Earlier this year, when Narendra Modi, the frontrunner to become India’s next prime minister, decided to run from Varanasi, a city that many in India consider to be India’s holiest, many of his supporters co-opted a Hindu chant, ‘har har Mahadev,’ a traditional greeting in Varanasi among Hindus.
The chant praises the Hindu lord Shiva, also known as Mahadev, and it literally means, ‘rid us of pain,’ though it was once a battle cry of ancient Hindu kings.
Modi’s supporters co-opted the chant as ‘har har Modi,’ a turn of events that even left some Hindu scholars uncomfortable. Though Modi and other leaders in his party, the conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) eventually called on supporters to desist, it’s become the most notorious ‘dog whistle’ in a campaign where religious tension is bubbling fervently below the surface.
It also confounded worries among India’s religious minorities that they might be second-class citizens under a Modi government. The overwhelming majority of Indians are Hindu, including nearly 80.5% of the Indian population, largely as a result of the 1947 Partition that created the Muslim-majority Pakistan. But 13.4% of India’s population is Muslim — another 2.3% is Christian, another 1.9% is Sikh and another 0.8% is Buddhist. In a country of 1.236 billion people, that translates to over 165 million Muslims, and that’s a fairly large group of folks that could feel threatened by a potential Modi government.
For many Indians, the key question of this year’s national elections has less to do with development or economics but rather about a series of riots in 2002 that left at least 790 Indian Muslims, and possibly up to 2,000 Muslims, dead.
Those riots, which took place in Gujarat, were one of the first crises in the administration of a new chief minister, Narendra Modi, just four months on the job. Modi had succeeded Keshubhai Patel, another BJP chief minister whose rule faltered after the loss of several by-elections and charges of mismanagement of the relief efforts from a devastating 2001 earthquake in Gujarat.
Twelve years later, Modi’s response to those riots and the lack of clarity over his responsibility for the bloodletting is at the heart of the national election campaign. Suspicion that Modi subtly encouraged the violence has dogged him ever since. Though he’s been technically absolved by the Indian supreme court, the Gujarati riots prevented Modi from receiving a visa to enter the United States in the mid-2000s and Modi himself has refused to apologize for the tragedy that took place on his watch. even as Modi has increasingly used his economic stewardship of Gujarat as the basis of his presidential-style campaign.
So what actually happened? And why has it become so central to the current election campaign?
A look back at 2002
On February 27, 2002, a train caught fire in Godhra, killing 58 people, including several Hindu activists returning from Ayodhya (another notorious site of communal violence in India’s recent past). No one really knows exactly what caused the fire, but Hindus across India immediately blamed Muslim terrorists. The counter-wave of reprisals ranks among the worst instances of communal violence in Indian history, with a subset of Hindu extremists killing, raping, burning and looting across Gujarat for three days until police gained sufficient control over the situation to end the pogroms, which left nearly 250 Hindus and between 790 and 2,000 Muslims dead.
Edward Luce, who was living in India at the time, wrote for The Financial Times last week that the riots showcase Modi’s ‘dark side,’ the religiously divisive Hyde to Modi’s otherwise economic whiz-kid Jekyll:
Mr Modi did not wait for any inquiry. Just a few months before facing re-election in a contest he was by no means certain to win, Mr Modi seized on the Godhra incident to show how decisive he could be. Citing Newton’s Third Law: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, Mr Modi gave the rioters the cue they needed.
No one, Indian or foreigner, who covered the following, gruesome, 72 hours, was in any doubt about the meaning of Mr Modi’s signal. For three days and nights, mobs of fanatics went from house to house armed with electoral rolls (to identify the religion of each household), dragged women and children out of their homes, poured kerosene down their throats and ignited them to crowds of cheering onlookers. The police in Ahmedabad and other Gujarati cities did not intervene. After 72 hours, the police intervened and the rioting stopped. Defenders of Mr Modi would have us believe that he lost control of his own police force. That would make him a weak leader, which contradicts his principal selling point. I do not believe that explanation. Six months later Mr Modi won re-election in a landslide. As he put it at the time, the Hindu majority had awoken.
Modi has been accused of varying degrees of involvement in the disaster — some critics argue that he actively encouraged and directed the killings while others argue that his relatively slow response merely encouraged the bloodshed. A special investigation at the instigation of India’s supreme court in 2012 found no evidence of Modi’s malfeasance.
The closest that Modi has come to an apology was in December 2013, when he expressed ‘sadness’ for the riots:
Recalling the outbreak of communal riots about 12 years ago, Modi writes, “Within a mere five months however, the mindless violence of 2002 had dealt us another unexpected blow. Innocents were killed. Families rendered helpless. Property built through years of toil destroyed. Still struggling to get back on its feet from the natural devastation, this was a crippling blow to an already shattered and hurting Gujarat. I was shaken to the core. ‘Grief’, ‘Sadness’, ‘Misery’, ‘Pain’, ‘Anguish’, ‘Agony’ – mere words could not capture the absolute emptiness one felt on witnessing such inhumanity.”
“On one side was the pain of the victims of the earthquake, and on the other the pain of the victims of the riots. In decisively confronting this great turmoil, I had to single-mindedly focus all the strength given to me by the almighty, on the task of peace, justice and rehabilitation; burying the pain and agony I was personally wracked with,” he adds.
Modi’s RSS and Hindutva background
Critics argue that his profession of sadness falls far short of a necessary apology, given Modi’s background as a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist volunteer organization founded in 1925 that’s been described as a paramilitary organization in India.
Though it has partial roots in the fascism movements of Europe during World War II, the RSS has played a key role in the BJP’s development as an alternative to the long-governing Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) — though not without controversy. A former RSS member, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, one of the most defining figures of the 20th century both in India and globally. More recently, it played an important role defying prime minister Indira Gandhi’s anti-democratic declaration of ’emergency’ rule between 1975 and 1978, which led to the Janata Dal party’s emergence and, ultimately, the first BJP governments in the 1990s. The RSS has been careful to characterize itself as an educational and a cultural group, not a political party. But its role in the BJP’s rise is undisputed, and Modi’s past in the RSS has made plenty of secular Indians uncomfortable.
Though he was briefly married in 1968 as a result of an arranged marriage in his youth, Modi is a vegetarian and, as far as anyone knows, celibate in accordance with RSS expectations. He acknowledged his wife, Jashodaben, for the first time in a campaign affidavit a month ago, and Modi’s brother explained that the marriage was merely a formality that resulted from a superstitious family. In the past, Modi has pointed to his status as a single man as an explanation for eschewing nepotism.
But it’s not just Modi’s past with the RSS. He expressly campaigned for election in his own right for the first time in Gujarat in July 2002, just a few months after the riots. Though he won an overwhelming victory — the BJP took 123 out of 182 constituencies in the state elections — he did so after campaigning harshly against Muslim terrorism and in strong defense of ‘Hindutva,’ the promotion of Hindu values in government. Though he spent the next five years focused on economic management and good government, not on waging Hindu retribution, and though he won reelection easily in 2007 and in 2012, he never escaped the shadow of the 2002 riots and their aftermath.
But the horrific legacy has stifled enthusiasm for Modi’s national ambitions, even among those who would otherwise applaud his rise. For example, The Economist found Modi so compromised by the riots that it refused to endorse him in India’s national elections earlier this spring:
By refusing to put Muslim fears to rest, Mr Modi feeds them. By clinging to the anti-Muslim vote, he nurtures it. India at its finest is a joyous cacophony of peoples and faiths, of holy men and rebels…. Mr Modi might start well in Delhi but sooner or later he will have to cope with a sectarian slaughter or a crisis with Pakistan—and nobody, least of all the modernisers praising him now, knows what he will do nor how Muslims, in turn, will react to such a divisive man.
If Mr Modi were to explain his role in the violence and show genuine remorse, we would consider backing him, but he never has; it would be wrong for a man who has thrived on division to become prime minister of a country as fissile as India. We do not find the prospect of a government led by Congress under Mr Gandhi an inspiring one. But we have to recommend it to Indians as the less disturbing option.
As noted, the United States suspended his travel visa in 2005 and, until very recently, Modi was unable to travel to the European Union, all on the basis of his suspected role in suppressing religious freedom and facilitating what some Indians call the ethnic cleansing of Gujarati Muslims.
A precedent in Ayodhya
The truth is far more complex. Despite whatever blame you can pin on Modi for his response to the riots, it must be noted that Gujarat has not witnessed anything like those early riots throughout Modi’s ensuing 12 years as chief minister, though many Gujarati Muslims argue that Modi’s government has done little to better the lives of religious minorities. Nonetheless, it’s also important to acknowledge that Gujarat has a history of communal violence, and riots in 1969 against Muslims took another 1,000 lives, the deadliest Hindu-Muslim violence since 1947 within the entire country.
What’s more, Modi isn’t the only BJP leader to instigate anti-Muslim violence. Former BJP leader LK Advani once led the campaign to ‘liberate’ Ayodhya, where the Babri mosque had been built in 1528, though India’s Hindus argued that it’s the site where Lord Ram was born and the site of an even older, demolished Hindu temple.
Advani agitated for Hindu pilgrims to travel to Ayodhya in the mid-1980s. That campaign turned horrifically violent in 1992, when Hindu pilgrims destroyed the mosque, precipitating Hindu-Muslim riots that led to the deaths of more than 2,000 Indians. When the BJP came to power in 1996 and 1998 for the first time, Advani was deemed too controversial to become India’s prime minister, in large part for the role he played in instigating the Ayodhya violence, and Atal Behari Vajpayee instead took the top office. Though Advani became home minister and led the BJP’s unsuccessful 2009 campaign, he never himself became prime minister. Though he’s grumbled throughout the current election that Modi has largely displaced him as his own party’s leader, Advani is often seen as Modi’s mentor.
So where does that leave India if, as polls widely indicate, a ‘Modi wave’ is currently sweeping the country and the Gujarati chief minister is set to win a strong mandate when election results are announced on May 16?
Deepak Lal last week put the question as well as anyone else has over the past few months when he asked, ‘Is Modi a Thatcher or a Hitler?’ in an incredibly insightful piece for The Financial Times. Lal concluded (one suspects it’s more a more wishful than definitive conclusion) that Modi will be a Thatcher, drawing on a theory that Modi comes from the ‘Gandhian’ tradition instead of the ‘Nehruvian’:
Modi has also moved away from the hard nationalist Hindutva agenda, with his slogans: “development not deity” and “toilets not temple”. In an analysis of his current campaign speeches Ashutosh Varshney has noted that Modi has departed from the core Hindutava tenets. Given that the evidence suggests that Modi is more likely to be a Thatcher than a Hitler, what explains the almost vituperative hatred of his opponents? Here a distinction I made many years ago between what I called the two wings of Macaulay’s children provides the answer.
India’s nationalist elite was the product of Macaulay’s famous 19th century “Minute on Education” which sought to create an English-educated middle class. There were two wings; one was the English–speaking Nehruvian wing and the other was the Gandhian wing for whom English remained an instrumental second language. Both faced the problem of reconciling modernisation (reqauiring a change in material beliefs) with tradition (cosmological beliefs). The cosmological beliefs of the Nehruvian wing came to mirror those of their English peers, those of the Gandhian wing continued to be based on Hindu mores. Till the 1990s, whereas the Nehruvian wing sought to reconcile modernity with tradition through the purportedly ‘middle way’ of Fabian socialism, the Gandhian wing eschewed modernisation to preserve the ancient Hindu equilibrium.
That answer may satisfy policy analysts and opinion-makers. But it still might not satisfy India’s 167 million-plus Muslims, and it definitely won’t satisfy the leaders of Pakistan, a country of 179 million (mostly Muslim) people or of Bangladesh, a country of 155 million (almost mostly Muslim) people. Modi has indicated he is going to take a hard stand against Bangladeshi immigration (up to 10 million are estimated to be living in India today), and he will take an equally skeptical stand toward what will almost certainly be olive branches from Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif (who may or may not be able to control his own military and intelligence services, let alone the actions of Islamic fundamentalists).