By Tanvi Varma
In Sept. 2015, Narendra Modi visited Facebook headquarters: an event that sparked much celebration and anticipation in the Bay Area and the rest of the United States. It’s not every day the prime minister of India—a country with one of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies—stops by to grab a bite with Mark Zuckerberg. To many, this was a cause for celebration, the time to crack a joke about how Silicon Valley start-ups are headed by geniuses running around in their pajamas and flip-flops.
However, for diasporic Indian communities heavily concentrated in the Bay Area, Modi’s little excursion to Facebook headquarters is just another painful, if not extremely frustrating, reminder that home is different now; India, Bharat, and Hindustan are not what they used to be.
Modi began his rise in the early 2000s as chief minister of the eastern state of Gujurat, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party whom he still represents as prime minister. BJP runs on the platform of restoring Hindu ideals in society, but has become known for its tendencies towards Hindu extremism in recent years. Hindu nationalism has been present in the country for decades, and, although the most infamous debate of superiority is between Hindu and Muslim communities, the conflict has equally affected local Sikh and Christian populations.
India is no stranger to violence against communities that are not part of the Hindu majority. In 1984, Operation Blue Star, an extraction of Sikh religious activists from the most holy temple in Sikhism, led to violent bloodshed. Indira Gandhi, prime minister at the time, was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards as retaliation, setting off anti-Sikh riots across the country. This violence is still reverberating today; incidents such as defacement of the holy Sikh book, Guru Granth Sahib, have been reported just as recently as Oct. 2015.
State-sponsored terrorism, such as Operation Blue Star, has been brought to light again with Modi’s election as prime minister. In 2002, a train of passengers caught fire near the Godhra train station in Gujarat. Families perished, and the violence was thought to be a Muslim against Hindu crime. However, post-Godhra, it became evident after reevaluation that this violence was orchestrated by the government, considering casualty numbers and the BJP’s clear stance on creating a pure Hindu state. The estimated death toll ranked in the thousands for Muslims, but Modi and his government were found to be not guilty, so the case was thrown out. The Muslim community still harbors resentment to this day, referring to Modi as India’s very own domestic terrorist.
Recently in India, several very well-known secular liberals were found dead, gunned down in their homes. In 2015, the New York Times published a piece titled “India’s attack on free speech,” with several criticisms upon the clear “tacit approval” that Modi seems to be portraying with his silence upon the issue. Several liberal bloggers have been found dead, along with communist political party leaders and outspoken critics of certain Hindu practices and political opinions. It is worth noting that Western news outlets have yet to report anything significant about the role that Hindu nationalism has played in the formation of India.
As mentioned above, Modi has cunningly failed to speak on the matter of religion, the role of women in society, or whether BJP will stand to fight this injustice in a country that has a great chance to be the next global superpower. Once again, his silence allows for escalation of the problems India currently faces. In fact, famous Indian authors such as the Marxist Arundhati Roy says India is moving backwards socially and Head of the Indian Foreign Affairs Committee Shashi Kapoor has been scrutinized for his criticism of Modi’s lack of voice. Some initiatives have been put in place by the BJP to combat poverty, clean the streets, and improve infrastructure, but separating the issues into social and economic categories has done more harm than good. The cultural links between language and religion in the subcontinent date back to before the time of Christ, and attempting to separate these links and untangle the underlying roots only creates more of a mess. Social and economic factors are so strongly linked that change in one affects the other.
Modi’s India is quickly becoming George Orwell’s 1984, with an even huger social consequence. Dangerous precedent is being set, with basic rights like freedom of speech and religion being threatened more than ever in India’s post-independence period. Modi’s political campaign was only successful because it was fueled by desperation pervading India’s population as a result of the 2008 financial crisis and ongoing government corruption, along with weak infrastructure and a confusing cultural transition from old to new. Modi’s uncompromising stance on improving India seemed so appealing on the surface that it seemed preposterous to vote for anyone else. However, this very desperation gave Modi an important tool: fear. Running an international superpower founded on public fear? That’s terrifying.