Indian politicians are playing with the fire of sectarian hatred
The town of Haridwar in northern India, where the Ganges flows from the Himalayas into the vast plains of India, has been a destination for pilgrims for centuries. For three days in December, it also hosted what Indian media called a “hate speech conclave,” in which several speakers – all dressed in saffron clothing, the traditional meaning of holiness in India – called the Muslims and Christians in India to kill. One of them praised the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and urged Indian “politicians, army and all Hindus” to “take up arms” and “carry out a cleansing campaign”. There was, he said, “no solution outside of that”.
Even in a country that has grown worryingly in the majority in recent years, such open promotion of genocide and ethnic cleansing should have raised alarm bells. It is not just tens of millions of minorities – as well as India’s increasingly tenuous connection to liberal values - that are at risk. The Indian state itself risks being undermined by its leaders’ tacit acceptance of religious self-defense.
India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is reportedly not the first political party to wink at ethno-nationalist extremism among its supporters. The states of Uttarakhand, where the city of Haridwar is located, and neighboring Uttar Pradesh – from which Uttarakhand was separated two decades ago – are due to hold elections in the coming months. The BJP, in power in both states, might be tempted to think that the heightened interfaith tension is a useful distraction from a struggling economy and the devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the Indian opposition parties have not retreated sharply either. They find it difficult to formulate a response to this kind of rhetoric that does not lead them to be labeled “anti-Hindu”. In parts of northern India, secularism guaranteed by the Indian constitution has become so politically toxic that many politicians no longer seem able to defend the right of citizens to profess the faith of their choice.
As a result, the entire Indian political class appears to be increasingly complicit in the incitement of hate speech. Organizers of the Haridwar Hate Festival have already scheduled another for the town of Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, which is home to a government university long known as a center for Indian Muslim scholarship.
Tolerating such events is short-sighted devastating. Words have consequences, especially in a country with such a terrible history of interfaith violence as India. Just last week in the Sikh majority state of Punjab, two men accused of “sacrilege” were lynched by Sikh mobs. The Punjab will also be holding elections soon, and Indian newspapers have noted that most politicians condemn the alleged sacrilege but “say little else”. Elsewhere in India, Christmas services were interrupted by crowds and Santa was burnt – in effigy, of course.
If India’s leaders want to see where tolerance for religious activism leads, they need only look across the border to their rival, Pakistan. In a particularly brutal example of collective violence this month, Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan factory manager in the Pakistani city of Sialkot, was beaten, stoned and then set on fire by his own workers – supposedly because he had committed blasphemy.
Kumara worked in one of Sialkot’s many export-oriented garment factories; the city’s businessmen fear that if it gains a reputation for violence and bigotry, its business and investment partners will look elsewhere. National leaders should not be less concerned. Some analysts have suggested that the United States may seek to reorient its relations with Pakistan towards stimulating trade and increasing investment by American companies. This seems, to say the least, unlikely in a place where expatriate executives fear a possible lynching.
Practical considerations should shock Indian politicians, if not moral considerations. The states crossed by the Ganges after the passage of Haridwar are the heart of India and are at the heart of the BJP’s grip on power in New Delhi. And yet the 300 million and more people who live there are, according to the government’s own figures, among the poorest and most deprived in the world. The current government of Uttar Pradesh has failed to improve matters: the state only grew by 2% per year during the BJP’s five-year tenure and even before the pandemic it had under- performed the national average of 1.6 percentage points per year.
To ensure the future of this Ganges plain, investments and trade will have to be multiplied by several. Economic transformation on such a scale cannot occur where the state fails to protect its citizens or society is fractured, xenophobic and violent. No one is going to invest billions in areas that seem vulnerable to religious civil war.
Politicians may believe they can ride this tiger. Trying to distract voters with sectarian hatred is a bit like hiding your house’s lack of paint by burning it down. –Bloomberg
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