After 30 years of violence, rediscovering India’s capacity for harmonious coexistence

By | December 2, 2022

Seema Chishti writes:

Much of the dominance of the Hindu right in India’s politics today can be traced back to the movement to destroy the Babri Masjid [in the northeastern Indian town of Ayodhya] and build a temple for Lord Rama, a key Hindu deity, where it once stood. Many Hindu nationalists maintain that the mosque stood at the exact spot where Lord Rama had been born. This belief had been popular in the area for decades, starting in the late 19th century. After the 1980s, a campaign initiated by political activists gave it new vigor. The claim that the mosque marked the exact spot of Lord Rama’s birth was weaponized to foment anti-Muslim sentiment in general. The campaign was driven by organizations under the umbrella of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mother organization of the Hindu right, founded in 1925. The RSS is now India’s largest paramilitary and most powerful civil society organization. Several members of the present government, including Prime Minister Modi, have been schooled by it and gone on to serve as pracharaks, or propagandists, for its ideas.

The RSS has been banned three times in independent India. The first time was in 1948, in the aftermath of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, had himself been an RSS member. A new and acclaimed biography titled “Gandhi’s Assassin” by the Delhi-based journalist Dhirendra K. Jha found no evidence that Godse ever left the organization, though the RSS maintains he had quit the group before he pulled the trigger to kill Gandhi.

The destruction of the Babri Masjid injected momentum into the campaign to turn India into a country for Hindus alone. It set the stage for portraying Islam as a religion and lifestyle alien to India, ignoring the rich history of coexistence and cooperation that have long prevailed on the subcontinent. The year 1992 marked the beginning of a drastically new form politics, aided by powerful private media organizations, which depicts Islam not just as violent but as “foreign” to Indian culture.

Today, Indian Muslims are increasingly depicted as outsiders in textbooks, official documents, speeches, cinema and media debates that have saturated the public sphere. Despite well over a millennia of presence in the subcontinent, Muslims are now painted as marauding outsiders who came to India via conquests from Central Asia and the Middle East. The framing of famous Indian dynasties like the Mughals as foreign Muslim occupiers, despite the fact that all their leaders after their founder Babur were born in India, has become a staple of India’s contemporary culture wars. This distorted history ignores the complex links between rulers and people, as well as the interactions between innumerable elite and common Indians, of all religions, who contributed to keeping these indigenous empires afloat. [Continue reading…]

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