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Why has there been a sudden surge in organised hate crimes against Muslims and Christians all over the country? The conventional narrative has been that such right-wing attacks are aimed at harassing and isolating the religious minorities and demoralising them. Political scientist Zoya Hasan sees the recent hate speech and violence as a manifestation of religious intolerance and subjugating minorities, and she is not wrong.
And yet, what has been happening since mid-2021 defies all conventional logic. Far from the usual kind of Muslim bashing, these incidents appear well coordinated, focused and attuned to the political requirements of the ruling party.
The impression that the current hate surge – including the calls for the genocide of Muslims from a platform in Haridwar last month – is part of a covert operation aimed at generating a favourable environment for fostering religious tension in local communities will persist until Prime Minister Narendra Modi unequivocally condemns this trend. We know from past experience that a curt warning from Modi can instantly silence the so-called ‘fringe’ elements. During the second COVID-19 wave last year, the Kumbh Mela sadhus defiantly refused to cut short the gathering. But within hours of an appeal by Modi, they started dismantling their tents.
The idea behind such provocative acts and statements is to spark sharp debates within local communities, divide them and turn them into anti-minority vote banks for the BJP. Unlike the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots that tilted the entire western in BJP’s favour, the new gambit targets local communities everywhere. It is intended as ground-level fuel for the communal engine Yogi Adityanath has set in motion with his insinuations about the election being a contest between 80% (i.e. Hindus) and 20% (i.e. Muslims).
Clearly, the top leadership has nudged its innumerable parivar outfits to ‘do the needful’, secure in its understanding that the acts or threats of violence which follow can be attributed to a ‘fringe’. Outsourcing the hate campaign in this way, they hope, would spare the country’s top leaders the charge of rights violations while neatly serving their political ends.
Officially sanctioned impunity is the only explanation for the audacity with which the message of genocide was proclaimed at the Hardwar Dharma Sansad. Or for the venomous outbursts which have happened at places like Raipur. In Delhi, members of the Yuva Vahini administered by the Sudarshan TV editor took an oath to make India a ‘Hindu nation’ and fight, die and kill ‘if required’ to achieve the objective. Various Akhadas in the north have announced their decision to form core committees to fight Muslims and launch armed struggles against them. Activist Muslim women are being humiliated by way of ‘auctioning’ them through a ‘Bulli Bai’ app.
This overt hatemongering and violence is accompanied by a collection of events in which Muslim vegetable, biscuit and bangle sellers are prevented from plying their trade, a dosa stall owner told to shut and Muslim shops subjected to community boycott. For months, frenzied mobs prevented Muslims from holding Friday prayers on Gurugram’s unused parks. Going by a tally provided by a Christian rights body, Christmas celebrations in December 2021 were disrupted, churches attacked and religious books destroyed in 486 places.
This sort of an assault has never happened before: so synchronised, assertive and focused, with no fear of punishment. Why do Modi and Amit Shah silently endorse it, forcing the Supreme Court to intervene? Their silence has official complicity writ large.
The decision to ramp up the hate machine came about after a series of electoral reverses from the middle of last year. Sensing its weakening grip, Modi and Shah removed four BJP chief ministers in a span of six months. This was on the assumption that local incumbency was the reason for the reverses. It was also decided to change 50% of the sitting MLAs in election-bound states.
Uttar Pradesh was the biggest worry where Yogi Adityanath, who was summoned to Delhi, refused to resign. This forced BJP headquarters to retain him as its chief ministerial nominee. The panic was such that Modi made repeated forays to the poll-bound states to gear up the party’s campaign and summoned various chief ministers for special strategy briefings. Party MPs were called in batches.
Modi himself went on inaugurating and announcing schemes in all five states. There were 22 projects worth Rs 8,500 crore in Manipur, then projects worth 1,800 crore in Uttarakhand and a spate schemes for the Poorvanchal and Bundelkhand areas of UP. This was accompanied by a flood of publicity hoardings and an advertisement blitzkrieg with Modi pictures.
Such was the nervousness that all this was done months before the elections. It is clear now that the covert operation of using ‘fringe’ elements to polarise the country on religious lines is also one such panic reaction.
Analysing the 2019 results, Lokniti had highlighted a discernible Hindu consolidation among voters in favour of the BJP. Suhas Palshikar has attributed Modi’s spectacular show in 2014 and 2019 to a combination of majoritarian assertion and popular yearning for ‘authoritarian/Bonapartist leadership’. He concludes that the percentage of majoritarian voters – i. e. those who believe that in a democracy the will of the majority must prevail – among BJP voters rose from 40% in 2014 to 50% in 2019. Similarly, the percentage of those who wanted a strong leader to govern went up from 40% in 2013 to as high as 60% in 2019. Significantly, 40% of the sample studied in 2019 rooted for both ‘majoritarian will’ and ‘strong leader’.
If the BJP under its ‘strong leader’ could win over 50% of India’s 80% Hindu electorate, that accounts for a solid 40% of the national vote share — enough for majority in a first-past-the-post system. The BJP’s gambit is essentially intended to bridge the 10% gap that lies between its current vote share and a majority of all votes cast. That would then be used as a springboard for more fundamental changes in the Indian political system and constitution than what the BJP has been able to push so far.
For Modi and the BJP, the stakes are high because the Sangh parivar is not satisfied with merely retaining power in the states and in New Delhi. It knows it must extend its political footprint further in order to be able to consolidate the gains it has so far made. And in the face of Modi’s underwhelming performance on the economic front, the only viable card the BJP believes it has is communalism.
P. Raman covered politics for national dailies since 1978 and is the author of Strong Leader Populism: How Modi’s Hybrid Regime Model is Reshaping India’s Political Narrative, Ecosystem and Symbols.