by Arif Rafiq
Is the world’s largest democracy also becoming the largest source of extreme Hindu nationalism?
Islamophobia, it turns out, can be intersectional, too.
Hindu extremists are watching with glee as radical monks in Myanmar’s Rakhine region, along with the country’s army, are engaged in a fast-track ethnic cleansing campaign targeting the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
They see Buddhism as an “Indic religion” – i.e. a religious tradition that originated in India – and admire the muscular version of the faith being applied so cruelly toward Muslims. This, after all, is what they aspire to do to India’s Muslims, and have done to some extent in pogroms that have taken place virtually every decade since India’s independence.
On social media, Hindutva extremists in India and even in the West are literally calling for the murder of the Rohingya. They spread fake news to depict the imperilled community as a threat to India’s cohesion and security. But India’s anti-Rohingya campaign isn’t restricted to an online army of trolls. It goes to the very top of the country’s leadership.
New Delhi is moving to deport the estimated 40,000 Rohingya Muslims, even as they flee for their lives.
India’s home minister – the top internal security official – has asserted that the Rohingya are “illegal immigrants,” not refugees. Indian security forces have mobilised along their border with Bangladesh and Myanmar to thwart the influx of Rohingya Muslims.
India’s ruling BJP and Hindutva extremists have been stoking anti-Rohingya sentiment. In April, a Hindutva extremist in the Jammu region occupied by India threatened to “identify and kill” Rohingya residing in the area, far from the border with Bangladesh and Myanmar. Within a week, a Rohingya family was attacked and the modest shelters the Rohingya called home were destroyed.
The BJP-linked Republic and Times Now—the two channels that dominate India’s English-language TV news market—have engaged in a relentless anti-Rohingya propaganda campaign. They promote hashtags like #RohingyaTerrorExposed and #SendRohingyasBack.
Arnab Goswami, the loud, pompous host of India’s most-watched English news program, has been particularly cruel. He has asserted that the “Rohingyas have to go” and “India [is] for the Indians.” As the bodies of Rohingya children wash up on the shores of Bangladesh, Goswami said: “Let them be floating around [in] a boat in the Indian Ocean.”
Some of this may have to do with the politics of West Bengal, one of the last Indian states where the BJP has yet to gain a foothold. Since the spring, the BJP has tried to radicalize the Hindu population and pit them against the state’s Muslims. In April, BJP President Amit Shah kicked off the party’s campaign in West Bengal by decrying the state government as anti-Hindu and speaking out against so-called Muslim “appeasement.”
During normally peaceful Hindu festivals, Hindu extremist groups have handed out swords to children. Violent Hindu groups are on a massive recruitment drive and BJP elements have actively tried to incite Hindu-Muslim violence to consolidate the Hindu vote.
India’s anti-Rohingya hysteria points towards a larger issue: that of the direction in which India is going.
The country’s poor have been hit by consecutive bad policymaking by New Delhi. First, in November 2016, Narendra Modi announced that the 500 and 1,000 rupee bills would be taken out of circulation. Indians had less than two months to deposit the bills into their bank accounts and only a few weeks to exchange them for new bills. Then, in July of this year, the government rolled out the goods and services tax, placing more businesses under the tax net. The effects on small and medium enterprises, the farmers, and the poor has been disastrous.
All this comes as India’s economic growth continues to slide. Growth this past quarter was 5.7 percent — the lowest in three years. Jobs growth remains dismal. Manufacturing is in decline. And so, as the economy underperforms and the lives of many poor people are devastated, Modi—once seen as an economic magician—is reverting to the old, tried and tested trick up his sleeves: stoking hatred for Muslims.
The international community does a disservice to vulnerable communities in South Asia when it glowingly depicts India as a beacon of tolerance and multiculturalism. The reality is that the India of today has elected a man as its prime minister who presided over the slaughter of over a thousand Muslims in Gujarat state in 2002 — a man who then compared the slain Muslims to a puppy hit by a car, and referred to Muslim displacement camps, filled with rape survivors, as “baby-making centres.”
This year, Modi appointed as chief minister of the largest state, a Hindu monk who said: “If one Hindu girl marries a Muslim man, then we will take 100 Muslim girls in return.” That monk, Yogi Adityanath, is widely rumoured as a potential successor to Modi after the next general elections.
India’s media does not condemn these men for their hate. Instead, they are described as “rock stars.” Creeping Hindu chauvinism combined with an unprincipled corporate media have desensitised Indians to the pervasive hate in their country.
In Narendra Modi’s “New India,” Indian Muslims and now Myanmar’s Rohingya have paid a price simply for being who they are. Soon India will have the world’s largest population. It aspires to be a great power, if not a superpower. Who will be the next target of its caravan of hate?
Arif Rafiq is a Fellow at the Center for Global Policy. He also is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC and a non-resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP. Originally published for TRT.