Propaganda, conspiracy theories, dog whistles and fake news once again stoked the fires of political violence on Wednesday. But this time I wasn’t reporting on the ground here in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have wielded violent mobs to their political advantage for years. The mob was storming the Capitol in Washington.
As I watched the images of rioters breaking into the building wrapped in Trump flags and white privilege, I couldn’t disconnect what was happening with the dangerous episodes of communal violence we have seen in India in recent years. My friends often resent this about me. Why must I see these incidents as indictments of our national character rather than as isolated aberrations? People regularly question my journalistic credentials when I speak about the attacks and humiliations minorities suffer. I’m asked to detach myself from the story, to tone down my op-eds, to not speak of the rise of fascism and majoritarianism in India because it hurts the country’s global standing.
Documenting hate crimes, discrimination, censorship and political persecution is exhausting and exacting on the mind and soul. But after witnessing what happened in Washington, how could we not speak up?
The post-truth world is increasing polarization and destroying shared principles. At the start of the pandemic I thought Indians might be able to put aside the religious and political divisions that have long ravaged our country and unite to confront a common threat. But the government, while bungling the response to covid-19, has continued to attack our civil liberties —some of India’s finest activists and student leaders have been jailed, the fundamentals of our famed secularism have been demolished by policies that humiliate and demonize Indian Muslims, and farmers have been forced to take to the streets in the harshest of winters to protect their dignity and livelihood.
Hindu nationalist forces have used religion to divide citizens at a time when we urgently need a healing touch. That’s why the cries to defend democracy issued by American journalists, politicians and citizens resonated so strongly.
In the last week of 2020, a mob of thousands associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a radical right-wing Hindu organization, marched through the village of Dorana in Madhya Pradesh. Police officers stood as mute spectators while the Hindu crowd shouted slogans against Muslims. When Muslims in the area protested, messages began circulating on WhatsApp asking Hindus to unite and retaliate. One such message asked the “descendants of Aurangzeb” to be taught a lesson for stopping a Hindu rally.
A day later, violence spread across BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh. A mob of Hindus climbed on the top of a mosque and placed a saffron flag on top of it as people chanted slogans of superiority. The same day, two other mosques were attacked, and dozens of houses belonging to Muslim residents were torched, forcing hundreds to flee.
Instead of protecting the Muslim citizens, cops marched into houses and arrested Muslim youths, invoking the draconian National Security law, for throwing stones at the Hindu mob in self-defense. In a brazen response to the media over questions of injustice toward the Muslim youths, the home minister of the state absolved the Hindu rioters, blaming Muslims for bringing the destruction upon themselves. The minister, Narottam Mishra, simply said "they will have to be removed from where the stones came.”
The messaging that Muslims are unwanted in their own country was reiterated in New Delhi on Dec. 31, when Modi’s BJP formally inducted a radical nationalist, Kapil Gurjar, into the party ranks. Gurjar fired shots during a gathering of Muslims during the Shaheen Bagh protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Act in India. There was an immediate backlash, and the BJP expelled Gurjar from the party shortly after. Even the BJP realized it had gone too far, but not before images of Gurjar being welcomed and garlanded by party leaders went viral on social media.
Just like the GOP, the BJP backtracked out of political preservation. And just like Trump, Modi is a leader who is unapologetic about the politics of hate that he has practiced in the past two decades and revels in the adulation of an insecure majority that finds the secular tradition of the country a threat to his group’s supremacy.
On Jan. 1, a young Muslim stand-up comedian, Munawar Faruqui, was arrested mid-show in the city of Indore after a Hindu mob accused him of mocking Hindu gods and goddesses. He remains in custody, but there’s no evidence that he cracked any offensive jokes. A friend of Faruqui’s who was attending the show was also arrested — beaten by a man as he was being escorted by police. They are but the latest example of the senseless violence and harassment Muslims face every day. Government loyalists, on the streets or in Indian institutions, feel emboldened to trample over people’s rights with impunity.
But many Indians, including members of the country’s elite, would rather mock Americans who voted for Trump than confront their complicity in enabling similar fascist forces in their own country. The hypocrisy is outstanding.
That’s why we must view the siege of Capitol Hill as a cautionary tale for India. At least Trump will be out of the White House on Jan. 20, while our country continues its march to complete submission before a demagogue who is not afraid to establish dominance through the power of the mob.