Modi’s Religious Nationalism Hurts India’s Hindus, Too
The motto of the modern Indian state, printed on every note and coin, is Satyameva Jayate, a Sanskrit phrase meaning “Truth Alone Triumphs.” But the current Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come to power on a dangerous lie that they have been selling to India’s Hindus: that in a country where they make up 80 percent of the population, Hinduism is under threat—and will only prosper if they support the ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism.
I am a co-founder of a progressive Hindu organization, Hindus for Human Rights. Most of our board members and our sole staff member are Hindu Indians in the United States, and we have a deep love for India. Our ardent wish is to see our fellow Hindus freeing their hearts and minds from the hateful and harmful ideology of Hindutva, and the Islamophobia that often accompanies it.
Chain reactions sparked by Hindutva ideologies have claimed the lives of innocent people—a Muslim lynched on the suspicion that he eats beef, a Hindu woman who suffered a miscarriage while imprisoned for marrying a Muslim man, an 8-year-old Muslim girl raped and killed in a Hindu temple, and countless others. The lie has transformed nearly every aspect of Indian society beyond recognition.
Now, as India is ravaged by COVID-19, it faces the latest casualty of this lie: the official and likely undercount of 4,000 lives lost every day to a deadly second wave that was precipitated and exacerbated at every turn by Hindu nationalism.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hindu nationalists jumped on the opportunity to link the virus to Muslims, inventing the conspiracy theory of “coronajihad.” That had real consequences: Muslims were beaten and denied hospital beds, and Muslim health care workers were ostracized.
The Modi government and right-wing media particularly seized upon a conference hosted in Delhi in March 2020, by a Muslim organization, the Tablighi Jamaat. This conference with just 9,000 attendees took place before any government COVID-19 restrictions were in place, at the same time as India’s largest Hindu temples were welcoming tens of thousands of devotees. The Tirupati temple, the world’s richest and most visited Hindu temple, limited its visitors to 4,000 people per hour on March 17, and it did not fully close until March 20.
Yet, unlike Hindu temple officials, organizers and attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat’s conference were met with widespread hate and criminal charges for hosting a superspreader event. Many were arrested, and some are still awaiting trial. All of this was done in the name of public health.
One year later, the BJP is directly responsible for putting millions of Hindu lives at risk—and it doesn’t have a convenient Muslim scapegoat to pin the blame on. In the name of upholding Hindu traditions and beliefs, the BJP government decided to hold the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering, in the middle of a pandemic. The Kumbh was scheduled for 2022, but the BJP government of India’s Uttarakhand state moved it forward to 2021 based on the recommendations of astrologers. Many, including some ministers in the BJP itself, argue that the true reasons were political and economic. In advancing the Kumbh by a year, the BJP allowed 9 million Hindus to gather without masks and social distancing, ushering in the deadliest phase of the pandemic.
Thanks to the BJP’s claim of protecting Hindu interests, India has been plunged into its biggest crisis since the bloodbath of the 1947 Partition, which took the lives of as many as 2 million people. Just as the violence of 1947 targeted Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike, today’s coronavirus is wreaking equal-opportunity havoc on all faith communities, with the poorest being the hardest hit.