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India Under BJP: Saffronised Spaces, Scarred Souls And A Splintered Nation

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India, which since its independence has not attached a religion with its existence, was now letting its public spaces claimed in the name of a religion. This isn’t the land of ‘Ram’ that Gandhi had perceived, writes Meenu Sethi.

BJP campaign. Like a loud war cry – I could hear – ‘Ek hi nara, ek hi naam, Jai Sri Raam, Jai Sri Raam’ (One slogan, One name – Hail Ram, Hail Ram). This is one of the old, main markets of the city. 11am. I peep out from the hazy glass window of the shop I am in. There is a big makeshift dais across the road donned with saffron BJP flags and pictures of politicians including that of ex-chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This is where the sounds were coming from. After some time, the traffic on that road was stopped by the police to make sure the BJP rally goes smoothly, and it did – with people wearing saffron t-shirts, tops and caps atop auto rickshaws with saffron flags. This is not the India I had known or imagined.

India, which since its independence has not attached a religion with its existence, was now letting its public spaces claimed in the name of a religion. This isn’t the land of ‘Ram’ that Gandhi had perceived. This is now a saffron land, which is scaring and scarring the minorities.

Fifteen minutes’ walk from Johri bazaar is Ramganj Bazaar and Moti Doongri road, both Muslim majority areas. I was wondering, if, with green flags, the slogans of ‘Allah Ho Akbar’ would be (at least, if not as) accepted there? Or would that invite police and ‘Bhakts’ (BJP supporters), and slogans of ‘Go to Pakistan?’

Is this then, not defeating the whole idea of a secular state, which is at the very core of the constitution, by stripping some citizens of their basic right to exist in peace, security and harmony within the state and in relationship to the rest of the citizens?

BJP supporters in the city have often argued that the public spaces such as main roads in front of mosques and gurdwaras have also been claimed by people belonging to other religions; a counter argument could be that those are only for ‘religious’ occasions such as Eid, Jumma prayers or Gurupurabs and not ‘nationalistic’ or political reasons. Mixing religion with nationalism can have further serious consequences for the country.

In pre-independence India, religious nationalism had existed before, alongside liberal nationalism and had proved detrimental to the ‘one India’, taking it down the path of a two-nation theory, leading to the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947.

The conception of Hindu identity was first brought to the fore in the 1930s – 1940s by V.D. Savarkar and M. S. Golwalkar. Savarkar popularised Hindu identity as India’s essence in early 1940s, and Golwalkar took the helm of RSS – the Hindu right-wing nationalist party – around the same time and over the next 30 years made it one of the strongest religious Hindu political organizations.

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The Bhartiya Jana Sangha Party, the precursor to the BJP was founded by Syama Prasad Mukherjee, after consultation with Golwalkar as a political arm of Hindu nationalism and had the clear objective of banning cow slaughter even at that time. It is now important to see which path India will take with the revival of Savarkar and Golwalkar?

This is not the India I have known, and definitely not the one imagined by Maulana Madani, a renowned Indian Islamic scholar and one of the first recipients of the Padma Bhushan – India’s third highest civilian award – in 1954, who spoke of ‘Muttahida Qaumiyat’ (composite nationalism). Nor is it the India of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who saw humanity as one, devoid of constricted religious, racial, cultural or linguistic chauvinisms.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was a prominent freedom fighter who later became the first minister of education in the Indian government. He saw himself as a Muslim but opposed the Muslim league’s ‘faith-based nationalism’ and stayed devoted to the idea of indivisible nationalism and his dream of ‘Ummat-i-Wahida’ (one nation).

According to 1951 census, Muslims comprised just under 10 percent of population, or 34 million. Today, of the 1.35 billion people in India, 14.2 percent, or 192 million are Muslims, making them the largest minority. And by 2050, India’s Muslim population will grow to 311 million, making India the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, according to Pew Research Center projections.

In recent times, with the beef bans, lynchings and calls for invasion of Muslim bodies and citizenship rights, religious politics is strengthening its hold and scaring the minorities. While some prominent journalists and authors, notably Amartya Sen amongst others, have called India’s secularism to be a political secularism, a fraud and a failure, it still is a constitutionally secular democracy which gives equal rights to its citizens irrespective of the faith they follow.

BJP, under Modi’s leadership, got a historic landslide win in the 2019 elections and reinstated him in the Prime Minister’s office for a second term.

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While there were many reasons for BJP’s victory – lack of a credible alternative, PM Modi’s image of an incorruptible economic reformer and his tough stance on Pakistan, sweeping Hindu sentiment mobilisation had a major role to play.

As far as economic performance is concerned, debates in the media have come up and questions are being raised whether the official GDP growth rate of 7 percent is correct or is it around the 4.5 percent mark as argued by Arvind Subramanian, Indian economist and the former Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India. Another former Reserve Bank governor Mr. Raghuram Rajan has also questioned Modi government’s economic policies and growth data computation. Will there be the impact of such questioning on the popularity of the Modi government still remains unclear.

Recently, the viral video of 24 year old Tabrez Ansari on June 22nd – the first lynching of Modi’s second term at office – has again highlighted the very fundamental question facing the nation. Will BJP, the Hindu right-wing nationalist party, continue indoctrinating the majority Hindu population and in the name of religious politics and perceived economic development, re-divide the citizens and continue scarring the Muslims?

Or will India, world’s largest democracy, ever turn and move towards the path of a truly secular democratic state that its founding fathers had once dreamed of?

At this moment in South Asian history when the proponents of two nation theory stand vindicated and seem prophetically foresighted, I quote, and seek an answer in the words of another freedom fighter, committed to indivisible nationalism despite the partition of India.

“Country alone can be the basis of nationality, not religion. Unfortunately, in India, religion has been identified with nationality. That is how the country came to be partitioned.    The question now is whether you will try to eradicate this mentality or by your actions foster and lend support to the very mentality of which the ‘two-nation’ theory was a fruit?”

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan also known as Frontier Gandhi, in his address to the joint session of Indian Parliament. His words soaked in pain were an appeal for peace and harmony after the 1969 Gujrat communal violence.

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