It was in the early, bleary hours of dawn that I arrived back in Mumbai last week and the first thing I noticed was our Prime Minister smiling proudly out of a hoarding that advertised India’s leadership of the G20 for the coming year. The next morning came a message on my phone advising me to be proud of this historical moment because the eyes of the world will be on India in the coming year. In case I had neglected to fully register this ‘historic moment,’ I was reminded of it by speeches and articles by high officials and by the Prime Minister himself. In an article that has been widely published he wrote, “As the mother of democracy, India’s national consensus is forged not by diktat, but by blending millions of free voices into one harmonious melody.”
Words like unity and diversity have been tossed about in the past week, but something else was going on under the surface. Two BJP chief ministers popped up on TV to declare in different ways that Indian Muslims must learn to behave. The Chief Minister of Assam told NDTV that ‘love jihad’ must be stopped and that Hindus could never be charged with starting riots because Hindus were naturally non-violent people. The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh came forward to assert aggressively that it was time for a uniform civil code because nobody should be allowed more than one wife. On the campaign trail the Home Minister made a dangerously ambiguous statement, which could be read as an admission that the violence in Gujarat in 2002 was organized to teach ‘some people’ a lesson. It was a lesson that had clearly been learned, he said, since there had not been another communal riot in Gujarat since.
Meanwhile, the Israeli film director who described Kashmir Files as a vulgar, propaganda film told Karan Thapar that he had been inundated with violent angry messages since he said what he did. The reaction to his daring to criticise a film that the Indian Government has gone out of its way to promote left him worried, he said, about whether it was possible for people in India to speak freely anymore. He said, “The fact that someone gives a critical opinion of the movie, and I immediately started to get thousands of extremely violent messages…is this the society in which you want to live?”
This is a question we should all be asking. But with the eyes of the world on us, as we are constantly being reminded, it is vital that the Prime Minister starts paying more attention to the decline in our human rights record since he took office. International watchdogs like the US Commission on International Religious Freedom have noticed the ‘crackdown on civil society and dissent.’ The Modi government has a standard response to international criticism, and this is to reject it outright as inaccurate and motivated. It needs to find a better response because the eyes of the world will indeed focus more sharply on India in the coming year.
Narendra Modi understands well that the average Indian voter is thrilled by international approval. It heightens his self-esteem even if he lives in extreme poverty deprived of necessities like clean water and electricity. So, Modi has gone out of his way to organise this huge fuss over India’s leadership of the G20 this year. He is in any case seen as an international hero by the average Indian voter. His advice to Vladimir Putin that this was not an era for war has been interpreted by Indians as proof that he is the only world leader who can stop Russia’s monstrous war. Most Indians approve of India’s ‘balanced’ stand on the conflict. They do not care that Putin’s war is an attempt to crush Ukraine’s fight for democracy and freedom.
It is also sad but true that unless you are Muslim or Dalit you probably do not care that these communities have faced more violence and discrimination since the rise of Hindutva. Crimes against members of these two communities usually go unpunished. Figures collated by the National Crimes Bureau show that at the end of last year there were 71,000 crimes against Dalits that were ‘pending investigation’. In the case of Muslims, the situation is worse because since Hindutva leaders took charge, ancient, historical grievances have surfaced that have convinced Indians, whose only knowledge of history comes from Twitter, that it is time to ‘avenge’ the barbaric violence of Islamic invaders by declaring open season on all Muslims.
The fact that Kashmir Files has been the most successful film of this year is proof that a rage against Muslims has built up that has deeply disturbed the ‘harmony’ of India. Whatever Israeli film director, Nadav Lapid, may think of this film matters little because there is no point ever in arguing with the box office. I will say though that I have not met any Indian who has watched this film and not come out with a violent, angry reaction against all Muslims. This is disturbing and it should disturb the Prime Minister. Now that India’s record on human rights will be under intense international scrutiny, it is more than time that we rectify some of the disharmony that has been deliberately spread by Modi’s supporters and officials. Our dear Bharat Mata does not look so harmonious these days.