The long read: For seven decades, India has been held together by its constitution, which promises equality to all. But Narendra Modis BJP is remaking the nation into one where some people count as more Indian than others
Soon after the violence began, on 5 January, Aamir was standing outside a residence hall in Jawaharlal Nehru University in south Delhi. Aamir, a PhD student, is Muslim, and he asked to be identified only by his first name. He had come to return a book to a classmate when he saw 50 or 60 people approaching the building. They carried metal rods, cricket bats and rocks. One swung a sledgehammer. They were yelling slogans: Shoot the traitors to the nation! was a common one. Later, Aamir learned that they had spent the previous half-hour assaulting a gathering of teachers and students down the road. Their faces were masked, but some were still recognisable as members of a Hindu nationalist student group that has become increasingly powerful over the past few years.
The group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP), is the youth wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Founded 94 years ago by men who were besotted with Mussolinis fascists, the RSS is the holding company of Hindu supremacism: of Hindutva, as its called. Given its role and its size, it is difficult to find an analogue for the RSS anywhere in the world. In nearly every faith, the source of conservative theology is its hierarchical, centrally organised clergy; that theology is recast into a project of religious statecraft elsewhere, by other parties. Hinduism, though, has no principal church, no single pontiff, nobody to ordain or rule. The RSS has appointed itself as both the arbiter of theological meaning and the architect of a Hindu nation-state. It has at least 4 million volunteers, who swear oaths of allegiance and take part in quasi-military drills.
The word often used to describe the RSS is paramilitary. In its near-century of existence, it has been accused of plotting assassinations, stoking riots against minorities and acts of terrorism. (Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead in 1948 by an RSS man, although the RSS claims he had left the organisation by then.) The RSS doesnt, by itself, engage in electoral politics. But among its affiliated groups is the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), the party that has governed India for the past six years, and that has, under the prime minister Narendra Modi, been remaking India into an authoritarian, Hindu nationalist state.
It was nearly 7pm when Aamir saw the approaching mob. At that time in mid-winter, the campus of JNU, perhaps Indias most influential state-run university, is unnervingly dark. It spreads over more than 400 hectares of wooded land, sealed off by a wall from the rest of south Delhi. Residence halls sit in groves of acacia and borage. To get anywhere from the gate requires a bicycle, an auto rickshaw or a long walk. The universitys 8,000 students appear to occupy a remote world unto themselves. Since its founding in 1969, though, JNU has functioned as a microcosm of national politics. The ideologies of its students and faculty exhibited in its hyperactive student politics have traditionally been liberal, leftist and secular. Through its academics, JNU frequently moulded government policy; its graduates went into the media, major non-profits, the law or leftist parties. Over the years, JNU has stood for much of what the conservative, ethnocentric BJP has resented about the country it governs today. The university has been like a stone in the boot of the BJP, hobbling the party with every step.
When he spotted the mob, Aamir ran into the dorms, up the stairs and into his friends room. They locked the door, then hid on the balcony. They heard the attackers shattering panes of glass, barging into rooms and beating students. Aamir silenced his phone. I was sure theyd break my arms and legs if they caught me, he said. The mob had come with clear intent, targeting students and faculty who had been critical of the BJP: a Muslim student from Kashmir, teachers with ties to the political left, members of groups that championed underprivileged castes. The president of the JNU student union, Aishe Ghosh, received a deep gash to her head and her arm was broken. The rooms of ABVP allies, though, were spared.
Later, it emerged that the universitys own cadre of ABVP had been bolstered by students from other universities and perhaps by people who werent students at all, people who were just RSS muscle. Rohit Azad, who has spent two decades at the university, first as a student and then a professor of economics, told me that although he had seen his share of violence between student groups, this thing this act of bringing in attackers from outside that was unprecedented. It was as if the Young Republicans had invited some alt-right thugs to join them in running amok through Berkeley, beating up black and Hispanic students, Young Democrats and anyone whod expressed support for Bernie Sanders.
Videos of the attacks leaked out through social media in real time. The police were called, but they didnt move to stop the violence. Instead, a posse of policemen installed itself at JNUs gate, allowing no one in. Yogendra Yadav, a political activist, arrived at the gate at 9pm. Ninety minutes later, the attackers emerged, still masked and armed. Even then, the police detained no one. Instead, they were permitted to walk away as if nothing had happened. When Yadavs colleague took photos, Yadav was set upon by a knot of men, knocked down and kicked in the face. The police did nothing. Later, from a video, Yadav identified a local ABVP official among those who had hit him. In a statement, the ABVP blamed the attacks on leftist goons, but on television members admitted that the masked, armed men and women on campus were part of the ABVP. Still, the Delhi police pressed no charges. The police gave the goons cover, gave them free rein on campus, Yadav said. A JNU professor went further, claiming that: The police are complicit.
The onslaught on JNU marked the middle of a season of nationwide protest, provoked by a new law. The Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by parliament on 11 December 2019, provides a fast track to citizenship for refugees fleeing into India from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Refugees of every south Asian faith are eligible every faith, that is, except Islam. It is a policy that fits neatly with the RSS and the BJPs demonisation of Muslims, Indias largest religious minority. To votaries of Hindutva, the country is best served if it is expunged of Islam. The act was both a loud signal of that ambition and a handy tool to help achieve it.
Since December, millions of Indians have turned out on to the streets to object to this vision of their country. The government has fought them by banning gatherings, shutting off mobile internet services, detaining people arbitrarily, or worse. After protests flared at Jamia Millia Islamia, an Islamic university in Delhi, cops fired teargas and live rounds, assaulted students and trashed the library. As demonstrations spread across the state of Uttar Pradesh, police raided and vandalised Muslim homes by way of reprisal. Detainees in custody were beaten; one man reported hearing screams in a police station all night long. (In various statements, the police claimed to be acting in self defence, or to prevent violence, or to root out conspiracy.) At least 20 protesters died of bullet wounds. Police officials denied firing at the crowds, even though the police carried the only visible guns at these rallies.
Still, the protests have persisted well into February. At Shaheen Bagh, a neighbourhood in south-eastern Delhi, hundreds of thousands of people have turned up over nine weeks to take part in an indefinite sit-in. The BJP has taken a ruthless view of all this dissent. On one occasion, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu cleric who is chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, said: If they wont understand words, theyll understand bullets. One of Modis ministers used Shoot the traitors to the nation! as a call-and-response at a rally the same slogan the ABVP had raised in JNU.
In its 72 years as a free country, India has never faced a more serious crisis. Already its institutions its courts, much of its media, its investigative agencies, its election commission have been pressured to fall in line with Modis policies. The political opposition is withered and infirm. More is in the offing: the idea of Hindutva, in its fullest expression, will ultimately involve undoing the constitution and unravelling the fabric of liberal democracy. It will have to; constitutional niceties arent compatible with the BJPs blueprint for a country in which people are graded and assessed according to their faith. The ferment gripping India since the passage of the citizenship act the fever of the protests, the brutality of the police, the viciousness of the politics has only reflected how existentially high the stakes have become.
The RSS and the BJPs success, over the past six years, is owed in part to its adept poisoning of the public discourse. Politicians, indoctrinated media outlets and squadrons of social media trolls lie, polarise and demonise all day long. Among their stratagems is the invention of categories of abuse for their opponents, to convey with a single label why such people should not be trusted to have Indias interests at heart. Presstitute is one, applied to liberal journalists to accuse them of selling their coverage for money or influence. Sickular is another, born of the RSSs opinion that Indian secularism is a demented version of minority appeasement.
The term JNU type refers to leftists of every stripe from Maoists yearning for the revolution, to moderates who abhor Hindutva. Traditionally, JNU has specialised in the humanities, so JNU types also came to be scorned for their soft humanism for their opposition to capital punishment, to the armys human-rights abuses, or to the states repressions in Kashmir. All while studying for years and years on the governments dime, the BJPs supporters complain. Its enough to slot JNU types into the mother category: anti-national.
In its earliest years, JNU soaked up the ideology of the man it was named after Jawaharlal Nehru, Indias first prime minister and of his party, the Congress. It was still only a generation since independence, and Nehru and the Congress, having led the freedom struggle, exerted enormous moral authority. The universitys ethos and its very curriculum were built on Nehrus values, says Rakesh Batabyal, the author of JNU: The Making of a University. It was secular in its worldview, left of centre in its economics and technocratic in its thinking on policy. Students came from all over the country, Batabyal told me. There was a pluralism to the university that Nehru wanted for India.
Over the next few decades, the locus of power in student politics migrated further leftwards, into groups that allied themselves with national communist parties. The ABVP, which opposed all these -isms secularism, pluralism, socialism, communism remained on the margins, just like its counterparts in national politics. The Hindu right had done nothing of note during the freedom struggle; in fact, the RSS didnt take part in the mass movements that forced the British out of India. For almost half a century after independence, the political parties backed by the RSS remained in the political wilderness. They used to say that, back in the 1980s, if you were a supporter at an ABVP event, you went to it with a blanket covering your face, Azad, the JNU professor, told me. That was how embarrassing it was considered to be.
Then a mosque was destroyed, and India changed. For years, the RSS had claimed that the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque in the town of Ayodhya, stood on the very spot where the Hindu deity Ram was born. The location warranted a temple, the RSS declared, not a mosque built by an invading Muslim king. Late in 1990, a BJP leader toured Indias heartland for two months, in an air-conditioned Toyota mocked up to resemble a chariot, to rouse Hindus to demand that a temple replace the mosque. (The man who sat in the Toyotas cabin, serving as the rallys logistician, was Narendra Modi.) In December 1992, a crowd of men from the RSS and BJP razed the mosque, watched but unhindered by the police. In the following weeks, religious riots erupted across India, particularly in Mumbai. Two thousand people were killed. The BJPs obsession with the Babri mosque was bloody and divisive, but it also earned them new political capital. In 1996, the BJP came to power for the first time.