Many consider the ongoing general elections in India as a referendum on India’s secular, pluralist future. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking to secure another term in office, and its strategy to mobilize voters has largely been based on Hindutva posturing and fear-mongering among the Hindu majority of alleged dangers posed by the country’s minority communities, especially Muslims.
Following the release of the party’s 2019 manifesto which included plans to introduce a “National Register for Citizens” (NRC), its Twitter account quoted BJP President Amit Shah saying “We will ensure implementation of NRC in the entire country. We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs.” The BJP, in essence, evoked an Indian civilization that excludes its two minority groups, Muslims and Christians. While it considers Christianity as the religion of proselytisers, Islam is branded as the religion of invaders, beef eaters, regressive burka-clad women, and terrorists.
According to a report by NDTV, the use of hateful and divisive language by top politicians in India increased by nearly 500 percent since the BJP-led government came to power. As Muslims are the country’s largest minority group, forming 15 percent of the population, they encounter the most instances of violence and intolerance. Members and candidates of the ruling party often use Islamophobic rhetoric to establish conservative credentials and galvanize voters. They conflate Islam with terrorism and depict Muslims as inherently dangerous people. In one instance in 2016, BJP Minister of State for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, Anantkumar Hegde stated “as long as there is Islam in the world, there will be terrorism. Until we uproot Islam, we can’t remove terrorism.”
All violence and terror acts are assigned to Islam. Instances of Islamist terrorism are exploited to add fuel to politics of identity and national-security. Most recently, as Sri Lanka struggled to come to terms with the carnage caused by the Easter Sunday attacks, Hindu nationalists used it as fodder for their anti-Muslim discourse. Numerous BJP candidates and activists tweeted a firmly established catchphrase – “not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims.” Addressing an election rally in Chittorgarh in Rajasthan hours after the blasts, Indian
Modi swiftly cited the attacks as a reason to vote for his party. He claimed that India’s situation was similar to Sri Lanka prior to 2014 before BJP came to power as the opposing political parties had dealt with terrorism with a soft hand. He accused them of not holding terrorists accountable in order to pander to Muslims for votes – thereby inextricably connecting Muslims with terrorism. Similarly, in another instance, during an election rally in Panipat, Haryana, Amit Shah, asked “When Modi killed Pakistani terrorists, why were their (the opposition’s) faces pale? Were the terrorists related to them?”
“They were worried about their vote bank,” he answered himself – yet again correlating Muslim-majority Pakistan and terrorism, with Indian Muslims. Exploiting the recent clash with Pakistan in Pulwama and Balakot, the BJP has made Pakistan and Islamist terrorism the core of its campaign rhetoric. It has strategically otherized its political opposition by labeling them as pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu, essentially creating a binary and pitting Muslims against Hindus.
While the BJP is usually quick to condemn and politicize Islamist violence, it is silent on violent acts orchestrated by non-Muslims. For instance, the Naxals, who are arguably the biggest threat to India’s internal security, are not part of its political discourse as they do not fit into the polarizing narrative of the elections. Moreover, perpetrators of hate crimes against Muslims are often protected with impunity, and in some cases even tacitly or directly applauded. Lynching and terrorizing Muslims in the name of beef eating, love jihad (a term used by Hindu nationalists for Muslim men who feign love to “lure” Hindu women and convert them as a part of their conspiracy to turn India into a majority-Muslim nation) and ghar wapsi (Indian Muslims must return to their original Hindu fold) are often overlooked.
Also, appallingly, the BJP has nominated a radical Hindu nationalist, Pragya Thakur, for parliament. Thakur, who is out on bail supposedly due to “health issues,” is the main suspect in the 2008 bomb blast in Malegaon, Maharashtra that killed six and injured over hundred people. She is charged with terrorism, murder, criminal conspiracy, and promoting enmity between communities.
Religio-nationalist otherization is effective as religion is a meaning-giving structure and a strong galvanizing force. Also, the utilization of communal politics diverts attention from the numerous failures of the BJP government. The party swept to power in 2014 with promises of economic development, job creation, eradicating corruption, and thereby creating a “new India.” However, these promises did not materialize. Agrarian distress stemming from debts and rising costs has increased since 2017 whereby farmers have frequently marched in various parts of India to display discontent. In January, millions of workers rallied against the BJP’s economic policies. Among other things, they demanded the government stop all pro-corporate, anti-worker amendments, and address inflation and government’s push for greater privatisation. There has also been a rise in unemployment. According to a report by the National Sample Survey Office, leaked in February, unemployment rate in India rose to 6.1 percent in 2018 — the highest in 45 years. The BJP’s demonetization program, supposedly intended to curb the use of black money and fake currency used by “terrorists” and herald a more transparent, cashless economy, also failed miserably.
The implications of the BJP’s burgeoning anti-Muslim rhetoric are grave. If unchecked, it will fuel religious discrimination and alienation of Muslim communities. Additionally, it will call India’s vibrant, pluralistic traditions into question and breed mistrust and mutual suspicion. That, in turn, will be problematic for India’s national security as it will generate insecurities among minorities while concurrently strengthening and vindicating common recruitment narratives of Islamist terrorist groups who skillfully exploit sectarian and communal fault lines.
Nazneen Mohsina is a Research Analyst with the Institute of South Asian Studies at National University of Singapore.