Global Affairs Opinion

Opinion: On the BJP’s rampant Islamophobia and Modi’s telling silence

46 people died in Delhi last week. BJP police watched as Hindu mobs dragged, stoned and murdered their Muslim neighbours. The 903 arrests made since have disproportionately targeted the Muslim community.

A brief timeline: in December, the BJP pushed through a Citizenship Amendment Act which makes it easier for all of South Asia’s major religions, except Islam, to gain asylum in India. Justified as ‘pro-refugee’ legislation, the latent Islamophobia did not go unnoticed, and cascades of student protests erupted across the country. In retaliation, Hindutva mobs stormed Jawaharlal Nehru University, beating up men and women alike – one woman was so badly stoned that she “was soaked in so much blood you could not see her face.” Once again, the police watched. Young people continue to protest, in the knowledge that doing so risks their lives, educations and freedom.

Last week, Kapil Mishra, a local (Hindu, upper caste) Delhi politician appeared at a rally against protestors of the CAA, who had blocked a main road. He issued an ultimatum to the police: shut down the protest or he would do it himself. As the smoke begins to clear from the bloody riots that followed, it seems the message is stark: if you are Muslim, get out or die. The global reaction has been mixed: Western media has published waves of analysis and interviews. Donald Trump has taken to his favourite medium – Twitter. Diaspora activists who post vehemently about bindis at Coachella, turmeric face masks and reclaiming ‘Indianness’ have mostly been silent, choosing to predicate their selfhood on Indian culture whilst drawing a veil over Indian politics.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet to say or do anything, a silence reminiscent of his notoriously slow reaction to the 2002 mass slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat where he was chief minister at the time. When he does react, it will inevitably be the lacklustre call for peace and tolerance that followed previous attacks.

I feel helpless, and then I feel self-involved and ashamed. I can’t do very much – partly because I am far away and mostly because this distance allows me a privileged perspective that I am hesitant to legitimise. But focussing on my ineptitude is equally unhelpful. I am also scared – for my friends and relatives who are protesting, resisting and rallying against the neofascist state. Some have been arrested, some have disappeared. Then again, one family member regularly sends me pro BJP content so at least I know he’s doing absolutely fine.  

I recently had a conversation about policing hate, and limits on free speech. In the West, this debate is soaked in privilege. Critically evaluating speech that is intended to persuade or incite doesn’t come naturally: it is a skill that is taught. In a lot of countries, that means you must pay to acquire it. In India, where caste, capitalism and gender intersect to affect the education you receive, and where memorising facts takes priority over reflection and analysis, the enticing ‘brand’ of Hindutva nationalism is difficult for many to resist. We all want to feel special, and BJP ideology reminds Hindus that they are. There are compelling arguments that the Indian education system, which centres colonial era rote learning over critical faculties, has led to the meteoric rise of Modi, and acted as a gateway for the hate he implies. Find them here, here, and here.

Moreover, the BJP are exploiting religious fault lines that already exist: long standing, entrenched Islamophobic thinking, waiting only be legitimised. Many of the mob attackers felt no remorse for their actions and Modi has done little to quell startling tropes of Muslims as rapists, sex traffickers and aggressors. In fact, he has allowed hateful speech like that of Kapil Mishra to go unchecked and without legal consequence. A couple of well worded tweets distance him from the violence, but do nothing to prevent further attacks. In this way, his far-right agenda is perpetuated without smearing his own name. He is ingeniously powerless. His brand sells itself.

As a result, I don’t really know how I feel about a liberal approach to free speech. What do we do when the same subversive forces that compel us to buy things we don’t need and can’t afford are now used to incite murder? Where are we drawing lines, and should we draw them tighter? Capitalism isn’t just exploiting vulnerable people by unfairly allocating wealth, but by taking advantage of their unconscious biases, presuppositions and insecurities. If I’m inclined to buy £30 eyeliner from a single Instagram story, what stops the same processes from compelling unsuspecting citizens to act, or even vote, a certain way? Increasingly, marketing research uses brain electrodes and neuroscience to make advertising more effective. In the hands of governments like the BJP, the implications of this are dangerous. Allowing powerful people and corporations vast influence through targeted marketing risks more than shopping addictions. On the other hand, tightly policing the use of marketing almost seems like something a far-right government like Modi’s would do.

We face increasingly uncertain times. Obviously, I have no answers. I’m also aware that the privilege I have, typing this from my room in Wadham College, necessitates a substantial distance from the conflict in Delhi. All I know is that many more people will die in India as a result of Modi’s government, and by the time he is held to account it might be too late.