Indian candidate Narendra Modi stokes religious extremism

By Savi Hensman
May 6, 2014

Extremist politician Narendra Modi has dangerously inflamed religious tension during the Indian election. “This is the land of Lord Ram,” he declared in Faizabad, standing in front of a picture of the god. In 1992 fanatics tore down a nearby mosque and pledged to build a temple to Ram in its place.

Prime ministerial candidate Modi, of the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was reported to the election commission, which has ordered an inquiry. Last year in the volatile state of Uttar Pradesh, where Modi sent his close aide Amit Shah to lead his campaign, dozens were killed in communal violence.

Over the past few years, Modi has tried to cultivate an image of respectability, despite his long involvement in the Hindutva movement, which uses a distorted form of religion in seeking power. It seems he has now abandoned the pretence of being moderate.

He was formerly an organiser in the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In 2002, after he became chief minister of Gujarat for the BJP, an estimated 1,500-2,000 Muslims were slaughtered. His role led to widespread revulsion in India and beyond, and lawyers continue to argue in India’s courts over whether he should be put on trial.

He was unapologetic, in 2007 choosing one of the ringleaders, Maya Kodnani, as his minister for women and child development, though she was later convicted. Shah is currently facing charges for his alleged part in extrajudicial ‘fake encounter’ killings. Police officers have claimed that Modi too was involved.

Modi later tried to switch the focus to Gujarat’s economic achievements, though it has been pointed out that his part in these has been exaggerated. He has been very helpful to big business but at the expense of the poor. On some development indicators, despite Gujarat’s comparative prosperity, it lags behind the national average.

His lobbyists managed to soften attitudes among various overseas leaders, who were prepared to overlook his grim track record and dubious connections. In a highly professional campaign, his backers tried to make out that minorities had nothing to fear.

It has also been suggested that, because of the strength of India’s democratic institutions, there is little cause for concern. Yet history has shown that extremist politicians do not always play by the rules.

India’s key regional position, economic ties and possession of nuclear weapons mean that the outcome of the election will have global repercussions. A couple of weeks before the Ram incident, at a rally attended by Modi in Mumbai, his political ally Ramdas Kadam threatened Muslims and stated that, if Modi came to power, within six months Pakistan would not exist.

At the time, the BJP sought to distance its candidate from the statement. Then in Gujarat, Modi reportedly broke the law by canvassing for votes on polling day. The latest controversy would appear to signal open disrespect for the usual constraints in a multi-cultural and democratic society.

“No party or candidate shall include in any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes
and communities, religious or linguistic” is the first item in the model code of conduct issued by the election commission, which also states that “There shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes.”

In addition the handbook for candidates makes it clear that “Any act to promote or attempt to promote on grounds of religion, caste, community or language, feeling of enmity or hatred between different classes of citizens of India is a corrupt practice and which may render your election void and entail disqualification for membership and which is also an electoral offence punishable with imprisonment”. The “use of or appeal to religious symbols” is explicitly forbidden.

Two key Hindu religious leaders have joined in opposing Modi in the ancient city of Varanasi, NDTV reported. Puri Shankaracharya Swami Adhokshjanand Devtirath has blamed Modi for the 2002 Gujarat riots, stating that those who divide people to come to power should be exposed.

Dwarka Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati criticised the “Har Har Modi” slogan, based on a chant of praise to the god Mahadev (Shiva). This amounted to "worship" of a man and he warned that "God will stop Modi" if it was not halted. Modi then tweeted his followers asking them not to use the slogan.

For many Hindus, what the BJP stands for is far removed from their faith. Yet in India and overseas, the Hindutva movement continues to exploit religion for its own ends. If Narendra Modi gains power, divisions are likely to deepen, while defending human rights, democracy and peace in India will become more important than ever.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector. Her background is in Sri Lanka, and she has a particular interest in the politics, society and religion of that country.

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