In Upcoming Indian Election, the Legacy of Religious Violence Looms

By Ilan Greenberg | February 11, 2014

(Getty/Dibyangshu Sarkar)

(Getty/Dibyangshu Sarkar)

On an overcast afternoon last November, Narendra Modi, the provocative and polarizing prime minister candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, descended by helicopter to exhort his throng of supporters at the Palace Grounds in Bangalore, the southern Indian city known for its international call centers and technology companies.

The BJP, champion of “Hindu nationalism,” had begun charging people a nominal ticket price to hear Modi speak, an unusual decision in retail politics anywhere, but especially in India where people expect political parties to offer incentives to vote their way, not charge them money to cheer on their candidate. But Modi is a bankable superstar and the BJP argues that the price of admission is a symbol of its supporters’ fierce commitment to its candidate.

Modi is in his thirteenth year as the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, where he likes to tout that he has overseen impressive, investor-friendly economic growth. He is credited with successfully orchestrating an export-fueled economy that has, in some significant ways, sidelined the crushing regulatory regime and corrupt practices burdening so much of the rest of India. In a year of terrible economic news—a dire currency devaluation crisis, rising fuel costs, panicked gold buying— Modi’s platform of bureaucratic reform and economic growth has electoral legs.

Critics are quick to counter: numerous Indian states achieved sustained high economic growth during the country’s transformative 2000s, and Gujarat was enjoying a healthy economy for years when Modi took office. Modi’s laggard record on social development and his history of usurping policy decisions from other government bodies have opponents declaring him an authoritarian-leaning chief executive unable or unwilling to cope with coalition-building and forging compromise with political adversaries—or even with allies. They warn that Modi’s tenure in Gujarat has been marked by a deepening marginalization of lower castes, cultural policing, and a default scapegoating of religious minorities.  While a Modi slogan, “less government, more governance,” resonates with an electorate exhausted by the impositions of a smothering government bureaucracy, his opposition charges that it masks a cold right-wing ideology justifying a blithe disregard for India’s poor.

But by far the most divisive issue haunting Modi is sectarian. A few months after Modi took office, Gujarat descended into days of unrestrained mass murder, brutal rapes, and widespread looting. Violence first erupted when a Muslim mob attacked a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning to Gujarat from Ayodhya, a disputed holy site where a mosque and Hindu temple have stood; the train caught fire and fifty-nine train travelers were burned to death. The next morning, incensed mobs, many wearing the signature uniform of Hindu nationalist organizations, launched a three-day killing spree in cities across Gujarat. More than a thousand people, the majority of them Muslims, were slaughtered on the streets; many were burned alive, and sporadic violence in Gujarat continued for months.

Gujarat has a history of violence rooted in religious difference and India has struggled with sectarian clashes between numerous faiths—in the 1970s and 80s the country was roiled by Sikh separatism. But the 2002 Gujarat violence haunts Modi because of credible allegations that his administration actually orchestrated the attacks. While an Indian Supreme Court-appointed special investigative team in 2012 concluded Modi was not responsible for the riots, numerous independent organizations have identified senior government officials and the state police force as active participants in the violence. A Human Rights Watch investigation determined that “the Gujarat state administration has been engaged in a massive cover-up of the state’s role in the massacres.”

Modi’s current views on his state’s Muslim minority, and to what degree he has personal culpability for the 2002 Gujarat riots, have become central narratives in the campaign. In January, the sitting prime minister, who had avoided directly addressing Modi’s responsibility, declared Modi unfit to succeed him in office after “presid(ing) over mass massacre of innocents on the streets.” But in a campaign couched in gesture and coded rhetoric, how Modi’s past actions inform his future intentions are difficult to predict, according to Arafaat Valiani, assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon and the author of Militant Publics in India, which examines Hindu nationalism in Gujarat. “At first the BJP would include a Muslim leader as a member of the party, particularly at press conferences, particularly in 2002, when there was a spotlight shining on the administration from the violence that year,” Valiani said. “Now it’s more complex. It appears that Modi may have cultivated some supporters within the community and members of the community may themselves be drawn toward him. Their reasons are hard to pin down but they are probably multiple. Some may include Muslim brokers wanting to move on from the polarizing critique of Modi, which stigmatizes Muslims, but also there are those seeking to ‘pick a winner,’ by which I mean be supportive of a political figure who seems set to gain more political authority, access to resources.”

In the initial months after he declared his candidacy, Modi stoked fears among his critics by refusing to speak on the 2002 riots occurring on his watch, only to give an interview to Reuters in July where he likened the Muslims massacred in the riots to puppies killed under the wheels of a car. In speeches, he frequently declares his resolve to end “appeasement” toward religious minorities. It’s widely believed a Modi government will try to ban cow slaughtering—not only a blow to Muslim livelihoods but also an imposition of Hindu dietary restrictions on many non-Hindus, intended as an act of aggression against their civil rights.

Religious freedom is an important part of American foreign policy, and a Modi win would present uniquely thorny challenges on the issue, with the potential to disrupt the bilateral relationship in ways unwelcome by both sides. American disapproval of Modi will be difficult to deny: the State Department has declined to issue Modi a U.S. visa since 2005. Last October, The New York Times ran a strongly worded editorial labeling Modi an inappropriate candidate to head the world’s largest democracy, one who “inspires fear and antipathy among many of [India’s] own people.”

Modi’s unlikely political ascent—he started out as a teenage teahouse waiter—began in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Known as the RSS, the all-male volunteer paramilitary organization is deeply connected to the BJP party and its members are Modi’s electoral foot soldiers. The RSS earns goodwill assisting in the open during natural disasters but is significantly less transparent as a political actor, pushing to impose Hindu culture on everyone, including the country’s 176 million Muslims and its many other religious minorities. The RSS has been documented participating in and at times instigating India’s periodic eruptions of sectarian violence and of being a generally coercive presence in Indian communities (a former RSS member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948). The organization doesn’t so much have a governing platform as a culture-dominating agenda, although this might be a muddled distinction.

In the ocean of supporters at Modi’s rally in Bangalore, it was tempting to draw conclusions from the optics: a sea of mostly men, mostly wearing traditional village clothing, mostly sporting tilaks or other visual signs of Hindu observance. Smack in the middle of a city of corporate strivers, not a person looked like an engineer or any other member of Bangalore’s middle class.

But Modi does draw huge and growing numbers precisely from India’s professionals: the engineers and computer programmers, managers and merchants packing its 300-million-strong middle classes. “I think Modi’s involvement in what happened in Gujarat isn’t clear and the alternative is more of Congress”—referring to the ruling Indian National Congress party—“which is going to result in disaster and stagnation,” was how a policy analyst with an American Ph.D. dining in a Texas-themed steakhouse in Bangalore put it, echoing a common view among Bangalore’s educated, younger adults on April’s election choice. He also pointed to the Congress party’s own cloudy history of sectarian violence. It is India’s aspirational urban middle classes who are perhaps most angered by what they perceive as the Congress party’s responsibility for endemic corruption, financial mismanagement, and nurturing a bureaucratic state.

Modi has been successful at trumpeting an agenda of economic development—which his supporters can tout without embarrassment—while telegraphing his solidarity with the concerns of Hindu nationalism, which many of his supporters may also support but are more reticent to defend publicly, said Valiani. “Many of his potential supporters are in basic agreement with several, if not all, of these main precepts of Hindu nationalism. Keep in mind though this doesn’t mean that this important constituency supports violence against Indian minorities. That’s more complex even if members of this group embrace a form of nationalism that is rather shot through with xenophobia.”

The current Indian National Congress prime minister, the dulcet-voiced Manmohan Singh, was the financial architect of the country’s 1991 liberalization policies that spurred two decades of rapid economic development. But the party itself is dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, in power for most of India’s history since independence from Great Britain in 1947. It is now headed by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian prime minister who was assassinated in 1991. Rajiv Gandhi had succeeded his mother, Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984 by her own Sikh bodyguards. Indira Gandhi’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India’s iconic first prime minister. His great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, is currently vice president of the Congress Party, as well as Modi’s chief rhetorical challenger. He was thought to be a possible rival for Modi in the election; however, last month, it was announced that Gandhi would not be a nominee for prime minister, though he will lead his party’s election campaign.

Until then, the potential horse race between a Gandhi family scion and the charismatic Modi had largely dominated the country’s election coverage. But Indian politics are rarely two-person contests. Regional parties can play the role of spoiler or kingmaker, and a lot of the political analysis in Indian media is devoted to whether it’s even electorally possible for Modi’s BJP party to win enough votes to form a coalition government.

It is in garnering alliances with regional parties where religion—and perceptions of Modi’s animus toward Muslims— becomes most salient. Religion is part of a mosaic of identities in India, where caste, geography, age, and local politics are all important factors in how a person votes. “To say religion does not help define your election choices would be wrong,” said Sandeep Shastri, the pro vice chancellor at Jain University. “It’s a factor, but not the factor. I think it’s beyond doubt that for a voter, who you are is as important as what you believe. Socially culturally, and politically, who you are is what contextualizes you.”

Shastri oversees the Lokniti Network, which since 1996 has conducted extensive political polling and is generally acknowledged as the country’s most credible academic organization for studying elections. Shastri’s polls indicate that where stratified religious voting blocks may play a decisive electoral role is in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), a highly populous northern state that has a history of tipping the balance in tight national elections. UP is about 18 percent Muslim and a state where thousands of Muslims have been displaced or killed in sectarian violence. Modi, said Shastri, will need to find alliances with regional political parties capable of attracting large percentages of the Muslim vote.

Although alliances have never been Modi’s strong point, Muslim leaders say that if Modi is elected, they will have to put their faith in the pillowing effects of coalition politics. In a café-side interview in downtown Bangalore, Mohamed Samiulla, general secretary of the Karnataka Federation of Muslims Association, said, “Our only fear is if BJP comes to power without a coalition. If they are less than two-thirds of a majority we don’t have any fears. But if they do get in by themselves, they may change the constitution.” 

While refusing to distance himself—or apologize for—the 2002 Gujarat riots, Modi has been steadfast in trying to change the subject to his preferred image as a fiercely secular candidate—albeit one firmly rooted in the cultural tenets of Hindu nationalism. He presents his platform as singularly devoted to an agenda of economic growth and development. “Toilets not temples” is another of his slogans.

“They don’t say vote for him because he’s Hindu,” Shastri said. “The posters—I see them everywhere—don’t talk about religion. They talk about needing a strong leader, a focused leader. We don’t want grift anymore. In face-to-face dialogue, that issue of religion comes. But in the public posturing, it’s about strength from the top.”

Muslims in India are more than 14 percent of the population, but many feel taken for granted by the Congress party as much as under attack from the BJP, although in parts of the country the BJP is able to attract 8 or 9 percent of their vote. In Karnataka, where the BJP was in charge of the government for several years, religious minorities are deeply alienated from Modi’s attempts to say he will bring prosperity for everyone. “After sixty years of independence we are supposed to be a developed community but we are very, very poor,” Samiulla, of the Karnataka Muslim Association, said. “We were better placed when the British were ruling. Neither Congress nor the BJP are friends of Muslims—Congress uses Muslims as vote banks. There is no upliftment. BJP uses the word appeasement.” Samiulla would rather the ruling government focus on education funding, especially for Muslim girls.  

When I met with the Very Rev. Monsignor C. Francis, the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Bangalore, he sharply rebuked Modi and the BJP party. “When the BJP came to power in Karnataka there were immediate attacks on the Church,” he said from behind his desk in his office. “Minorities were in fear, most especially Christians. We went to sing hymns during Christmas time, the police told us not to do it. Any Christian symbol on the calendar was not allowed. We’re not allowed our own books for our schools, only textbooks from the government.”

According to Francis, the BJP-controlled state government allowed police to foment a physical attack on Catholic nuns in the coastal city of Mangalore, then refused to investigate. He continued: “If the BJP comes to power, the so-called fundamentalists will come up along side them. They’ll institute their programs. They’ll make our life tough. Not allow us to open schools, give us an anti-slaughter bill, an anti-conversion bill; these are what they propose. If we want to build churches, they won’t allow it.”

For the United States, India is an important actor in the future of Afghanistan and the stability of Pakistan. And the U.S. and India are becoming only more tethered because of surging business and educational links (more than a million Indians are enrolled in American educational institutions); a growing Indian immigrant population in the U.S. (the Indian diaspora in the U.S. is more than 3 million; in New Jersey, the majority of the state’s large Indian population comes from Modi’s home state of Gujarat); and the heavy involvement of Indian-American organizations in promoting their political agendas in India.

Among many noted Indian intellectuals, Modi becoming prime minister is unthinkable. The celebrated 80-year-old Indian writer U.R. Ananthamurthy announced he would leave the country if Modi is elected prime minister. The Kolkata-born author Amitav Ghosh declared that Modi’s “politics of Hindu nationalism is destroying Hindu religion.” But a feeling also seems current among some of India’s intelligentsia that Indian politics is congenitally restrained: responsive to multiple constituencies, sensitive to coalition pressures, guarded by muscular checks and balances like the judiciary and powerful state governments, protected by a history of democratic participation, and hemmed in by change-averse bureaucrats who really run the show. 

When our talk turned to politics one recent morning, the culture and film critic N.S. Sridhar Murthy told me, “My sense is that the compulsions of power will take over. You can’t run the country as a Hindu country. The police and state are in disarray. The military is completely demoralized. The BJP miscreants are dangerous blokes and [Modi’s] philosophy may be fascist, but there is no mechanism for that kind of authoritarianism. You can’t enforce traffic lights here. You think fascism is so easy?”

Yet as the rally in Bangalore ended and BJP supporters streamed into the streets, an Indian journalist pointed to a group of men with children jubilantly waving flags. “These people are in such good spirits,” he said. “It’s like they know they’ve picked a winner.”

Ilan Greenberg is a journalist and a professor at the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program. Last fall he was a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India.

© 2011 Religion & Politics