Is the Resistance Sufficient to Check BJP's Forward March?
Another RSS affiliate, Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Save Education Campaign Committee) is run by a Modi favorite, Dinanath Batra, a retired schoolteacher and hardline Hindutva ideologue. The SBAS successfully pressured Penguin Publishers India to withdraw and pulp all the copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. Since 2014, a set of nine textbooks Batra himself wrote finally have been translated from Hindi into Gujarati and distributed to over forty thousand schools.
The University Grants Commission (UGC) determines and maintains the standards of teaching, research, and examination in universities. It is the only body that provides grants to higher educational institutions. This powerful body currently lacks a chairman, and H. R. Nagendra, Modi’s personal yoga instructor, is serving as head of the search committee that will make the final selection for this post. Can anyone doubt where the UGC is headed?
Expanding hegemony is not just a matter of mobilizing consent for a group’s ideologically inspired beliefs, values, and practices. It also requires generating fear: what consequences will befall those who do not agree with — let alone oppose —Hindutva politics?
The Sangh’s militant gangs and violence-prone foot soldiers play a key role in this process. Cow vigilantism promotes fear among Muslims generally and more specifically among non-Muslims in the cattle trade. No law specifically deals with targeted communal lynchings, as compared to the more generalized and indiscriminate violence in communal riots and pogroms. Cow vigilantism represents a new form of hatred that — unlike riots — does not require longer-term preparation, or an inciting incident, or a certain number of participants.
These attacks mean the state does not have to resort to violence and can cover its tracks by denouncing those who take the law into their own hands. Of course, the perpetrators know that they will almost certainly escape punishment or, at worst, receive milder penalties, particularly in BJP-ruled states. Here, Uttar Pradesh is setting the gold standard.
The secular claims many liberals make about the character of the Indian polity and constitution received a major shock when, for the first time ever, an acting high priest of the centuries-old Gorakhpur Temple became Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister. Yogi Adityanath belongs to the Nath sect, which takes gauseva — cow service — as a religious duty.
Each state controls animal husbandry, and many allow some cattle slaughter. But, since the central government can legislate animal cruelty provisions, it used this excuse to greatly limit the cattle trade. On May 23, it issued a notification to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Act, which imposes a virtual ban on the sale of cattle for the purposes of slaughter, which is one of the important purposes for having such markets in the first place.
The SC has ordered a stay on this attempted violation of existing laws, and the government’s initiative seems unlikely to go through. In the meantime, however, Adityanath has ordered the closure of all illegal abattoirs as well as many legal ones, whose licenses are currently lapsed. The court will force him to allow renewal, but the point is that, at least in BJP-ruled states, the government is officially encouraging cow vigilantism.
In Maharashtra, the new post of “honorary animal welfare official” has been created, inviting applicants from cow protection militias and groups. Haryana already has some five thousand cow-protection activists.
On April 1, a fifty-five-year-old Muslim man, Pehlu Khan, was transporting cows to his dairy farm in Rajasthan when a mob mercilessly beat him. He succumbed to his wounds a couple of days later. The main accused in Khan’s dying statement have just been let off by the Rajasthan police.
On September 5, a rowdy group of train passengers taunted Junaid Khan, a sixteen-year-old Muslim boy, for being a “beef-eater” and “anti-national.” They then stabbed him to death and threw his body off the train.
According to IndiaSpend, sixty-three incidents of cow-linked violence occurred between 2010 and 2017, leading to twenty-eight deaths. The years 2014–17 account for 97 percent of these incidents, and 86 percent of those killed are Muslim.
Of course, cow vigilantes aren’t the only ones participating in these targeted attacks. In 2005, the Congress-led government passed the Right to Information Act, which significantly enhanced public transparency. Individuals could request documents and information, and government affiliated bodies had to reply. In April of this year, the Modi government proposed an amendment to this act whereby an applicant’s death would automatically end his or her written request or query.
As it is, the government has yet to implement the 2011 Whistleblower’s Protection Act, and seventy Right to Information applicants have already been killed. These activists often serve as leaders of rural movements fighting to secure everyday needs for their communities. Altogether almost four hundred such activists have been murdered, assaulted, and harassed, but the police have jailed only six culprits. This amendment if passed by the Central Information Commission would only encourage life-threatening assaults on applicants.
More disturbing, however, are the links between four assassinations, including the recent assault on Gauri Lankesh. Her murder closely resembles attacks on leaders of the rationalist movement: against superstition and for promotion of a scientific temper. The victims include N. Dabholkar, who was killed in Maharashtra in 2013, G. Pansare, also in Maharashtra in 2015, and M.M. Kalburgi, in Karnataka in 2015. The bullets recovered from the Lankesh crime scene indicate that the pistol used had the same make as those that felled the other activists. In all four cases, the ambushes were carried out very professionally, suggesting hired mercenaries.
No one has been found guilty or punished for the these murders, though the needle of suspicion points to a radical right-wing Hindu group, the Sanathan Sanstha, which is based in Maharashtra but also active in Goa, Karnataka, and the Hindi belt. People belonging to this organization have been arrested in relation to the murders and for unrelated bombings, but the BJP-ruled Maharashtra government and the central Ministry of Home Affairs have given them all a clean sheet.
From time to time journalists have been killed while on duty and this deserves the widest condemnation. Indeed, five died in 2016, and three in 2015.
What sets Lankesh’s murder apart from other cases is that most killings relate to the journalists’ investigations into specific instances of crime, corruption, political malfeasance by politicians, powerbrokers, or the misdeeds of religious figures and the inner workings of their cult organizations. Certainly the paper she was editor of did carry out muckraking investigations but it was the general political orientation that was the problem.
What connects Lankesh to Dabholkar, Pansare, and Kalburgi — none of whom were professional journalists — is that all categorically and continuously opposed Hindutva. They also wrote, spoke, and campaigned in their respective regional languages, which gave their views stronger influence among the very constituencies that the forces of Hindutva are trying to win over.
Further, those demanding justice on Lankesh’s behalf have become targets of mass trolling. They routinely face accusations of being “Hindu-haters” or “anti–the new India.” Trolls have welcomed these assassinations, calling them warnings to others who might want to avoid a similar fate. Unlike earlier online attacks, these seem to be pre-planned as the posts have the same basic content across Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms.
Not in My Name
But there’s good news, too. Precisely because of Lankesh’s broader journalistic interests, her death sparked a strong outcry. Thousands of people in different states and cities have held peaceful protests demanding justice.
Lankesh held strong, left-wing views and was even working to bring Naxalites back into the mainstream. But her political positions have not put off those who came out on the streets for her. They recognize that she died for the basic democratic right for each person to hold her own views and express them freely, no matter how unpleasant the BJP, the Sangh, or other Hindutva organizations may find them.
Humanists, liberals, and leftists of all sorts have come together to present a common front. This civic resistance has a stronger resonance because no opposition party organized it. Parties can — and should — join in, but they should continue to play a supporting role and not try to grab the political limelight.
A loose network of activists, taking the label “Not in My Name” to protest the atmosphere of intimidation and violence that has emerged, set the precedent for the pro-Lankesh mobilizations. As the choice of name suggests, the key organizers of this movement come from the Indian middle class, who recognized this slogan’s use in the West. But this action has not been confined to that social layer.
The activists have used a more decentralized protest format, with smaller groups meeting in different neighborhoods in various cities and towns. By entering communities that have different class, caste, and religious composition, Not in My Name has successfully initiated local unities.
These simultaneous meetings take place on one day in various parts of the country but also focus on a week-long campaign in a particular city. Activists have also launched peace journeys, where a small group of people visit a location where incidents of violence have occurred, meet bereaved families, hold meetings, and gather more fellow travelers for trips to the next stop on their itinerary. Among many other positive outcomes, these journeys show the urban activists’ solidarity with rural areas.
These forms of protest are sending a clear message: the people oppose the politics of hatred and violence; they defend democratic freedoms to hold and express divergent views; they celebrate India’s ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity; and that many among the better-off will stand with the downtrodden.
Will this be enough to counter Hindutva’s forward march? On its own, of course not. But we should still welcome it because, in an era of mass media and virtual communities, face-to-face discussion retains an importance we should not underestimate.
The Modi regime’s greatest weakness comes from its economic failures. For example, the demonetization scheme represented a massive failure. PM Modi designed his program to attack the black economy’s cash flow, but the most important component of the informal economy is the stock of wealth held in immovable assets or stashed abroad.
The government promised that the program’s success would make up for the short-term disruption to the most vulnerable people, but most of the old notes have returned to the formal banking sector. This means that the elites, who hoarded wads of cash, have converted their wealth into legitimate bank holdings that they can now earn interest on. The scheme’s mismanagement has helped lower average growth rates over the last two years. PM Modi’s promise of greater prosperity for the vast majority has not and will not be fulfilled.
His greatest failure, however, is a structural one, embedded in his economic policies of neoliberalism: neither he nor his government can ever provide enough good-paying jobs for the nation. The already poor and precarious will face increasing deprivation, and lower middle-class youth will watch their opportunities fade away.
How these economic frustrations will crystallize politically between now and the next general elections — and what forces will take advantage of them — remains the most important unknown.
Part one: here
(Achin Vanaik is a writer and social activist, a former professor at the University of Delhi and Delhi-based Fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. He is the author of numerous books, including The Painful Transition: Bourgeois Democracy in India. This article first appeared in Jacobin)