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Fascism and ethnic cleansing in India

This post is an edited version of Dexter Filkins’ 12-9-19 article in The New Yorker magazine, titled and subtitledBlood and Soil in India: A Hindu-nationalist government has cast 200 million Muslims as internal enemies.” (Bear in mind while reading that this is just one example, along with the United States, of a country currently taken over by such forces.)

“On August 11th, two weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent soldiers to pacify the Indian state of Kashmir, a reporter appeared on the Republic TV news channel, riding a motor scooter through the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital and largest city. She assured viewers that everything was getting back to normal, but conducted no interviews – there was no one on the streets to talk to. Other coverage on the same channel showed people dancing ecstatically, along with the words, ‘Jubilant Indians celebrate Modi’s Kashmir masterstroke.’ A week earlier, Modi’s government had announced that it was suspending Article 370 of the constitution, which grants autonomy to Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. The provision, written to help preserve the state’s religious and ethnic identity, largely prohibits members of India’s Hindu majority from settling there. As part of Modi’s ‘New India,’ he’d flooded the state with troops and detained hundreds of prominent Muslims likely to ‘create trouble,’ as Republic TV described it.”

Filkins visited Srinagar with Muslim Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, and saw “soldiers on every street corner, machine-gun nests guarding intersections, and shuttered shops. Friday prayers were banned, schools closed, and cell-phone and internet service cut off.” Ayyub and Indian photographer Avani Rai were arrested in the city hospital where they’d gone to see young men blinded by police small-gauge shotguns.

Muslims make up about 14% of India’s population, with most Muslims having moved to the new country of Pakistan in 1947, if they didn’t already live there. Two million Indians died in the violence accompanying this transition, known as Partition, and afterward both sides harbored enduring grievances over the killings and the loss of ancestral land. Kashmir, on the border, became the site of a long-running proxy war.

“In 1925, K.B. Hedgewar, a physician from central India, founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization dedicated to the idea that India was a Hindu nation, and that Hindus were entitled to rule over minorities. Members of the RSS believed that many Muslims were descended from Hindus who’d been converted by force. The same thinking was applied to Christians, 2% of India’s population. Other major religions, including Buddhism and Sikhism, were considered more authentically Indian. Hedgewar was convinced that Hindu men had been emasculated by colonial rule, and he prescribed paramilitary training as an antidote. An admirer of European fascists, he borrowed their predilection for khaki uniforms, as well as their conviction that a group of highly disciplined men could transform a nation. He thought Gandhi and Nehru, who made efforts to protect the Muslim majority, were dangerous appeasers; the RSS largely sat out the freedom struggle.”

According to Wikipedia, “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (“National Volunteer Organisation” or “National Patriotic Organisation”) is an Indian right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization that’s widely regarded as the parent organisation of the ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janata (“Indian People’s”) Party. The RSS is the progenitor and leader of a large body of organizations called the Sangh Parivar (the “family of the RSS”), which has a presence in all facets of the Indian society. The RSS is the world’s largest voluntary organization and the largest NGO in the world, while the BJP is the largest political party in the world. Its initial impetus was to provide character training through Hindu discipline and to unite the Hindu community to form a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). The organization promotes the ideals of upholding Indian culture and values and spreads the ideology of Hindutva, the idea that India is an inherently Hindu nation. It’s established numerous schools, charities, and clubs to spread its ideological beliefs. The RSS was banned once during British rule, and three times by the post-independence Indian government, first in 1948 when an RSS member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, then during a declared emergency (1975–77), and for a third time after the demolition of Babri Masjid [explained below] in 1992.”

Filkins tells us that Modi was recruited into the organization at the age of eight, and as an adult rose quickly in the ranks. “In 1987, he moved to the RSS’s political branch, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which at that time had only two seats in parliament. It needed an issue to attract new members, and found one in an obscure religious dispute over the Babri Masjid mosque built in the northern city of Ayodhya in 1528 by the Mughal emperor Babur. After independence, locals placed Hindu idols inside the mosque, convinced that it had been built on the site of a former Hindu tenple. A legend even grew that the god Ram, an avatar of Vishnu, had been born there. In September 1990, a senior BJP member named L.K. Advani began calling for the mosque to be destroyed so that a Hindu temple could take its place. On December 6, 1992, a crowd led by RSS members tore the mosque down, using axes and hammers.

The destruction of the mosque incited Hindu-Muslim riots across the country, with the biggest and bloodiest of them in Mumbai. The Ayyubs, a middle-class family, had to move to an all-Muslim slum, and when Rana enrolled in a predominantly Hindu school, she was called racist names. RSS membership soared, and by 1996 the BJP was the largest party in parliament. A psychologist who interviewed Modi at this time found him to be a puritanically rigid fascist who believed India was the target of a global conspiracy in which every Muslim in the country was complicit.

On February 27, 2002, a passenger train stopped in Godhra, a city in Gujarat. It was coming from Ayodhya, where many of the passengers had gone to visit the site where Babri Masjid had been destroyed ten years earlier, and to advocate for building a temple there. Most of them belonged to the religious wing of the RSS, the VHP. While the train sat in the station, the Hindu travelers and Muslims on the platform heckled one another. The conflict escalated when the train stalled as it tried to pull away, and someone, possibly a Muslim vendor with a stove, threw something on fire into one of the cars. 58 people suffocated or burned to death in the resulting conflagration. The state government allowed members of the VHP to parade the burned corpses through the state’s largest city, Ahmedabad, and enraged Hindus began attacking Muslims across the state. According to eyewitnesses, rioters cut open the bellies of pregnant women and killed their babies; others gang-raped women and girls. In at least one instance, a Muslim boy was forced to drink kerosene and swallow a lighted match. The most sinister aspect of the riots was that they appeared to have been largely planned and directed by the RSS. Teams of men, armed with clubs, guns, and swords, fanned out across the state’s Muslim enclaves, often carrying voter rolls and other official documents that led them to Muslim homes and shops.

The chief minister of the Gujarati government, Narendra Modi, summoned the Indian army, but held the soldiers in barracks as the violence spun out of control. In many areas, the police not only stood by, but, according to numerous human-rights groups, took part in the killing.  The riots dragged on for nearly three months, and when they were over, 2,000 people were dead, and nearly 150,000 had been driven from their homes. The ethnic geography of Gujarat was transformed, with most of its Muslins crowded into slums, one of them, still home to 1,000 people, inside the Ahmedabad dump.

After the riots, Modi’s government did almost nothing to provide for the tens of thousands of Muslims forced from their homes; aid was supplied almost entirely by volunteers. Although some Hindu rioters were arrested, only a few dozen were ultimately convicted. In the following months, evidence surfaced that the leaders of the Hindu mobs had received explicit instructions from the government, and that Modi had ordered that the rioting be allowed to take place.

Modi’s accusers have been punished in various ways, including imprisonment and assassination. He became hugely popular in Gujarat, though elsewhere in India the BJP was losing ground. As a result, Modi’s hardline faction was able to seize the Party leadership. Modi also began to build a national reputation as a pro-business leader presiding over rapid economic development [this was actually faked], and big business began to support him. Many other Indians believe that all Muslims are terrorists, and support Modi for that reason.

After graduating from Sophia College in Mumbai with a degree in English literature, Ayyub started writing for a small English-langiuage magazine called Tehelka that had a reputation for tough investigations. In 2010, in a series of cover stories for Tehelka, she tied Modi’s closest adviser, Amit Shah, to illicit business, murder, and extortion. He and, eventually 38 others, including Gujarat’s top police official, were arrested. Even though evidence began to accumulate that Modi was the power behind all of it, he was increasingly mentioned as a candidate for national office.

In an effort to find out more, Ayyub went undercover, posing as an Indian-American student at the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles, visiting India to make a documentary about Gujarati’s prosperity under Modi. Using hidden cameras and microphones, she got a lot of damning evidence, but her magazine ultimately decided not to publish the story, and she was unable to get a publisher for her book on the subject. Modi seemed likely to run for and win the office of prime minister, and “no one wanted to alienate him.” He was helped by an overwhelming public perception that the Congress Party, in power for most of the past half century, had grown arrogant and corrupt. By contrast, Modi and his team were disciplined, focused, and responsive, and the BJP won a plurality of the popular vote.

Not long after Modi took office, the case in which his friend Amit Shah was implicated ground to a halt, and soon Shah was getting away with not showing up for hearings. When the judge ordered him to appear, the case was taken away from him. The new judge, Brijgopal Loya, told family and friends he was under ‘great pressure’ to dismiss the case, and that the chief justice of the Bombay High Court had offered him $16 million to scuttle it. He died not long after in mysterious circumstances, and an official investigation into his death, requested by his family, hasn’t taken place. A third judge, M.B. Gosavi, dismissed Shah’s case. By this time, Modi had made Shah president of the BJP and chairman of the governing coalition – the country’s second most powerful man.

Ayyub finally published her book, Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up, herself in English. In it, she reveals that Modi is the official who made it possible for the RSS to parade the burned bodies of Hindu train passengers in Ahmedabad. Her source for this, Ashok Narayan, Gujarat’s Home Secretary during the riots, also said that the VHP had made preparations for large-scale attacks on the Muslim community, and had just been waiting for a pretext. He believed Modi was in on the plan from the beginning. Initially, the reaction to Ayyub’s book was muted. There was a reception in New Delhi, attended by most of India’s major political writers and editors, but no word about it in the papers the next day. Newspapers were also slow to review the book, but it took off on its own on Amazon, and the release of a Hindi edition in 2017 opened up a huge potential audience. To date, Ayyub says, Gujarat Files has sold 600,000 copies and been translated into 13 languages. Ayyub has also been invited to speak at the UN and at journalism conferences around the world. At the same time, the online/social media campaign against her has been horrific, including pronographic videos and death threats.

India’s female journalists are often subjected to an especially ugly form of abuse. The threats that Ayyub received were nearly identical to those sent to Gauri Lankesh, a journalist from the southern state of Karnataka. Like Ayyub, Lankesh had reported aggressively on Hindu nationalism and on violence against women and lower-caste people. ‘We were like sisters,’ Ayyub said. In September 2017, after Lankesh endured a prolonged campaign of online attacks, two men shot and killed her outside her home, fleeing on a motorbike.

This kind of abuse is supported by many BJP members and Modi supporters, who also post fake videos that increase Hindu hatred of Muslims and others. As Modi consolidated his hold on government, he used its power to silence mainstream media outlets as well. In 2016 his administration began moving to crush the television news network NDTV, one of India’s most credible news channels, by removing almost all government advertising, one of the network’s primary sources of revenue, and pressuring private companies to stop buying ads. Similarly, Karan Thapar, a TV journalist who’d asked Modi and BJP party members critical questions on air, was let go by his network following government pressure. The same thing happened to Bobby Ghosh, former editor of the Hindustan Times, one of India’s most respected newspapers, after he ran a series tracking violence against Muslims; and to Krishna Prasad, longtime editor of Outlook, after it revealed that the RSS was educating disadvantaged children in the state of Assam, then sending them to be indoctrinated in Hindu nationalist camps on the other side of the country. ‘So, many of the really good reporters in India are freelance,’ Ayyub said. Even news that ought to cause scandal has little effect. In June, the Business Standard reported that Modi’s government had been inflating GDP-growth figures by a factor of nearly two. The report prompted a public outcry, but Modi didn’t apologize, and no official was forced to resign.

Modi’s supporters get their news from Republic TV, which allows Modi and other Hindu nationalists to control the narrative, and features shouting matches and scathing insults of all but the most slavish Modi partisans.” Filkins says it makes Fox News look like the BBC, and gives examples of fake news stories it’s promoted.

“According to FactChecker, an organization that tracks communal violence by surveying media reports, there have been almost 300 hate crimes motivated by religion in India in the past decade, almost all of them since 2014 when Modi became prime minister. Hindu mobs have killed dozens of Muslim men, whose murders are rightly called ‘lynchings,’ evoking the terror that swept the American South after Reconstruction. When Muslims are lynched, Modi typically says nothing, and, since he rarely holds press conferences, he’s almost never asked about them. But his supporters often salute the killers. In June 2017, a Muslim man named Alimuddin Ansari, accused of selling cows for meat [cows are sacred to Hindus], was beaten to death in the village of Ramgarh. Eleven men, including a local leader of the BJP, were convicted of the murder, but last July they were freed, pending appeal. On their release, eight of them were draped in marigold garlands by Jayant Sinha, the BJP Minister for Civil Aviation.

In northern India, Hindu nationalists have whipped up panic around the idea that Muslim men, oversexed and fortified by beef, are engaging in a secret campaign to seduce Hindu women into marriage and prostitution. In many areas, any Muslim man seen with a Hindu woman risks being attacked.

As part of its Hindutva project, BJP leaders have been rewriting school textbooks across the country, erasing much of its Islamic history, including that of the Mughals, Muslim emperors who ruled the country for 200 years (1526 to 1720). They’ve also changed Mughal place names to ones that are Hindu-influenced.”

Ayyub and her photographer were released after an hour by Indian police in Kashmir. Though told to leave, they remained for several days interviewing locals who’d been jailed and tortured (many had also been killed or “disappeared”). “Indian antiterrorism law allows security forces to detain any Kashmiri for any reason, or no reason, for up to two years, and during the three decades that the province has been in open rebellion, tens of thousands of men have been disappeared, many never returning home.

I suggested that maybe it was time for Ayyub to leave India – that Muslims didn’t have a future there. ‘I’m not leaving,’ she said. ‘I have to stay. I’m going to write all this down and tell everyone what happened.’”