Murder on the Subcontinent
The heinous and high-profile assassination of Benazir Bhutto has overshadowed an equally dangerous cocktail of murder and election, religious identity and national fate, in Pakistan’s neighbor next door.
I am talking about the re-election of Narendra Modi as the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat in India, which The New York Times observed points to the return of Hindu nationalism as a force to be reckoned with in India.
A protégé of those forces, and now a leader in the movement, Modi played the part of the Roman Emperor Nero when waves of well-organized vigilantes shouting Hindu nationalist slogans murdered over a thousand Muslims in a highly organized fashion in his state in 2002.
Many were convoyed in from far away, wore the trademark saffron of the Hindutva movement, and carried documents indicating where the businesses and residences belonging to Muslims were located. They showed no mercy to women or children, in some cases gang-raping Muslim women before dousing them with kerosene and lighting them on fire.
Not only did Modi refuse to order his police to protect the victims, officers who intervened to stop the carnage found themselves demoted or transferred after the events. Modi’s own Director-General of Police, R.B. Sreekumar, claimed that Modi interfered with the post-incident investigation for political purposes. Sreekumar was told to focus on “Muslim militants” and specifically steer away from the Hindu right elements that everyone knew were responsible, a strategy that insured that those elements were free to help Modi with his summer 2002 re-election campaign.
Modi claimed that the violence was a “natural reaction” to a fire that tragically engulfed a train car carrying Hindutva activists in late February 2002 through the town of Godhra. In making that statement, Modi was keeping with the party line of the Hindu right, which immediately blamed the fire on Muslims. Investigations now suggest that the fire was most likely a horrible accident that occurred within the train, and had nothing to do with the Muslims on the platform of the Godhra station.
I remember those days in 2002 well. My wife’s sister was living in Gujarat at that time, and we would talk to her in frightened whispers by phone and check the news to see if the murderous mob was getting close to where she and her two children (who I wrote about in my previous blog post) lived.
My concern about Modi’s election goes beyond a parochial interest in the fate of Muslims in India. The identity of the great tradition of Hinduism – a religion I have long loved and admired – is at stake.
I remember my father telling me when I was young to “be like Gandhi” – to focus my attention on the quality of my own action, and leave the fruit of the action up to God. When I asked where Gandhi got this philosophy, my father pointed me to the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the key text of the vast ocean that is Hindu scripture, and remains one of the most beautiful and important books I have ever read.
When my father and I traveled to India together a few years ago, we made a special trip to the statue of Swami Vivekananda at the very southern tip of that country, to pay our respects to a Hindu saint who articulated a vision of religion as a force that brought people together instead of drove them apart.
It was a member of the Hindu right organization the RSS who murdered Mahatma Gandhi sixty years ago, and the Hindutva movement continues to violate the legacy of pluralism that Gandhi and Vivekananda believed their religion, and their nation, should embody.
The essence of India is pluralism, the idea of different communities retaining their uniqueness while relating in a way that recognizes they share universal values. More than two thousand years ago, the Indian emperor Ashoka, a Buddhist, said, “Other sects should be duly honored in every way on all occasions.” The great poet and contemporary of Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, wrote, that the “idea of India” itself militates “against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others.” The special power of Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s brilliant novel Midnight’s Children, is the ability to hold large conferences of the astonishingly diverse children born at the moment of India’s liberation in his head. The evil work of the antagonist of the novel, Shiva, was to destroy the dialogue.
India has opened its doors to persecuted religious communities from all over the world – Jews, Parsees, Tibetan Buddhists, Baha’is. And now, under Hindutva, India is crushing that same diversity that is its source and strength.
In her excellent book The Clash Within, the University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who has long had a love affair with India, writes that she sees a clash of civilizations in that country, but it’s not the West vs. Islam struggle that Huntington writes of. Instead, Nusssbaum sees, “a struggle between two ‘civilizations’ in the nation itself. One civilization delights in its diversity and has no fear of people who come from different backgrounds; the other feels safe only when homogeneity reigns and the different are at the margins.”
I call this the struggle between pluralism and totalitarianism. Every religion, every nation, perhaps even every person, has both dimensions. The central question of our times is going to be which one wins.
The re-election of Narendra Modi is a setback for the forces of pluralism, in India and around the world. But just as it is wrong to confuse Hamas with Islam, it is wrong to confuse Modi and his ilk with Hinduism.
Totalitarianism is totalitarianism, whether the holy language is Sanskrit or Arabic.