From the March-April 2016 issue of News & Letters
by Gerry Emmett
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s authoritarian capitalist rule extended in February to harsh attacks on campus free speech.
Students from Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) complained about a demonstration at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. The president of the student union, Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested along with other students and charged, on the basis of laws dating back to British colonialism, with making “anti-India” statements.
The demonstration marked the anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri convicted of participation in a 2001 attack on India’s Parliament. Some have questioned his trial and execution. But the decades-long dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir gave the BJP an excuse to inflame anti-Muslim prejudice as fuel against all forms of dissent. Muslims, Dalits, Leftists, secular Indians, and Indigenous peoples are often singled out as enemies in the eyes of Modi’s Hindu fundamentalist supporters.
These events followed what many termed the “institutional murder” of Dalit Ph.D. student Rohith Vemula, who died by suicide after having been excluded from Hyderabad Central University for alleged “anti-India” protests.
BJP’S ATTACK ON HISTORY
Anti-Muslim attacks are typical of Modi. As Chief Minister of Gujarat he presided during the 2002 pogrom in which over 2,000 Muslims were killed and thousands more injured by Hindu mobs. The BJP defines India as strictly Hindu, the idea of “Hindutva,” and Muslims (176 million Indians) and others are explicitly excluded from that historic identity.
Universities, schools, and culture are becoming battlegrounds. Some textbooks printed in Gujarat have claimed that aeronautics was begun in ancient times by the god Ram who flew from Sri Lanka to India in a swan-shaped chariot of flowers. Modi himself has made similar claims. In 2014 he lectured doctors in Mumbai: “We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”
Consider also Modi’s appointment of the obscure Hindutva advocate Y Sudershan Rao as Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research. Rao decries standard research methods as “Marxist,” and has declared that ancient history can be reconstructed accurately through study of the Hindu scriptures.
Many Indians are troubled, and disgusted, by this merger of religion and taxpayer-funded public education. The gross misrepresentation and vulgarization of ancient texts is a crime in itself.
A VERY MODERN FUNDAMENTALISM
Despite retrogressive religious views, Modi has eyes set on the future. He makes wide use of social media, with a Twitter following second only to Barack Obama’s. He sees his ideology as representing the growing Indian capitalist class with an emphasis on high tech. They have profited by economic growth, unlike hundreds of millions who languish in poverty.
Modi’s neoliberal economic policies, mixed with some populist promises like (so far undelivered) new housing for the poor, are key to understanding his aims. The vision of ancient India as a high tech land where exalted gods rule more or less benevolently over humans that may petition their favor, is also an accurate idea of Modi’s vision for India’s future. His use of holography to appear at simultaneous BJP rallies in different cities in 2014 was a would-be god’s gesture.
This vision doesn’t bode well for workers, women, Muslims, Dalits, or other minorities. Writer Pratap Bhanu Mehta summed it up in writing about the current attack on students: “The crackdown…was insidious in its remarkable ability to make ignorance the flaming torchbearer of nationalism. The government does not want to just crush dissent; it wants to crush thinking, as its repeated assaults on universities demonstrate” (The Indian Express, Feb. 16, 2016).