Eighteen months after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a decisive victory over the Congress-led government, India confronts one of the most critical periods in its history since independence from Britain in 1947. The omens are not pleasant and remind us of a previous domestic crisis in the mid-1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed emergency rule in the midst of a popular revolt against her government. Twenty months after, she decided to call a general election in the hope of an easy victory. She thought the people’s free spirit had been tamed. Had she won, sweeping changes made during the emergency period would have become permanent and India would have changed for ever.
When the election came in March 1977, Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party suffered a humiliating defeat and she lost her own parliamentary seat. Although she returned to power following a short-lived coalition government, a victim of infighting and contradictions, Congress had been taught a lesson. Draconian measures like forced mass sterilisation of the emergency era were abandoned, never to be repeated.
Recent events since the BJP’s victory in May 2014 indicate that India faces another critical period which could determine the future character of the country. Many fear that if the current trends continue, individual freedom will be in peril, and India will be an intolerant society – a Hindu theocracy. In an ominous development, veteran BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi openly advocated “saffronisation” of India’s education system, referring to a Hindu agenda based on mythology to counter scientific methods of education. His vision is the mirror image of Talibanisation and Islamic fundamentalism across India’s border in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
A number of developments have heightened fears that plurality and tolerance are under threat in India. Leaders of fringe groups close to the BJP have claimed that India’s 80 per cent Hindu population is threatened by the Muslim minority that constitutes a little more than 15 per cent of the country’s 1.2 billion people. Astonishing claims are made that the Muslims, as a group described by radical Hindus as “minorities” who have been “appeased” under previous governments make up one third of India’s population; that their numbers are growing rapidly; and that if the trend is not reversed soon Muslims will own both women and wealth of Hindus.
Radical groups like the World Hindu Council, its women’s wing and the World Hindu Defence Organisation have found that conditions are right for their brazen propaganda. Volunteers go round telling people who care to listen that before the advent of Islam and Christianity the entire world was Hindu; that it was time to re-establish the pre-eminence of Hindus worldwide; that a start had to be made in India now.
Preachers of hate have declared that they will not rest until India is a hundred per cent Hindu country – eighty per cent is not enough. Their drive has taken several forms. In ceremonies described as “home coming”, underprivileged Muslims are being converted to Hinduism, only to be forgotten. Conversion ceremonies are supposed to be voluntary, but in reality direct and indirect pressure and enticement play a significant role. Less publicised are instances in which Hindu converts have reverted to Islam again.
Events involving violence, even murder, are more menacing. One of the most shocking was the lynching of a 50-year-old Muslim man by a fanatical Hindu crowd in the north Indian town of Dadri. Rumours, outright lies and conspiracy theories abound. One version of events said that the killing took place after rumours that the victim named Akhlaq had eaten beef. Another version claimed that the man was killed because one of his sons had a secret affair with a Hindu girl. The loyalties of Muslims are openly questioned. For the record, Akhlaq’s other son serves in the Indian Air Force and, according to some newspapers, the son joined the armed forces because his father wanted him to.
Imposition of ban on the sale of meat and its availability in restaurants during Hindu religious festivals has triggered a nationwide controversy. Militant Hindu supporters of the BJP and vigilantes are engaged in a campaign of intimidation to ensure restrictions on eating meat. States such as Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir governed by coalitions including the BJP have tried the measure.
A panel of High Court judges in Kashmir went so far as to invoke a 1930s edict of the state’s Hindu ruler banning cow meat – edict first introduced before India’s independence from Britain. Indian Muslims are an obvious target of north India’s Hindu zealots, whose obsessions ignore the fact that fellow Hindus in southern and other parts of the country do eat cow and buffalo meat. The Supreme Court of India finally ruled the banning as unconstitutional, because it violates the freedom to choose what to eat. The country’s highest court may have said the last word, but religious fanatics will not desist from intimidation. Unfortunately, the enforcement of law depends on the government’s willingness to use its authority and leadership, both in short supply in the current climate.
Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, police in the capital, Delhi, raided an official building belonging to the southern state of Kerala after someone complained that beef was on the menu in the restaurant of Kerala House. It was, in fact buffalo meat, which is widely consumed in Kerala state. Cow slaughter is also legal there and state law applies in the state house in Delhi.
The Kerala state government was furious. India’s home minister Rajnath Singh issued an ambiguous statement telling Delhi police to be “more careful in the future”. Buffalo curry was back on the menu in Kerala House.
Splits in Indian society are deepening. Secular intellectuals are so alienated that dozens of renowned Indian writers, artists and film makers have returned their awards. The response from the governing BJP and its affiliates is to demonise them as pseudo secularists and unpatriotic Indians who are damaging the nation’s image abroad. Particularly disturbing is the drive to revise textbooks according to Hindu mythology. In the state of Rajasthan, for example, one of the many changes in textbooks of the secondary education board involves the removal of a chapter on Nelson Mandela, to be replaced with a long chapter entitled “Tribals in Rajasthan”.
A presentation at the Indian Science Congress in January this year claimed that the Wright brothers did not build the first plane, flown for the first time in 1903. According to the claim, that invention goes back 7000 years and recorded in the ancient Hindu text “Rigveda”, more than 3000 years ago. The ancient mythological aircraft was build by a sage, Maharishi Bharadwaj, had “40 small engines and a flexible exhaust system which a modern aviation cannot even approach”. India’s environment minister and BJP spokesman, Prakash Javadekar, put his official stamp of approval on the claim, asserting that ancient Indian science was based on “experience and logic”, and that “wisdom must be recognised”.
With such changes in the offing, what in the world is the future of scientists, engineers, doctors and historians from India?