Is India’s Leader a Messiah or a Menace?

The history of India is a history of invaders who were assimilated. The British were an exception and an anomaly for people from the subcontinent emigrated there and, in a way, have become rulers — Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid, of Pakistani origin, and Home Secretary Priti Patel, whose family came from India, are examples.

After the emigration of pre-history Aryan tribes to India, a religion came to be, and eventually Hindu sages developed their way of life. They divided people into four castes: Brahmins, the thinkers, scholars and priests at the top for they were the guides; Kshatriyas, the soldiers, including the king, second for they protected and governed society; Vaishyas the merchants third, with their commerce facilitating daily living; and Shudras, who were the laborers and service workers, at the bottom.

Well, the world has changed, as it should, but perhaps the sages had a point as there is a Vaish — not one from the top of that caste but a tea-seller, from an establishment which would be at the other end of the spectrum from those charming English tea shops in Devon — who is now running the country. Of dubious education that has been challenged and a beginning in the ultra-nationalist RSS (once outlawed by India’s founding prime minister and known also for producing Gandhi’s assassin) Narendra Modi is at India’s helm. His BJP party’s rise is linked to stoking up tensions between Hindus and minority Muslims, whose suffering has been well documented. Police powers have been increased and Muslim Kashmir is now under direct rule from Delhi, while new laws are disqualifying Muslims from citizenship. So reports The Economist in its special issue, “The State of the World in 2020” (p. 53).

Better known is the pogrom of Muslims in Modi’s Gujarat, when he headed the provincial government there. Then there is his party’s role in the destruction of a 500-year old mosque built by Babur so that the fictitious birthplace of Ram would be holy to both religions. Having overthrown the Muslim Lodi dynasty and with a tenuous hold, Babur was seeking friends among Hindu Rajas who generally owed fealty to the Delhi sultans. He showed foresight for his son Humayun was ejected by a very capable general named Sher Shah Suri, and regained his throne only because of the general’s untimely death and less capable offspring.

The Mughal Emperors also started the custom of marrying Hindu royalty to cement relationships and ensure loyalty. And this Mughal openness to other religions reached its apex under Emperor Akbar who founded a new religion, Din-i-Ilahi, attempting to incorporate the best from all faiths but which, lacking roots, died with him.

After the joint Hindu-Muslim Indian rebellion against British rule in 1857, the British saw advantage in fostering division among communities in the infamous divide-and-rule maxim. It has now been changed by Modi into suppress-and-rule, as the left-over Muslim community is poor and weak after the emigration of many to Pakistan following partition and independence in 1947.

Gandhi and founding prime minister Nehru’s vision of a secular India is enshrined in its constitution, which Modi and his BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda subverts. Its Hindutva Nazi-like ideology holding Hinduism supreme wants India to be an exclusively Hindu nation, noting only the differences in Hindu and Muslim cultures without regard to the similarities. As a video demonstrating the new ideology in practice points out, it is safer in Modi’s India to be a cow than a Muslim.

The new Citizenship Amendment Bill allows refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan arriving before 2015 to become citizens if they are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Parsi or Sikh, specifically excluding Muslims. This threat to India’s secularism has provoked mass demonstrations and protests throughout India. Mr. Modi presents it as an expansion of the National Register of Citizens, a 1951 bill, but if the NRC is really expanded it would require Muslims to prove citizenship, a difficult task for poorly educated people who seldom register births or carry any papers.

It is what one can expect when an ill-educated, charismatic tea-seller takes over the world’s largest democracy offering cultural superiority and its false pride. He is also the author of hare brained schemes like a deadline declaring old high denomination banknotes illegal causing chaos at banks, and poorly managed ideas like toilets and gas cookers for the poor. But the toilets are not used because the plans did not include maintenance, and gas cooker distribution is riddled with corruption. These are all touted as successes. Mr. Modi’s falsehoods are so profuse, there is a website archiving them by the month.

Meanwhile, the economy suffers, the growth rate is the slowest since 2013, and the country ranks 102 out of 117 on the Global Hunger Index (between Sierra Leone and Niger) and far behind Bangladesh. So much for the hype.

Arshad M. Khan is a former professor who has, over many years, written occasionally for the print and often for online media outlets.