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As Saffron Terror Grips India, the Country’s Minority Muslims Worry about Their Future

As India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to push for Hindu Nationalism, the wave of saffron terror has gripped the country’s minority Muslims, who now live with fear for their lives.

Image credit: Arindam Banerjee
10 June 2022

As India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to push for Hindu Nationalism, the wave of saffron terror has gripped the country’s minority Muslims, who now live with fear for their lives. 

India has recently witnessed a surge of attacks on Muslims. State backed actors have gone on a rampage, threatening Muslim lives and livelihoods. With critics of the government facing persecution and space for dissent rapidly decreasing in India, Indian Muslims are running out of options and scared for what the future holds. 

The roots and evolution of saffron terror 

BJP came to power in India after winning the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, when they replaced the veteran Indian National Congress Party. Although this was a time when Indians were looking for change, tired with problems of inflation and cases of corruption in the previous government, it was BJP’s hardline communal politics that helped the party secure its historic win. 

BJP’s success stemmed almost wholly from the powerful hyper-masculine persona of its leader, Narendra Modi, and the party’s focus on religious polarisation and Hindu-nationalism. Since coming to power, Modi has been able to convince the larger Indian populace that the only way they can achieve “Acche Din” (a popular phrase in BJP’s campaigns that stands for “good days”) is through Hindu nationalism

Hindu nationalism has been at the core of BJP’s politics. BJP is the political wing of a conglomeration of militant Hindu nationalist organisations called Sangh Parivar. Sangh Parivar is led by a collective called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, which currently is the largest volunteer organisation in the world. 

RSS is an all-male Hindu chauvinist paramilitary organisation founded in 1925 with the goal of uniting Hindus and creating a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). The ideas and politics of RSS drew inspiration from extremist right-wing groups and movements which were taking shape in Europe before the Second World War, like the Nazis in Germany and the Italian Fascist Party in Italy. The RSS regularly organises camps and sessions where Hindu girls, boys, men, and women are trained in martial arts and use of guns and weapons to defend themselves and also fight for the vision of a Hindu nation. 

RSS was banned several times in the past following incidents of violence. One of the most notable was the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, which was done by RSS member Nathuram Godse in 1948

The rise of India’s Hindu vote bank

The current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has been a member of RSS since the 1960s and ever since his party, BJP, came to power, RSS’ influence on governance and policies in India has grown. 

BJP won the 2014 election by unifying India’s Hindu vote bank. Prior to 2014, the unified Hindu vote bank did not exist. The voting behaviour of Hindus was determined largely by caste, class, gender, location and ideological leanings. BJP unified these diverse preferences by convincing Hindus that they had a common enemy – Muslims

BJP campaigns propagated false Islamophobic narratives like that of Love Jihad and the great replacement theory. The party’s 2014 victory was preceded by a series of violent anti-Muslim acts, most notably the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013

Almost a decade later, the situation has only worsened. While BJP has continued to propagate its Hindu nationalistic narrative through tight control over media channels, dissemination of propaganda, misinformation, and crackdown on dissenting voices, its Sangh Parivar organisations have continued mobilising Hindus on ground. 

Together, they have made the 1.094 billion Hindus living in India believe in their own victimhood. They have convinced Hindus that they have been historically oppressed in India and the country’s secular values have hurt their rights and religious freedoms while giving undue advantage to minority communities. 

Today, the majority of Hindus in India believe that the only way their rights can be protected is through the politics of Hindutva and the elimination of Muslims.

What is Hindutva?

Hindutva means Hindu-ness, but in the current context Hindutva stands for an ideology or belief which is rooted in Hindu indigeneity and Hindu superiority. 

Hindutva propagates the idea that Hindus are the original inhabitants of India and have a natural claim over the land while all other communities are outsiders. Hindutva argues that Indian-ness and Hindu-ness are the same. Thus the governance, policy, laws, and social norms of India should be based on Hindu culture. 

According to Hindutva, other minority communities based in India should accept India as a Hindu nation and uphold the superiority of Hinduism. All non-Hindu persons who wish to live in India must accept their subordinate position and be treated as second class citizens

The goal of Hindutva is to thus turn India into a Hindu nation and a Hindu homeland. 

The Great Muslim Replacement Theory and its role in validating Hindutva

For decades, propagation of the “Great Muslim Replacement Theory” has been the biggest weapon used by the Hindu right wing in India to push its anti-Muslim agenda. 

It has been used to stroke fear of demographic erasure in the hearts of Hindus and present the minority Muslim population as a threat to their rights and privileges. 

Extremist Hindu saints like Yati Narsinghanand have claimed that the Muslim population is increasing exponentially in India, threatening to replace Hindus as the largest religious community in the country. Hindu extremists have warned that Hindus actively need to reproduce more children and support the Hindutva cause where Muslims are subordinated, if they don’t want to become a minority in their own country. 

However, these viral claims are not backed by any credible data. Muslims still form only 14 per cent of the Indian population while Hindus occupy a staggering 80% share. Baseless claims about Muslims having high fertility rates have been further used to dehumanise and demonise the community. 

Yet the replacement theory is not unique to India. The theory has long been perpetuated in the US by white nationalists based on the assertion that ethnic minorities are trying to outnumber and then disempower the white American population. A number of terror attacks by white extremists, including the recent mass shooting that took place in Buffalo, New York, are said to have been instigated by the same theory and belief

It is then important to note that the Hindu extremist movement in India has also taken inspiration and validation for its claims from the white supremacist movement in the US. Media outlets in India, backed significantly by pro-BJP and Hindutva groups, have played a major role in disseminating this false narrative to an extent where the majority of Indians have accepted it as truth.

Recent series of anti-Muslim attacks

With BJP’s back-to-back election victories and increasing stronghold in India, anti-Muslim violence in the country has reached alarming proportions. Right-wing Hindu groups and BJP leaders have become brazen in their anti-Muslim actions. The violence on India’s minority Muslim community has been waged in all forms – direct, cultural, and structural.

Open calls for the genocide of Muslims have become common. Lynchings and unprovoked attacks on Muslim men have become a regular occurence. Digital media platforms have been weaponised to further the war on India’s Muslims. All aspects of Islam have been demonised. Beef meat has been banned from most places in India and BJP leaders have now demanded a ban on halal products and halal certification as well. This has been complemented by a demand for removal of loudspeakers from mosques to prevent its usage while giving calls for azaan. 

From conspiracy theories and memes to movies and biased news reports, BJP’s widespread IT cell, pro-right wing media outlets, and online accounts have conditioned Hindus into hating Muslims and viewing all practices of Islam as a threat to the rights and well-being of Hindus. On the other hand, structural violence unleashed by the government is trying to wipe out any traces of the existence of Muslims in India, both from the past and from the present. Laws and policies are being designed to destroy Muslim lives and livelihoods and curtail Muslims’ access to education, employment, government aid, or welfare.

From hijab bans to demolition drives

In the BJP-ruled state of Karnataka, located in the southern part of the Indian peninsula, colleges and schools suddenly banned female students in hijabs from attending classes. The issue, which started in December 2021 in one college in Udupi, soon spread not only to other parts of Karnataka but also other BJP-ruled states in India. 

Right wing Hindu groups like the ABVP (student wing of BJP) carried out demonstrations to force college and school authorities to ban students in hijabs from entering the institutions. In a country where Hindu festivals are celebrated in schools and colleges without protest, the BJP-ruled government stated that hijabs would undermine the secular nature of the country’s education institutions. 

The high court of Karnatraka upheld the decision on the hijab ban, arguing that the hijab is not an essential practice in Islam. Students who had protested against the hijab ban were detained by the police, while the Hindu groups who had demonstrated in favour of the ban, harassing and abusing Muslim students on camera, went free.

The hijab ban has been a tool used by the right wing to curtail Muslim women’s access to education in India and further ghettoise the Muslim community. The ban has even been termed as a religious apartheid

In April of 2022, right wing Hindu groups engaged in religious processions in celebration of the Hindu festivals of Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti. These processions moved through Muslim populated areas and lanes. Saffron-adorned men, brandishing swords, rifles, and other weapons, were seen dancing to songs which contained lyrics that threatened Muslims, while also chanting anti-Muslim slogans. 

The mob also tried to vandalise mosques in the area leading to communal clashes. Hindu groups posed as victims, claiming they were attacked by Muslims for celebrating their festivals. Within a few days, the BJP-led governments took out bulldozers to demolish the homes and shops of all those Muslims who had fought back during the clashes. Despite the existence of all forms of evidence, the Hindu groups who had provoked and attacked Muslim communities first went free. 

In recent times, bulldozers and state laws have been weaponised by the government to directly attack Muslims by demolishing their homes and businesses. Municipal corporations take out demolition drives guised as “anti-encroachment drives” in Muslim majority areas where only the homes of Muslims are demolished and destroyed. The government justifies its actions by citing law and order and claiming all these Muslims to be Bangladeshis or Rohingya refugees who do not have the right to live in India. 

The erasure of Muslim identities and lives happens on dual fronts. BJP has been working towards erasing Muslim heritage and history in India. Along with demolition of mosques, monuments and other Islamic structures, state educational boards have in recent times started eliminating chapters on Muslim rulers or literature written by Muslim authors from school and college textbooks. A new generation of Indians are growing up being socialised into this anti-Muslim rhetoric, imbibing a false history that validates Hindutva.

These are just a few examples of the types of violence the government has been unleashing in the country. 

The invisible erosion of the world’s largest democracy 

With the parliament, judiciary and media on its side, the government has also quashed all voices of critique and dissent. The narrative in the country is now tightly controlled by the government. Journalists, activists, academics, and Human Rights Defenders have been relentlessly arrested for speaking the truth. Indians have even been imprisoned over the sharing of social media posts or Whatsapp statuses criticising the BJP or its policies. This has ensured that people both inside and outside of India are not aware of the violence the Indian government is perpetrating on its minority communities. 

It is safe to say then that the world’s largest democracy is now rapidly sliding towards authoritarianism and that is something we all should worry about.

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Ananya is a feminist researcher and writer from India. She works in the area of human rights, minority rights and gender peace and security.

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