During my first year in Medill, we were required to do “person on the street” interviews. It’s when Medill students went around campus asking several people random questions in order to build interview skills. As an introvert, I was very intimidated by this. However, throughout that quarter, not a single NU student denied my silly little interviews. If you are one of the many people who have at least responded once to the relentless — and sometimes awkward — Medill students, you have officially answered to the press more times than the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has in the entirety of his ongoing regime.
Modi was elected Prime Minister of the world’s largest “democracy” in 2014, and then reelected in a landslide victory in 2019. Over the past 8 years, he has not taken a single question from the Indian media or the international press.
MODI, THE BJP AND THE RSS
In case you aren’t familiar with the leader of the second-largest nation in the world, Modi is the head of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political arm of the para-militant Hindu nationalist group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). I will use these acronyms moving forward because, as you can see, the alternative is – well it's a lot.
The BJP and RSS run on “Hindutva,” a movement working to establish India as a Hindu state. India – while primarily Hindu — is home to a diverse array of religions including the third largest Muslim population and some of the oldest Christian and Sikh populations. Mahatma Gandhi stated that such diversity necessitated that the Indian government remain secular. Gandhi was assassinated by RSS member Nathuram Godse.
Modi’s 2014 election was embraced by both the right and the left in the West: Trump and Modi bonded over mutual right-wing nationalist values, while Obama wrote Modi’s profile in the Time “100” list. Here’s an excerpt (I'm not gonna do an Obama impression):
“When he came to Washington, Narendra and I visited the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We reflected on the teachings of King and Gandhi and how the diversity of backgrounds and faiths in our countries is a strength we have to protect. Prime Minister Modi recognizes that more than 1 billion Indians living and succeeding together can be an inspiring model for the world."
However, before he was elected Prime Minister, Modi was actually banned from entering the United States because of his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat Massacres. When Modi was Chief Minister of the Indian State of Gujarat, right-wing Hindu mobs killed, burned and tortured thousands, leaving 790 Muslims dead. Police and government officials remained silent as Muslim houses and mosques were destroyed, while people remained trapped inside. The violence was actively instigated by the rhetoric of the BJP. Due to Modi’s refusal to apologize or acknowledge his inaction during the massacre as Head of State, the US revoked his visa. It was then reinstated when Modi was elected Prime Minister.
Modi grew up a part of the RSS, as a child. The RSS is a militant, volunteer organization entrenched in the Hindutva ideology. These Hindu nationalists believe India is a fundamentally Hindu nation. Founders of the RSS, such as MS Gowalkar cited Mussolini, Hitler and Nazism as influences for their organizations' push for “purity of a race and its culture.” The RSS has a history of violence against Christians, Sikhs and Muslims over the past 50 years, violence that has often totaled thousands of deaths at a time in mass killings.
In a disturbingly circular manner, it now perpetuates white nationalism itself. Both the 2019 Christchurch shooter, who murdered 51 Muslims during Friday prayer, and the neo-Nazi behind the 2011 Norway attacks cited the RSS as an influence. In fact, the manifesto left by Anders Breivik, the terrorist behind the Norwegian attacks, shared URL links to both the BJP and RSS websites.
SYSTEMIC VIOLENCE IN INDIA
According to a study by India’s NDTV network, hateful and divisive language by top politicians in India has increased by 500% since Modi’s election. Modi’s right-hand man and President of the BJP, Amit Shah, called Muslims “termites” and “infiltrators.”
The BJP Union Commissioner Anantkumar Hegde said, “As long as there is Islam in the world, there will be terrorism. Until we uproot Islam, we can’t uproot terrorism.”
One of the most prominent and problematic BJP leaders is Yogi Adityanat, who Modi appointed as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh – a state that is home to around 40 million Muslims. He is also anticipated to succeed Modi to fill the PM role.
“For every Hindu that dies, we will kill 100 Muslims,” said Adityanat while in office.
When the primary leaders of a nation engage in this kind of rhetoric, it often precedes genocide. It’s only further indicative of the acts that are occurring currently across India. This kind of hateful language has led to global tragedies such as those at Al-Noor Mosque, the Linwood Islamic Centre in New Zealand, the Oak Creek Gurdwara in Wisconsin, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
Throughout India, the UN High Commission of Human Rights specifically mentioned increasing harassment and targeting of human rights, in particular those of Muslims and Dalits, the lower-caste Hindus. There has been a more than 30% rise in communal violence against minorities in India, according to the government’s own home ministry data. “Cow lynchings” became a prominent pattern, whereby right-wing Hindu mobs lynched Muslims and Dalits accused of eating beef or killing cows. In these villages, influential conservative leaders have called for the gang rape of Muslim women, and in other states, those arrested for such crimes were released – a release that was openly celebrated by the BJP.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Muslims were denied hospital beds and beaten on the grounds of spreading “corona jihad,” according to the Guardian. In military-occupied Kashmir, Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization headquartered in New York City, found the Indian military to be responsible for unlawful killings, disappearances, rape and torture. Kashmiri protestors fighting for self-determination would be deliberately blinded by Indian soldiers who were trained by Israeli soldiers.
“Hindutva” is beyond religious nationalism, but has deeper roots in the preservation of Hindu ethnic and cultural supremacy, seeking to establish these assertions of purity on what is deemed as Hindu land. Other identities in India, especially Muslims, are persecuted because of their independence from Hindu traditions and, in Islam’s case, the allegiance to a larger Ummah (the worldwide Muslim population). These differences are seen as a threat to Hindu nationalists and their power. It is this divisiveness that led to a violent partition between India and Pakistan in 1947.
CITIZENSHIP AMENDMENT ACT
One of the most egregious acts by the current Indian government was through a two-part citizenship referendum that swiftly turned hundreds of thousands of poor minorities stateless.
First, the BJP rolled out the National Register of Citizens, an act that says every Indian must provide documentation of their citizenship or else they would be deemed an illegal immigrant. The act was only enforced in the Muslim-heavy state of Assam where it obviously disproportionately affected poor families that were less likely to have paper documents at the ready. Afterward, the BJP added an amendment to the Citizenship Act whereby all minority groups — except for Muslims — that were unable to provide documentation could fast-track their citizenship process. Muslims were excluded, not through a loophole, but explicitly in the amendment itself. As a result, hundreds of thousands of poor Muslims in the state of Assam were now effectively stateless, after being Indian their whole life.
The BJP then started building detention centers in Assam where these stateless people would be put to work. Many of the laborers that built the detention center ended up living in it as well. Detention centers don’t have a good reputation in India. Amidst poor reporting records, Tawqeer Hussain of Al-Jazeera reported that there have been nearly 100 deaths, including suicides by the “inmates.” The protests in response to the Citizenship Act have led to at least 26 deaths.
Given Modi’s involvement in the massacre in Gujarat, why does he still have strong support among well-educated, often secular, politically liberal members of the Indian diaspora in the United States?
In India, dozens of activists and journalists have been arrested for even slightly critical expressions such as tweets. Israeli-produced spyware Pegasus is used to target dissenting activists and journalists. The “democratic principles” that India, the U.S. and the West take so much pride in are made a mockery of. Blatant infringements on free speech are apparent. Blatant violations of human rights are apparent. Ethnic cleansing itself is apparent, and the Western nations don’t bat an eye.
Western governments are complicit. You might have heard about the BBC report on Modi’s involvement in the Gujarat killings that has been banned from being shown on Youtube and Facebook at the BJP’s request. The BJP called the report “anti-Indian garbage.” Elon Musk, who claims to pride himself on his value for free speech, caved into the demands of the BJP to remove clips or links to the documentary on Twitter, likely because of economic ties to India.
Modi’s populist rhetoric excites large crowds in a manner similar to that of former President Donald Trump. His push for the private sector’s growth in manufacturing favors the Indian elite and builds potential global partnership opportunities. The Quad – which is the US, Australia, Japan and India – formed as a partnership based on “democracy-based diplomacy” that serves to strengthen Indo-Pacific trade in response to China, who the West frames as a threat. However, as the Quad criticizes China on the grounds of human rights abuses, is it not their job to hold each other accountable to the same principles?
We love Indian culture. Right? The tasty Indian food that is catered to campus events, those Bollywood films we watch with our friends and the fun clothing that your South Asian friends wear on special occasions? None of that exists without India’s diversity of religion. The contributions of Indian Muslims are especially notable. Despite the numerous contributions of Islam in India, such as the Taj Mahal, Muslims are still seen as foreign. That diversity is critical, and that diversity is at risk. Many of your peers’ families back home are at risk.
Impartiality is active and violent, especially when it comes from people who have platforms and voices. Institutions like Northwestern and its students have both. We need to start treating India for what it is, not just a fun Bollywood dancing samosa factory but the world's largest current example of radical ethnonationalism.
We must recognize that the current regime loves The West and will do anything to fall in its favor. Indian politicians care what the West thinks, so American colleges have the power to shape what the West chooses to pay attention to. When students right here at Northwestern persistently raised their voices about apartheid in South Africa in 1986, it shaped the politics of the University itself, which then shaped America’s discourse on the issue. To not talk about India in the same vein we talk about China and Russia is hypocritical.
The dehumanizing rhetoric from powerful politicians, who compare minorities to “termites,” is reminiscent of the language that preceded the Holocaust.
The military occupation and intentional withholding of water and internet access in Kashmir is reminiscent of Palestinians living in an open-air prison in Gaza.
The Citizenship Amendment Act is reminiscent of our country’s Grandfather Clause, which utilized systemic disadvantages of African-Americans to strip them of basic rights.
In Islam, it is stressed that Muslims are one body, and when one part of that body is hurt, the whole body is in pain. I can assure you that the pain from what’s happening in India is felt in Evanston as well. It is our duty as students to, at the least, learn about the discrimination. Then we can empathize. Once we have knowledge and empathy about what’s happening, we can utilize our platforms at this institution to truly mobilize change.
For right now, I’m just asking you to learn. For right now, I ask you to care.
Thumbnail graphic by Mubarak Hassan and Onyekaorisé Chigbogwu