The South Asia Channel
Modi’s Silence: Bad for India, Bad for the Region!
The recent wave of religious violence in India and the resulting communal tensions present a worrying trend not only for India, but for South Asia more broadly.
The recent wave of religious violence in India and the resulting communal tensions present a worrying trend not only for India, but for South Asia more broadly. In recent months, Indian Muslims and low caste Hindus in particular have been the targets of multiple attacks by Hindu extremists for perceived religious transgressions. The Hindu nationalist group Shiv Sena has held protests to shut down book launch events and music concerts, that posed a challenge to their extremist ideology. Far from a fringe element, right-wing Hindu nationalist groups like Shiv Sena, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad appear to be gaining traction in mainstream Indian politics. Left to continue, this trend not only threatens India’s plans for economic growth and global influence, it poses a much more immediate threat to regional peace as it reinforces dangerous Islamist narratives in Pakistan and Bangladesh that posit an inherent conflict between Hindus and Muslims, and sidelines progressive voices in those countries. Left unchecked, this new wave of Hindu nationalism in India could spark a self-reinforcing cycle of instability in the region.
Indian writers and intellectuals have recently been returning prestigious awards in protest of what they are calling a “climate of intolerance.” Among the incidents they cite is the killing of a 77 year old former vice chancellor of Karnatak University, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, whose criticism of idol worship and superstition angered right-wing Hindu groups such as the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Sri Rama Sene. In September, a 50-year old Muslim man in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh was lynched by an angry mob suspected of slaughtering a cow (considered sacred by Hindus) and consuming beef. His son was also beaten and remains in critical condition.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been strongly criticized for remaining silent in the face of this growing number of religiously motivated attacks. Last month, Modi finally spoke out about this wave of intolerance, but his remarks were tepid at best, calling the lynching of a Muslim man for eating beef “unfortunate.” Modi’s lackluster response to terrorism cloaked in religious terms, draws many parallels to his time as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, which witnessed the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in the state, claiming the lives of over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Then, as now, Modi’s silence is troubling.
Some have tried to paint Modi’s governing party, BJP, losing in the most recent elections in one of India’s most populous states, Bihar, as a popular repudiation of religious extremism. However, there is reason to believe that this is based more in wishful thinking than political reality.
Shortly before the BJP suffered defeat to a coalition challenge in Bihar, they were also defeated at the Kalyan-Dombivali civic polls by Shiv Sena, the far-right Hindu nationalist party that was behind the October attack against the head of an Indian think tank which hosted a book event for former Pakistani Foreign Minister Kasuri. Shiv Sena’s sensational “ink attack” was quickly seized upon in Pakistan, where the foreign ministry claimed the group represented “Indian ambitions” in the region. Shiv Sena responded with glee, saying that “Pakistan’s appeal from the international community against Shiv Sena is a stamp on our pure nationalism.” As each side hardens, hopes for regional peace begin to fade.
By contrast, the Prime Ministers of Pakistan and Bangladesh have given much more outspoken responses to extremist violence in their countries. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, recently declared that he would defend any religious minority, especially those victimized by his country’s Muslim majority. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, recently gave similar assurances to religious minorities in her country while attending an event for Duga Puja, the largest Hindu festival in Bangladesh.
Shortly after being elected Pakistan’s prime minister in 2013, Nawaz Sharif spoke hopefully about his desire to pursue better relations with India. Riding high on strong public support, it briefly looked like Nawaz might be able to pull off something that had eluded his predecessor: boosting bilateral trade by extending the Most-Favored Nation status to India. Hopes were quickly dashed, though, as nationalist elements on both sides worked behind the scenes to derail any deal. Since then, Pakistan-India relations have fallen to dangerous lows, exacerbated in part by Pakistan’s refusal to prosecute jihadi militants from Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa that are believed to be involved in terrorist attacks in India; but also by Hindu extremists in India whose actions have fueled Pakistani fears about Indian designs on regional hegemony. In a candid speech at the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad think-tank, former Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid lamented that while it was far-sighted of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend the oath-taking ceremony of Prime Minister Modi, Modi’s BJP-led government failed to seize on these overtures and pursue a path to peace. Khurshid alleged Modi was still learning to be a statesman, and these challenges to India’s secular ethos were deeply concerning and require real leadership.
Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh has been more successful in building closer ties with India, but it too finds itself under attack by Islamists whose attempts to discredit the government regularly include accusations that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party are Indian puppets. Opposition parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami, have a history of undermining governments through allegations of collusion with the Indians. More concerning, however, is the use of anti-Indianism by terrorist groups such as al-Qa’ida whose literature includes a lengthy call to action for jihad against the government of Bangladesh, accusing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her secular Awami League party of trying to “eliminate every trace of Islam” and turning Bangladesh into “an Indian outpost,” thus further calling on local Muslims to “organize ourselves for a popular and inclusive intifada” to replace the secular democratic government with an Islamist theocracy. Similar rhetoric has also been used by Jamaat-e-Islami, whose Pakistani leader recently accused Shiekh Hasina of “victimizing all those resisting Indian influence in Bangladesh.”
Modi’s failure to quickly and forcefully condemn Hindu extremism is creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity for the nation’s religious minorities. It is also empowering Islamist extremists by reinforcing their anti-Indian rhetoric, adding to regional instability. As India is poised to have the largest population of Muslims of any country in the world by 2020, religious extremism presents an imminent threat not only to India’s internal stability, but to that of its neighbors. It’s time for Modi to take a bold stand for religious tolerance and communal harmony. By doing so, he can demonstrate the leadership so desperately needed for repudiating divisiveness within his own borders, and working to stabilize the region.
(Photo by Rana Sajid Hussain/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Sana Ali is Islamabad Editor of The Daily Times, a leading Pakistani newspaper, and a contributing South Asian security expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.