Once a fringe ideology, Hindu nationalism is now mainstream in India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi displays a copy of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) election manifesto for the general election, in New Delhi, India, on April 14, 2024. (AP)
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Updated 18 April 2024
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Once a fringe ideology, Hindu nationalism is now mainstream in India

  • Modi’s spiritual and political upbringing from the RSS group is the driving force, experts say
  • At the same time, his rule has seen brazen attacks against minorities, particularly Muslims

AHMEDABAD: Hindu nationalism, once a fringe ideology in India, is now mainstream. Nobody has done more to advance this cause than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of India’s most beloved and polarizing political leaders.

And no entity has had more influence on his political philosophy and ambitions than a paramilitary, right-wing group founded nearly a century ago and known as the RSS.

“We never imagined that we would get power in such a way,” said Ambalal Koshti, 76, who says he first brought Modi into the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the late 1960s in their home state, Gujarat.

Modi was a teenager. Like other young men — and even boys — who joined, he would learn to march in formation, fight, meditate and protect their Hindu homeland.

A few decades earlier, while Mahatma Gandhi preached Hindu-Muslim unity, the RSS advocated for transforming India — by force, if necessary — into a Hindu nation. (A former RSS worker would fire three bullets into Gandhi’s chest in 1948, killing him months after India gained independence.)

Modi’s spiritual and political upbringing from the RSS is the driving force, experts say, in everything he’s done as prime minister over the past 10 years, a period that has seen India become a global power and the world’s fifth-largest economy.

At the same time, his rule has seen brazen attacks against minorities — particularly Muslims — from hate speech to lynchings. India’s democracy, critics say, is faltering as the press, political opponents and courts face growing threats. And Modi has increasingly blurred the line between religion and state.

At 73, Modi is campaigning for a third term in a general election, which starts Friday. He and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are expected to win. He’s challenged by a broad but divided alliance of regional parties.

Supporters and critics agree on one thing: Modi has achieved staying power by making Hindu nationalism acceptable — desirable, even — to a nation of 1.4 billion that for decades prided itself on pluralism and secularism. With that comes an immense vote bank: 80 percent of Indians are Hindu.

“He is 100 percent an ideological product of the RSS,“in said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a Modi biography. “He has delivered their goals.”




Mohanlal Gupta, a scrap trader, worships a statue of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a temple he has built on the third floor of his residential building at Gadkhol village near Ankleshwar in Baruch district of Gujarat state, India, on February 5, 2024. (AP)

UNITING HINDUS

Between deep breaths under the night sky in western India a few weeks ago, a group of boys recited an RSS prayer in Sanskrit: “All Hindus are the children of Mother India ... we have taken a vow to be equals and a promise to save our religion.”

More than 65 years ago, Modi was one of them. Born in 1950 to a lower-caste family, his first exposure to the RSS was through shakhas — local units — that induct boys by combining religious education with self-defense skills and games.

By the 1970s, Modi was a full-time campaigner, canvassing neighborhoods on bicycle to raise RSS support.

“At that time, Hindus were scared to come together,” Koshti said. “We were trying to unite them.”




Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wear Indian prime Minister Narendra Modi masks during an election campaign in Ghaziabad, India, on April 6, 2024. (AP)

The RSS — formed in 1925, with the stated intent to strengthen the Hindu community — was hardly mainstream. It was tainted by links to Gandhi’s assassination and accused of stoking hatred against Muslims as periodic riots roiled India.

For the group, Indian civilization is inseparable from Hinduism, while critics say its philosophy is rooted in Hindu supremacy.

Today, the RSS has spawned a network of affiliated groups, from student and farmer unions to nonprofits and vigilante organizations often accused of violence. Their power — and legitimacy — ultimately comes from the BJP, which emerged from the RSS.

“Until Modi, the BJP had never won a majority on their own in India’s Parliament,” said Christophe Jaffrelot, an expert on Modi and the Hindu right. “For the RSS, it is unprecedented.”

SCALING HIS POLITICS

Modi got his first big political break in 2001, becoming chief minister of home state Gujarat. A few months in, anti-Muslim riots ripped through the region, killing at least 1,000 people.

There were suspicions that Modi quietly supported the riots, but he denied the allegations and India’s top court absolved him over lack of evidence.

Instead of crushing his political career, the riots boosted it.

Modi doubled down on Hindu nationalism, Jaffrelot said, capitalizing on religious tensions for political gain. Gujarat’s reputation suffered from the riots, so he turned to big businesses to build factories, create jobs and spur development.

“This created a political economy — he built close relations with capitalists who in turn backed him,” Jaffrelot said.

Modi became increasingly authoritarian, Jaffrelot described, consolidating power over police and courts and bypassing the media to connect directly with voters.

The “Gujarat Model,” as Modi coined it, portended what he would do as a prime minister.

“He gave Hindu nationalism a populist flavor,” Jaffrelot said. “Modi invented it in Gujarat, and today he has scaled it across the country.”

BIG PLANS

In June, Modi aims not just to win a third time — he’s set a target of receiving two-thirds of the vote. And he’s touted big plans.

“I’m working every moment to make India a developed nation by 2047,” Modi said at a rally. He also wants to abolish poverty and make the economy the world’s third-largest.

If Modi wins, he’ll be the second Indian leader, after Jawaharlal Nehru, to retain power for a third term.

With approval ratings over 70 percent, Modi’s popularity has eclipsed that of his party. Supporters see him as a strongman leader, unafraid to take on India’s enemies, from Pakistan to the liberal elite. He’s backed by the rich, whose wealth has surged under him. For the poor, a slew of free programs, from food to housing, deflect the pain of high unemployment and inflation. Western leaders and companies line up to court him, turning to India as a counterweight against China.

He’s meticulously built his reputation. In a nod to his Hinduism, he practices yoga in front of TV crews and the UN, extols the virtues of a vegetarian diet, and preaches about reclaiming India’s glory. He refers to himself in the third person.

P.K. Laheri, a former senior bureaucrat in Gujarat, said Modi “does not risk anything” when it comes to winning — he goes into the election thinking the party won’t miss a single seat.

The common thread of Modi’s rise, analysts say, is that his most consequential policies are ambitions of the RSS.

In 2019, his government revoked the special status of disputed Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority region. His government passed a citizenship law excluding Muslim migrants. In January, Modi delivered on a longstanding demand from the RSS — and millions of Hindus — when he opened a temple on the site of a razed mosque.

The BJP has denied enacting discriminatory policies and says its work benefits all Indians.

Last week, the BJP said it would pass a common legal code for all Indians — another RSS desire — to replace religious personal laws. Muslim leaders and others oppose it.

But Modi’s politics are appealing to those well beyond right-wing nationalists — the issues have resonated deeply with regular Hindus. Unlike those before him, Modi paints a picture of a rising India as a Hindu one.

Satish Ahlani, a school principal, said he’ll vote for Modi. Today, Ahlani said, Gujarat is thriving — as is India.

“Wherever our name hadn’t reached, it is now there,” he said. “Being Hindu is our identity; that is why we want a Hindu country. ... For the progress of the country, Muslims will have to be with us. They should accept this and come along.”


Taiwan’s president says open to working with China on ‘peace’

Updated 4 sec ago
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Taiwan’s president says open to working with China on ‘peace’

  • China launched military games around the island three day last week
  • President Lai Ching-te made overtures to Beijing before his inauguration to resume communications
TAIPEI: Taiwan’s president said Sunday he was still open to working with China on building “mutual understanding and reconciliation,” days after Beijing launched military drills around the self-ruled island in response to his inauguration speech.
President Lai Ching-te was sworn into office on Monday, and China — which claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory and regards Lai as a “dangerous separatist” — launched military games around the island three days later.
Fighter jets, naval vessels and coast guard ships encircled Taiwan until Friday night, which Chinese military analysts said was to practice seizing it.
On Sunday, Lai said his May 20 inaugural speech highlighted that “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is a necessary element for global security and prosperity.”
“I also called on China to jointly shoulder the important responsibility of regional stability with Taiwan,” he said during an event with his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in southern Tainan.
“I also look forward to enhancing mutual understanding and reconciliation through exchanges and cooperation with China... and moving toward a position of peace and common prosperity.”
He added that “any country making waves in the Taiwan Strait and affecting regional stability will not be accepted by the international community.”
Lai made overtures to Beijing before his inauguration to resume communications — severed since 2016 after former president Tsai Ing-wen took office.
Like Lai, Tsai is also part of the DPP, which holds a stance of defending Taiwan’s sovereignty.
In response, Beijing has upped military and political pressures on Taiwan, and its naval vessels, drones and warplanes maintain a near-daily presence around the island.
On Sunday, two days after the drills ended, Taiwan’s defense ministry reported that seven Chinese aircraft, 14 naval vessels and four coast guard ships were “operating around” the island in a 24-hour period ending at 06:00 a.m. (2200 GMT Saturday).

Moldova turns to Russia to seek extradition of convicted politician

Updated 26 May 2024
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Moldova turns to Russia to seek extradition of convicted politician

  • The Victory bloc, made up of four parties, campaigns with the slogan “No to the EU” and calls for Moldova instead to join the Eurasian Economic Union — a Russian-led regional grouping

CHISINAU: Moldova is now seeking extradition from Russia of an opposition politician convicted of mass fraud after he moved there from exile in Israel, the country’s justice minister said on Saturday.
Ilan Shor, a pro-Russian business magnate, was sentenced last year in absentia to 15 years in prison in connection with the disappearance from the banking system of $1 billion in 2014, dubbed Moldova’s “theft of the century.”
Shor has organized noisy street demonstrations against pro-European President Maia Sandu and urged Moldovans to vote “no” in a referendum authorities have called for October on joining the European Union by 2030.
Justice Minister Veronica-Mihailov Moraru said Moldova would redirect its extradition appeals to Moscow after Shor said he had moved to Russia and announced he had been granted Russian citizenship.
“The justice ministry has not been informed of this by the Russian authorities,” she told TVR Moldova television.
“If we are advised officially that he holds Russian citizenship, we will analyze the circumstances and consider how to act in procedural terms.”
Moldova, an ex-Soviet state lying between Ukraine and Romania, had repeatedly sought Shor’s extradition from Israel.
After his conviction, a party bearing Shor’s name was banned by the Constitutional Court and a new party, called “Chance,” was formed in its place.
Shor is the driving force behind the “Victory” electoral bloc launched last month — in Moscow — to oppose the EU referendum and Sandu’s bid for re-election at a poll to be held on the same date.
He said last week he wanted to become prime minister if a president favorable to his views would nominate him.
Sandu denounces Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and describes Russia and corruption as the biggest threats to her country.
The Victory bloc, made up of four parties, campaigns with the slogan “No to the EU” and calls for Moldova instead to join the Eurasian Economic Union — a Russian-led regional grouping.
It has not yet decided on a candidate to run against Sandu. The opposition Socialists and Communists, also friendly to Moscow, oppose the pro-EU referendum but have shown little inclination to cooperate with Shor and the Victory bloc.


Polish students occupy top universities to cut ties with Israeli academia

Updated 25 May 2024
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Polish students occupy top universities to cut ties with Israeli academia

  • Students set up encampments at the University of Warsaw and Jagiellonian University
  • ‘We consider opposing genocide as our highest obligation,’ students say

WARSAW: Polish students have joined the global movement to end partnerships with Israeli institutions and were occupying the country’s top campuses on Saturday because of Israel’s war on Gaza.
Students and alumni of 12 universities in Poland have been calling on their management to publicly disclose which Israeli academia, research centers, organizations and companies they have been cooperating with and in what scope.
In open letters to rectors, they demanded that the universities “boycott Israeli institutions at the national and international level until the occupation of Palestine ends, recognize the right of Palestinians to equality and self-determination, and recognize the right of return for Palestinian refugees.”
As no action followed from university authorities, on Friday evening they set up encampments at the campuses of the University of Warsaw — the country’s largest academic institution — and of the Jagiellonian University — the oldest and most prestigious.
In a joint manifesto, the protesters said: “We will occupy the university space with our own bodies to demand action ... we consider opposing genocide as our highest obligation.”
Israeli airstrikes and ground offensives in Gaza have since October killed 36,000 Palestinians with more than 80,000 wounded, the vast majority children and women. Many have lost their lives as most of the hospitals have been flattened by bombardment and no medical assistance could reach them.
Protesting students say that failing to oppose the onslaught would mean tacit consent — and complicity.
The University of Warsaw is linked through a research project to the Ben-Gurion University, whose Homeland Security Institute partners with the biggest Israeli arms manufacturers such as Elbit Systems, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and the Israeli Ministry of Defense. It is also linked to the University of Haifa, which runs special programs for Israeli forces and intelligence.
“As a student, I feel I should have a say in what our university is investing and what its partners are. We know that the university is tied to the Israeli army, forces and apartheid system,” Agnieszka, a sociology student and one of the coordinators of the strike at the University of Warsaw, told Arab News.
“That’s why I’m here ... I hope it will change something.”
Agnieszka was speaking from behind the university gate, which has been locked since Friday evening as campus authorities sealed all entry points, preventing anyone from leaving or getting inside.
People were coming to the gate and the campus fence to bring the students water, food and power banks, and to show support.
While no one could join their encampment anymore, the dozens of students gathered inside believed they could bring change.
“We’ve been protesting since October against the genocide that is occurring in Gaza, and now we’re sort of bringing it closer,” said Nena, who studies at the Faculty of Philosophy.
“We have more direct impact on the institutions we are part of.”
At the same time, 300 km away, students of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow were also locked up at their campus, posing the same demands as those in Warsaw, and vowing that they “will not be indifferent, will not be silent, will not be passive,” as they called for others to join.
“It’s important for me to be here,” Gabriela, an international relations student told Arab News from the Krakow protest site. “It’s important to show solidarity with other encampments around the world, so that authorities can’t ignore our demands any longer.”
The University of Warsaw and the Jagiellonian University have not engaged in any discussions with the protesters. Neither university commented on whether it would agree to the students’ demands. The spokesperson of the Jagiellonian University said that to “ensure the safety of the strike participants,” there was a person “appointed to monitor the situation.”


Millions of Indians beat extreme heat to cast votes

Updated 25 May 2024
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Millions of Indians beat extreme heat to cast votes

  • 111 million people vote in election’s penultimate phase
  • Temperature in New Delhi soared to more than 44 degrees Celsius

NEW DELHI: Voters in Delhi braved a sweltering heatwave on Saturday as they queued at polling stations in the penultimate phase of India’s general election.
The voting, which more than 968 million people have been eligible to do, started on April 19. Some of India’s 28 states and eight federally governed territories completed the process in a single day, while others have spread it out.
The sixth phase of the poll covered the capital, Delhi, as well as the neighboring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and Bihar in the country’s east, and Jammu and Kashmir.
In Delhi, voters queued to cast their ballots despite the temperature soaring to over 44 degrees Celsius — with humidity making it feel like 56 C, according to reports — prompting the Election Commission to deploy paramedics to some polling stations.
While there have been concerns over voter turnout — with the first phase estimated to have seen at least 4 percent fewer people take part than in 2019’s election — those who arrived to cast their votes said there was no way the heat could deter them.
“Voting is the only way we can convey our feelings toward governance. It is a decisive way. To spend one hour in the line after five years is not a big deal for us,” said Karan Sharma, who was voting in the East Delhi constituency.
“We were complaining about the heat, but ... it’s a duty, it’s like eating food. After every five years, the festival comes, we have to participate in it.”
For Kavita Wadhwa, who cast her vote in the New Delhi constituency, it was a matter of exercising her rights.
“We have the right to select our own leaders,” she told Arab News. “It’s important for us ... It’s a democratic country.”
The election sees Prime Minister Narendra Modi chasing a third straight five-year term in power, targeting 400 of the 543 parliamentary seats for the National Democratic Alliance led by his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been in power since 2014.
He is challenged by an alliance of two dozen opposition parties — the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), led by the Congress Party, which ruled the country for close to 45 years following its independence in 1947.
Modi’s key contender is Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, the son of Rajiv Gandhi, a grandson of Indira Gandhi, and a great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru — all of whom were prime ministers of India.
Gandhi also cast his vote in Delhi on Saturday, after which he took to social media to encourage others to follow suit.
“Your vote will not only improve your life but will also protect democracy and the Constitution,” he said on X. “Come out of your homes in large numbers and vote for your rights and the future of your family.”
Around 111 million people were eligible to vote in the sixth phase of the election. Some of them, like Arohi Anand, were voting for the first time.
“I think it’s a great right ... The government is for us — if we don’t vote, it is on us,” he told Arab News. “(The heat) is a secondary thing. The most important thing is our vote, because the government is the most important thing; it will shape our future.”
The party or coalition that wins at least 272 of the 543 contested seats in the lower house of parliament will form the government.
The first five phases of the election have already decided the fate of 429 representatives. Saturday’s vote will add another 58.
The seventh and final phase of the election will be held on June 1. Vote counting will take place on June 4.


Russian strike on Kharkiv hardware store kills two: official

Updated 25 May 2024
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Russian strike on Kharkiv hardware store kills two: official

  • Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Synegubov said that “two Russian guided bombs hit a construction hypermarket“
  • Videos posted by witnesses on social media showed a huge column of black smoke billowing into the sky from the Epitsentr store

KYIV: A Russian strike on Saturday hit a store selling building materials in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, killing at least two people, its mayor said.
“We know for sure about two dead,” Kharkiv mayor Igor Terekhov wrote on Telegram, saying that according to preliminary information the strike hit a hypermarket for construction materials in a residential area.
Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Synegubov said that “two Russian guided bombs hit a construction hypermarket” and “a fire broke out over 15,000 square meters.”
Videos posted by witnesses on social media showed a huge column of black smoke billowing into the sky from the Epitsentr store, located in an area of large stores beside a car park. The chain of hypermarkets sells household and DIY goods.
“We have a large number of people missing. There are many wounded,” Terekhov wrote on Telegram.
“Apparently, the attack was on a shopping center where there were many people — this is pure terrorism.”
The city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest, regularly comes under attack from Russian missiles.
Strikes on the city killed at least seven people on Thursday, local authorities said.
Russia launched a ground offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region on May 10, but Ukraine said Friday that it had managed to halt its progress.