To what extent is Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government endangering India’s founding principle as a secular state? Sonja Hegasy spoke to social anthropologist and political analyst S. M. Faizan Ahmed in Delhi
S. M. Faizan Ahmed: Ram Navmi is an age-old tradition marking the birth anniversary of Lord Ram, who is cited in the Hindu religious epic Ramayana, despite there being arguably no trace of special worship of him before the 11th century. Indeed, the earliest shobha yatra (glory procession) appears to have taken place in Hazaribaagh in 1929. The first major riot on the occasion of Ram Navami was reported in 1979 when 116 people died in Jamshedpur due to a polarising speech delivered by the third chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Balasaheb Deoras. The ‘RSS family’ – various Hindutva organisations united under the ideology of the RSS – was also responsible for the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, which triggered communal violence all over India.
In an attempt to consolidate Hindu votes in its favour, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), part of this RSS family, has over the years transformed Rama’s image of Maryada Purushottam (the epitome of ethical perfection) into an aggressive and assertive symbol of Hindu power. Today, Ram Navmi processions are often mindless displays of crude arms and deliberate provocations, marching through densely populated Muslim localities and chanting provocative slogans in front of mosques, sacred places, and educational establishments run by the Muslim community, naturally creating law and order problems, as well as communal clashes.
RSS and BJP closely linked
What is the RSS and how involved is it in the ruling BJP?
Faizan Ahmed: RSS is an anti-Christian, anti-Muslim and anti-communist Hindu paramilitary volunteer organisation. Both the RSS and the BJP are inseparable: they share the same ideology and vision. It is often overlooked that three out of four ministers in the current BJP government hail from the RSS.
While RSS remains the “stem of the lotus” (BJP’s symbol), the BJP, and other RSS-affiliated organisations, act as individual petals of the same. Despite bearing seemingly distinct outer colours, they are in effect all shades of the same saffron ideology.
Did Ramadan 2023 see an escalation in provocative or violent behaviour?
Faizan Ahmed: During this year’s Ramadan at least 28 places across 10 states in India were marked by provocations, vandalism, and violent clashes connected to Ram Navmi processions. The marchers deliberately entered densely populated Muslim localities, sometimes without having obtained permission for the processional route, and played provocative slogans and songs on high-decibel amplifiers, which led to stone-pelting, stabbings and sword attacks.
Does anyone criticise the Hindutva brigade from within the Hindu community? And where are the voices defending India’s founding principle as a secular state?
Faizan Ahmed: A handful of Hindu religious priests have been known to criticise Hindutva politics, but rarely. Besides opposition leaders, India’s liberal intelligentsia has been working to expose the propaganda of the current regime. Thousands of academics in India have signed open letters against the Hindutva onslaughts, which is no longer an easy thing to do.
There was a major onslaught against critical academic institutions last year, so it is not easy to be part of such a campaign. Their criticism does not emanate from within Hinduism, however, but is rather made on secular grounds.
It was reported that the police in Delhi had forbidden both Ramadan prayers and Ram Navami events from being held in one of the public parks. Do the police play a more neutral role in Delhi than in other union states?
Faizan Ahmed: Delhi police are certainly better and more efficient than in many other states, yet the way they deal with situations of communal violence is by no means beyond reproach. Generally, the executive authority is subservient to whichever government is in power. As a result, their impartiality in political cases or during communal conflicts is often questionable.
Perhaps against the backdrop of past experience with law and order concerns and Delhi being the theatre of national politics, they sought to prevent escalation during Ram Navmi in the month of Ramadan to avoid another surge of protests in the capital.
Violence against Muslims has been going on for decades – also under the centre-left Congress Party, if we take into account the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, in 1992 and the anti-Muslim riots in Bombay in 1993. Last year the Congress Party entered an alliance with the right-wing Hindu-nationalist party Shiv Sena. Is Congress “making a pact with the devil” to get back into power?
Faizan Ahmed: Though Shiv Sena and the BJP share the same constituency of support, it should be noted that Shiv Sena is not affiliated with the RSS. Established in 1966, Shiv Sena is also older than the BJP. Despite being a right-wing party and a long-standing ally of the BJP, Shiv Sena is a regional political force in the state of Maharashtra, with an agenda against migrants from other states.
But last year the party split in two: ‘Shiv Sena’ led by Eknath Shinde, which joined the governing National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by the BJP, and ‘Shiv Sena Uddhav Balasaheb Thackerey’, led by the son of its founder, Bal Thackerey. Unlike his father, Uddhav is not a hardliner. This paved the way for the local Congress Party to accept an alliance with Shiv Sena to form a government on a regional level.
Muslims lack powerful political representation
Which party represents the interest of Indian Muslims today?
Faizan Ahmed: There are several namesake Muslim political parties, but they remain insignificant. After 1992, Muslims largely abandoned Congress and started voting for regional parties. Today, the Muslim vote remains divided across political parties and is thus weak. And these parties merely treat Muslims as vote banks. Their under-representation in all fields is proof of discrimination. No political party has ever afforded them a proportionate share of the influence they are due.https://www.youtube.com/embed/OBXz-cafkRM
Since its founding India has repeatedly witnessed major population movements and exchange. Has there been an increase in what you might term ethnic cleansing? And if so, how is Narendra Modi getting away with it?
Faizan Ahmed: Today’s India is the most populous country in the world with the third-largest Muslim population. Although in the past, right-wing groups called for the genocide of Muslims, and there has been the occasional massacre of Muslims, under BJP rule, mob lynchings, targeted killings of social activists, and rampant arrests of dissenting voices have shot up, making citizens fearful of speaking truth to power. Still, massive ethnic cleansing seems unlikely. After all, the country would really have to go to the dogs for such a policy to take hold. Politicians in India are seldom explicit, however, preferring to incite through innuendo. That’s how they get away with their hate speech.
India has always been proud of its religious diversity. Its national image is built on the idea of secularism. Who is the most convincing proponent of secular India today in your view?
Faizan Ahmed: There are several leaders in the opposition parties, but nobody can match the conviction, pan-India popularity and appeal of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, as was evident during his Bharat Jodo Yatra march from south to north last year. Obviously, the BJP also considers him the sole threat, which is why they managed to strip him of his mandate in parliament only last month.