By: John Elliott


India has been hit by waves of growing religious and social intolerance since Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was elected 18 months ago. This has flushed out some of the Hindu nationalist party’s most stridently anti-Muslim voices, and has also sharply increased liberal concern about where a Modi-led India is heading.

For the most part, Modi and his fellow ministers have done little to restrain the extremists though, facing the possibility of failing to win the state of Bihar’s current assembly elections, they have been trying to defuse a row over eating beef that has escalated into a national issue. 

“Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef,” said Manohar Lal Khattar, who was personally picked by Modi to be chief minister of the BJP-run state of Haryana adjacent to Delhi, last week in the latest of a series of such remarks. He later said he regretted his words, but then the Panchjanya weekly newspaper published by the RSS, the BJP’s ideology-driven parent organization, said that Vedic scriptures ordered the killing of “sinners” who slaughtered cows that are regarded as sacred by Hindus. The agriculture minister has described cow slaughter as a “mortal sin.”

President Breaks Ranks to Call for Restraint

So serious has this issue and other examples of prejudice and intolerance become – and so silent was Modi and his fellow ministers – that Pranab Mukherjee, the country’s president, has broken tradition by speaking forcefully on a current topic. He has twice called for restraint in recent days, expressing “apprehension about whether tolerance and acceptance of dissent are on the wane.”

The events have confirmed the worst fears of those who opposed Modi’s election last year. They have also damaged India’s image abroad, which has already been hit in the past two or three years by evidence of widespread rapes, caste-based repression and violence, and endemic corruption.

A 50-year-old Muslim farm laborer was killed on September 28 by a mob at Dari, a town in Uttar Pradesh 56 km from Delhi near the Noida satellite city, after the local Hindu temple broadcast a rumor that he had killed and eaten a cow. Two months earlier, three Muslim men were beaten to death in the same area for transporting cattle in a van.

Academic Shot Dead

At the end of August, M.M.Kalburgi, a 76-year old renowned Kannada writer and prominent academic in southern India, was shot dead, allegedly by right wing extremists who objected to his rationalist views on idol worship and Hindu ritual. 

The lack of official condemnation of this and other similar killings, and the failure of the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters), a government-funded but supposedly independent institution, to condemn the slaughter and commemorate the life of one of its awardees, has led to a stream of protests from other authors. This became linked with protests against the government’s inaction over the beef row, and numerous writers have demonstrated by returning awards given by the Akademi, which has increased national publicity over the issue.

Modi was slow to comment on the killings and the broader beef issue, and when he did speak on the Dadri death, he only said it was “saddening and unfortunate.” 

A prime minister might be expected to be more outspoken about such a crime, but it fitted with his approach to all controversial anti-Muslim events and extreme Hindu nationalist remarks since a government minister soured the government’s image and undermined the apparent supremacy of its economic agenda last November when she implied that non-Hindus (ie Muslims) were illegitimate.

BJP Routed in Delhi Assembly Polls

Two months later, in January this year, the BJP was unexpectedly routed in Delhi’s state assembly elections. Now it seems unlikely to achieve a clear win, and might even lose, in Bihar’s assembly polls, which are being seen both by the BJP and by opposition parties as a test of Modi’s political standing 18 months after his landslide general election victory.

It was noticeable earlier this month that, as reports that the BJP was doing badly began to emerge in the first phase of the Bihar polling, Modi and his colleagues presented a softer face, having earlier apparently believed that a strong Hindu nationalist approach would win them votes. Modi echoed the president’s words, and said that “Hindus should decide whether to fight Muslims or poverty. Muslims have to decide whether to fight Hindus or poverty”.

That goes to the heart of India’s current political divide between the aspirational young who voted BJP last year because they want Modi to lead the country into a new era of economic success, and the BJP’s traditional supporters (and many party leaders) who believe in Hindu nationalism. Modi seems to have a split personality on the issue as, probably, does Arun Jaitley, his finance minister and chief spokesman, whereas Amit Shah, Modi’s chief political strongman, is seen as a nationalist hardliner.