On Sept. 28, in the village of Dadri in the state of Uttar Pradesh, barely 50 miles from India’s capital of New Delhi, a Hindu mob beat a Muslim laborer, Mohammed Akhlaq, to death. The mob had attacked Akhlaq at home in the belief that he had slaughtered a cow to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid. The horrific absurdity of the crime was further accentuated when subsequent forensic examination of the meat taken from Akhlaq’s refrigerator demonstrated that it was actually mutton.The killing generated understandable anger and profound dismay within India’s vast civil society. However, it took a full eight days for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who belongs to the right-wing, pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to even allude to the incident publicly. And in his first public statement, Modi still failed to condemn the killing unequivocally. Instead he urged both Hindus and Muslims to refrain from violence and instead focus on combating the common scourge of poverty.Unfortunately, more violence by Hindus since Akhlaq’s murder suggests that message fell on deaf ears. On Oct. 14, a mob in a village in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh killed a 20-year-old truck driver, believing he was part of a cattle-smuggling gang. Days earlier in the nearby state of Jammu and Kashmir, another Hindu mob, enraged by rumors of the slaughter of cows, attacked a 16-year-old truck driver, who later died from his injuries.
Modi’s unwillingness to censure the perpetrators of Akhlaq’s murder reveals a lot about India’s prime minister, and it underscores his government’s ambivalence on a bedrock principle of India’s constitutional order: secularism. Worse still, it is just the latest in a series of moves by his government, including its studied silence in the aftermath of other communal and religious violence, that suggests it may well be seeking to usher in a new social order—one that privileges India’s dominant Hindu community over everyone else. Of course, previous governments have also failed to stoutly defend the norm of India’s secular tradition. However, under Modi, it is under more serious threat.
When Modi assumed office in May 2014, some commentators in India and abroad already expressed concerns about his views on Indian secularism. Their fears, in large part, stemmed from his role during an anti-Muslim pogrom that had swept through a significant part of Modi’s home state of Gujarat in 2002 when he was its chief minister, with allegations that he failed to contain and even tacitly condoned the violence. A three-judge bench of the Indian Supreme Court absolved Modi of any culpability in the riots on the grounds of “insufficient evidence.” Nevertheless, his critics have maintained that Modi’s lack of contrition or remorse about the tragedy remains deeply disturbing and indicative of his lack of commitment to the protection of minority rights in India.
These misgivings do not seem to be unfounded. One of the first portents that Modi’s government may have a distinct and even intolerant socio-cultural agenda arose with the appointment of Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, a retired historian with unimpressive professional qualifications to the highly influential position of the director of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). Rao, quite apart from his lack of professional standing, is known for his highly idiosyncratic views about India’s historical past. He has claimed, among other things, that the two great Hindu epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—constitute historical records rather than religious works. Given that the ICHR has a disproportionate role in drafting civics and history textbooks, as well as supporting academic conferences and symposia, his appointment cannot be considered trivial.
While a cause of distress to Indian academics and intellectuals, Rao’s appointment paled in comparison to the government’s near-deafening silence in the wake of several incidents that have stoked widespread fears about the future of both intellectual and cultural pluralism in the country. In late August, two unidentified men shot dead a noted Indian writer, rationalist scholar and cultural critic, M.M. Kalburgi, outside his home in the southern state of Karnataka. Kalburgi, known for his iconoclastic views about religion, including denouncing the worship of idols, had aroused the public ire of BJP activists in Karnataka.
Despite an outpouring of public outrage over Kalburgi’s death, no arrests to date have been made of the likely perpetrators. Police authorities have only questioned some local BJP politicians in connection with the murder. Other Indian intellectuals who have vocally embraced the cause of secularism and cultural pluralism have also attracted the wrath of Hindu zealots. A noted left-wing politician, Govind Pansare, and his wife were shot outside their home by two men on a motorcycle in Kolhapur, in the western state of Maharashtra, in February; Pansare later died from his wounds. He had previously incurred the opprobrium of a local right-wing, Hindu organization, Sanatan Sanstha, for having criticized their efforts to valorize Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin.
These episodes cannot be seen as isolated events. Instead they are indicative of the rising tide of religious intolerance under Modi’s watch. Against this backdrop, members of Modi’s Cabinet, as well as fellow BJP compatriots in states across India, have made public statements that only generated greater qualms about the depth of Modi and the BJP’s commitment to intellectual freedom and social diversity. Two recent statements by highly placed BJP individuals highlight these dangers.
The first was the reaction of Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma to the lynching of Akhlaq for allegedly eating beef. Sharma referred to the murder as an “accident.” More recently, even as the controversy surrounding Akhlaq’s killing continued to swirl, the chief minister of the northern state of Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar, also a member of the BJP said that “Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef . . . The cow is an article of faith here.” Khattar later expressed “regret” for his remarks, which the BJP, faced with vigorous protests, formally disassociated itself from. However, the mere fact that Khattar so casually made such an inflammatory public remark underscores some repugnant features of India’s emerging cultural landscape.
This is hardly an exhaustive survey of the worrying signs in India, but they do exemplify some very legitimate concerns. It is not that past Indian governments enjoyed an unblemished record of protecting dissenting political views and upholding secular values. What is different today, however, is that Modi’s government seems either oblivious to the dangers that bigotry poses to India’s social order or, worse still, is tacitly encouraging its emergence. Regardless of whichever one is true, neither bodes well for the future of the country.