Rampaging religio-nationalists: India playing with fire

Rampaging religio-nationalists: India playing with fire

by Dr. Muqtedar Khan

Things have been getting steadily precarious for religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians since the Hindu religious nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came to power in India in May 2014. The Indian Express, one of India’s major newspapers, reported that there were 600 incidents in just ten weeks since the election of Narendra Modi as India’s Prime minister.

There have been several instances of violence against minorities. The first major sign of things to come was when some members of the Hindu Rashtra Sena (Hindu national army) beat a young Muslim IT expert Mohsin Sheikh to death, for allegedly posting an insulting update on social media, within a few days of BJP coming to power. The episode was widely reported in the media and it shocked many in the country. The gruesome act appeared to confirm the fear of religious minorities. With a religious party in power the likelihood of religious extremists getting emboldened and acting with greater impunity seemed to be coming true.

In the past six months there have been several episodes of violence against Christians and Muslims all across the country. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who comes from a hardcore Hindu right wing organization the RSS, could do more to speak out against such egregious violence and even launch a national campaign against religiously motivated violence, but he is too busy taking a victory lap across the world and trying to consolidate his party’s control over the Indian diaspora which is rich, influential and global.

Violence between religious communities is unfortunately not a new phenomenon as far as India is concerned. What is new however, is the brazen and emboldened actions of Hindu extremists who are now calling for a hundred percent Hindu India, through elimination of centuries old presence of Islam and Christianity. The audacity of this call is breathtaking. They are calling for the conversion of religious minorities, who constitute nearly 200 million, to Hinduism. It’s akin to making the fifth most populous country – Brazil – disappear from the world.

Trying to convert 200 million people maybe a tall order, but it is not deterring the Hindu groups. They have launched their effort in earnest. In a rather troubling development an offshoot of the ruling Hindu nationalist party, BJP, converted nearly 200 Muslims from the poorest segments of the society en masse to Hinduism using coercion and the promise of providing ration cards. Rational cards are a right of all citizens. These people should automatically get those ration cards. But now that Hindu nationalists are in power, the Hindu extremists are able to use the state and its benefits as a religio-political leverage. It’s like Republicans in the United States using social security that should be available to all, regardless of their religion, as an incentive to convert people to Christianity.

It appears now that the levers of power are in the hands of a “moderate Hindu party” which continues to provide democratic cover using the language of tolerance and good governance, the extremists are free to persecute without fear of prosecution or even condemnation from the elected leaders.

This phenomenon of moderates and extremists religious groups becoming partners in democracies to harass religious minorities is not limited to India alone. In Egypt and Tunisia, when the moderate Islamic parties were in power, extremists – Salafi groups – became empowered and unleashed violence against Copts, Sufis and secularists. The Salafi mobs ruled the streets in Egypt and Tunisia only when the so-called moderate Islamists were in power. Similarly in Pakistan we find that Imran Khan’s pro-democracy political party (PTI), provides political cover and apologia for the Taliban by trying to deflect attention away from their terrorism.

The extremists provide votes and street power to the moderates and the moderates when in power provide legal and political cover for the extremists. Unfortunately the only solution to this problem is for the ruling moderates to curb and marginalize the extremists as was attempted in Tunisia, but only after the Genie was out of the bottle. If the moderates do not act firmly against their theological and political cousins, the situation will necessarily deteriorate and lead to violence and instability.

India, despite the persistent presence of extremists of every hue, is a nation that has a very long and strong tradition of religious pluralism, tolerance and syncretism. It is also an enduring democracy that has sustained itself despite poverty, religious, ethnic and political differences and has never succumbed to the temptations of authoritarianism. Therefore in order to achieve their impossible goal of creating a hundred percent Hindu India, Hindu extremists will have to first trample on India’s very soul before they unleash a systematic persecution that will make the Nazi holocaust look like a picnic.

It is therefore imperative that this idea of a hundred percent Hindu India dies an immediate death in order that no innocent life is sacrificed in its pursuit.

Originally published on Turkey Agenda and republished on TAM with permission of author.