Narendra Modi campaigned in 2014 on the promise of delivering 20 million jobs a year. In office, he presided over the worst unemployment rates in at least 20 years. An entire generation has missed the tide that may have carried them to a stable, contented future. As the fantasies of instant prosperity purveyed by Modi unravelled under the burden of his own incompetence, the euphoria of 2014 degenerated into full-blown sectarian hysteria.
Into this crucible of foiled aspirations, Modi tossed a tonsured fireball called Ajay Bisht. The head abbot of a militant monastery, Bisht — who goes by his born-again name, Yogi Adityanath — is an unadulterated bigot. He was one of the first politicians to demand the prosecution of the Akhlaq family [Mohammed Akhlaq was killed and his son badly injured in 2015 by a mob of local villagers and BJP supporters after they suspected him of stealing and slaughtering a cow]. In 2002, he founded a private militia that recruited from the human debris of India’s transition from “socialism” to capitalism —men left behind in the republic’s rush to remake itself — and grew over a decade into an army of more than a quarter million foot soldiers.
Bisht enjoined them to claim ten Muslim scalps for every Hindu killed. And if a Muslim should “take one Hindu girl”, he roared at a rally, “we will take a hundred Muslim girls”. In 2007, he spent nearly two weeks in jail for defying a ban on public gatherings to deliver a speech dripping with sectarian malice. His worldly possessions included a revolver, a rifle and two luxury cars. And among the litany of criminal cases filed against him over the years were attempted murder, trespassing on burial sites, criminal intimidation and rioting. This is the character whom Modi installed, in the summer of 2017, as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
The largest state in the union, home to more than 200 million people, suddenly found itself placed at the feet of a feral priest enrobed in saffron. Yogi’s first order of business was cracking down on Muslim-owned businesses such as abattoirs. “Humans are important,” he explained a year into his appointment, appalled by the coverage being lavished on the lynchings of Muslims, but “cows are also important.” Once written off as a fringe figure, Yogi is now a cynosure of the BJP.
The hunting of defenceless minorities has become so normalised under Modi that often there is no spark for violence. The victimisation of Muslims lay simply in the thrill of being vicious. Consider the events over the course of a single month in 2017. On 9 June, a mob of “educated” Hindus in Delhi nearly lynched a young reporter when they discovered that he was a Muslim from Kashmir. He was so badly bruised that he couldn’t move for days. On 19 June, more than a dozen Muslims in central and southern India were arrested and charged with sedition—one of the gravest offences on India’s statute books—following complaints from their Hindu neighbours that they had been celebrating Pakistan’s win against India in the cricket World Cup the previous night. On 22 June, Hindu passengers on a train picked on a group of Muslims, shrieked “anti-national” — the favourite phrase of Hindu supremacists — into their faces, pulled their beards and then stabbed to death Junaid, a sixteen-year-old Muslim boy returning home after shopping for Eid in Delhi. The Great Leader, touring the United States, took no notice. On the day that Junaid was knifed, Modi tweeted a snippet from his speech to expatriate admirers in the United States: “India is a youthful nation with youthful dreams and aspirations. It is our constant endeavour to turn these aspirations into achievements.” Not a word about the youthful dreams snuffed out by the mob in that stream of banalities.
The arid hate of Modi’s India has desiccated what is perhaps the most potent remedy for the curse of religious schism: romantic love that transcends the bounds of religion. Inter-faith couples have been exposed to the furies of Hindu men yelling “Love Jihad” — a phrase that captures all the psychological dysmorphia of its believers, who say that Muslim men are buying flashy clothes with cash channelled to them by Islamic governments, seducing impressionable Hindu women and then converting them to Islam. It is an old bugbear, forged in envy and spite, that has become monstrously invigorated in Modi’s New India. In 2018, a Bangalore-based sales manager doxxed inter-religious couples, posting on Facebook what he called “a list of girls who have become victims of love jihad”. Muslim men spotted with Hindu women have been brutally mauled. Muslim–Hindu weddings have been disrupted and attacked by Hindu gangs and leaders of the ruling party. In 2017, in Yogi’s state, when a groom was pulled from a court building where he was to be married and horrifically beaten up, the police attempted to intervene. The following year, when a woman in Yogi’s bailiwick suspected of having a relationship with a Muslim man was “rescued” by Hindu men and handed over to the authorities, the police filmed themselves physically assaulting her for choosing a “mullah” over Hindu men. The video of the assault joined the library of murder reels whose most chilling entry was made by a man in Rajasthan, in 2017, who had his nephew shoot the entire episode. It shows its star, Shambhulal Regar, sliding up to a Muslim labourer going about his work and plunging a pickaxe in his back. The Muslim man, unaware he is being filmed, falls to the ground, faintly mouthing the words “I am dead”, at which point Regar addresses the camera: “Jihadis—this is what will happen to you if you spread love jihad in our country.” He then showers his victim with kerosene, throws a match on him and walks away as flames consume the body.
When Regar was arrested, more than 500 people from across the country donated Rs 300,000 to a fund launched in his name. The government’s rush to freeze the bank account could scarcely conceal its complicity in licensing the bigotry that created an enabling climate for Regar’s work. Earlier in the year, the BJP-run government of Rajasthan had instructed schools in the state to take their pupils to a “spiritual fair” where they could learn about the evil of “love jihad”.
The hideousness of a society stigmatising Muslim men as agents of terror and slaughtering them — the full extent of the depletion of empathy in the age of Modi — was revealed only weeks after Regar’s video was posted when the crumpled body of a child, an eight-year-old girl from a Muslim nomadic family, was found in Jammu. Asifa Bano was grazing horses when a pair of Hindu men lured her into the woods. There, according to police reports, they drugged her, then carried her to a temple. Locked inside the temple for three days, she was starved, beaten, repeatedly raped, before being strangled to death. Her bloodied body, draped in the purple dress flecked with yellow roses she wore when she was abducted, was then discarded in a nearby forest. The men accused of the crime were entitled to presumption of innocence, the keystone of any civilised criminal justice system; what followed was akin to a posthumous smearing of a dead child, who was cast as an agent of Muslim separatists in neighbouring Kashmir. Lawyers physically blocked the entrance of a courthouse to stop the authorities from filing charges. There was no discernible outrage at the fact that a Hindu place of worship had been desecrated. What troubled BJP leaders was that the officers investigating the crime were Muslim. The Hindu capacity for depraved savagery in Modi’s India is exceeded only by the Hindu capacity for diabolical self-pity.
Unless cushioned by wealth or political connections, criticising him is an extremely hazardous undertaking. For a man who boasts about the size of his chest, Modi is, unsurprisingly, very thin-skinned. Since his election, teachers have lost their jobs, students have landed in prison, a police officer was suspended and a rickshaw driver had criminal charges slapped against him — all for saying unflattering things about the prime minister. Even well-heeled agnostics are mercilessly bullied into submission by Modi’s digital mobs. The people operating the pro-Modi Twitter and Facebook accounts are not freelancers but members of an organised online army. According to a repentant former propagandist for Modi, interviewed by the journalist Swati Charturvedi, the shady “social media unit” of the BJP administers “a never-ending drip-feed of hate and bigotry against the minorities, the Gandhi family, journalists on the hit list, liberals, anyone perceived as anti-Modi”. Even a man as wildly popular as the film star Aamir Khan could not evade the wrath of the “social media unit”. In 2016, Khan shared his (Hindu) wife’s apprehensions about rising “intolerance” in Modi’s India. No sooner had he made the remark than a ferocious online campaign was launched against an e-commerce giant that had hired Khan to advertise its brand. The company was coerced into severing ties with him. Khan, proved right, never revisited the subject. The message for other celebrities was as unmistakable as it was chilling.
Unlike Muslims who deviate from Muslim fundamentalists, the editor Vir Sanghvi wrote in the Hindustan Times in 2007, Hindus who “condemn the worst excesses” of Hindu nationalists “face no real danger”. For all the noise they made about the dangers of Hindu nationalism, affluent Hindus seldom radiated fear of saffron-clad supremacists. They saw their own faith as a form of terror indemnity against the savagery of men who slaughtered Muslims and Christians. This secret sense of security bred a smug complacency that blinded them to the danger staring them in the face. But, in September 2017— almost ten years to the date after Sanghvi’s assertion about the innocuousness of Hindu nationalists appeared in print—Gauri Lankesh, a Hindu journalist who did just that, was shot dead in an ambush outside her house.
The decade in between was the decade in which Modi became the undisputed leader of the Hindu-nationalist cause. If his election to the premiership energised Hindu supremacists, his silence as prime minister emboldened them. Lankesh, the scion of a distinguished family, edited a tabloid in Kannada that hardly anybody outside Karnataka read. She struggled to make ends meet and paid the bills by writing occasionally for English newspapers. But not for her the preening platitudes about the relative harmlessness of extremists who happened to be her co-religionists: in her work and her life, she was an unrelenting critic of Hindu supremacism and Modi’s project to recast India as a Hindu nation. Seemingly well-to-do and “progressive”, she was the archetypal “presstitute” despised by Modi’s myrmidons. Her killing, and the shock it induced, was an exhilarating spectacle for them. “A bitch died a dog’s death and now all the puppies are wailing in the same tune,” a businessman in Gujarat tweeted after she was pronounced dead. Another Twitter user rejoiced: “So, Commy Gauri Lankesh has been murdered mercilessly … Amen.” Such ravings would probably not matter—were it not for the fact that the accounts that published them were among those followed by the prime minister.
This was not an aberration.
Possibly the most social-media savvy politician on earth, Modi follows dozens of accounts on social media that routinely dispense threats of rape against journalists and incite violence against Muslims and ideological dissenters. Modi did not disavow the handles that greeted Lankesh’s death with glee by pressing the Unfollow button on Twitter. Nor did he condemn Lankesh’s murder, which, according to investigators, was in all likelihood the work of a Hindu terrorist organisation that had assassinated two other left-leaning intellectuals the previous year.
Railing against Modi’s silence is perhaps beside the point because the assumptions of Indians outraged by his silence may already have become obsolete. Modi may have elected to seal his lips because opening them may only expose his inability to contain and control with speech the monster he catalysed and condoned with silence. In December 2018, in Uttar Pradesh, a senior police officer was run to ground and killed by members of an armed mob of cow protectors he had tried to pacify. The passions supplicated and legitimised by Modi to seize the state have begun, under Yogi, to devour the enforcers of the state’s will. All the confusion of a country that deferred the task of dealing sincerely with its wounded past is ripe for exploitation by Yogi. All the grievances piled up over decades of misrule by Congress for which Modi did not, could not, create a productive ventilation are waiting to be converted into an even more explosive anger by his protégé. We may yet look back on Modi as a moderate.
This is essay is adapted from Kapil Komireddi’s Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India, published by Hurst.