Hindus to the fore

Prepared for leadership

UNDER A MANGO tree in Varanasi two dozen men parade in white shirts, black caps and khaki shorts, a uniform modelled on Baden-Powell’s Scouts. They salute a flag, completing a shakha, a morning meeting of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Resurgent Hindu nationalists have perhaps 5m members nationwide, their numbers lifted by Mr Modi’s success. The rank and file adore the muscular leader who was a long-term pracharak, an RSS preacher-monk.

The group used to talk about its cultural and social aims. Now leaders are quite frank about political motives: last year millions of RSS volunteers brought out voters for the BJP, trumpeting the nationalist slogan, “One India, great India”. Among the men this morning (women are not welcome) is Indresh Kumar, in a bulging blue waistcoat. He oversees the RSS’s relations with Muslims, Christians and other minorities. Data from the 2011 census, when finally released, will show that about 20% of Indians are non-Hindu, up slightly on a decade earlier.

Mr Kumar says that “society should be harmonious, above caste or religion.” The big worry about Mr Modi is his history of allowing, and exploiting, disharmony. In Gujarat pogroms on his watch in 2002 killed over 1,000, two-thirds from the small Muslim population, as police stood by. After that Mr Modi campaigned for election by stirring more hostility to Muslims, saying they had too many children. Gujarat has otherwise remained calm, but is more polarised than most of India.

Religious violence is rarely spontaneous: politicians stir it up to exploit it. It flared in late 2013 in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. Jat-Hindu landowners and Muslims clashed, killing over 40 and displacing tens of thousands. Yet last year Mr Modi appointed a BJP figure who had been accused of a role in the clashes, Sanjeev Baliyan, as a junior minister. The Election Commission banned Mr Modi’s closest confidant, Amit Shah, from public campaigning after he had urged Jats in Muzaffarnagar to seek “revenge” at the ballot box. Mr Shah is now the BJP’s president.

Various Hindu nationalist groups, collectively known as the Sangh Parivar, are throwing their weight around. Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, says that anyone from Hindustan must admit to being Hindu and that Christians, including Mother Teresa, who worked with Kolkata’s poor, are aggressive missionaries. Hindu nationalists rant about “Love Jihad”, accusing Muslim men of seducing and converting Hindu women, but that is nothing new. Leaders from the Sangh tell Hindu women to have at least four, ideally ten, children, to keep up the numbers. A campaign called ghar wapsi (homecoming) aims to convert non-Hindus to their supposedly original Hindu identity. In April Hindu extremists in Maharashtra said non-Hindus should be sterilised or denied the vote.

Most of this is nasty talk, not taken seriously, but worryingly it is echoed by people in government. A junior minister in November told a rally in Delhi that non-Hindus were “bastards”. She kept her job. Smriti Irani, the education minister, said schools should stay open on Christmas Day. The home minister, Rajnath Singh, one of many (like Mr Modi) from the RSS, wants a nationwide ban on eating beef.

The prime minister himself has said nothing offensive, but has conspicuously failed to speak out against his colleagues’ hate speech. That may be because he will want the RSS’s help again in future elections. “He cannot afford to be more mild than this, he will lose,” says an old acquaintance. Some suspect that, in private, he agrees with the thugs. He did give one notable speech on religious tolerance and co-operation in February, but only after the BJP lost badly in Delhi and Barack Obama, who had just visited, had cautioned against society “splintering” on religious lines.

There is no sign of that, and other parties have also presided over religious clashes. As Ramachandra Guha, the historian in Bangalore, puts it: “We shouldn’t be apocalyptic, we are not going the way of Pakistan. But religious pluralism is hard-won, and you can never be fully secure.”

Source: Economist