Modi’s India Is Racing to a Point of No Return
Indian culture may be ancient, but its unity is rare and recent. A growing hostility to Muslims threatens to upend the world’s largest democracy.
The sectarian carnage that ravaged Delhi for three days last week did not erupt in a void. It flared out of a relentless campaign to draw blood.
The Indian capital looked besieged long before a stone was hurled or a house torched. Since last December, Delhi has been the center of a national uprising to reclaim the country from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-first politics. The demonstrations emerged as a response to the government’s amendment of existing legislation to grant expedited citizenship to religious minorities from three neighboring countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan—where Islam is the state religion. The exclusion of Muslims from the law’s purview introduced by stealth a religious test of citizenship in a constitutionally secular republic, even though the law does not on its own threaten the citizenship of Indians.
But what really lit the fuse under accumulating fears and resentments were the pledges by Amit Shah—India’s home minister and Modi’s closest confidant—to compile a National Register of Citizens (NRC) that could compel all inhabitants of the country to furnish documentary evidence of their nationality. If and when the NRC is activated, those unable to be entered into it can—so long as they are Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, or Zoroastrians who arrived in the country before 2015—evade the detention camps currently under construction by invoking the amended citizenship law to apply for formal citizenship. Only Muslims, the sole major Indian religious community omitted from the citizenship law, would be faced with the ordeal of internment and statelessness for failing to produce the paperwork necessary for inclusion in the NRC.
In the countrywide protests provoked by Modi and Shah, a small sit-in by burqa-clad women in a Muslim neighborhood of Delhi ornamented with Indian flags and portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and Bhimrao Ambedkar, the chief drafter of India’s constitution, became the nucleus of the most sustained interfaith challenge to their authority. But the government did not dismantle the protest site, because its presence was seen to be as working to the government’s advantage. Campaigning for local elections last month in Delhi, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attempted to mobilize voters by casting dissenters as traitors. One fevered December evening in the run-up to the vote, the Delhi police, which reports directly to Shah, stormed the library of Jamia Millia Islamia—a university co-founded by Zakir Husain, a Muslim freedom fighter who rose to become the third president of independent India—and beat up student protesters sheltering there. Another afternoon, a minister in Modi’s government whipped up a rally with a grisly chant that culminated in “shoot the traitors.”
The BJP lost the election. But Delhi was about to be reduced to a powder keg. The match was tossed by a recently defeated BJP politician who vowed, in the presence of a police officer, to clear out peaceful Muslim protesters massed in northeast Delhi the evening before U.S. President Donald Trump landed in India for a whirlwind 36-hour state visit. Nobody knows who flung the first stone. But blood began spilling that night. And over the next three days, outlying areas of India’s capital collapsed under the worst Muslim-Hindu violence in decades as mobs rampaged through mixed neighborhoods, torching houses, vandalizing places of worship, lobbing Molotov cocktails into homes, and slaughtering people for belonging to the wrong religion.
The number of dead currently stands at 48. But the savagery was by no means symmetrical. Muslims, in a city where they constitute a tiny minority, outnumber Hindu fatalities by three to one. There were courageous exceptions, but there is footage showing uniformed agents of the state openly abetting Hindus against Muslims. In one neighborhood, an elderly Muslim woman choked to death when her house was set on fire. In another, a Muslim man was burned alive in front of his family. The Hindu dead—one stabbed to death hundreds of times and dumped in a drain—are now paraded as exhibits in a propaganda campaign by the prime minister’s ideological fellow travelers that seeks to paint the slaughter as a jihad hatched by seditious Muslims and their secular conspirators.
But what happened in Delhi was the preamble to a full-blown pogrom of Muslims. And more than human lives were lost in it: Trust built up over decades between communities also went up in smoke. The detritus will be cleared and the houses rebuilt, but many who until recently had lived cheek by jowl will for generations regard each other with hostility and suspicion. For ordinary people, this is the upshot of the schismatic politics purveyed by India’s current rulers.
Although Modi has personally eschewed explicitly divisive rhetoric since being lofted into the prime minister’s office, surrogates in his party adopting poisonous speeches as the route to instant political glory are only following in the footsteps of their leader. Back in 2007, when he was still persona non grata in much of the world for presiding over the slaughter of nearly a thousand Muslims in 2002 as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi roused a crowd of wealthy Hindu voters by ridiculing liberal protests against the extrajudicial execution of a Muslim prisoner on his watch. “If AK-57 [sic] rifles are found at the residence of a person,” he told the crowd, “you tell me what I should do: should I not kill them?” The audience yelled back in unison: “Kill them! Kill them!”
As he plotted his ascent to national power, Modi’s reputation was deodorized by India’s biggest tycoons, who, in return for expedited clearances for their projects, anointed him the savior of the country. Modi’s reign as prime minister is a reprise, on a larger scale, of his rule as chief minister of Gujarat. Instead of development, there is only the mirage of development. The so-called smart cities he conjured up in his speeches are nowhere to be seen, and the man who hypnotized young voters in 2014 with the promise to create 10 million jobs now oversees the worst unemployment crisis in 45 years. Independent institutions—from the media to the courts—have been subverted. India now has a surfeit of jobless young men permanently on edge, a state machinery that is imploding under the authoritarian weight of the prime minister, and a craven judiciary that refuses to rein him in.
Yet if Modi remains the most popular leader in India, it is because he has stoked and weaponized Hindu rage. Survey the past, for a moment, from the perspective of newly politically conscious Hindus. Their land is repeatedly invaded for centuries. Their liturgical heritage is methodically razed. And their sacred geography is ultimately amputated to accommodate the demands of Muslim nationalism in the form of Pakistan—a state where Hindus, like all other minorities, have been accorded the status of second-tier citizens in law and are often forcibly converted to Islam. These grievances cannot be brushed aside, or censored, or dismissed with scholarly putdowns that deny the historical memory and experience of a people. History demands resolution. Yet that resolution cannot come from fights on the streets, and a wound that clamors for the blood of fellow citizens to heal itself deserves to be cauterized, not nursed. India cannot survive if it degenerates into a platform for the periodic airing of homicidal Hindu self-pity.
India, of course, has endured other episodes of communal bloodletting in its history. For much of the 1980s, a government led by the nominally secular Indian National Congress party brutalized Sikhs in Punjab. Today, Punjab is ruled by a Congress government headed by a Sikh chief minister. India has a tremendous gift for recovery. But this quality is often mistaken for a limitless capacity to absorb horrors. Muslims are not Sikhs, who make up just 2 percent of the Indian population: There are 200 million Muslims in India.
Their answer to repeated humiliation and slurs has been to drape themselves in the national flag and pledge renewed allegiance to the constitution of India. But barbarity, as recent events show, appears to be their reward for discarding religious idiom and demanding the equality and dignity promised in the constitution. The videos currently circulating on Hindu groups on WhatsApp—the most potent disseminator of vicious misinformation—depict them as marauding aliens. A substantial segment of Hindus have been conditioned to genuinely believe that they are the victims and Muslims the perpetrators of the atrocities in Delhi. The ability to distinguish between the provocations of Pakistan and the democratic demands of Indian Muslims—descendants of people who actually rejected Pakistan and remained in India at great personal risk—is now lost on a large section of the Hindu community. Muslim families, meanwhile, are fleeing their homes in the charred slums of Delhi to other parts of the country.
Some observers have been moved by the violence to suggest that India is reliving the history of Germany under the Nazis. The lesson that is more applicable is the experience of Yugoslavia in the late 1980s. The collapse of the old guard in that diverse federation—often described by Indira Gandhi, the most powerful Indian prime minister before Modi, as the nation that most resembled India in the world—gave rise to a demagogue who sought to attain and tighten his grip on the country by exploiting the sense of historical injury harbored by one ethno-religious community against others. Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic proclaimed the cancellation of the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina as the beginning of a phase of greatness in his nation’s journey. But Serbian nationalism destroyed Yugoslavia. Indians tend to believe that their unity is divinely ordained. This is a self-defeating myth. India’s culture is ancient. But its unity is rare and recent. The inclusive Indian nationalism crafted by the republic’s secular founders succeeded because it recognized a fundamental truth: that human beings are repositories of multiple identities. The attraction of Indian identity has always been that it allows an individual to be many things at the same time. Modi, forged in an ideology that seeks to boil people down to one identity, is scattering the seeds of disunion in the world’s most diverse democratic union. The threads that bind India are not nearly as formidable as many believe them to be, and they cannot forever bear the burdens of bigotry imposed upon them. India is racing to a point of no return. The obligation to rescue it falls to all patriotic citizens—no matter their faith.