Surrendering to far-right fanaticism in India and UK

By Savi Hensman
December 10, 2019

In India, the Supreme Court has rewarded far right violence in an attempt to keep the peace. Yet this has left extremists bolder, with possibly deadly consequences. In the run-up to a UK election, the Conservatives have lined up with an ultra-rightwing overseas party which chose a fanatic on trial for terrorism as an MP. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, has seemingly pledged support for its drive to weaken democracy and strip millions of Muslims of basic rights. Labour has backed down on its principles to avoid offending the same movement.

A casual attitude to terrorist violence may seem acceptable to some ‘realists’. They may also think it foolish to give too much weight to democracy, human rights and the principle that nobody is above the law. Other people believe that respect for religion involves giving way to the most powerful and vocal in that faith community. But sidestepping truth and justice carries a deadly price.

The Ayodhya verdict: abandoning key values, insulting God

On the flimsiest grounds, India’s top judges ruled that a temple be built on a site in Ayodhya where a mosque was torn down – a victory for those who distort Hinduism in their quest for power. In 1992, a mob organised by the then-opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and allies had demolished the 16th-century building and gone on a rampage. Thousands died in the riots which followed.

The ringleaders claimed that the exact spot was the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram and that a temple to him had stood there. Yet traditionally worshippers focused their devotion on other parts of the city: only in relatively modern times was this location hotly contested. And the archaeological evidence suggests that earlier structures on the site were probably not Hindu.

A lengthy court case followed on what should happen at the site. Some of the lawyers even claimed to represent Ram, as if a legendary hero widely seen as a manifestation of the Divine could be reduced to a mascot for power-hungry humans.

When the ruling came, power had shifted. Narendra Modi, one of those who had whipped up hatred in the run-up to the mosque demolition and gone on to allow mass killings of Muslims in Gujarat, had become prime minister. Though the demolition was ruled illegal, the perpetrators were, in effect, rewarded. As a small token, Muslims were offered land elsewhere to build another mosque.

The judges may have succeeded in avoiding further immediate riots. But they assisted the hard right in its quest to build a ‘new India’ in which constitutional values of equality for all (ideals never fully put into practice) and democracy were abandoned

Kashmir’s limited autonomy had been overridden. A religious fanatic on trial for terrorism, Pragya Thakur, had been chosen as a BJP parliamentary candidate and elected as an MP, though her repeated praise for Gandhi’s murderer was something of an embarrassment . Lynchings had become commonplace, religious minorities, Dalits and dissidents living in fear.

Allying with far right in UK elections

Against this background, Overseas Friends of the BJP UK threw its support behind the Conservatives in the run-up to the general election, condemning the Labour Party for its concern about justice for Kashmir. People of Indian descent were barraged with calls to vote Conservative, as if concern for human rights and India’s constitutional values was somehow anti-India and anti-Hindu. Though in practice many voters of all ethnicities care more about the NHS and austerity’s toll than overseas issues, Labour backed away from its principled stance.

After widespread concern about possible overseas interference, key figures played down links with the BJP itself, pointing out that the support group was technically independent. There was also the potential for embarrassment if the Conservatives, a party supposedly wedded to law and order, lined up with far rightists who chose as an MP someone being tried for terrorism and who openly admired Gandhi’s assassin.

What is more, the brutal treatment of Muslims in India might put off even slightly prejudiced voters, while casual lack of concern about persecution of Christians might go down badly with the British and Northern Irish public.

Yet in December, Boris Johnson, during a visit to a temple, appeared to pledge support for the extremist ‘New India’ agenda. “I know that PM Modi is building a new India and we in the UK government will support him fully in his endeavour”, he said.

India’s parliament was on the verge of agreeing a National Register of Citizens and Citizenship (Amendment Bill) likely to have a devastating effect. Millions of Indians face being stripped of their basic rights if they cannot ‘prove’ they are citizens, though those who are not Muslim may in time have these returned to them. Poor people with less paperwork or ability to afford lawyers will be most affected.

Hindu values

As many Hindus have pointed out, the ‘Hindutva’ movement which top UK politicians are trying to cultivate is opposed to Hinduism at its best. “As a person who cares about justice and peace, the Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya was distressing,” wrote Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights. “For Hindus, God is everywhere: inside Lord Hanuman’s heart when he rips it apart, inside the pillar which Hiranyakashipu breaks with his mace, in every single river, leaf and pebble. If God is at the site of the demolition of Babri Masjid, he is equally present seven feet away and seven miles away and across the seven seas...  “I pray fervently that we see the folly of the dangerous course we are taking, where violence is rewarded and dissenting voices are silenced. If we revere Lord Rama, then our only hope is to build not just a Ram Temple but a Ram Rajya, an A-Yodhya (place of no war), a nation and a world where peace reigns and justice is the right of all.”

The final word perhaps belongs to Pujari Laldas, a courageous Hindu priest in Ayodhya and strong opponent of the BJP. He was murdered in 1993 – but ideals and, some might say, Divine wisdom, cannot be so easily killed. Earlier he had said, “All the communal riots that have rocked India have been caused for financial and political gain. lt has nothing to do with Ram’s birthplace… “Big businessmen say: 'Defend the Hindu religion' and the country’s rich… claim themselves to be devotees of Ram. Was It Ram’s ideal that the people must starve to death? This great deprivation in our country – shouldn’t our religious leaders be concerned with it?...

“…when charlatans speak, the truth gets hidden. Like if someone eats an intoxicant, he’s capable of anything. He can go mad, attack, even commit suicide. In the moment of frenzy the capacity to think gets destroyed. But the rainy season is short. Afterwards, people regain their ability to reason. So, today the things people do, it’s s kind of frenzy. But when they’re faced with the truth…”

© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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