India’s Leaders Are Playing With Fire
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The north Indian town of Haridwar, where the Ganges River flows out of the Himalayas onto India’s vast plains, has been for centuries a destination for pilgrims. For three days in December, it also played host to what the Indian media has called a “hate-speech conclave,” in which multiple speakers — all dressed in saffron garb, the traditional signifier of sanctity in India — called for Muslims and Christians in India to be killed. One hailed the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and exhorted Indian “politicians, the army and every Hindu” to “pick up weapons” and “conduct a cleanliness drive.” There was, he said, “no solution apart from this.”
Even in a country that has turned worryingly majoritarian in recent years, such open promotion of genocide and ethnic cleansing should have set off alarms. It is not only tens of millions of minorities — as well as India’s increasingly tenuous connection to liberal values — that are at risk. The Indian state itself risks being undermined by its leaders’ tacit acceptance of religious vigilantism.
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party would not be the first political party to wink at ethno-nationalist extremism among its followers. The states of Uttarakhand, where the town of Haridwar is located, and neighboring Uttar Pradesh — from which Uttarakhand was split off two decades ago — are due for elections in coming months. The BJP, in power in both states, might be tempted to think that heightened inter-religious tension is a useful distraction from a struggling economy and the devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
But India’s opposition parties have not pushed back strongly either. They are struggling to formulate a response to this sort of rhetoric that does not result in them being labeled “anti-Hindu.” In parts of north India, the secularism guaranteed by India’s constitution has become so politically toxic that many politicians no longer seem able to defend the right of citizens to profess whatever faith they choose.
As a consequence, the entire Indian political class seems increasingly complicit in enabling hate speech. The organizers of the Haridwar hatefest have already planned another for the Uttar Pradesh town of Aligarh, home to a government-run university long known as a center of Indian Muslim scholarship.
Tolerating such events is devastatingly shortsighted. Words have consequences, especially in a country with as awful a history of inter-religious violence as India. Just last week, in the Sikh-majority state of Punjab, two men accused of “sacrilege” were lynched by Sikh mobs. Punjab will also hold elections soon and Indian newspapers pointed out that most politicians condemned the alleged sacrilege but “said little else.” Elsewhere in India, Christmas services were interrupted by mobs and Santa Claus was burned — in effigy, obviously.
If India’s leaders want to see where tolerance of religious militancy leads, they need only look across the border to archrival Pakistan. In a particularly brutal example of mob violence this month, Priyantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan factory manager in the Pakistani town of Sialkot, was beaten, stoned and then set on fire by his own workers — supposedly because he had committed blasphemy.
Kumara worked in one of Sialkot’s many export-focused garment factories; the city’s businessmen worry that if it gets a reputation for violence and sectarianism, their trade and investment partners will look elsewhere. National leaders should be no less concerned. Some analysts have suggested the U.S. might seek to reorient its relationship with Pakistan toward boosting trade and increasing investment by American firms. That seems, to put it mildly, unlikely in a place where expatriate executives fear possible lynching.
Practical considerations should shock India’s politicians into action, if moral ones don’t. The states that the Ganges flows through after passing Haridwar are India’s heartland and central to the BJP’s stranglehold on power in New Delhi. And yet the 300 million-plus people who live there are — according to the government’s own figures — among the poorest and most deprived in the world. The current government of Uttar Pradesh has failed to improve matters: The state grew by only 2% a year over the BJP’s five-year tenure and even prior to the pandemic underperformed the national average by 1.6 percentage points a year.
To secure the future of this Gangetic plain, investment and trade will need to increase many times over. Economic transformation on such a scale cannot happen where the state fails to protect its citizens or society is fractured, xenophobic and violent. Nobody is going to invest billions in areas that appear vulnerable to religious civil war.
Politicians may believe they can ride this tiger. Trying to distract voters with sectarian hatred, however, is a bit like concealing the lack of paint on your house by burning it down.
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Mihir Swarup Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and head of its Economy and Growth Programme. He is the author of "Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy," and co-editor of "What the Economy Needs Now."
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