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India’s secularism under threat

Arif Rafiq

As India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi marches through the institutions of the state, Muslims and other minorities are becoming increasingly imperiled and marginalised. Two ongoing Supreme Court cases in India — both involving the country’s incre-asingly beleaguered Muslim community — should be seen as historic tests for the resilience of secularism in the South Asian state.

That India’s much-vaunted constitutional secularism has come to this fragile state demonstrates that it is only as strong as its leaders’ commitment to it. That commitment is eroding as the Hindu nat-ionalist Bharatiya Janata Pa-rty (BJP) rules in 19 of In-dia’s 29 states, with a new generation of radicalised Hin-du nationalists growing to r-eject the country’s foundatio-nal Nehruvian principles, wh-ich they deride as “sickularism.” The first Supreme Court c-ase involves the dispute over the site of the 16th century Babri Mosque, destroyed in 1992 by a mob of Hindu ex-tremists — including leading figures in the BJP — who cla-imed that it was built on the site of a Hindu temple and the birthplace of the deity Ram.

According to prominent historians, including K.N. Panikkar, there is no historical evidence that a temple existed on the site, though the present city of Ayodhya, where the Babri Masjid is lo-cated, became holy for Hin-duism during the Mughal era and a platform adjacent to the mosque was used for Hindu prayers into the 19th century. Hindu extremists, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have pledged to build the Ram Mandir (temple) on the site of the destroyed mosque. Calls to build the temple have become a rallying cry for the Hindu right since the 1980s, which has mobilised the issue for electoral gain. Two decades ago, the BJP’s LK Advani, while addressing parliament, said, “You must recognise the fact that from two seats in Parliament in 1985 we have come to 117 seats in 1991. This has happened primarily because we took up this issue [Ayodhya].”

But the Ram Mandir movement is more than an electoral ploy. For India’s Hindu extremists, its construction on the ruins of a 16th century mosque they destroyed will culminate in the creeping rejection of India’s Islamic heritage and cementing the countries identity as a “Hindu rashtra” or “Hindu nation.” The “Hindu rashtra” and Ram Mandir movements are two sides of the same coin. As the Harvard-educated senior BJP official Subramanian Swamy tweeted earlier this year, “Ram Mandir and true Hindu Rashtra are inevitable destiny for Bharat Mata [Mother India]. That will be the renaissance for India.”

For now, the fate of the site rests in the hands of India’s Supreme Court, which has to decide in the coming weeks whether or not to uphold the 2010 decision by the Allahabad High Court to allot two-thirds of the site to two Hindu plaintiffs — one of which was the Hindu deity Ram — and the final third to a Muslim endowment.

In its decision, the high court, citing the “faith and belief of the Hindus,” awarded the main portion of the former mosque site to the Hindus. A dissenting judge – a Hindu – argued that Hindus had rights to the entire property. As the Babri mosque case approaches its final stretch, India’s Supreme Court is also hearing a case involving the conversion of a Hindu wo-man to Islam and her subseq-uent marriage to a Muslim man.

In 2015, the twenty-something Hindu woman Akhila Ashokan converted to Islam, adopting the name Hadiya.  Her father filed two petitions with the Kerala High Court over the course of 2016, one alleging that she was forcibly converted and the other claiming that she was going to be kidnapped and taken abroad to join the so-called Islamic State group. By the year’s end, she married a Muslim man, an act the court found to be suspicious. The Kerala High Court ordered her to return home to the custody of her parents and, in May of this year, annulled her marriage.

Hadiya, who was previously under police surveillance, has since been freed from her parents’ custody by the court, but India’s National Investigation Agency is probing her marriage to determine as to whether it was voluntary. Once the investigation is complete, India’s Supreme Court will make a decision as to whether the woman’s marriage is legally valid. The Hadiya case is the by-product of a broader hysteria stoked by India’s mainstream news channels and Hindu extremists over “love jihad” – a phrase concocted by anti-Muslim bigots to allege that Muslim men are wooing Hindu women to surreptitiously bring them into the Islamic fold. The scaremongering sho-wed its lethality last month when a Muslim man was ha-cked to death and set on fire by a Hindu man, who falsely alleged that the victim was engaged in a love jihad. India’s Muslims are on trial in the media and in the courts.  Their freedom to practice their own religion and choose their own partners is at risk.

India’s Supreme Court has an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and serve as a bulwark against the consolidation of Hindu majoritarianism. It may be India’s last hope. While the political opposition has shown signs of life, presently it looks as if the BJP will win the next general elections, expected to take place in 2019. Modi will likely serve a second consecutive term as prime minister, continuing to paint his opponents as pro-Muslim fake Hindus.

Political observers speculate that his eventual successor could be Yogi Adityanath, the fanatical Hindu priest who serves as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state.

Adityanath founded a violent Hindutva vigilante group and has called for the abduction of 100 Muslim women in revenge for the marriage of a single Hindu woman to a Muslim man. Former US President Barack Obama and American actress and anti-sexual assault campaigner Rose McGowan spoke at the same event as Adityanath, despite Western news coverage exposing Adityanath’s hate.

Foreign corporations and politicians not only validate Indian leaders who have risen to the top on waves of hate, but they also ignore the deep roots of hate in India. On top of the partition-era violence, India has had anti-minority pogroms virtually each dec-ade since its independence.

Tens of thousands of people, mainly Muslims, were killed when the Indian state annexed the princely state of Hyderabad in 1948.  Hundreds of Muslims were massacred in Gujarat in 1969, in Uttar Pradesh in 1980, Assam in 1983, Bihar in 1989, Mumbai in 1992-3, and Gujarat again in 2002.

In addition to systemic violence targeting Muslims and Dalits, tens of thousands of Sikhs were killed amid an insurgency in the 1980s into the early 1990s. Today, the Hinduness of Rahul Gandhi, the head of the main opposition party and son of a former prime minister, is being challenged. The choices India’s Supreme Court makes in the coming weeks on the Babri mosque and Hadiya cases will be monumental. But at best, they will slow the rising tide of Hindu extremism that engulfs the country as the world looks away.


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