Hindu Fascism Rising
Outside the state headquarters of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Indian state of Gujarat, the results of the nation's watershed elections were trickling in. Soon it became clear that the BJP would not just win, but sweep the elections. The party gained a two-thirds majority in the state assembly on December 15th, routing their primary opponent, the secular Congress party.
The streets of Ahmedabad, Gujarat's largest city, were filled with confetti and saffron flags. Jubilant Hindu men danced around mannequins of the victorious incumbent Chief Minister Narendra Modi, setting off firecrackers in the bright December sun. One BJP supporter roared, "Taliban lost! Al Queda lost! Islamic countries lost! And Hindus won to Mr Modi!"
The Victory of Hatred
The provocative and notorious Narendra Modi ran on a vitriolic election platform which demonized Indian Muslims and Pakistan - casting them as potential terrorists endangering the lives of all Hindus. "The party rode to power on the strength of Muslim blood and tears," says JK Bandukwala, a Muslim professor of physics who was nearly killed during riots last spring.
The elections followed the worst religious violence of India's recent history. Last February, after almost 60 Hindus were killed on a train in Gujarat, reprisal killings against Muslims ravaged the state for weeks. By the time the state finally took control, 2,000 people were dead. Dozens of human rights reports have indicted Modi's government for sponsoring the attacks against Muslims. "The state was quite explicitly involved in the violence," asserts Gurpreet Mahajan, a political science professor in Delhi, "and that means we must find new ways to compel the state to take responsibility for its citizens."
Since the riots, divisions between communities in Gujarat are so strong that in some localities, Muslims and Hindus stood in separate lines at voting booths. A recent opinion poll found that 58 percent of Gujaratis are unprepared to have a member of a different community as their neighbor. After casting their vote, Muslims retreated to their ghettoes or left their homes, fearing the repercussions of a BJP victory. In some parts of the state, BJP victory processions sparked riots between Hindus and Muslims, killing two and injuring dozens.
Across the street from the BJP headquarters on D-day, a group of Muslim men sat in silence outside their tobacco shop, watching the BJP's revelry. Confetti and firecracker smoke drifted toward them. Farooq Sheikh, in a skullcap and a Muslim beard, said grimly, "Why should we bother trying to hide? Now they have the mandate of the people and the police are with them. If the government wants to do violence against Muslims who will stop them."
Bridging the Divide
Despite the overwhelming odds, grassroot activists continue to work to bridge the religious abyss created by months of extremist rhetoric and widespread violence.
When the state government did little to help riot victims, Gujaratis began organizing relief efforts themselves. During the month of March, thousands of refugees flocked to the Gujarat town of Godhra, where women set up an ad-hoc relief camp. Many of the Muslim women had been widowed or molested, most had children to feed, and almost all had lost their livelihoods. The camps started offering women classes in literacy, sewing, and computers. The organizers say not only did the experience empower victimized women, but it allowed them to step into the public eye and speak up for their community's needs.
On the week of the election, hundreds of Hindu and Muslim women traveled more than ten hours from their villages to attend the conference. Most were from rural areas, illiterate and had traveled at great personal risk through a state plagued by violence.
Some testified to watching their daughters be humiliated, molested and burned to death. And all pledged to fight against sectarian violence and for the empowerment of women across religious lines. Conference organizer Bhavna Ramrakiani said it was important for women to publicly speak out against the violence because "when a woman suffers during violence, she suffers as a woman first. We wanted to create a bonding between women and ask them, what kind of governance do they want."
Resistance to the BJP has taken many forms. A week-long peace festival this month brought some of India's most famous singers and poets to Ahmedabad. The attendees included Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi and member of the ANC parliament in South Africa, who was born in Gujarat.
The post-riot polarization in Gujarat, however, has been staggering. Many rural women and Dalits (the so-called untouchable caste of Hindus) found it difficult to break through communal lines when it came down to voting. The BJP's strong identity-based appeal subsumed caste, class and gender differences in the polling booth. In fact, the party did best in the areas of Gujarat where rioting took place last spring.
Sheba George, director of an Ahmedebad NGO, says Hindus and Muslims have become far more suspicious of each other that since the violence, to the point that Dalit women refuse to talk about their experiences and fears in front of a Muslim woman counselor. George says, "The priority now is to figure out ground-level protection for Muslims and other minorities. There may not be another massacre immediately because they feel they have taught Muslims a lesson. But there will be large-scale, acceptable discrimination."
Fascist Future For India?
Gujarat's election was widely seen as a test of the BJP's political future. Modi's tactics may well have saved the faltering party, which leads India's national coalition government, from a loss in the upcoming national elections. "The magic of Modi and militancy has worked for the BJP in Gujarat, and now they know they can repeat his success all over the country," predicts Yusuf Hakim, director of a Muslim hospital in Ahmedabad.
Like most Muslims, Hakim was shocked by the wide margin of the BJP victory. Gujarati Muslims, who make up about 10 percent of Gujarat's population, overwhelmingly voted for the Congress party. But even the Congress party, which historically has a strong secular identity, ran a campaign that catered to Hindus. They only fielded five Muslim candidates and avoided campaigning in Muslim areas. Yusuf Khan, principal correspondent for the Times of India in Ahmedabad, says the Muslim community voted for Congress only because they had no other choice. "The secular credentials of Congress are highly doubtful," he says. "During the riots, they were not vocal about the crimes against Muslims. We have to think of creating a third party force which will not remain silent on atrocities." The BJP victory is a warning bell for the future of Indian politics. Defeated Congress party leader Shankersinh Vaghela calls it "the death of humanity." The World Hindu Council and other rightwing organizations were quick to claim credit for Modi's win, and to promise a resurgence of nationalist Hindu ideology. India's Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani said the BJP's renewed mandate "has a lesson for the whole country."
The verdict has left India's Muslims and secular activists floundering. They are trying not to echo Vaghela's doomsday sentiments, but many compare Gujarat to 1933 Germany. Father Cedric Prakash runs a human rights center in Ahmedabad, which was very active in organizing against the BJP. One of the first things he did after Dec. 15 was buy a copy of Mein Kampf. "My first reaction was complete despondency and betrayal -- not of me, but of our country," Prakash says. "We can anticipate our society becoming even more polarized. There's going to be a lot of witch-hunting, not only of minorities but of secular activists." Flush with the BJP victory, the World Hindu Council's Togadia announced that secular activists had been issued a death sentence. Activists and scholars agree that this is not an empty threat and many talk of going underground.
With the BJP in power, most acknowledge there is no short-term solution to the spread of militant nationalism across India. But many find hope in India's secular constitution, and in Hinduism's long held traditions of plurality and openness. Ela Gandhi says India should look to South Africa for inspiration. "You have to persist, if you want to overcome," she says.