Gurpreet Singh: Narendra Modi’s seven years in power and what it means for India and the rest of the world

A B.C.-based writer argues that the Canadian government must pay more attention to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

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      Narendra Modi was first elected as prime minister of India in May 2014. His right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP has turned what has otherwise been known as the world’s largest democracy into an intolerant Hindu theocracy. Attacks on religious minorities, particularly Muslims and political dissidents, have grown under his rule since then.

      Let’s first examine, why is it happening like that? And what is unique about this government?

      We must keep in mind that India experienced emergency and press censorship in 1975 under a different regime. Likewise, India also witnessed a Sikh Genocide in 1984. That was then under the Congress government. For the record, the Congress party, which is now in the opposition, claims to be a secular alternative to the BJP.

      Nevertheless, the Congress party engaged in divisive and sectarian politics for short-term gains by polarizing the Hindu majority. Yet, the difference between the two parties needs to be understood.

      The BJP is a political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—a Hindu supremacist group established in 1925 when India was under British occupation.

      Notably, the RSS never played an active role in the freedom movement. It mainly campaigned to establish a Hindu nation in which Muslims and Christians were to be treated as second-class citizens.

      The RSS has always considered Islam and Christianity as foreign religions, while domestic faith groups such as Buddhism and Sikhism are seen as part of the Hindu fold. Its exclusionist and assimilationist agenda was no secret.

      Their members believed in violence and fascism. It is not surprising that they idolized Hitler and some, like early RSS mentor V.D. Savarkar, justified the Nazi leader's anti-Jewish pogroms. They drew inspiration from Nazis.

      The RSS itself is like a semi-paramilitary force that routinely organizes camps across India. They mostly wear khaki shorts and sport black caps during their ceremonies. Modi is an RSS man. There is a famous quote from him saying what he owes to the Sangh (RSS).

      It is important to mention here that the RSS was briefly banned following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the towering leader of the passive-resistance movement against British rule.

      Although a practising Hindu himself, Gandhi believed in the coexistence of Hindus and Muslims, unlike the RSS founders. In spite of many of his own contradictions, Gandhi did not suit the RSS. One of its followers, Nathuram Godse, killed him in 1948.

      While the BJP will never officially question Gandhi, who has been accepted as the father of the Indian nation, some of its MPs have been caught in controversies for glorifying his assassin. However, Modi reveres Savarkar, another problematic figure and a Hindu bigot. He was allegedly involved in Gandhi's murder and was charged as a co-conspirator, although he was acquitted for lack of evidence.

      Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by RSS man Nathuram Godse (right), a close associate of Hindu nationalist writer V.D. Savarkar.

      Modi's rise linked to past majoritarianism

      Let’s face it: Modi’s ascendance to power is the culmination of consistent efforts by the RSS to transform India's political environment through social engineering and the pragmatic majoritarian politics of the previous Congress government.

      Right from Gandhi to the present, the Congress leadership has made compromises to please the Hindu majority by accommodating religion-based politics.

      For instance, Gandhi believed in cow protection. Cows are considered a sacred animal by many devout Hindus. Today, the BJP has made many tough cow-protection laws, while its supporters continue to hound Muslims suspected of carrying beef in their tiffin boxes.

      In 1984, the Congress government ordered the military attack on the Golden Temple complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar, to deal with a handful of militants fighting an armed insurgency. This left many innocent pilgrims dead.

      As a result of this ill-conceived army operation, Sikhs were outraged all across the world. This military attack, known as Operation Bluestar, was done to humiliate the Sikh minority to win an upcoming election.

      On October 31, 1984, the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards. The Congress then organized anti-Sikh massacre all over India. Several BJP/RSS men also participated in the violence.

      In the ensuing election, Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, won a huge majority in the parliament, while the BJP only had two MPs. In other words, the BJP-RSS vote shifted to the Congress.

      Modi used similar tactics in 2002 when he was chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat.

      Following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, anti-Muslim pogroms were organized all over Gujarat under his watch. He blamed the train fire on Muslims. While Modi was never charged, survivors and witnesses continue to allege his complicity.

      Prior to becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi was denied a visa by the U.S. and other western countries. In 2015, he visited Canada.

      Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made no secret of his admiration for writer V.D. Savarkar, who was charged with conspiracy and ultimately acquitted in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi.
      Narendra Modi/Wikimedia Commons

      Modi implements RSS agenda

      Let’s fastforward to his reelection in 2019.

      Shortly after his second term began, his government started pushing the core RSS agenda more aggressively.

      As part of its long-term commitment to the Hindu right, his government scrapped special status given to Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in India. Thousands of Kashmiris fighting for self-determination were detained.

      Then came the famous temple verdict. The Indian Supreme Court handed over a disputed site in Ayodhya to Hindus. Ayodhya is the birthplace of Lord Ram—a prominent Hindu god.

      The BJP has always claimed that Muslim rulers demolished the Ram temple that once stood there to build a mosque in the 16th century. In 1992, BJP goons razed the mosque. Since then, the BJP has been campaigning to rebuild a Hindu temple on the exact spot.

      It is widely believed that the Supreme Court ruling favoured the BJP and now, Modi is determined to deliver on his promise to implement the RSS agenda of rebuilding Ram temple.

      The 2019 electoral win obviously emboldened Modi.

      This government then went ahead to pass another controversial law called Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This was highly discriminatory legislation that welcomes only non-Muslim refugees coming to India from the three neighbouring Muslim-dominated countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

      This law was heavily resisted.

      Indians Abroad for a Pluralist India regularly holds demonstrations in Surrey, but the group's warnings about Hindu extremism have gone unheeded by the Canadian government.
      Jaffar Bhamji

      Critics labelled as "antinational"

      If all this weren’t enough, the BJP government passed farm laws that the farming community believes is going to harm their livelihood. All these laws were implemented without much debate in the parliament, merely because the BJP has an absolute majority in the house.

      Anyone resisting these policies can be potentially charged and detained under draconian laws or branded as “antinational” by the lapdog media that seems to serve the Modi government.

      The situation continues to deteriorate. So much so, those raising questions over the mismanagement of this government's response to COVID-19 also must face the music.

      Despite tall claims of development and progress, India has failed under Modi. The shortage of oxygen and hospital beds suggests a complete lack of preparedness. Yet to raise that makes a person an “antinational” or “unpatriotic”.

      We can see clearly how the space for democracy and dialogue is rapidly shrinking under Modi. Previous regimes definitely played a role in the current state of affairs, by pandering to the Hindu majority and not doing enough to bring about more evenly distributed economic growth.

      But this government must take blame for the outright failure in response to COVID-19 as it has a majority in the house. If this government can implement core programs of the RSS, why can’t it deliver on issues that matter to everyone?

      That the majority is with Modi is mainly because the RSS has been actively mobilizing people in the name of Hindu nationalism for all these years. Not only did previous regimes fail to stop the RSS from marching ahead, they too pandered to the Hindu majority by playing destructive and competitive politics, which only benefited Modi. Today, the RSS has deeply penetrated Indian institutions, academic bodies, the administrative structure, and even the police and intelligence services.

      The Babri Masjid, built in Ayodhya in the 16th century, was razed in 1992 by Hindu extremists.
      Samuel Byrne

      RSS spreads its reach abroad

      Let’s examine what is means for Canada and the rest of the world.

      Whatever is happening there will definitely have its ripple effects here. We all are familiar with the 1985 Air India bombings—the worst single incident of terror in Canadian history. Never forget that it was the culmination of the ugly events of 1984.

      Sikh separatists in Canada are widely blamed for the incident that claimed 331 lives after explosive devices were placed on two planes. Are we waiting for another tragedy?

      It is important to pay attention.

      The way Modi is treating minorities, it might have an impact in the Indian diaspora. His supporters are increasingly becoming vocal and aggressive in Canada and inciting his opponents here, while most Canadians still take India’s secular democracy for granted.

      From a Canadian perspective, Modi’s efforts to assimilate Sikhs should be recognized as a huge problem. Much as our First Nations are resisting assimilation, the Sikhs, who have a sizable population in Canada, have been defending their separate identity, just as they are anxious about the continued growth of the RSS.

      Notably, the RSS is repeating Canada's history of Indian residential schools. It has been plucking young Indigenous or Adivasi girls from northeastern states and sending them to seminaries far away from their families to be indoctrinated into right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology.

      The Citizenship Amendment Act is a repetition of Canada's Continuous Journey Regulation (CJR), under which the Komagata Maru ship was forcibly expelled from Vancouver's harbour returned to India in 1914. Whereas, the CJR was aimed to keep Indian immigrants away, the CAA discriminates against Muslim refugees.

      The RSS believes in the brutal caste system within the Hindu society. Much like Blacks, who suffer systemic racism here in North America, the Dalits (so-called untouchables) face the worst discrimination under that system.

      For the RSS, the idea of racial superiority was never alien. Not only have its members idolized Hitler, BJP supporters openly admired Donald Trump. Modi campaigned shamelessly for his re-election. Let’s keep in mind, however, that Modi and the RSS are far more dangerous than Trump.

      As we see anti-Asian racism growing here in North America due to COVID-19, in India people from northeastern states with East Asian facial features are also facing discrimination in other parts of the country under Modi’s watch. Due to his anti-China rhetoric, this hate has grown even more. It is time for Canada to pay attention and take this challenge seriously.

      Indian journalist Neha Dixit exposed how the RSS is transporting tribal children to faraway schools, where they are indoctrinated with Hindu theology.

      Where has Canada failed?

      Canada is too enamoured by Sikh politics, which is why it has overlooked the gradual growth of RSS influence in this country.

      Why has it has failed to ban any Hindu extremist group? It is well known how the Hindu right mobilized people in Canada in support of the Ram temple movement. Some temples in B.C. even supported the idea of rebuilding the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Those associated with the movement and who were responsible for the demolition of Ayodhya mosque in 1992 were invited here and allowed to address temple congregations.

      Some temples have been holding RSS drills and some RSS men held position of power in temples in Canada, yet Canadian authorities looked away.

      India and Canada have had a number of strategies to deal to deal with Sikh separatists, but there is complete silence about growing Hindu extremism.

      Only recently, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised concern over mistreatment of agitating farmers in India, there was a fierce backlash from India. Shortly after that, Trudeau asked for COVID-19 vaccines from Modi. That further emboldened RSS sympathizers in Canada and encouraged them to hold demonstrations, only to irritate Modi's critics in Canada.

      While Canada had opened doors for Hindus and Sikhs facing religious persecution in Afghanistan and a Christian woman who faced death in Pakistan, there has been a deafening silence over what is happening to minorities in India.

      Whereas Canada recently recognized genocide of Uyghur Muslims in China, it failed to recognize genocides of Sikhs and Muslims in India, which only reflects its selectivity.

      Even though the Sikh separatist movement has lost its charm, Canada is still keeping an eye on Sikh activists when it should be keeping a watch on Hindu groups.

      The murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, a staunch critic of Narendra Modi, triggered protests in Canada.

      What needs to be done?

      There is a need to keep a check on the RSS and its folks in Canada, in addition to banning their activities. This should be followed by a freeze on their assets to stop the funding of hate.

      Equally important is to identify organizations that have sympathy for the RSS and Modi, but operate under the disguise of being pro-India advocacy groups.

      There is also a need to keep a watch on Indian agents all across Canada who have been trying to influence politicians and the South Asian media to create a favourable image of Modi and the RSS.

      Elected officials who openly sympathize with Modi and the RSS and continue to overlook their crimes against humanity must be made accountable.

      If Canada really is a human-rights leader in the world, it needs to stand up for the human rights of minorities in India under Modi.

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine and Indians Abroad for Pluralist India. This article is based on a talk he gave at the Squamish Rotary Club. He's the author of Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector and Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families. Both were published by Chetna Parkashan. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.