Since Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist and leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), became prime minister of India in May 2014, groups of radical Hindu nationalists have been terrorising religious minorities across the country.
According to a leading Christian rights group, at least 600 such attacks took place between Modi’s election and August of this year. One-hundred-and forty-nine of these assaults were against Christians; the rest were targeted at the country’s Muslim community.
The attacks, say critics, are being orchestrated by radical groups affiliated to Hindu nationalist and political pressure group: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Prime Minister Modi is a lifelong member of the RSS and the backing of its members was crucial in helping his BJP party win the 2014 election. Since then, emboldened by the result, Modi’s most extreme nationalist supporters have routinely taken to the streets, using violence and intimidation to press their claim for a purely Hindu India.
Muslims have been forced to convert to Hinduism, homes burnt down and people even murdered for allegedly consuming beef; cows having special status in the Hindu faith.
Meanwhile, Hindu nationalists have been rewriting school textbooks in some states and holding training camps for teenage boys and girls in an apparent attempt to inculcate children into their cause.
We asked Indian filmmaker and journalist Mandakini Gahlot, herself a Hindu, to go in search of those who want a purely Hindu nation and find out what their resurgence means for the future of the world’s most populous secular democracy.
By Mandakini Gahlot
On September 28, just a few days after we completed filming this documentary, a 52-year-old Muslim man, Mohammaded Akhlaq, was lynched by a Hindu mob on suspicion of slaughtering cows and consuming beef.
His 22-year-old son also suffered severe injuries in the attack. He was hit over the head with a sewing machine and remains in hospital recovering from two major brain surgery procedures.
The cow is considered a sacred animal in Hinduism and worshipped widely across the country. Various states have legislation in place to control the level of cattle slaughter. But more recently, Hindu nationalists have been demanding the law be more stringently applied and even calling for a blanket ban on beef. In March, the local government in the Indian state of Maharashtra, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power, did just that, introducing a wide-ranging ban on the sale and consumption of beef.
At street level, emboldened mobs of Hindu nationalists appear unwilling to wait for such laws to be passed in other states. Across the country, they have been taking matters into their own hands over the last year. Ajju Chouhan, leader of the radical group Bajrang Dal who consider themselves foot soldiers in the Hindu nationalist movement, agreed to let us film his followers on just such a patrol. We joined the group as they walked the city roads inspecting vehicles and seeking out anyone transporting cows for slaughter. Chouhan was quite open about what would happen to anyone caught; they might not be killed, but they would be “badly beaten.”
What appears to drive Chouhan and others like him is the belief that Hindus are somehow being ousted and replaced in their homeland. “The time has come for us to take back what’s ours, to claim Hindustan for Hindus,” he told us time and again.
In fact, the figures on religious affiliation tell a very different story to Chouhan’s proclamations. As things currently stand, Hindus are by far and away the majority religious group in India, constituting 79.8 percent of the population. The second largest religious group in the country are Muslims at 14.28 percent.
I have been tracking the activities of most radical Hindu groups for several years now, but the last 18 months has brought ever more unreasonable, intolerant and sometimes violent displays of aggression towards anyone deemed to be diverting from their vision of a pure “Hindustan.” A leading Christian rights group documented 600 attacks on minority communities by Hindu extremists between Prime Minister Modi coming to power in May 2014 and August of this year. One-hundred-and forty-nine of these assaults were against Christians, the rest were targeted at the country’s Muslim community.
The attack on the Akhlaqs, the father and son accused of slaughtering and consuming beef, occurred in the village of Bisara, which sits barely 100km from the capital New Delhi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh where much of this documentary was shot.
Local reports quote state police sources as saying that eight of the eleven men who have since been arrested on suspicion of murdering Mohammad Akhlaq are direct relations of a local BJP campaigner, Sanjay Rana – one of them is his son.
Yet despite apparently compelling evidence that a hate crime was committed in such close proximity to the centre of government, calls for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address it and take action appear to have fallen on deaf ears. He has so far remained silent on the issue despite a large public outcry.
Other members of his BJP party are more vocal on the subject. MP Sakshi Maharaj, who features in the documentary, openly says he is willing to kill and be killed to protect the cow.
Hinduism is, and continues to be, one of the great religions of the world. Its polytheistic nature means that Hindus worship a wide range of Gods – often within the same family – thereby allowing greater tolerance for differing views. This tolerance has been the hallmark of Hinduism for generations.
But the Hindu nationalist movement is attempting to hijack our religious identity to serve its own vision, ignoring, and often attacking, any opposing viewpoint.
India is the world’s most populous secular democracy. The Indian constitution is supposed to guarantee minority groups the freedom to practise their religion without fear. But today there are worrying signs everywhere suggesting that intrinsic right to freedom of expression and affiliation is under threat.
While attacks against minorities, and indeed writers and intellectuals have occurred in India before, some groups within this new wave of resurgent Hindu nationalism may be more brazen and potentially dangerous than anything we have seen before. Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Modi’s silence on the subject appears all the more ominous.