Hinduism Is Now an Active Threat to India's Minorities
Instead of purging its demons, it is yielding to them
Wikipedia. Creative Commons. Photo Credit: Biswarup Ganguly. Ram Navami rallies in Howrah, West Bengal.
The great Hindu epic, Ramacharitramanas, (a 16th Century reworking of the 5th BC Ramayan) is a literary and moral classic that recounts how the forces of goodness and righteousness — represented by Lord Ram — defeated the forces of evil — represented by demon King Ravana. Its 1,000-plus pages, all written in brilliant verse, follow Lord Ram as he negotiates many daunting challenges that life throws his way with dignity, courage and integrity. The book is a masterpiece of moral reasoning, a nuanced dissection of human dilemmas. Its lessons are supposed to constitute the ethical code of living for Hindus.
But there is one moment of singular poignancy in the book when Hanuman, the divine monkey who is the constant and devoted companion of Lord Ram, sneaks into the gardened compound where Ravana is holding Lord Ram’s wife, Sita, after abducting her. Until then, the story seems to be hurtling towards disaster: Ram is distraught when he finds Sita gone, unsure what he should do.
On reaching the compound, Hanuman drops Lord Ram’s ring from a tree at Sita’s feet to alert her to his presence. Then he slides up to her and whispers in her ears words of reassurance. At that point, readers regain confidence that all will be well with the world, the proper moral order would be restored. A fierce war between Lord Ram and Ravana, a near invincible man who can only be killed by a very precise aim at his navel where his life-force resides, is yet to come. Sita experiences contradictory emotions: She feels supreme joy when she recognizes the ring but also fears what lies ahead. At that moment, Tulsidas, the author, India’s Homer, penned these beautiful words — “madhur vachana bole Hanumana.” Crudely translated that means “Hanuman’s words were sweet like honey.” No matter how many times you read the epic, this line always stops you in your tracks. Its power is not just the simple poetry but the magical calm it produces, an almost irresistible effect that, for a moment at least, bathes you in gentle reassurance. That moment offers deliverance from any worry that evil might prevail.
It is a measure of the perversion of today’s India that Ram and Hanuman have now become tropes to prepare the ideological ground work for violence against Muslims and other minority faiths.
India just finished celebrating Ram Navami and Hanumana Jayanti — the birthdays of Lord Ram and Hanuman, respectively, that fall within days of each other. They are major Hindu festivals celebrated all over India. But for the past several years, they have been marred by escalating anti-Muslim violence.
Militant Hindu groups, sometimes led by political figures allied to the ruling party, have taken upon themselves to lead massive and noisy processions through Muslim neighborhoods, often at dusk just when Muslims themselves are breaking their own evening fast for Ramadan, their main festival which happens to coincide with these Hindu observances. It is an act of provocation, a show of force often accompanied with taunts about building temples in the place of mosques. One chant goes: “Jo Ram ka naam na le usko, Bharat se bhagana hain.” (“Those who don’t chant Lord Ram’s name, need to be run out of India.”) Even a minor response by a Muslim — such as taking photographs — can become a pretext for massive retaliation.
The Hindu narrative that justifies these reprisals goes something like this: “We Hindus were celebrating our festivals. We were asserting our right. We got pelted by stones or worse. The minorities are responsible for this. It shows Hindus are not safe. Nor do they have space in their own country. We need to get rid of them.” It’s an old playbook designed to feed the most contrived sense of Hindu victimhood.
What should give us nightmares is how widespread this narrative has become. This kind of violence and intimidation was previously deployed in an instrumental fashion — to intimidate Muslims from going to the polls, for example. So it would pass with election cycles. Now it is no longer episodic. Nor is it local in nature. It has gone national. This year, at least seven states witnessed lynchings of Muslims, including Goa, the country’s most cosmopolitan, tolerant place whose gorgeous beaches, music, night clubs and food have made it a major attraction for tourists from all over the world.
The orgies of hate and prejudice are no longer aberrations. They are now the norm. They are the norm because the highest levels of political authority, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, remain silent or dog whistle or publicly condone them. They are the norm because elites openly spout this justification without shame. They are the norm because anti-Muslim bigotry has almost become a necessary condition for political advancement; the default common sense of civil society.
But what is even more eerie is this: Think of what might happen to a society whose dominant religious sensibility literally inverts everything of value. Religion has often been misused and put to grossly perverse and violent uses. But there has been no other occasion in the history of modern Hinduism where everything sacred has become ominous, forms of worship have become fearsome, hymns and sacred texts weapons, acts of public piety menacing, a sense of community murderous, and any talk of decency or civilization constraining. That is the fearsome image the organized mobs that masquerade as religious processions now evoke.
Let us be very clear: This new form of Hinduism that is unfolding is not an expression of genuine pride and piety. It is a raw assertion of power and violence to intimidate minorities. It is meant to elicit a reaction that is then used as a pretext to depict Muslims as a threat as such. It is the key manufactured fact they employ to sustain their insidious lie that Hinduism will not be safe unless minorities are put in their place — if not erased altogether. The mission of the aggressive processions is to sustain the lie that this perversion of modern Hinduism, now supported by state power, is entirely reactive; a long overdue reply to the Muslim “invaders” who ruled Hindus centuries ago and whose progeny now have the temerity to demand special favors. The only proper response to this is violence and cruelty.
Writing about anti-Muslim bigotry and sectarianism in India has become a futile exercise. To whom is it addressed? Certainly not the state whose ideological practices and power fuel the crisis in the first place. Not civil society; there is not much “civil” society left. Not religious groups because to these votaries of the new Hinduism, the only discourse that matters is one of revenge.
To Muslims, what reassurance can we Indians now give that the asymmetry of numbers, state power and ideological zeal will not be used in a project of cultural erasure? Those who claim to be secular are bulldozed by the false accusation that secularism is minority appeasement. No one is left in the camp that used to speak the language of human dignity. The opposition parties have no courage in their convictions or a grammar of politics that can combat this raw assertion of majoritarianism.
There is a comforting fallacy out there that somehow a pragmatic, instrumental logic will at some point assert itself over the politics of Hindutva: inflation and unemployment will force it to abandon its religious war. But this sectarianism is not necessarily rooted in material conditions. The fact that hordes of young men are seeking vindication and self-esteem through a public display of collective narcissism and violence suggests that this bigotry is now so deep that the language of fanaticism has become the main way to express social discontent.
Almost all the preconditions for widespread pogrom-type violence are now in place. One fears that India has now reached a point where the question is no longer “if” but “when.” How else could one describe the widespread acceptance of vile prejudice, the dismantling of any semblance of conscience, the alignment of the state with majoritarian power, the complete effacement of the individual by imposed group identification, the self-justification of the majority that cloaks itself in victimhood, the total contempt for rights, the glorification of violence, the constant search for the slightest pretext for revenge, and the radical othering of minorities?
Even Hanuman Jayanti no longer serves as an occasion to deliver us from evil — instead we are hurtling, headlong, into it, eyes wide open.
A version of this column originally appeared in The Indian Express.
Well this is bad news.
BJP politics could lead to India ending up as Balkans/Yugoslavia during 1990s = hate, destruction, killings, genocide, collapse, poverty, etc