To the Hindu middle-class: Why “wait and see” won’t cut it
In 2006 and 2007, I spent several months in Ahmedabad while on a fellowship from my university in the US. During my time in Ahmedabad, I interacted with the mostly-Hindu NGO staff where I was based, residents of the largely Hindu shantytown where the NGO was working, and professors at Gujarat University. Less than five years had passed since the city had gone through its nightmare: vicious riots involving saffron-clad men entering urban neighborhoods and brutalizing, gang-raping, and burning other human beings. Some 1,500 Muslims were killed. Yet, this recent history, and the religious tensions that fueled and followed it, were glaringly absent from most conversations I had. My only visit to a Muslim neighborhood happened by chance, when I got on the wrong bus coming home one evening and asked a young woman around my age for directions. She invited me to get off at her stop and to come in for chai-pani before directing me on to where I was headed, a place distinctly outside of her neighborhood. The city was so divided, but no one I knew was talking about the continued discrimination – the cutting off of public services in Muslim neighborhoods, selective targeting by the police, scapegoating and avoidance of public accountability. I didn’t know about this till I read about it later in human rights reports and investigative pieces. My family in other parts of India did not bring it up.
The silence in my Hindu circles was perhaps a sign of a successful re-branding of events as Narendra Modi embarked on his long-planned progression to the national stage. To win at this level, it was clear that recent history would have to be carefully cloaked, that attention would have to be re-directed toward his economic program for Gujarat. A recent article in Economic & Political Weekly noted “The makeover of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi from aggressive Hindutva icon to a proponent of ‘development’ can be traced back to about 2007. That was when the international public relations firm APCO was hired by the Gujarat government to market the state as a preferred destination for capital and to promote Modi as ‘business-friendly’ development-oriented administrator.”
Middle-class families with upper-caste, Hindu backgrounds – like mine – have drunk this economic development Kool-Aid over the years. Many liberals who were once put off by Modi’s brash Islamophobia now find it easy to adopt a “wait and see” approach, suggesting that in his new position of visibility, Modi will be pressured to act more responsibly. While it would feel nice to believe this, it’s hard to see the sentiment as any more than the type of wishful thinking that we can afford to engage in because we’re not Muslim, Dalit, or tribal. It is a line of thinking that actually suits us, given that we benefit from the multinational corporate jobs that Modi will continue to usher in. As we increasingly work for the Exxons, Ambanis, Lockheed Martins and Deutsche Banks of the world, we naturally come to support neoliberal policymaking wherever we happen to live. Though we might not always see the connections, we’re essentially casting our votes – with our dollars and our nine-to-fives – for privatization of public services, for the buildup of defense infrastructure, for the dismantling of public housing in the United States, for violent state takeover of tribal lands in India. (These also constitute votes against some of the movements that segments of our own South Asian diaspora – often working class, lower-caste, Muslim, or queer segments – are engaged in, from workers’ rights to racial justice to feminist organizing.)
More conservative streams of the diaspora actually see no shame in this and are actively whipping up ideological and material support for the BJP. From Vishwa Hindu Parishad groups to RSS supporters in the US to the Overseas Friends of BJP (which has nearly 14,000 “likes” on one of its Facebook pages), diaspora have been busy planning “chai pe charcha” events, raising money, and now, celebrating Modi’s victory.
This is escaping notice among liberal diaspora waiting to see what Modi does now that he has the world’s eye. The fact is that the spotlight was on Modi in the years following the Gujarat mass murders. The spotlight came from as high up as the diplomatic legions of the US government, which barred Modi from entering the country for his role in the genocide. Yet, all it took to change minds and prompt a personal phone call from President Obama was a switch to economic-development verbiage and a downplaying of Modi’s religious conservatism. The media in India and the US have gone right along with this change of heart, excusing history in favor of a focus on economic “progress.” Recent New York Times articles announcing his win failed to even mention Modi’s role in religious violence. The Times of India reduced his notoriety for these murders to “stigma” imposed by a “small left-wing clique.” Of course, the BJP in Gujarat has spent lakhs of public relations Rupees hyping Modi and getting the media to selectively neglect facts. If anything, the spotlight now means that Modi has the political mechanism and the media buy-in to expand on his ideological and economic track record.
And it’s a sordid track record, even apart from his role in religious violence. Modi’s economic “progress” has involved the prioritization of multinational corporate interests over the livelihoods, land, and bodily integrity of those in villages and urban shantytowns. Modi’s policies do not even have the façade of “inclusive growth” and redistributive policies put forth by the Congress Party. His lower-caste background did not prevent him from razing the street shacks in the Ahmedabad neighborhood where I was living every time a political dignitary was due to pass that way, from displacing thousands of urban and rural poor for massive infrastructural projects, or from targeting Muslims and other religious minorities. Expenditures on health, education, and rural employment have declined in Gujarat, and resultant social welfare indicators such as maternal and infant mortality and malnourishment are low compared to similar states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Rural employment has decreased in the last five years. Modi’s economic philosophy contains no magic bullet, it just constitutes more of the pro-business, globalized model that has only benefitted a segment of the population in post-1991 India. Even the IMF has noted rising inequality in the country, with billionaire net worth increasing 12-fold in the last 15 years, while the poor increasingly deal with the downsides of globalization.
While progressive opponents of Modi in the diaspora are often met with a “what do you know?” attitude from Indians in India, this question is rarely leveled at his droves of diaspora supporters who have actually had the economic capital to throw behind their beliefs. Yes, the progressive diaspora has a stake in the type of government coming to power in India. Our families, our communities and we ourselves have complex histories there – and we see a Hindu nationalist state as oppositional to any type of global justice. For those of us who are a part of or in solidarity with economic and social movements in India – be they Dalit, tribal, Muslim, women’s, LGBTQ, and the intersections of these, we fear that a Modi government will intensify the crackdowns.
Ultimately, the rise of a Hindu nationalist state matters for the world beyond India and its diaspora. For example, Modi is likely to strengthen India’s military and ideological relationship with Israel and to egg on anti-Muslim sentiment, which has implications for Palestine, the Indian Subcontinent, and the broader region. Obama has made it clear that he sees Modi as an ally – most likely in advancing a globalized economic model that hurts the poor both in India and in the US.
This is a bigger question than party politics. The Congress Party has pushed this same economic model for years, and has also cracked down on social movements. But the excusal, for sake of economic “progress,” of Modi’s history of religious violence and open identification of Hindu-ness with Indian-ness reflects how stubbornly we are willing to close our eyes. Instead, how can we examine the ways we are letting our caste and class privilege position us to support such a detrimental economic model in the first place? How can we start to listen to grassroots movements that have alternative visions for a just society – the recent Dalit Women’s Swabhiman Yatra, the villagers lying down year after year to block multinational steel plants, hijra groups organizing against police brutality, farmers standing up against GMO seeds and some of the largest multinationals in the world?
“Wait and see” is easy when you are not on the receiving end of economic and religious persecution. But this is not the moment for “chalo ji,” sweep it under the rug and move on because we can. It’s a moment to question our place of comfort, rise to our moral convictions and open our eyes to the fire we are fueling around us.