India cannot allow religious extremism to derail its progress
Kevin Rafferty says the government must come down hard on the rise of mob violence instigated by Hindu fanatics, or risk damage to the country’s social fabric and core values
An Indian friend told me this grim fairytale. In a village in north India, a young fox told his father he wanted to eat human flesh. Father fox gave him pork instead, but the youngster was not satisfied; his father offered beef, but this was not good enough. So, in the dead of night, crafty father fox took the pork and put it on the steps of the village mosque, and then dropped the beef inside the Hindu temple.
By morning, there were enough dead bodies in the village for the foxes to feast on human flesh for weeks.
So far, nothing quite so violent has happened in real India. But there are ominous danger signs. A few deaths have occurred, inspired by religious extremism. Several state governments have begun to dance to an extremist Hindu tune, particularly around protecting the cow, which Hindus regard as sacred.
Hindu thugs have become emboldened, including demanding that Christians and Muslims be forcibly sterilised, telling Christian churches to replace images of Christ and saints with Hindu idols. Last month, members of the Hindu extremist Shiv Sena party broke into the Mumbai headquarters of the Indian cricket board to prevent talks between the Indian and Pakistan cricket authorities.
These incidents potentially strike at the heart of India’s existence. It is beyond high time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to condemn Hindu extremism and to champion secular India as a world leader of civilised values.
Leading Indian intellectuals, scientists, writers and Bollywood stars have already protested: 40 writers gave back their awards; a group of eminent scientists protested against “the spread of communal hatred and polarisation”. India’s president, Pranab Mukherjee, also broke with the tradition that the president should be aloof from daily politics to express his worry that “tolerance and acceptance of dissent are on the wane”.
Modi unfortunately has remained aloof, suggesting that he tolerates the rising tide of extremism, some of whose proponents are loosely or firmly attached to the coattails of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In Haryana, adjoining Delhi, chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, hand-picked by the prime minister to be head of the BJP state government, declared that, “Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef”. He later claimed he regretted the words. But the weekly newspaper of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of Modi’s BJP, declared that Vedic scriptures said that people who killed cows were “sinners” who should themselves be killed.
In Maharashtra state, which includes India’s commercial capital Mumbai, Shiv Sena is in power in alliance with the BJP and has been using that power through laws and old-fashioned street muscle and intimidation. Besides preventing cricket talks, its activists forced the cancellation of a concert in Mumbai by a Pakistani singer and poured black paint over the organiser of a book launch by a former Pakistani foreign minister.
Rising intolerance has seen three writers who argued against blind religious faith, superstition and idol worship shot to death in recent months.
Another seminal event was the mob killing of a Muslim farm labourer in a village in Uttar Pradesh, some 50km from Delhi, after rumours spread that the Muslim family had killed a cow and eaten its meat. Modi took nearly two weeks to respond and then claimed the lynching was “sad” and “not desirable”.
But it is typical of Modi’s problem: he is proving a wonderful salesman for an India open to the world, but hasn’t a clue of the practical things needed to deliver.
India is a tinderbox if anyone starts playing with religious fire. Although almost 80 per cent of Indians profess to being Hindu, the country has more than 170 million Muslims; almost 28 million Christians; 21 million Sikhs and 8.5 million Buddhists.
Pushing a militant Hindu exclusiveness would destroy India’s economic progress. Mukherjee is right in asserting the need to protect India’s core “civilisational values of diversity, tolerance and plurality”. Without them, India risks falling apart in bloodshed. If Modi wants India to be a global leader, he must show leadership.
Kevin Rafferty was executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group