Long before the Indian strongman Narendra Modi became prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, he was a prominent leader of the Hindu right. He rose as a public figure through the nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, whose ideology includes a desire to carve out a Hindu nation in which Muslims and Christians are considered second-class citizens. It was a well-known activist who once had links to the RSS who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, accusing him of appeasing Muslims during the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent.
That anti-Muslim sentiment has been a major driving force of Modi’s political career in the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. In 2002, when Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat, he oversaw an outbreak of violence by Hindu nationalists against the minority Muslim population that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people. Local and international fact-finding groups accused Modi of complicity in the killings, charging that he did not do enough to contain the violence. Indian courts eventually exonerated him for a lack of evidence, but his image was pilloried. The United Kingdom and some European countries refused to deal with him and in 2005, the United States barred him from entering the country.
Modi’s ascent has normalized nationalist rhetoric, the silencing of dissent, and violence against religious minorities in India — and it’s also had global implications. Elected prime minister in 2014, he was one of the first of a class of populist autocrats who’ve risen to power in recent years. That group includes Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was elected in the same month as Modi; Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s been in office for more than a decade but has been increasingly consolidating power; Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, whose war on drugs has killed thousands of people; Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected in October despite his pro-military dictatorship stance; and, of course, America’s Donald Trump.
In the United States, Modi’s reputation has been helped by a group of Hindu-American supporters with links to the RSS and other Hindu nationalist organizations, who’ve been working in tandem with a peculiar congressional ally: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, the first Hindu in Congress. [Continue reading…]