular credo did little to come to the beleaguered artist's assistance.

It is possible to provide a more extensive catalogue of similar examples of religious bigotry and intellectual censorship that have come to plague India over the past decade. What is most disturbing about these episodes, however, is the apparent unwillingness of both local and national governments to take an unequivocal stance against the purveyors of religious hatred and intellectual intimidation.

There is no question that Modi's critics fear that these trends will be accentuated in the near future. There is little in his political background to suggest that he will abruptly make an about-face and seek to defend battered intellectual freedoms. In late May, for example, his government issued a directive that all official correspondence with Hindi-speaking states must be carried out in Hindi. In a land that had previously witnessed linguistic riots prior to the forging of a compromise formula that made English one of the two national languages, this decree was not only misdirected but retrograde. Faced with swift opposition, especially from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the government has backed away from its initial stance. Nevertheless, the mere fact that it toyed with this possibility is a profoundly disturbing suggestion of its majoritarian inclinations.

Religious, linguistic and cultural diversity are all hallmarks of India's composite heritage. Unfortunately, for parochial concerns of electoral advantage, politicians of virtually every stripe seek to exploit the sentiments of particular communities and groups. Worse still, this has often turned into a form of electoral outbidding thereby further fraying the country's secular fabric. Its continuation does not bode well for the future of liberal democracy in India.

Sumit Ganguly holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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