India has seen a sharp rise in religious and cultural intolerance since PM Narendra Modi took power last year. Shakuntala Banaji of the LSE tells DW why the issue needs to be looked at from an economic perspective.
DW: Is India really becoming intolerant or is it just media hype?
Shakuntala Banaji: If by intolerant you mean a lack of respect and space for people's autonomy and choice at an individual or group level and lack of acceptance of people's beliefs, behaviors and values, some aspects of life in India have been "intolerant" for decades, no matter which regime has been in power. For instance, in my work on young people over the past decades, I have encountered examples of families and communities blocking and harming their own children to ensure that those children relate to and marry people from particular castes, chosen by the family. Poorer citizens have also frequently been blocked from entering public spaces such as malls and assaulted by employers with impunity, and even middle-class citizens have been refused housing in specific areas due to their religion, leading to a rise in ghettos in major cities. Periodically, frenzies of rage have been whipped up by far-right groups and parties over aspects of women's dress or conduct, and over religion. Atrocities against minority and Dalit citizens have become frighteningly commonplace.
Banaji: 'There has been consistent, if fragmented, resistance to Modi and the BJP across the country'
Since the 1980s, there has been at least a semblance of a commitment on the part of the national government to honoring the constitution and protecting the basic right and constitutional freedoms of citizens. This hasn't worked well in every part of the country, or for every group, as we can see from examples in Kashmir and the country's northeastern areas. But it was, nevertheless, something many took for granted, and gains had been made in LGBT rights, and in relation to freedom on information.
But it is true that, in the past year, the number of incidents of intolerance from lynching and murder to vigilantism on- and offline and the level of tacit and explicit support for intolerant, violent, aggressive behavior against individuals and groups at the level of the national government has risen steeply.
How do you analyze the role of local and international media in terms of coverage of intolerance?
The mainstream media - both vernacular and English-language - have a huge role to play in India. Many media outlets have been shockingly complicit in all kinds of intolerant behaviors, notably against journalists who have spoken out or done investigative pieces about the chains of command and power in cases of "encounter killing," atrocity, incitement to riot and corruption. Rather than "hyping" these issues, their discussion has often been suppressed and silenced by misleading emphases on nonissues such as "India's image in the world," with only the most hideous cases making it into the news and few receiving serious consideration.
Journalists who are critical or even retain their integrity are increasingly isolated, laid off from paid work, or under immense pressure to perform in the ways demanded by editors and owners; media ownership is frequently directly by current political figures. There is very little guarantee of independence. The journalists are within the remit of this intolerant politics and not above and outside it. It requires tenacity and courage to maintain an open critique of the current regime in the Indian media - but it is still possible, and fear should not be allowed to silence dissent.
Is disharmony in India a social problem or are there are economic factors to it as well?
The conflicts and suppressions going on all across India are both social and economic, and have always been. The failure to assure basic economic justice to more than 500 million people in both rural areas and cities, and to leave another 300 million in conditions of such dire poverty and disenfranchisement that even endless labor, and child labor, cannot guarantee them two meals a day, is not something which can be laid at the door only of this regime. It is a failure of successive governments over the past decades, and also the responsibility of international monetary bodies and their vicious structural adjustment conditions, their rush to privatize.
There were efforts, however meager, under the previous regime, to take positions and think up policies against structural adjustment, and which alleviated for some groups the harshest circumstances: midday meal schemes, basic rations, food for work.
What was already an economic injustice of monstrous proportions, has been amplified by the reduction and destruction of those meager poverty-reduction efforts and by the wholehearted participation of the current regime and by PM Modi in particular in pro-rich policies. These include support for privatization, land grabs by both foreign and Indian corporations, and further dispossession of rural and remote populations. The role of campaigns like "Make in India" appears to be to legitimize these actions as a form of nationalism and patriotism in the eyes of the middle classes who support the BJP and Modi, and to delegitimize dissent. Thus anyone who mentions poverty becomes anti-national, and someone who takes land from tribal populations to give away to investors whether foreign or Indian is a patriot.
What kind of resistance do we see against Modi and his BJP party? Does it target Modi's liberal economic policies?
There has been consistent, if fragmented, resistance to Modi and the BJP across the country, and it takes many forms, though the most significant and probably the most powerful has been the formation of an electorally successful alliance against them in the recent Bihar state polls. The success of the anti-government alliance in Bihar lies partly in the charisma of the politicians, but mainly in the way they managed to hear people's complaints about rising prices and an unlivable life, and to connect their speeches against religious intolerance with a popular wish for decent wages and lower food inflation.
Longstanding critics of Modi, who have been trying for years to get justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots, continue to do their legal work with little positive attention. The returning of awards by scientists, artists and authors; brief comments by actors and comics; courageous speeches by journalists and historians; these are a small, significant parts of the resistance, but receive the lion's share of media attention. In other parts of the country, people's struggles continue to resist militarization of their cities and states, privatization of land, destructions of forests, deliberate inflaming of religious sentiments by agents provocateurs, and nonpayment of wages for the poorest of the poor.
Do you agree with analysts who say that intolerance in India is a result of the rise of Islamist extremism in Pakistan in recent years? What role does IT interconnectivity play in the growth of fascism on both sides of the border?
No, I do not agree with those analysts. I have heard that, but it is a red herring - the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan has a whole different geopolitical context, and if anything has served to distract rather simpleminded international media from the rise and consequences of Hindutva extremism in India.
IT interconnectivity is less a cause of extremism than a cog in a multitude of machines: It is used to serve whichever ideological narrative a particular regime wishes to pursue, and Modi's electoral campaign and subsequent government have made best use of every potential use of the internet - for surveillance, fascist trolling, and suppression, as well as propaganda, the spreading of their own narrative and the supporting of their views of the world, which as we now know includes a belief that a human life is of less value than the life of a cow, and that marital rape is not rape because women must provide sex to their husbands as part of a sacred duty.
Banaji: 'There needs to be sustained struggle against the myriad fascist organizations that thrive under the current regime'
What needs to be done to reverse the tide of extremism in India?
I find it difficult to think about reversing, but halting the spread would be a significant step. There needs to be constant, sustained, legal and political struggle against the myriad fascist organizations and groups who thrive under the current regime because of the longstanding connections between PM Modi and the Hindutva RSS.
Shakuntala Banaji lectures on international media and the global south, film theory and world cinema, and critical approaches to media, communication and development in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics.
The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.