On Thursday, India will announce election results that could put the country’s 200 million Muslims in danger. Over the last five and a half weeks, more than 500 million Indians voted in an election that will determine whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party will return to power. If exit polls are to be believed, Modi and the BJP seem set to win a terrifying mandate.
One candidate for Parliament in particular illustrates the growing extremism of the BJP. In Bhopal, a city of 1.8 million people, Modi personally endorsed Pragya Singh Thakur, who is out on bail after almost nine years in jail for alleged involvement in a terrorist bombing that killed six Muslims.
She denies having anything to do with the 2008 attacks, but says a curse she placed on the investigating police officer resulted in his murder.
Thakur’s main election plank appears to be revenge against Indian Muslims for 400-year-old humiliations. At her campaign launch, she boasted that 27 years ago she helped demolish a 16th-century mosque in northern India: “I climbed atop the structure and broke it, and I feel extremely proud that God gave me this opportunity.”
Thakur, like Modi, is a proponent of a far-right militant ideology called Hindutva, which was invented in the 1920s by an all-male vigilante group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Its founders corresponded with Adolf Hitler and met with Benito Mussolini in 1929 to model their party along fascist lines. A member of the group assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.
On the campaign trail, Thakur said Gandhi’s assassin “was a patriot, is a patriot, and will remain a patriot.” While the remark provoked outrage even among the BJP members, many Indians memed and messaged on social media endorsing Thakur’s stand. Praising Gandhi’s killer may have been a step too far for the party, but if the BJP wins big, it will not be because they shied away from Hindu nationalism.
By nominating an alleged terrorist as a lawmaker, Modi has made his party’s agenda clear. He’s shifted his rhetoric from fighting corruption to generating hate. Five years ago, the RSS helped lead the BJP to an outright majority in Parliament as a “clean and principled” alternative to the “criminal” Congress party. His promise to make India great again appealed to both big business and unemployed youth. During his tenure, Modi privatized and sold state companies to multinationals, made it easier for conglomerates to acquire cheap land in indigenous areas, cut taxes for corporations, canceled education and health subsidies for marginalized groups, and signed nearly 200 deals for the purchase of arms from different countries.
Many ordinary Indians, however, were plunged into an economic nightmare. Under Modi, India hit its highest rate of unemployment in 45 years. Self-employment opportunities declined when Modi digitized India’s cash-based economy in an overnight move called “demonetization.” Between 2014 and 2016, 36,320 farmers killed themselves—an average of 33 suicides per day.
A massive student and farmers movement grew, and Modi’s government retaliated. Students and professors were falsely arrested, the press was muzzled, and members of the opposition were charged with corruption. One journalist, two writers, and a dissenting judge were killed.
To justify the state terror, Modi turned to Islamophobia with disastrous consequences across society. Mobs marched into private residences in search of young people in inter-faith relationships. These self-styled “anti-Romeo” squads terrorized Muslim and Dalit youth for befriending Hindu girls and detained hundreds of young men from minority groups. In June, a mob in Kashmir beat police officer to death after an altercation.
Vigilantes raped Dalit, Muslim, and Adivasi girls with impunity. The lawyer representing the family of an 8-year-old Muslim girl, who was allegedly raped by the caretaker of a Hindu temple, was forced to withdraw after repeated threats and intimidation by BJP leaders. The father of a 17-year-old Dalit girl who says a BJP leader raped her was arrested on false charges and died mysteriously in a police station.
Human Rights Watch reports that between May 2015 and December 2018, cow vigilantes lynched at least 44 people—including 36 Muslims—suspected of eating beef or trading in cattle. In one case in 2016, a group beat to death a Muslim cattle trader and a 12-year-old boy traveling to an animal fair in Jharkhand. Their badly bruised bodies were found hanging from a tree with their hands tied behind them. Instead of trying to keep Muslims safe, the government announced a national commission to protect cows in February 2019. Police often stalled prosecutions of the attackers, while several BJP politicians publicly justified the attacks. Commentators accuse Modi of normalizing bigotry by refusing to condemn such acts. The Pew Research Center has ranked India the fourth-worst country in the world for religious intolerance—after Syria, Nigeria, and Iraq.
Modi established a massive digitized identity-card system, which links the retina scans and fingerprints of millions of citizens to basic government services. Fears that it could turn India into a surveillance state are understandable.
Yet, for most of Modi’s tenure, Western leaders focused on Modi’s strength and can-do attitude. In 2015, President Barack Obama gushed about him in Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential persons. Later, at a Boeing factory in Seattle, President Donald Trump praised him for buying arms from the United States and helping to create jobs.
Much of the Western media still downplay Modi’s assault on civil liberties. They are reluctant to state the simple truth: Modi is laying the foundation of a fascist Hindutva state, one which was first envisioned by the founders of the RSS. That shouldn’t be surprising; The RSS recruited Modi to their cause when he was just 8 years old.
RSS workers have been appointed to high-ranking positions in crucial government institutions like the Reserve Bank, the Supreme Court, and the Election Commission. New textbooks are replacing factual history and science with Hindutva mythology and symbols.
This election will decide whether India will continue more steeply down the path of right-wing Hindutva nationalism or return to some of its past ideals of secularism and economic policies intended to uplift the lives of poor and working people.
For democratically minded Indians, the stakes couldn’t be higher. On one side is the legacy of Gandhi and on the other is literally the legacy of those who assassinated Gandhi. India is turning its back on nonviolence. In his final rally, Modi told his audience that when you vote for the BJP, “you are not pushing a button on a [voting] machine, but pressing a trigger to shoot terrorists in the chest.”
Yet opinion polls suggest Thakur, an actual accused terrorist, could win a seat in Parliament with the BJP.