India, Populism, and the power of the ‘Other’

Adam Saraswati Rawlings, Comment Editor for SCAN

In the seventy two years since India gained its independence from the British, a distinct precedent has been espoused throughout political discourses is that of religious difference. Established in the very partition of India, a dichotomy has formed, and grown, between India’s Hindu majority and it’s religious minorities. This is most often historically India’s Muslim majority (which is destined to become the largest single population of Muslims in the world) but has from time to time turned to Sikhs (notably in the 1980s), and other communities. This narrative of religious difference is not a impenetrable barrier to religious cohesion in India, in fact it can be argued that India displays a more sophisticated model of religion conscious democracy, though the ever growing populist narrative of India’s politics, this assessment grows weaker and weaker.

In recent years a rise in violence against India’s Muslim communities, particularly beef vigilantism and actions against ‘love jihad’, has coincided with the premiership of Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While Hindu Nationalism has been present in India since before the nation’s independence, the recent spike in violent Hindu Nationalism is in no small feat connected to the populist politics that saw a BJP victory in the 2014 general election. Now that India is in the process of electing and announcing the results of its 2019 general election, a trend is clear. The BJP are playing off of fears embedded within India’s political conscious tied up in present fears of the ‘other’. One only has to look as far as the speech given by Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, in March of 2017, when he assumed office, to see the narrative the BJP is using to strike fear into the heart of its votership.

This year Modi’s campaigning has heavily focused on Indian security, deviating from his previous campaign which centred itself on economic and social reform, essentially playing off the recent unrest in Indian controlled Kashmir. The party has used the climate in global media of Islam at the forefront of negative press, to push the idea that Hindus are under threat, both from the nations that border India, and increasingly from the Muslim citizens from within. Modi has used this, along with what many describe as the BJP’s historically anti-Muslim narrative, to whip up the emotions of India’s working class Hindu voters to rally behind him once again. The frank ways in which Modi has used Kashmir in his campaigning has shown a populism which banks on a continued culture of unrest and distrust between India’s religious communities. Further, the unrest of Kashmir’s internal politics only serves to feed into the carefully curated image the BJP and wider Hindu Nationalist movement has crafted of India as a nation under threat from the ‘other’. The sacred ideal of India as a Hindu nation, though not removed from the contexts of India or Hinduism, are manipulated and projected to show the BJP as the protectors of India’s integrity as a Hindu homeland. The recent murder of a BJP politician in Kashmir and the widespread boycott of the 2019 elections in Kashmir have only added to this.

The language the BJP increasingly uses not only glorifies the Hinduness of India, but serves to place the minority, especially the Muslim minority, as an integral threat to the foundations of the nation. In recent times the use of hate speech from BJP politicians has reportedly shot up to a head spinning 500% on what it has been in previous years, with Amit Shah the party president using words like ‘termites’ to describe Muslim immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The real danger of this rhetoric is how much of the Indian polity is now beginning to buy into it as legitimate and how successful it has been in inspiring Islamophobic violence. In BJP strongholds like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Gujarat the increase in Hindu Nationalist violence has ballooned since the election of Modi in 2014 and by 2018 had rapidly increased still. Such violence has even permeated India’s usually apolitical film industry, with the blockbuster Padmaavat sparking major controversy and threats of violence due to concerns from emboldened Hindu Nationalist vigilantes over Hindu-Muslim relationships shown on screen. The populist narrative projected by the BJP fuels concern and aggression over the perceived threat of the other has bled into the understanding of what nationality and Hinduness is to a large swathe of Hindus, particularly those from lower income backgrounds who make up a large number of those involved in Hindutva violence. The BJP’s contribution and captainship to the idea of Muslims as a distinct and threatening other is making India an increasingly unsafe, unequal, and ever dangerous country.

Ultimately the othering of Muslims is not something unique to India, evidenced by the social climate of the Western world, or to the BJP given the diversity of Hindu Nationalist groups in India. What is distinct though, is the amount of influence and power that the BJP has to control and manipulate this narrative to draw support for their party, as well as manipulate the social conditions of India, especially rural and less economically prosperous parts of India.

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