Under Modi, a Hindu Nationalist Surge Has Further Divided India

NEW DELHI — In the machine tools market in the catacombs of Old Delhi, Muslims dominate the business stalls. But at night, they say, they are increasingly afraid to walk alone. And when they talk politics, their voices drop to a whisper.

“I could be lynched right now and nobody would do anything about it,” said Abdul Adnan, a Muslim who sells drill bits. “My government doesn’t even consider me Indian. How can that be when my ancestors have lived here hundreds of years?”

“Brother, let me tell you,” Mr. Adnan added with a sigh, “I live with fear in my heart.”

When Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, was elected in 2014, it was with broad support for his sweeping promises to modernize India’s economy, fight corruption and aggressively assert India’s role in the world. Five years later, he is widely seen as having made at least some progress on those issues.

That secular agenda was always entwined with Mr. Modi’s roots within a conservative Hindu political movement that strives to make India a Hindu state. Many of his more moderate supporters hoped he might set the sectarianism aside.

But over the past five years, his bloc, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., has been spreading an us-versus-them philosophy in a country already rived by dangerous divisions. The Hindu right has never been more enfranchised at every level of government.

Now, with national elections underway, and with most polling data indicating that Mr. Modi will return to power, the growing belief here is that a divisive Hindu-first agenda will only accelerate.

“Indian politics had been geared to the appeasement of minorities, and minorities were dominating the majority,” said Vinod Bansal, the national spokesman for Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a conservative Hindu organization that supports the B.J.P. “It was becoming difficult for Hindus to survive.”

Mr. Modi, 68, rose to power by climbing the ranks of a hard-line Hindu organization known as the R.S.S., whose volunteers preach the virtues of Hinduism and also do martial arts and yoga. They are effectively the foot soldiers of the nationalist movement.

His moment came in 2002, when the state of Gujarat exploded in religious bloodshed. As Gujarat’s chief minister, he was criticized for doing little to stop the Hindu-Muslim violence that killed over 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.

Mr. Modi himself rarely makes overt religiously charged statements, unlike many lawmakers in his party, who have called Muslims “dogs” and threatened to kill them.

More recently, though, as complaints have piled up about joblessness, problems on farms and other economic trouble spots, he has turned more openly to Hindu nationalist themes.

On April 1, at an outdoor election rally in central India, he stood in a cream-colored shirt with a green and saffron scarf around his neck — saffron is a holy color in Hinduism, and a favorite of Mr. Modi’s party.

“Who attempted to defame our 5,000-years-old culture?” he thundered. “Who brought the word Hindu terrorism? Who committed the sin of labeling Hindus as terrorists?”

The filmmakers accused the B.J.P. of trying to split the country with religiously driven killings. They said the party was spreading hate online and propagating “unscientific and irrational beliefs even at international science seminars, making us the laughingstock of the entire world.”

That might have been a reference to what happened in January at a national science conference attended by thousands of schoolchildren and inaugurated by Mr. Modi. One speaker ridiculed Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity as “a big blunder.” Another insisted that Ravana, a mythical demon king, flew 24 different types of airplanes and maintained airports in Sri Lanka.

“We urge all of you to do everything in your capacity to keep this harmful regime from coming back to power,” the filmmakers’ letter said in closing.

Ashutosh, the author of a new book called “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu Nation), said the appeal of Hindu supremacy was rooted in the failure of communism, which used to have mainstream appeal here, and in a nostalgia for a Hindu golden age.

Many Indians believe “if Hindus can come together and Muslims can be defeated, then India can regain its past glory,” said Mr. Ashutosh, who goes by one name.

Analysts say the Indian news media has been somewhat defanged, pressured by government officials to avoid certain topics, including religious-based hate crimes.

In July 2017, the Hindustan Times, one of India’s biggest English-language newspapers, introduced its Hate Tracker campaign, marketed as India’s first database for acts of violence based on religion, caste or other markers.

Within three months, the campaign ended without explanation. Around the same time, the paper’s top editor was forced out.

“The longer they are in power, the greater the destruction to our institutions,” said Mr. Mukherjee, the historian. “The damage done is not short term; it’s very long term.”

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