Covid-19 is ravaging India, filling up the skies with the flame and smoke of death pyres. Cries for “breath” and priceless oxygen have become the scarring, grim realities of a state of emergency unseen since the partition of the Subcontinent.
To describe what India is experiencing as a “crisis” would be inadequate and inappropriate. More fitting is writer Arundhati Roy’s testament about the situation: it is a “crime against humanity.” A crime perpetrated by the willful negligence, hubris and callousness of a fascist BJP government more interested in electioneering than the mass death of its citizens.
How Did We Get Here?
There are many ways to understand the political reasons behind the carnage we are witnessing daily: unpreparedness, overconfidence, arrogance, complacency, bureaucratic red tape. A perfect storm of events. All of this has been expressed poignantly by commentators and pundits but at heart these are symptoms of the disease at the root of the carnage: the remaking of India from a secular nation state “for all its citizens” into an exclusive Hindu one. In sum: the focus in India hasn’t been health infrastructure or care for all citizens but rather a triumphalist Hinduization and suppression of hated minorities, at all costs and by any means necessary.
Hinduism vs. Hindutva
To better understand this one must know the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. Hinduism (a modern term) refers to the ancient faiths, traditions, beliefs and practices that developed over millennia in the Indian subcontinent: Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. It is a universe of complexity, diversity, profound spiritual philosophies and discourse; one of the world’s great religions.
Depending on region, caste, and context practitioners revere various scriptures and epics to different degrees: Vedas, Gita, Upanishads, Mahabharata, Puranas. An adoration and worship for gods, goddesses and their avatars such as Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Kali, Saraswati, Ram, Krishna is also central to Hindu life. Indeed, according to some accounts there are up to 33 million gods in the Hindu pantheon.
Hindutva or “Hinduness” refers to a political ideology akin to fundamentalist religion that abhors ambiguity, reason and diversity. The antithesis of Hinduism. Hindutva is an obscurantist, totalizing worldview, built upon the mythologies of an idealized past, reacting to deeply held grievances and insecurities fostered over many years. Its professed goal is to “awaken” Hindus but in practice it seeks to remake India from the secular, democratic vision of its founders Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad, B.R. Ambedkar into a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation).
Founders and Icons of Hindutva
The Hindutva project like other nationalisms had its formation in the early 20th century. Its icons and leaders were once considered fringe actors and even traitors to the cause of independence. V.D. Savarkar the writer of the book “Hindutva” petitioned British colonialists for release from prison in turn for giving up independence. Other activists include K.B. Hedgewar, founder of the militant Hindutva organization RSS, inspired by Savarkar and Italy’s fascist Benito Mussolini. The writings of M.S. Golwalkar, another early leader in the RSS, was also instrumental in its ideological formation.
The violent nature and tactics of Hindutva to achieve its ends are perhaps most vividly illustrated in one of its acolytes, the assassin Nathuram Godse who shot and killed Mahatma Gandhi because he saw him as an appeaser of Muslims. To the great dismay of many, Godse, publicly revered by Hindutvans and the RSS is admired by Indians as never before. Despite having been banned in the past by the Indian state for avowed fascism and violence, Hindutva organizations doggedly fought for and advanced their mission of Hinduization; effectively capturing the state with the election of PM Narendra Modi.
It cannot be overstated that due to the one thousand year rule of Muslim dynasties over large swaths of India, the enrichment and synthesis of cultures and ideas, Hindutva has an in-built insecurity and hatred for Muslims and Islam. This hatred is a central feature of the Hindutva project. One can cite a voluminous encyclopedia rivaling Britannica regarding the pogroms, atrocities, hate speech, practices, legislation and everyday bigotry pursued by Hindutvadis (followers of Hindutva) against Indian Muslims. Below I will highlight some of the most recent examples though in the future a more thorough examination is necessary.
The BJP and Narendra Modi’s Regime
The BJP party is led by its cult-like leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a man once banned from entering the United States because as Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujrat he presided over the massacre and rape of thousands of Indian Muslims. In the past few years, ever since India’s economy has faltered he has turned to greater spectacles to gin up Hindu-Muslim hatred.
In the wake of a militant attack in Kashmir in February 2019 that killed Indian forces, Modi escalated tensions with neighbor Pakistan which was blamed for the attack. Modi directed the Indian army to violate Pakistani airspace, sending fighter jets to bomb alleged militant training centers. The prospect of war between two nuclear powers had the world on edge. The dangerous escalation was only averted after Pakistan shot down an Indian jet and returned its pilot.
This humiliating drawback against archrival Pakistan was marketed by a captured and acquiescent Indian media as a victory and proof of Modi’s strength during the 2019 elections which he won easily. In the aftermath of the elections Modi’s government continued its anti-Muslim policies. It stripped Indian occupied Kashmir (its only Muslim majority state) of its constitutional autonomy, divided it into two, jailed politicians, imposed a brutal curfew, halted internet access and restricted communications for months while also bolstering the military occupation of the state.
Today over 900,000 military and security personnel enforce India’s draconian writ on a seething and oppressed Kashmiri population. In Kashmir, India stands accused according to the UN and human rights organizations of endemic war crimes and human rights abuses. That is not all, the government has further plans to alter the demographic makeup of the state, inspired by Israel’s settler-colonialism in Palestine.
The Modi government’s next big anti-Muslim policy move was the introduction of the CAA and NRC bills. Bills whose intent was to strip tens of millions of Indian Muslims of their citizenship and then imprison those de-nationalized Muslims into concentration camps, many of which were already built for that purpose. Indeed, Modi’s right hand man, Amit Shah while advocating for the bills termed Muslims “termites.” Indian Muslims and their allies however were galvanized by this existential threat to their communities and protested in mass across the nation.
Anti-CAA protests were a first of their kind, a first attempt to hit back against the Modi-led BJP Hindutva project. Protests grew as did international attention. Undaunted, the Modi government responded with characteristic brutality. During former President Donald Trump’s visit to India in February 2020 (dubbed “Namaste Trump”), BJP apparatchiks, politicians and paramilitaries in connivance with Delhi police organized a pogrom targeting the city’s Muslims for the crime of protesting CAA and NRC. According to some estimates 53 mostly Muslims were killed, 250 injured and over 2,000 displaced with widescale looting and destruction of Muslim shops, homes and mosques.
These are only a few of the most grisly and spectacular displays of the fascist and genocidal heart of Hindutva. From Islamophobic myths of: Love Jihad (claim that Muslim men are seducing Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam), Corona Jihad (claim that Muslims were purposely infecting Hindus with Corona), to gau rikhsa (cow vigilante groups that beat and murder Muslims accused of killing cows, sacred for some Hindus), forced/solicited conversion of minorities to Hinduism through so-called garh wapasi (Home Return) schemes, India has become a hellscape of Hindutva. A state in which many of its citizens have abandoned the vision of its founders and freedom fighters.