What We Miss When We Hyperfocus on Trump: Trouble Brewing in India

In this first installment of what will be a recurring series, I’m focusing on the important news we here in the US miss entirely due to our media’s tendency to hyperfocus on President Trump, the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and the daily absurdity of our current politics. I find that myopia not only frustrating, but detrimental to the overall health of our polity. Our public is not being informed of important international trends and events and is instead being shown a continuous feed of mindnumbing punditry and opinion on the latest developments in this manufactured controversy or that. I promise that you will not get that blather here. Instead, you’ll hear about a story that isn’t being covered wall-to-wall in the mainstream media and why it should be important to us here in the United States. This time, we’re going to India, and figuring out why a Bollywood movie is so controversial that thousands of women are threatening to light themselves on fire in protest.

There is a dangerous trend on the rise in India, and it is threatening the world’s largest democracy in ways that we in the US should be seriously concerned about. This trend is the rapid and widely supported growth in popularity of the Hindu nationalist movement, represented by the nation’s current governing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party has been around for a long while, but has increased in popularity and electoral success in recent years, mainly due to its charismatic chief, the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since Modi’s election as Prime Minister in May 2014, outward displays of Hindu nationalism have been rampant, and violence in the name of Hinduism in India has also increased. Modi has not done anything to deter or dissuade those supporters of his and the BJP who have chosen to become violent in the name of Hindu nationalism. This should be of immense concern to the US, as India is not only the world’s largest democracy, but one where Muslims are a full 14% of the population, numbering nearly 180 million people.

India Cow Protection
Indian cow vigilantes on the prowl.     Image Credit: Reuters

The violence and controversy surrounding Hindu nationalism has a sordid history over the past 4 years of Modi’s tenure. There is the bullying and schoolyard violence faced by Muslim children in the schools of Delhi and beyond. The intense violence carried out when Hindu girls or women meet Muslim boys or men. That pales in comparison to the Muslim men who are killed simply for their consensual and reciprocal love for Hindu women. One Hindu vigilante even posted his Muslim murder video online to ask for donations to help him kill more Muslims to stop their ‘love jihad’. The Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, home to the world-famous Taj Mahal, has declined to fund necessary clean-up, restoration, and tourism promotion activities at the UNESCO World Heritage site because the ruling BJP ministers deem it “built by Muslim invaders.” And the most egregious acts of violence have been the longest-running and by far most prevalent: the cow vigilantes. These roving bands of Hindu men track Muslims who they believe have beef or simply have a cow that might be slaughtered and then steal the cow and proceed to beat, burn, or stab the Muslims to death, often in front of their families. These vigilantes are basically state-sanctioned, as the murders are rarely, if ever, prosecuted.

None of these terrible, horrifying actions are why I am writing this piece today, although they do set the stage for India’s decline into chaos and pseudo-democracy. The newest ‘outrage’ being promoted by the Hindu right in India has to do with the release of the big budget Bollywood film “Padmaavat”, about a legendary (likely only fictional) Hindu queen who committed ritual suicide instead of falling captive to an invading Muslim sultan. The legend of the queen, named Padmavati, is held in high regard among India’s Hindu population, particularly within the Rajput caste, and those women are very angry with the film’s apparent portrayal of the queen and her relationship with the Muslim sultan. They claim that the film shows the queen and sultan in a love scene (not true), and have been violently protesting the film for months; these ‘protests’ have included disrupting the filming of the movie with gasoline bombs and sword attacks, a BJP politician putting a legitimate bounty on the head of the female star of the film, and more recently, the burning down of shopping malls, blocking of highways, and stoning of children’s buses. Now, thousands of Hindu women are threatening mass suicide in honor of the queen (not a joke) if the movie is screened in their area. Indian historians largely agree that the queen likely never existed and all of this violence and controversy is less about the honor of the Rajput caste than it is about stoking tensions between Hindu and Muslim factions before major state elections take place this year.

Narendra Modi.jpg
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP.         Image Credit: Washington Post

This may seem like an issue that is incredibly far away from our own shores and doesn’t impact the US in any meaningful way, but you would be wrong for thinking that. The sharp decline in democracy and corresponding rise in violence, religious strife, and Hindu nationalism all portend very bad things for the United States if we remain on the path we are currently on. We need to take lessons from the in-progress collapse of the Indian democracy if we wish to strengthen our own democratic republic here at home, and should be concerned about the anti-democratic trends in the world’s largest democracy if we as Americans consider ourselves at all ambassadors of democratic ideals. We would also do very well to remember that India is a nuclear weapons state, situated right next to two more nuclear weapons states (China and Pakistan), both of which it has strained relations with. A regime that is becoming less democratic and more religiously nationalistic, armed with nuclear weapons, sitting next to an historic rival (Pakistan) that is largely the religion to which India is becoming more antagonistic makes for a seriously volatile cocktail. We should be paying far more attention to the Indian subcontinent than we are, as this part of the world, home to billions of people, conflicting religions, and nuclear weaponry, could very well be the site of the next major international conflict.

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