On Raksha bandhan — the Hindu holiday when sisters tie colourful, sacred threads on their brothers’ wrists — newspapers in Mumbai ran photographs of a slight, smiling girl with prosthetic arms tying rakhis on two wiry, young men. The girl’s name is Monika More, 16, and in January the wheels of a packed commuter train had sliced off her arms when she slipped between a platform gap. She survived because the men, brothers Nasim Chaudhary, 25, and Amjad Chaudhary, 24, jumped onto the tracks and rushed her to a hospital.
The photocaptions made it a point to mention that Monika, a Hindu, was saved by Muslims. Many may think it heartening, but it is a sign of India’s worsening times that the media pointedly mentioned the religion of the rescuers.
On the day Monika tied her rakhis, the RSS announced plans to bind — by the end of this week — rakhis to a million Hindu wrists, male and female, in western Uttar Pradesh, as a protective symbol against ‘love jihad’, allegedly a vast Muslim conspiracy to marry Hindu women and convert them to Islam.
The battle against ‘love jihad’ sounds nutty, but it is now endorsed by India’s ruling party, whose members make pronouncements once relegated to the fringes of the Hindu far right. “This is part of a global love jihad that targets vulnerable Hindu girls who are entrapped and forced to convert to Islam,” Chandramohan, a BJP spokesperson for UP, told The Hindu last week, after a Hindu teacher alleged she was gang-raped and so converted at a Meerut madrasa. “The BJP will … intervene on behalf of the victims.”
Love jihad isn’t the only wild idea moving with great rapidity from fringe to mainstream. Hindu ideologues from the edges are delighted at the quiet but enthusiastic reception to some of their ideas in government circles. In Gujarat, the state school textbook board has printed 50,000 copies each of nine books written by Vidya Bharati, the RSS’ education division. Its leading light, Dina Nath Batra, once looked on with amusement — not unsurprising, considering claims in the books of an ancient India manufacturing stems cells and automobiles — appears to generate awe or fear, depending on your ideological leanings.
The speedy mainstreaming of the fringes has unsettled even commentators who enthusiastically endorse Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic progressiveness. On non-economic issues, there is a lot of “bad news” and “on the dreadful side — several terrible utterances, vibes and feelings being voiced by several BJP/NDA politicians”, writes Surjit Bhalla, a trenchant Congress critic. “Whether it is forcing a Muslim to break his fast at lunchtime or asking women to “dress properly” in order to avoid being raped, or stating that India is a Hindu nation (whatever that means)… or allowing a Telangana BJP MLA to state that Sania Mirza is Pakistan’s daughter-in-law. The list is long, getting longer and suggestive of a certain age-old BJP mindset problem — born in the 19th century and proud to stay that way.”
Like Bhalla, other right-of-centre economists struggle to reconcile the BJP’s reformist economic avatar with its disruptive and regressive social mindset. All of them expect Modi to step up and step in, to say he will tolerate none of this medieval lunacy in the modern nation that he envisages. That may be expecting too much. Last week, the prime minister finally acknowledged “some small incidents in certain parts of the country”, stressing that “even a single instance is unacceptable to the BJP”, which begs the question: Why do they then grow?
They grow because the winks and nods to the Hindu fringe increase, likely finding echoes on the right-wing Muslim fringe, as eager to push obscurantism and respond to provocations. In 605 Hindu-Muslim clashes that the police recorded in UP since the election results were declared in May — after a divisive, fractious campaign — minor reasons proliferate, an Indian Express investigation showed last week. Disputes over loudspeakers, traffic accidents and petty arguments were, repeatedly, reasons enough for a riot, whether caused by Muslims or Hindus.
The difference between Hindu and Muslim right-wing loonies is that unlike Pakistan or other failing states, India’s Islamists mostly stay under the radar, emerging to public prominence when they do something particularly foolish, such as supporting the brutal self-proclaimed Caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. When it surfaces, their brand of idiocy or provocative statement gets immediate attention from the law, whereas the agent provocateurs of the VHP and BJP might, at most, find censure on prime-time television. There is no danger of the Muslim fringe converting its ideas into official policy.
The fallout of the free reign to the Hindu fringe-turned-mainstream to minorities — and the perception that justice is ever harder to achieve — can only be greater tension, a boost to their own obscurantists and a battening down of the hatches. Already, the rhetoric and violence of the last 25 years has created separation and prejudice among Hindus and Muslims. A Muzaffarnagar in ghettoised UP no longer shakes the national conscience, and, so, the events of rural Haryana earlier this week, when two dozen Muslim families were beaten and expelled, elicits little reaction. No better can be expected when RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat argues (as he did on Monday) that if Germany is for Germans, America is for Americans, Hindustan is for Hindus.
If India is re-engineered into an exclusivist social tinderbox, the tide of economic revival, if it comes, may lift boats but it will douse no flames. The emerging model in UP, overseen by BJP chief Amit Shah, appears to be: Talk of change but create a common enemy and consolidate Hindu votes.
Unless Modi says something special, soothing and truly inclusive, from the ramparts of the Red Fort tomorrow, divisiveness in India will grow exponentially. If he does not say what needs to be said loud and clear, then bure din aanewale hain. Bad days are coming. I fervently hope I am wrong.
(Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.)