But for India’s 200 million Muslims, these comments were not an isolated incident.
Rather, they were the culmination of the BJP’s “engineering hatred of a common enemy,” says bestselling Indian author Arundhati Roy.
“India’s tragedy is not that it’s the worst place in the world — it’s that we are on our way there. We’re burning down our house. India is an experiment that is failing dangerously,” she told CNN.
“Among them are people I consider to be India’s most important minds. It makes one wonder what living as a free person in the time of fascism means. What does it mean to be a bestselling author when the world is breaking?” writes Roy.
In this email interview with CNN Opinion, Roy says Indian politics has something in common with the US Capitol riots, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is stoking hatred, and talks about who the real power in India lies with.
CNN: What does this incident involving BJP officials’ comments about the Prophet Mohammed reveal about Indian politics today?
CNN: What is the connection between the BJP and RSS?
It has its own vast militia, its own schools, labor unions and women’s organizations. It’s not a political party, it’s something of a shape-shifter, a master of double-speak, its sources of funding are amorphous and leave no legal trail, it works through an array of affiliates, but it’s a nation within a nation.
In fact, the RSS believes in what it calls “Akhand Bharat,” a sort of fantasy that is futuristic and ancient all at once — a future Ancient India which includes Pakistan and Bangladesh which will be conquered and subject to Hindu rule. To flatten India’s mind-boggling religious, socialand subnational identities, more diverse than all of Europe, into the strict hierarchy of a moribund, caste-bound Hindu nation is an unimaginably violent process. It means setting aside the constitution and undoing the very idea of India.
But isolating Muslims is not enough. Creating an artificial majority out of a very diverse Hindu community that consists of thousands of castes and ethnicities is equally important if the BJP is to remain in power. The cement for that is engineering hatred of a common enemy. This requires an incremental ratcheting up of bigotry.
We regularly see provocative demonstrations by thousands of sword-wielding Hindu men marching through areas in which Muslims live. The deeply disrespectful comments about Prophet Mohammed made by a BJP spokeswoman on national TV this May was a part of this constituency-building exercise. As was the unconscionable bulldozing by municipal authorities of the homes of Muslims who dared to come out in protest.
As a concession to international outrage, the BJP has suspended its spokeswoman, Nupur Sharma, but she has been openly embraced by its cadre. The polarization has worked in the BJP’s favor.
CNN: And what does Prime Minister Narendra Modi have to do with it?
Roy: Modi has made no comment whatsoever about the spokeswoman or the protests. A standard tactic of his. In situations like this, his followers, correctly I believe, read his silence as support. Although he increasingly positions himself as a messiah, he is an RSS man, and he knows that the organization is grooming other leaders who are waiting in the wings. But for now, he is the uncontested figurehead.
CNN: Over the years, Modi’s popularity and his brand of politics has not waned. Why is that?
CNN: What has contributed to this situation where the Modi government feels immune from any international reaction or action?
Roy: I don’t think it is immune at all. On the contrary, our globe-trotting, head-of-state-hugging prime minister cares deeply about international opinion. None of us have ever seen him hug a fellow Indian. The optics of his foreign trips are carefully curated. His millions of followers refer to him as “Vishwa-Guru,” the Guru of the Whole World.
Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson have all indulged him. International action and reaction is only a game of pragmatism and expediency. It has to do with trade and geopolitics, race, religion and ethnicity, and very little with values and morality.
If India is buying a fleet of fighter planes from, say, France, it knows that lynching and a little mass murder will, at most, get a delicate finger-wag. A big market is excellent insurance against moral censure.
CNN: How should India’s international Muslim trading partners respond? (And the world, for that matter?)
Roy: Most of the countries that you refer to as India’s “Muslim trading partners” have long ago given up any pretense of democracy or diversity. They are already at the destination that Modi and the BJP are trying to drag India toward. The destination that we dread to arrive at, the theocratic state.
India’s tragedy is not that it’s the worst place in the world — it’s that we are on our way there. We’re burning down our house. India is an experiment that is failing dangerously. Failing because our elected leaders are blinded by hate — and crippled by a severe lack of intelligence, which is the more dangerous thing. The consequences will be unimaginable.
CNN: Is India truly the world’s largest democracy?
Roy: A democracy doesn’t just mean having regular elections. You cannot be a democracy when 200 million people who constitute a religious minority are expected to live without rights. When you can lynch them, kill them, incarcerate them, economically and socially boycott them, bulldoze their homes with complete immunity and threaten to strip them of citizenship. When the murderers and lynchers can aspire to move swiftly up the political ladder.
CNN: The damage done to Indian democracy — is it reversible?
Roy: The systematic indoctrination of people on the scale on which it has taken place over decades is hard to reverse. Every institution that is supposed to make up the system of checks and balances has been hollowed out, repurposed and deployed against people as a weapon of Hindu nationalism. In terms of political opposition, there are political parties that have successfully opposed the BJP at the state level in Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, but opposition is virtually non-existent at the national level.
The whole system of elections has been gamed. You can win a huge majority of seats even without anything close to a majority of actual votes. In India, we have a first-past-the-post, multi-party democracy. This means that even if you get say only 20% of the vote in a constituency, as long as its higher than your closest rival, you win. A rich party can put up spurious candidates to split the votes. But that’s just one trick in a whole bag of tricks.
And, anyway, how do you woo an indoctrinated population? By proving that you are a better, prouder Hindu? Nobody can beat the BJP at that game. And right now, that’s the only game in town. As far as mainstream politics goes.
So, no, I don’t believe the damage is reversible. I believe we will be broken and then reborn. Change will only come when and if at all an accepting, gullible, fatalistic people realize what’s being done to them. And then it will come suddenly, and from the street. Not from the system. Until then… God help us.
CNN: What changes have you personally experienced that echo the changes taking place in India at large?
Roy: To begin with, many, many of my beloved friends — poets, writers, professors, lawyers, human rights activists and journalists — are in prison. Among them are people I consider to be India’s most important minds. It makes one wonder what living as a free person in the time of fascism means.
What does it mean to be a bestselling author when the world is breaking? What does it mean to be considered a ‘success’ when the world is failing and everything you care about is being decimated? What is the moral way to be? The moral thing to do?
Sadly, the BJP’s macro-radicalization has resulted in micro-versions of the same thing. It is mirrored by its allies, its doorkeepers, concierges and maintenance staff, as well as its victims. As everybody turns inward, bitter and doctrinaire, as every form of solidarity crumbles, as the garbage mountains grow and the rivers shrink, as stock characters locked into their own little ideological bubbles shout at each other on TV, I feel my own skin tightening around me, containing me, too. I struggle against that every day. The only home one has is in literature and poetry. That sentence that makes you gasp — or smile out loud. The song that breaks your heart.
CNN: What kind of India would you like to see — and how do we get there?
Roy: My dreams are not, and never have been, limited by the shape of the map of India, or any country. They’ve always been either much smaller or much bigger. The dream worth dreaming is to see our world moving toward a shared understanding of justice, however slowly, instead of racing away from it at the pace we are.