Arundhati Roy to CNN: PM Modi Stoking Hatred in India

Screengrab of Arundhati Roy from the DW interview
Screengrab of Arundhati Roy from the DW interview

It reveals how successfully the clear and present existential threat posed by Hindu nationalism in India has been masked by the face it presents to the outside world. 

In an email interview that CNN Opinion published on June 22, leading Indian author Arundhati Roy says Indian politics has something in common with the US Capitol riots, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is stoking hatred. Excerpts from the interview are given below.

When two spokespeople from India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made derogatory comments about the Prophet Mohammed last month, it prompted an international firestorm. The incident led to protests among India’s Muslim minority in several states. 

Many, many of my beloved friends — poets, writers, professors, lawyers, human rights activists and journalists — are in prison, most of them charged under a dreaded law called the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), all of them for speaking up for minorities, Dalits and forest-dwellers facing displacement and state terror.

It reveals how successfully the clear and present existential threat posed by Hindu nationalism in India has been masked by the face it presents to the outside world. You know the people in strange clothes, the man in furs and antlers who stormed the US Capitol? 

We’re being ruled by their equivalent here. The difference is that they are not a collection of random lunatics. They are members of the most powerful organization in India — the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), whose founding ideologues openly admired Hitler and likened the Muslims of India to the Jews of Germany. RSS is the real power in India.

The ruling party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), considered to be one of the richest political parties in the world, is only the front office of the RSS. Founded in 1925, the RSS, traditionally controlled by a handful of Brahmins, now has millions of members including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been a member since his teenage years, and most of his cabinet ministers.

The RSS believes that India should be declared a Hindu nation, just as Pakistan, Iran and several countries in the Persian Gulf are Islamic nations, just as Israel is legally the “nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Apart from the mass killings and lynching of Muslims by Hindu vigilantes in recent years, we have the steady drumbeat of hatred and outlandish disinformation beamed into peoples’ homes by approximately 400 TV channels and countless newspapers. On social media handles viewed by millions of people there are open calls for the genocide of Muslims — and videos demonstrating how it should be done.

We regularly see provocative demonstrations by thousands of sword-wielding Hindu men marching through areas in which Muslims live. The deeply disrespectful comments about Prophet Mohammed made by a BJP spokeswoman on national TV this May was a part of this constituency-building exercise. As was the unconscionable bulldozing by municipal authorities of the homes of Muslims who dared to come out in protest.

Modi has made no comment whatsoever about the spokeswoman or the protests. A standard tactic of his. In situations like this, his followers, correctly I believe, read his silence as support. Although he increasingly positions himself as a messiah, he is an RSS man, and he knows that the organization is grooming other leaders who are waiting in the wings. But for now, he is the uncontested figurehead.

Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson have all indulged him. International action and reaction is only a game of pragmatism and expediency. It has to do with trade and geopolitics, race, religion and ethnicity, and very little with values and morality. 

If India is buying a fleet of fighter planes from, say, France, it knows that lynching and a little mass murder will, at most, get a delicate finger-wag. A big market is excellent insurance against moral censure.

A democracy doesn’t just mean having regular elections. You cannot be a democracy when 200 million people who constitute a religious minority are expected to live without rights. When you can lynch them, kill them, incarcerate them, economically and socially boycott them, bulldoze their homes with complete immunity and threaten to strip them of citizenship. When the murderers and lynchers can aspire to move swiftly up the political ladder.

The whole system of elections has been gamed. You can win a huge majority of seats even without anything close to a majority of actual votes. In India, we have a first-past-the-post, multi-party democracy. This means that even if you get say only 20% of the vote in a constituency, as long as it’s higher than your closest rival, you win. A rich party can put up spurious candidates to split the votes. But that’s just one trick in a whole bag of tricks.

And, anyway, how do you woo an indoctrinated population? By proving that you are a better, prouder Hindu? Nobody can beat the BJP at that game. And right now, that’s the only game in town. As far as mainstream politics goes.

So, no, I don’t believe the damage is reversible. I believe we will be broken and then reborn. Change will only come when and if at all an accepting, gullible, fatalistic people realize what’s being done to them. And then it will come suddenly, and from the street. Not from the system. Until then… God help us.

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