In an age when terrorism and fanaticism in India have become synonymous with Islam and Muslims, with images of the Mumbai attacks still fresh in mind, the reprehensible actions of India’s Hindu population against its Muslim minority of more than 200 million over many decades is often forgotten. December 6 marks the 18th anniversary of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by Hindu extremists following a three year hate-filled propaganda campaign by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a campaign that was ignored and even tolerated by the ruling Congress Party. The demolition of the 16th-century masjid was followed by anti-Muslim pogroms in which more than 2,000 Muslims were massacred in Bombay alone, in addition to destroying their homes, businesses and economic infrastructure.
Just under a decade later, thousands of Muslims were butchered in meticulously planned pogroms in Gujarat which were supported by state government officials and the police. During the massacres, hundreds of Muslim girls and women were raped before being brutally mutilated and burned to death by marauding mobs. In recent years, there have been a number of bomb attacks on masjids such as that on the 17th-century Makkah Masjid in Hyderabad during Friday prayers in May 2007, after which police opened fire on worshippers fleeing the devastation. Unlike in neighbouring Pakistan, the perpetrators of these attacks are suspected to be Hindu extremist groups. With much discussion about India becoming one of the world’s new superpowers alongside China, it is worth taking a closer look at the politics of anti-Muslim hatred that is rapidly becoming a defining characteristic of Indian society.
Today’s Hindu extremist groups are collectively known as the Sangh Parivar which is composed of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) meaning the Association of National Volunteers, the BJP (its political front), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, its activist front), the Bajrag Dal (the auxiliary militant wing), Shiv Sena (the fascist front), the VHP of America (Hindutva’s overseas arm) and the Hindu Students’ Councils (VHP of America’s student wing).
Modern day Hindu Nationalism or Hindutva can be traced back to the formation of the RSS (Association of National Volunteers) in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. Originally it was a protest movement against Gandhian pacifism. The RSS trained and armed its members to oppose both British colonial rule and Muslim separatism. The RSS’s fascist roots can be seen from the fact that its traditions of uniforms and mass demonstrations were modelled after the Italian fascist party. Even during World War II, RSS members openly admired Adolf Hitler. A former leader, Madhavrao Golwalkar wrote in 1939: “To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races –” the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”
In 1951, RSS members formed their own political party, the Jana Sangh and later following a series of splits, the BJP was formed in April 1980 under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Although it initially promoted a more tolerant form of Gandhian socialism, this failed to translate into political success with the party only winning two seats in the 1984 parliamentary elections. Following this disastrous result, Vajpayee was replaced as party president by L.K. Advani who sought to rally Hindu extremists through verbal attacks on minority groups within India, particularly the Muslims. Under Advani’s leadership, the BJP criticized measures it construed as pandering to minorities and advocated the repeal of the special status given to the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. Simultaneously, it cooperated more closely with other RSS affiliates, particularly the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP).
During the 1980s, the BJP-VHP combine developed into a dynamic political force through its crafty use of religious symbolism to whip up public frenzy. The BJP and VHP attained national prominence through their campaign to convert back to Hinduism members of the Scheduled Castes who had converted to Islam. The BJP-VHP also agitated to reclaim the Babri Masjid site, threatening to demolish it. They encouraged villagers throughout the country to hold religious ceremonies to consecrate bricks made out of their own clay and send them to be used in the construction of the Ramjanmabhumi Temple in Ayodhya. The results spoke for themselves as the BJP expanded its support more than any other party in the 1991 elections, increasing its number of seats from 85 to 119 with its vote share growing from 11.4% to 21%.
In mobilizing support for the movement to replace the Babri Masjid with a temple in Ayodhya, the BJP and its affiliates fostered numerous riots between Hindu and Muslim communities in most parts of northern India. That the violence assumed the proportions it did can be attributed in large part to Congress passivity. The national government took no measures to protect the masjid in Ayodhya from destruction.Similarly, in virtually all the cities and towns where riots occurred, the local administration was either inactive or complicit in violence. In the aftermath of the riots, guilty officials were seldom demoted, much less fired or punished for dereliction of duty or complicity in crimes. Whether the central government in Delhi deliberately abdicated its responsibilities, suffered paralysis, or was communalized itself, its inaction during the riots displayed its extreme weakness.
The BJP was able to mobilize various people from non-compatible castes, classes and genders by focusing their emotions on the Babri Masjid as a symbol of “Hindu hurt”. It provided a vehicle for the expression of grievances against the state and for the mobilization of groups that felt victimized by the political system. With the RSS and VHP it created a context which encouraged the self-expression of diverse Hindu social groups. For many Hindu women, the BJP provided a thrilling opportunity to become active in the political arena with the sanction of their families; for the lower castes and classes, riots were a means of settling scores with shop owners and erstwhile employers; and for upper caste BJP supporters, Hindu nationalism signaled a rejection of the growing political power of the backward castes.
Many observers assumed that the BJP influence would be short-lived for Hindutva violated the principles of centrism, socialism, and secularism that had governed Indian political life since independence. But far from receding from public eye, the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the 1996 parliamentary elections, even surpassing the mainstream Congress party that had ruled India almost continuously since 1947 (barring the short interregnum in the late 1970s and early 1980s). Although its electoral platform was broader than it had been in 1991, it continued to define itself as a Hindu nationalist party. When parliamentary elections were held in 1998, again the BJP and some opposition parties won the largest number of seats and formed a government.
Between February 28 and March 2, 2002, Hindu mobs supported by the state and the police went on a killing spree in Gujarat leaving thousands of Muslims dead and 150,000 homeless and dispossessed. The Gujarat BJP-led government chose to characterize the violence as a “spontaneous reaction” to an incident in Godhra in which a fire that killed 58 Hindu extremists was said to have been deliberately set by a Muslim mob. A government inquiry three years later, conducted by a government forensic expert two months after the incident, came to the same conclusion: that the fire had begun inside the train. Moreover, findings of Human Rights Watch and those of numerous Indian human rights and civil liberties organizations, and most of the Indian press indicated that the attacks on Muslims throughout the state were planned, well in advance of the Godhra incident, and organized with extensive police participation and in close cooperation with officials of the BJP state government including the Chief Minister of Gujarat Narenda Modi (for more details, see report in this issue of Crescent International on the Gujarat massacres).
Following the massacre, the leader of the VHP described it as a “successful experiment which will be repeated all over the country now.” Later that year, Modi was re-elected on a wave of anti-Muslim propaganda.
Recently, the BJP’s choice of new leaders reflects their continuing hatred of Islam and Muslims. Although its new president, Nitin Gadkari, has reached out to Muslims, the fact that he was backed by the RSS suggests its policy will remain unchanged. The party’s new National Secretary Varun Gandhi was recently jailed for making inflammatory remarks about Muslims after he openly abused them and threatened to behead them.
Although the BJP have not been in government since 2004, what is most alarming about Indian politics for Muslims is the policy of other parties such as the ruling Congress to use the “Islamophobia card” to win back votes. As Mani Shankar Aiya pointed out before the last election, the “real danger lies in the rest of us seeking to thwart the rise in electoral support to the BJP by becoming a pale imitation of the original.” This point is further elaborated upon by Professor Bipan Chandra, a famous Indian historian, who wrote that “concessions do not lead to the recession of communalism; they lead to the popularization and spread of communal ideology; they make communalism more acceptable.” For example, following a decision by the US to refuse Modi a visa in 2005 due to his role in the Gujarat massacres, the Congress party came out in his support. Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy explained at the time that the real reason for such unparalleled support for Modi was “an effort to deny the Sangh brigade major political mileage after the US action.”
Muslims in India continue to live in fear and anxiety unsure as to when their Hindu neighbour will replace the sweets he brings with a sword. Hindutva is alive and raging and with Western nations tripping over themselves to cement links with a potential future superpower, do not be surprised if many more countries turn a blind eye to the ongoing genocide of India’s Muslims. After all, Muslims are dispensable when there are rich pickings to be made. Money talks and Muslims in India will be the sacrificial lambs for the rupee bonanza.