Travelling in India …

I began my last blog with a few words which may give a misleading impression.

‘All, on the surface, appears to be going well in India. The economy under Narendra Modi has momentum, a contrast to our own. Modi has a 77% approval rating. There was a sense of optimism among the people I spoke to.’

We returned from a two-week holiday in north-western India six weeks ago.

‘On the surface.’ I left open what might lie below the surface. India as envisaged by Nehru and the Congress Party in 1947 was to be a secular, non-aligned state. Nehru looked to the West, but also to communist Russia. India was partitioned, with terrible consequences, and the tension between India and its neighbour Pakistan is palpable, seventy-five years on, even to short-stay visitors. The army’s presence, in the areas where we travelled, is everywhere.

Over the last seventy years the Congress Party has gone into sharp decline and the fundamentalist Hindu party, the BJP, has taken hold of the levers of power, at a national and increasingly local level. The BJP under Narendra Modi has been in power since 2014.

In 1992 Hindu activists destroyed a mosque, at Ayodhya, on a site widely believed to have been the birthplace of the god Rama. If this act was symbolic of an India reconstituting as a Hindu state, the 2019 decision of the Modi government to revoke the status of Jammu and Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim territory, as a self-governing entity, and the transfer of power to the central government, was, and is, widely seen (outside India) as brutal act of suppression of Kashmiri, and Muslim, aspirations. Also pertinent is the 2019 legislation extending the National Register of Citizens to the whole country which would have the effect of leaving several million Muslims stateless.

Our own sampling of Hindu opinion during our stay in November suggested a disdain toward a Muslim population which is more and more ghettoised as threats and sometimes specific acts of violence increase. The irony of Delhi’s and Agra’s great tourist locations being Mughal and therefore Muslim forts and mausoleums, not least the Taj Mahal, seemed lost on our (otherwise splendid) Hindu guides.

All that said, India remains a functioning democracy of not far short of 1.4 billion people. We were in Shimla on election day for the state of Himachal Pradesh’s legislative assembly. We chatted to a friendly BJP teller outside a polling booth. (The BJP were noisily confident, but in this particular election they lost – and Congress won.)

The mood among the Hindu population was positive, almost aggressively optimistic. The economy is growing fast, and Modi, like him or not, is an influential figure on the world stage. The contrast I made in my last blog between the UK and India is for real.

And yet … quotes from my travel journal are apposite here:

‘Am I soft-pedalling on Modi too much? What of the Hindutva nationalist philosophy of the BJP? The Booker Prize winning novelist Arundhati Roy is no friend of the BJP. She writes in a recent book of essays of how “the holy cow and the holy script became of the chosen vehicles of (Hindu) mobilisation”. The “holy script” is Hindi…

… In The Times of India I read about a move to convert Christians among the Adivasi, India’s indigenous tribes, to Hinduism. Shivaji, the 17th century Marathi leader, is celebrated not least in movies as a Hindu proto-nationalist. The Shiv Sena movement, the leader of the local branch of which was shot the day before our arrival in Amritsar, is radical in its advocacy of a pure and dominant form of Hinduism. Muslim culture, and the Muslim population, which existed side by side with Hindu culture for many centuries, is under unrelenting pressure. And yet Bollywood still has many Muslim stars.’

Arundhati Roy, as an outspoken opponent of a regime increasingly hostile to dissent, lives dangerously. She sums up the situation, as she sees it, succinctly as follows. (The RSS is the ideological arm of the BJP.)

‘The abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, the promise of a National Register of Citizens, the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya are all on the front burners of the RSS and BJP kitchen. To reignite flagging passions all they need to do is pick a villain from their gallery and unleash the dogs of war. There are several categories of villain, Pakistani jihadis, Kashmiri terrorists, Bangladeshi infiltrators or anyone of a population of nearly 200 million Indian Muslims who can always be accused of being Pakistan-lovers or anti-national traitors.’

India has a militant China on its Himalayan border. It needs a strong army and a strong leader. You could argue it now has both. And a growing economy. But the cost in terms of its move away from the secular and open society that Nehru aspired to has been a high one.

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