15 August 2020

The New Yorker: “Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India”

During the dispute over Babri Masjid, Ashis Nandy, a prominent Indian intellectual, began a series of interviews with R.S.S. members. A trained psychologist, he wanted to study the mentality of the rising Hindu nationalists. One of those he met was Narendra Modi, who was then a little-known B.J.P. functionary. Nandy interviewed Modi for several hours, and came away shaken. His subject, Nandy told me, exhibited all the traits of an authoritarian personality: puritanical rigidity, a constricted emotional life, fear of his own passions, and an enormous ego that protected a gnawing insecurity. During the interview, Modi elaborated a fantastical theory of how India was the target of a global conspiracy, in which every Muslim in the country was likely complicit. “Modi was a fascist in every sense”, Nandy said. “I don’t mean this as a term of abuse. It’s a diagnostic category.”

As a young pracharak, he had taken a vow of celibacy, and he gave no public sign of breaking it. Unburdened by family commitments, he worked constantly. People who saw him said he exuded a vitality that seemed to compensate for his otherwise solitary existence. “When you have that kind of power, that kind of adoration, you don’t need romance”, the Indian political commentator told me.

Dexter Filkins

A lot to unpack in this long feature about the state of India’s government and his leader, Narendra Modi. There is the close connection between the current ruling party BJP and RSS, the Hindu nationalist movement who may have been involved in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The same organization is training groups of Hindu men for paramilitary operations against Muslims, driving the country towards religious segregation. As a reminder, Nazi Germany’s SS started in the same manner, as a small paramilitary group. With BJP in power, these policies have support from the central government, and have received renewed support with the reelection of Modi for a second term last year.

In Jaipur, I met Ashok Singh, the head of the Rajasthan chapter of Bajrang Dal. Singh told me that he and his men were duty-bound to defend cows from an epidemic of theft and killing. For several minutes, he spoke about the holiness of the cow. Each animal, he said, contains three hundred and sixty million gods, and even its dung has elixirs beneficial to humans. “They cut them, they kill them”, Singh said of Muslims. “It’s a conspiracy.” He admitted that Bajrang Dal members had taken part in stopping Khan, but he insisted that other people had committed the murder. “There was a mob”, he said. “We didn’t have control of it.”

In northern India, Hindu nationalists have whipped up panic around the idea that Muslim men are engaging in a secret campaign to seduce Hindu women into marriage and prostitution. As with the hysteria over cow killings, the furor takes form mostly on social media and platforms like WhatsApp, where rumors spread indiscriminately. The idea—known as “love jihad”—is rooted in an image of the oversexed Muslim male, fortified by beef and preying on desirable Hindu women. In many areas, any Muslim man seen with a Hindu woman risks being attacked. Two years ago, Yogi Adityanath, the B.J.P. Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, set up “anti-Romeo squads”, which harassed Muslim men believed to be trying to seduce Hindu women. The squads were abandoned after the gangs mistakenly beat up several Hindu men.

The campaign against Muslims is reflected in the treatment of Kashmir, a formerly autonomous region at the border with Pakistan. I don’t have a firm grasp on the situation, but from what I gather in the article it has similarities to the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Following protests, the Indian government has restricted Internet access in the region since last August, including to WhatsApp, preventing millions of people from getting news from the outside world – and the pandemic.

Demonstrators protest Citizenship Amendment Bill, Guwahati, India
Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the government’s Citizenship Amendment Bill in Guwahati, India, Dec. 13. Sajjad Hussain / Getty Images

From this perspective, although technically still a democracy, Modi’s India is increasingly resembling authoritarian China. Another move in this direction is the increasing control of the central government over the media, forcing independent journalists into freelancing. Recently the government also resorted to arrests to silence critics. When other methods fail, spreading misinformation through social media can be just as effective to fuel doubt and confusion about independent voices. On the other hand, increased availability of smartphones and data connections can help people organize protests and resistance against government – for this reason I suspect internet restrictions will be high on the list of priorities for the Indian administration.

For many, Modi’s reëlection suggested that he had uncovered a terrible secret at the heart of Indian society: by deploying vicious sectarian rhetoric, the country’s leader could persuade Hindus to give him nearly unchecked power. In the following months, Modi’s government introduced a series of extraordinary initiatives meant to solidify Hindu dominance. The most notable of them, along with revoking the special status of Kashmir, was a measure designed to strip citizenship from as many as two million residents of the state of Assam, many of whom had crossed the border from the Muslim nation of Bangladesh decades before. In September, the government began constructing detention centers for residents who had become illegal overnight.

The internal tensions and divisiveness of the country is unfortunately reflected in the fight against the coronavirus – or, better said, the lack of success in said fight. Despite government propaganda, the number of cases is still rising with no end in sight, the number of tests is barely keeping up, and proper precautions against large groups of people are not in place. It remains to be seen how this will affect the popularity of the Modi administration for the long run.

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