Modi- Socio-Cultural

Narendra Modi

Arguably the main reasons Modi has been discussed internationally, the ‘Hindutva’ or ‘anti-Muslim’ sentiments have unfortunately given him a bad rep. The Godhra riots in 2002 (when Modi was the Chief Minister) gave the voters a glimpse of what could happen under Modi’s governance of a religiously and culturally diverse India. Moreover, RSS and BJP have historically based their ideologies on Hindu philosophies; Modi’s association to both the parties also inferred that he too believed in using Hindu philosophies as a tool to govern the people. However, Modi had the responsibility of not just governing the Hindu majority (who would have been more agreeable with this) but also other religious minorities that have been present in India for centuries.

Despite the knowledge that India could be easily fragmented due to opposing religious beliefs, Modi put in little effort to prevent the situation from exacerbating. Prioritising the Hindu majority, either directly through some of his Bills (the Ram Mandir dispute) or indirectly through Cow Politics has unfortunately created a sense of entitlement for a portion of the Hindu population while making other religious groups feel vulnerable in a country which is equally theirs as their Hindu counterparts.

A chink in Modi's armour: The Godhra Riots

Modi’s reputation in Gujarat goes completely scratch fee except for this one incident that changed the perception in the eyes of the citizens.  In February 2002, riots broke out in Godhra, a city in Gujarat, after 59 people (mostly Hindu pilgrims) were killed in a fire accident on a train. Apparently, Godhra, which is densely populated with Muslims, was prone to religious violence. It had been speculated that the fire was caused by the Muslim residents who had been disturbed by the slogans that the Hindu pilgrims were chanting [However, a 2005 investigation found out that the fire was indeed an accident and not an aftereffect of the riots].  After the fire, violent riots broke out in Ahmedabad, a city in Gujarat which was allegedly endorsed by close colleagues of Modi.

Following the fire, violent riots persisted for 2 months as the death toll, the number of rape cases and the destruction of homes surged. Most of this was subjected towards the Muslim community. The largest massacres were in Naroda Patiya and Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad. The riots led to the death of over 1000 (mostly Muslim) people while 20,000 Muslim homes and businesses, as well as 360 Mosques, were damaged. Moreover, over 150,00 people were displaced due to the riots. During the riots, Muslims sought refuge in the home of Ehsan Jafri, a former member of the Parliament. He went on to call his contact and other influential people for help but to no avail. This led to the death of 69 people, including Mr Jafri.

In a tape that was leaked later, a BJP politician had allegedly stated that Modi had given them 3 days “to do whatever we (they) could” (this has not been proven in Court). The event tainted Modi’s reputation. The Supreme Court of India also intervened and reopened over 2000 cases. Although Modi was not directly accused, a verdict passed in 2011 sentenced Maya Kodnani, Modi’s former lieutenant along with 30 other colleagues to 28 years of prison. In fact, the Supreme Court chose not to prosecute Modi on three different occasions -2011, 2012, and 2013 due to lack of evidence. In the midst of all this, the USA imposed a visa ban on Modi, assuming his role in the riots. It was only in February of 2014, once Modi was an assured candidate for the Prime Ministership representing BJP that the USA lifted the ban. The UK too ended its diplomatic boycott against Modi in 2012.

Now, while there haven’t been any direct links to Modi’s part in the riots, he was accused of not taking stronger action during the violence. Two scenarios can be observed here. One is that Modi did not have a religious prejudice and hence, no role in the riots either; he was just slow in implementing effective decision making to curb the riots. If this is the case, one has to judge his competency as a leader itself to manage such a diverse country like India which is prone to religious disturbances, where clashes like this could be on a much larger scale. Modi, however, stated that the only aspect he didn’t handle well enough was media. Nevertheless, how commanding is a leader if riots only within a few cities of a state go on for around 2 months?

The other, more concerning scenario is that Modi did have religious prejudices against the Muslims and the reason he chose not to intervene early on is that the portion of the population that was largely affected by the riots was Muslim. The rationale for concern is that the religious diversity of India allows politicians to politicise religion very easily and divide the community. This has been done so previously by almost every ruler in India – be it the Mughals, the British colonisers, or the Indian National Congress. The ease of such a tactical approach makes India very vulnerable to communal riots. Thus, the predicament of minorities has to be considered when one votes for a politician whose party’s ideology is moderately based on a religious faith

The Citizenship Amendment Act and the rise of dissent

While protests against the Amendment of Article 370 had just started to die down, Modi sprung up another Bill in Parliament in December 2019. And this one, to people’s dismay, was more controversial than its predecessor. Presented as a Bill to both the Houses of the Parliament, it stated that “any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December 2014 (…) shall not be treated as an illegal migrant for the purposes of this Act”. The absence of the Muslim community in the Bill stirred up the masses as they declared this Bill as one of his ‘Hindutva’ propagandas. The Modi government had created this Bill on a humanitarian ground stating that these communities were minorities in India’s neighbouring countries and often faced religious persecution there. Thus, it was imperative for India to grant protection to these communities. Along with this, it was the announcement that the NCR would be implemented all over India by 2024 that scared the Muslim minority.

While there was nothing wrong in this argument alone, questions were raised concerning certain religiously persecuted communities such as the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar as well as the Ahmadiyyas from Afghanistan who had also sought refuge in India but were not included in the list. Although not evidently stated, the Bill seemed to have an anti-Muslim sentiment to it. Despite the strong opposition from the population, Modi succeeded in passing this Bill in the Upper and Lower House of the Parliament, a feat that would have been impossible if he had tried this in his first term owing to the lack of support in the Upper House. There wasn’t a great international backlash either, barring a few countries including Pakistan who stated that this Act was marginalising the Muslim population within the country. But what ensued in the following months direly harmed Modi’s reputation.

The protests initially started in Assam where the citizens did not accept the Act because they did not want the government granting any of these refugees citizenship regardless of their religious alignments. But throughout the rest of the country, protests against the anti-Muslim sentiment of the Act escalated. Peaceful protests continued in January and February 2020 as well with Delhi at its epicentre. But anti-CAA protestors were not spared. It started with a mob attacking students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, who had been actively but peacefully protesting against the Act, with sticks and acid. The violence continued as the police failed to intervene. Similarly, Jamia Millia Islamia students were assaulted by policemen for an incident that had occurred in the morning of the same day. But things took a turn for worse when a peaceful protest largely conducted by women on 22nd February 2020 sparked one of the most violent communal riots in modern-day India.

The following day, a BJP member Kapil Mishra gathered his supports and demanded that action should be taken against the supporters in some parts of Delhi. To only a few Indians’ surprise, he announced this while standing next to a policeman, displaying the lack of independence the police had from the government to maintain law and order. A few hours later, violence in north-east Delhi was instigated and the police were called to pacify the situation. By the next day, full-blown riots had ensued with Hindus and Muslims blaming each other for starting the riots. Matters worsened as mobs stopped vehicles and asked for their identifications and only permitted them to leave depending on their answer. Four mosques, as well as a tyre market that was largely run by the Muslim community, were set on fire. The week-long riots led to a death toll of 42 while 300 people from both sides of the communities had been injured.

Many things had been questioned. First, of course, was whether Modi had been involved in sparking these riots because of his link to Kapil Mishra through the BJP. Second, the incompetence of the Delhi police was questioned as they either stood as bystanders or were seen mainly beating up innocent Muslims who had been caught between the crossfire. Critics blame Amit Shah, the Home Minister and Modi’s right-hand man, for this since the centre is directly in charge of the Delhi police. Through the incidence, the police’s political allegiance was evidently seen as they failed to mitigate the situation. There were six alleged warnings sent to the Delhi police on the 23rd of February, but no forceful action had been taken. Matters become more complicated as the judge of the Delhi High Court got transferred to the Punjab and Haryana High Court while Kapil Mishra who played a key role in the communal riots was granted Y+ Security by the Delhi police. The week left the Muslim population in India feeling the most vulnerable than ever before in modern-day India

Modi and BJP, who had always compared themselves to the Congress and dug up the latter’s mistakes, now found themselves in a similar situation. The Delhi riots were being compared to the 1984 Sikh riots and it seemed that even Modi had fallen to the hands of bureaucracy and corruption that are so intertwined with Indian politics. However, there was not much to gain for Modi through these riots. The very week, Trump was visiting India for the first time regarding a trade deal and not being able to control his population would definitely not look well. But this climate of hatred had been brimming for a long time now and it was only a matter of time until it would overflow. Unfortunately for Modi, the timing was completely wrong. Under Modi, the secular nature of the Indian democracy had been rapidly dwindling and the Delhi riots seemed to have put the final nail in the coffin. A study conducted by Pew Research gave India a score of 9.7 out of 10 in 2016 from an 8.8 in 2007. In fact, in 2015, India was ranked 4th in terms of religious violence after Iraq. Considering the increasing violence in the past 5 years, the score is bound to increase.

While the riots ended in early March, the peaceful protests also had to stop due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 in March 2020 as a nationwide lockdown was announced. This certainly benefited Modi as he could now put his energy in dealing with the virus and the economic crisis and prevent any more damage due to the CAA. But as the days went by, the communal riots became a distant memory for many. This, unfortunately, is the very nature of the voters everywhere. With a new occurrence every few months, people don’t often retain the resentment they had towards politicians for certain policies. Adding to that, one act of heroism from Modi’s end and criticising him comes with the label of being anti-patriotic and anti-nationalist. Modi too has probably realised that. Only time will tell how he uses this knowledge to his advantage.