In late February, India’s capital city experienced inter-communal riots the likes of which it had not seen since the 1980s. Mobs descended on poor mixed neighbourhoods, attacking Muslims and ransacking their houses and businesses. More than 50 people died as a result of the violence that ensued.
The violence came as thousands of people – Muslims and non-Muslims – had been protesting for weeks against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which, along with a nationwide National Population Register is being seen as a move to disenfranchise millions of Muslims and, in the process, make life difficult for all of the country’s poor.
The protests have been met with severe opposition by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Barely a month before the violence broke out, the governing BJP ran a deeply polarising campaign in the local Delhi elections, supplemented by even more radical anti-Muslim propaganda on pro-government television channels and social media.
The BJP’s loss to a local party compelled some commentators to declare that it would have no choice but to tone down its use of communal rhetoric and focus on policy issues. However, the Delhi riots demonstrate that the party is far from abandoning the politics of hate and, in fact, may escalate further.
Inter-communal incitement has reached such proportions in India under the BJP that it is no longer possible to dial back. Communal fault lines have existed in the subcontinent for ages, deepened irrevocably by the bloody partition of India in 1947. The BJP’s propaganda exploits these fault lines to turn India’s unemployed and undereducated youth into its foot soldiers and the country’s middle-class into armchair supporters of its politics of hatred. Frankenstein’s monster, once created, takes on a life of its own and is impossible to tame.
Even if the strategy does not always win elections in some localities, moving away from it would only mean losing an electorate which has already been electrified by anti-Muslim messaging.
Furthermore, the BJP’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is not merely opportunistic. It is more than a mere tactic to polarise voters and distract from an underperforming economy and goes to the very core of its raison d’etre. The party’s roots go back to a socio-cultural movement that advocates that India should be a Hindu country and rejects its inherently secular constitution.
The party was founded to further the agenda of transforming India into a Hindu majoritarian country and has come into power with that mandate. This is reflected not merely in its rhetoric but also its concrete policy decisions – from revoking Kashmir’s special status, imposing restrictions on its population and leadership, to criminalising triple talaq among Muslims and, most recently, passing the CAA.
In a bid to reduce Muslims to second-class citizens in the country, the party is hollowing out India’s democracy and constitutional principles by co-opting institutions such as the judiciary election commission investigative agencies and the police force. It reached for archaic anti-free speech laws to crack down widely on dissidents, critics, journalists, political opponents and even peaceful protesters holding candle-lit vigils.
India is set to be the world’s youngest country, with almost 44 percent of its population under the age of 25. A large number of these young people are unemployed or underemployed, with the government failing to create the number of jobs needed to keep pace with those entering the workforce.
This makes a large population of young people particularly, though not exclusively, susceptible to the monster of communal polarisation unleashed by the ruling party and its expansive propaganda machinery.
This precarious scenario is worsened by the deliberate decimation of the very institutions that are meant to safeguard against the breakdown of law and order. The violence in Delhi is an urgent reminder that India is on the edge. If, in the capital city, citizens can be displaced, hurt, and killed with impunity, it is horrifying to imagine what is to come in the remote parts of the country.
At the same time, there has been no serious reaction from the international community to the BJP’s increasingly divisive politics. The day violence broke out in Delhi, US President Donald Trump was visiting India. It takes a special kind of callousness to praise Prime Minister Narendra Modi for maintaining religious freedom in India while parts of Delhi are on fire.
The world, which should hold India to high standards of democracy and civil liberties, does not seem to have taken proportionate cognisance of the country’s sharp turn towards a dangerous precipice. This, despite the fact that the sheer size of the country’s population will magnify the consequences of widespread unrest and the repercussions will be felt beyond the region.
In his 1933 essay, The Changing Age, Indian Nobel literature laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote of the Nazi takeover of Germany: “Germany, in which the light of Europe’s Culture was at its brightest, has torn up all civilized values – with what ease has an unspeakable devilry overtaken the entire country.”
Today, almost 90 years later, India’s civilised constitutional values are also being torn up in front of our eyes and, to paraphrase India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as the world sleeps India must awake to the challenges before it.
While there has been a fair amount of resistance to the rise of growing intolerance in India, the carnage in Delhi has upped the ante. There is an urgent need to think beyond candle-lit marches and social media outrage. We as a nation need to organise better, coordinate better and come up with concerted efforts, including grassroots activism, judicial activism, political oppositional unity, and fighting misinformation on social media in order to arrest the country’s slide into imminent authoritarianism.
Bearing in mind lessons learned from regional tensions left to simmer through history, the Indian people must forge new paths for the struggle for India’s secular and democratic character, because in the end, our fate is in our own hands, as it should be.
We cannot let an unspeakable evil overtake our country.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.