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  • Published in Opinion
Theresa May and Narendra Modi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Theresa May and Narendra Modi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia is running rampant in India. Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya argues its relevance in contemporary politics because of Britain's colonial history.

On 22 June, a 15-year-old Muslim boy, Junaid Khan, was lynched by a mob on a train home from Delhi, where he had gone to buy clothes for Eid with his brother and two friends. The other young men in the group were also stabbed, and the attack culminated in Junaid bleeding to death in his brother’s arms on the platform where they were thrown off the train, while around 200 bystanders looked on and, when asked, claimed not to have witnessed the attack.

In North London, a few days earlier, a mosque was attacked during morning prayers by a far-right, white van driver, shouting ‘I want to kill all Muslims’. One person was killed and 11 injured. All were Muslims.

Virulent Islamophobia is evidently common to these different contexts. But this Islamophobia extends well beyond these far-right attackers, to state level, in both. Junaid’s case is just one of an epidemic of mob lynchings against religious minorities and Dalits by far-right Hindu thugs across north India in recent weeks, about which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has remained largely silent. The perpetrators of such attacks often have close links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist volunteer organisation, essentially the parent organisation of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi (himself a lifelong RSS cadre) presided over the 2002 genocide, in which 2,000 Muslims were killed and over 200,000 people were displaced. The forms of violence against minorities which have been increasing since Modi was elected prime minister in 2014 include Gau Rakshaks (‘cow protectors’: gangs that attack  people for supposedly transporting and killing cows) and anti-beef gangs which attack and murder individuals – overwhelmingly Muslims, like Junaid – on the pretext of their assumed consumption of beef. 

A quote from Junaid’s brother Shaqir, speaking to the Indian Express, demonstrates this preoccupation among the Hindu right: ‘[The attackers] (…) taunted us about eating cow meat. Beef is not even cooked in our village’. But the real basis of such targeting is simply being identifiably Muslim. In a recent case, an imam travelling in the northern state of Bihar was thrown off a train with his belongings by a mob, just because he had ‘dared’ to sit down, chillingly evoking the second class citizenship experienced by African Americans in the segregated US south.    

The current cosy relationship between the British and Indian states was evident during Modi’s visit to the UK in November 2015, when he appeared with then British prime minister David Cameron at Wembley Arena in front of an audience of largely Gujarati Hindu Conservative supporters. This event, and Modi’s visit itself, chimed not only with the current deep-rooted Islamophobia in Britain, particularly in the British establishment, but also with the specific entrenched anti-Muslim attitudes among a section of upper caste and increasingly upwardly mobile Indian Hindus in Britain.

This support for Modi and his government, both among the diaspora and from the state, is not only a British phenomenon. Across the pond, in the final stages of last autumn’s general election, the ‘Hindus for Trump’ campaign celebrated Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric, whilst playing into the stereotype of Hindus as the ‘good’ immigrants or the model minority. A member of the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), which campaigned and fundraised for Trump, claimed their support proved that Trump was not in fact ‘somewhat of a racist’. Reciprocally, Trump himself praised Modi, during one such event, as a ‘great man’, adding that ‘I am a big fan of Hindu’ [sic]. Meanwhile, the ‘Hindus for Trump’ movement is equally active in India, and held a celebration in Delhi of Trump’s birthday in June this year.

While the nationalism of groups such as the BJP claims to be anti-colonial, the notion of Hindu supremacy – particularly towards Muslims – clearly originates, at least in part, in British colonial ‘divide and rule’ structures. The history of the RSS is bound up with the development of fascism in Europe, dating as far back as the 1920s, when Mussolini and later Hitler served as an inspiration for this brand of Hindu nationalism. 

Ironically, given their nationalist claims, these far right groups of the first half of the 20th century played little or no part in fighting colonialism, and were in fact often open supporters of British rule, seeing religious minorities, rather than the British, as the main enemy. Golwalkar, a celebrated leader of the RSS, notoriously described Hitler’s treatment of the Jews as an example of ‘race pride’ on which India should model itself.  

The question of caste is another issue which illustrates the current links between the British and Indian state all too clearly. The entrenched anti-Dalit attitudes of the current Indian government were exemplified when one minister likened the burning alive of two Dalit children in 2015 by these far-right thugs to ‘somebody throw(ing) a stone at a dog’. This comment is in line with the centuries of dehumanisation of Dalits, which has only been exacerbated by the current government’s encouragement of these horrendous attacks. 

In Britain, the struggle by Dalit organisations to gain legal recognition of caste discrimination has continued for several years and has been consistently undermined by the Conservative government, under pressure from Hindu right-wing groups. The government is currently conducting a public consultation on the banning of caste discrimination in the UK, which closes in September. 

India’s religious divisions are often assumed to have little relevance to contemporary Western politics (or to colonial history), and are instead seen as a symbol of India’s ‘backward’ culture which has not evolved since pre-colonial times. But this could not be further from the truth. Not only did British colonial rulers actively promote these divisions, and the anti-Muslim version of Indian history subsequently embraced by the Hindu right, but these colonial relationships are clearly still playing out today, as the Hindu nationalist Indian state has close links with US and other transnational corporations. Far from being independent of the West economically, India’s recent boom is clearly fuelled by deals the state has made with these corporations, selling off land and resources and eliminating workers’ rights.

South Asian left activists in the UK are working to challenge Modi’s government and counter the support it continues to receive from sections of the diaspora community. On 15 August, which will mark the 70thanniversary of Indian independence, protesters in central London will be marching against these mob lynchings, highlighting the irony of the notion of independence and freedom under an increasingly repressive, neo-colonial state. Show your solidarity with the many in India who are resisting Modi’s ‘Republic of Fear’ and honouring the victims of these fascistic attacks.

Resist the Republic of Fear: March Against Mob Lynching in India

Tuesday 15 August, Assemble 7.00 pm Tavistock Square London, WC1H 9EZ

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