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What’s Unsaid | Does India know what’s ahead?

‘You're leading in a direction that ultimately can lead to a genocide.’

What's Unsaid podcast teaser picture with a portrait photo in black and white of Harsh Mander, writer, peace worker, and chairperson of the Centre for Equity Studies. To his left we see his name with his title. These elements are placed over a radial gradient background. The colour at the centre is a purplish blue and the colour outside is green. On the top we see the title of the podcast: What’s Unsaid.

There’s less than a week to go before the results of the election in India, the world’s largest democracy. It’s an election that has been marred by accusations of hate speech against Muslims by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a third term that would equal the record of India’s first post-independence leader, Jawaharlal Nehru.

“He's come out in this election with the worst kind of bigotry that you would really expect from some kind of street ruffian,” Indian writer and peace worker Harsh Mander tells What’s Unsaid host Ali Latifi. “I think that when the central ideological basis of your politics is hate against defined minorities, then you're leading in a direction that ultimately can lead to a genocide.”

Mander recently spent a year in Germany “in order to understand what is happening in my own country”. He lists events in Nazi Germany as similar to what he now sees in Modi’s India: “this complete demonisation of a community, the stripping of citizenship rights, the criminalising of interfaith relations, the fostering of prejudice, attacks on livelihoods… There are many steps that are leading us in the same direction.” 

Given there are 200 million Muslims in India, Mander concedes that “even if the Hindu right wishes that they'd all be thrown into the Arabian Sea, it's not going to happen”. He does however fear an outcome like the one faced by Rohingya in Myanmar, where “you're living in a country, but no longer have rights”. 

“Another Modi term,” he says, “would put us back in many ways, at least for a generation… [It] would push India into a place of massive inequality, of hate and fear, as a central defining feature of public life.”

As a non-Muslim, while his immediate family are supportive, Mander says some members of his extended family are against him speaking out, given their historic suffering at the hands of Muslims. But “after all that we suffered in partition,” he says, “who better than us can understand what it means to be targeted because of your religion and identity?”

What’s Unsaid is the new bi-weekly podcast exploring the open secrets and uncomfortable conversations that surround the world’s conflicts and disasters, hosted by The New Humanitarian’s Ali Latifi and Obi Anyadike.

Guest: Harsh Mander, writer, peace worker, and chairperson of the Center for Equity Studies in New Delhi. 

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Have a question or feedback? Maybe you have ideas for What’s Unsaid topics – from your own conversations or ones you’ve overheard? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #WhatsUnsaid

Transcript | Does India know what’s ahead?

Ali Latifi:

Today on What’s Unsaid: Does India know what’s ahead? 

 

It’s less than a week to go before the results of the Indian election - an election which has been marred by accusations of hate speech against Muslims by the incumbent prime minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a rare third term. 

 

Harsh Mander: 

He's come out in this election, with the worst kind of bigotry that you would really expect from some kind of street ruffian. He talks about them as jihadists. The idea that they are breeding large families, so that one day they will overtake Hindus and make India a Muslim land. That is the kind of rhetoric that Mr. Modi is trying to encourage in his speeches, and that is really dangerous.

 

Latifi:

Recently, an Indian friend was explaining the situation in his country to me. And in that conversation, he went so far as to say that the next genocide will be in India. It’s not a word we use lightly, and to be honest, I was taken aback. But my guest today shares his fears. 

 

Mander: 

We are seeing populist leaders who are teaching us to hate in many parts of the world, but not many places is this an ideological project, and I think that when the central ideological basis of your politics is hate against defined minorities, then you're leading in a direction that ultimately can lead to a genocide.

 

Latifi:

This is What’s Unsaid. A bi-weekly podcast by The New Humanitarian where we explore open secrets and uncomfortable conversations around the world’s conflicts and disasters. My name is Ali Latifi, staff editor at The New Humanitarian. 

 

On today’s episode: Does India know what’s ahead? 

 

With us today is Harsh Mander. He’s a writer, peace worker, and chairperson of the Center for Equity Studies in New Delhi. 

So Harsh, thank you so much for being with us today.

Mander:

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Latifi:

My first question goes back to a recent article you wrote, and in that you warned, and this is a quote from you: “The possibilities of genocide increase incrementally if the project of hate speech is led by a strong man leader?” Do you think that the word genocide fits for what could happen in India, if Modi does stay in power?

Mander: 

I think we are in a pathway that can lead to genocide. About that, I have little doubt. A few years ago, the Holocaust survivors actually started a campaign. They’ve called ‘It Started With Words.’ And what they emphasised is that the Nazi Holocaust didn't begin with the gas chambers. It began with a kind of hate speech that became a normal part of life. And we've seen that time and time again, with genocidal projects that have followed. If the leadership itself propagates hate, it makes the dangerous possibility of genocide much more real. I don't fear that India will go into a genocide like the Shoah, in the sense that there are 200 million Muslims in India. Even if the Hindu right wishes that they'd all be thrown into the Arabian Sea, it's not going to happen. I think the comparison with Myanmar is much closer. I did spend nearly a year in Germany recently, in order to understand what is happening in my own country, and I did find alarmingly a great part of what happened in Nazi Germany recurring, and you know, hate speech is one part of it. But this complete demonisation of a community, the stripping them of citizenship rights, the criminalising of interfaith relations, the changing of history, the fostering of prejudice, attacks on livelihoods, changing city names, et cetera, et cetera. There are many steps that are leading us in the same direction. But the outcome is much more likely to be what is happening in Myanmar, which is that you're living in a country, but no longer have rights. And settling as fear in the heart of every Muslim, and hate in the heart of more and more of the Hindu majority. You know, this climate of hate and fear, through hate speech and lynching and a ground situation like Myanmar, where people have to live without rights. That's where I think India is headed. 

Latifi: 

You're talking about Myanmar, it's 40 something years at this point. But Modi has only been in power for 10 years. So, were their precursors to this? Was this a common popular occurrence before the BJP and Modi came to power in India?

Mander:

See, please understand that Modi’s not a sudden wolf that has come out of the blue. The battle to transform India into a Hindu supremacist nation in which Muslims live as second class citizens is something that started in fact exactly 100 years ago. The organisation of the Hindu right called the RSS came into being in 1925. Next year, it will complete 100 years. And it is a battle that they have waged for these 100 years and more, that has reached a decisive moment. Mr. Modi, all his adult life and before that, has been a member of the RSS. 

Latifi:

Openly? 

Mander:

Yes, yes, openly. And in fact, every person in high constitutional position in India today are people who have been members of the RSS. And please understand that the RSS was completely opposed to the imagination of India, in the freedom struggle that was led by Mahatma Gandhi, and central to that idea of our freedom struggle, and into our Constitution, was the idea that India would be a country that would belong equally to people of every faith and identity. It would not matter whether you worship this God, or that Allah. It would not matter what your caste, your language, your ethnicity, your gender, your wealth, you were in every respect an equal citizen without conditionality. That was the India that we promised, but the RSS was stridently against this from the start. The early writings of the RSS actually talk about their great admiration for Hitler as a great nationalist leader. And he has shown the way, according to them, in the way that they solved the Jewish problem is how we should solve the Muslim problems. It has a clear ideological position. It never participated in the freedom struggle against the British. The RSS never flew the Indian flag for 50 years. It never accepted the Constitution, which was based on this idea of equal citizenship. And it's not just tolerance, tolerance is not a word I like, because tolerance means I’m putting up with you. No, I welcome you. And that was, and is, the idea of India that we must defend. And it was remarkable that Gandhiji actually held on to it because when partition happened, a million people had slaughtered each other: Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh, in the frenzy of partition. And 15 million people lost their homes. It was the largest displacement in human history. And yet, although partition was formed on the basis of religious identity, India chose with Gandhi, that, ‘no we will be a country where people of every faith would be welcome to be equal citizens.’ Gandhiji lived for many ideas, but he was killed for this one idea. He was assassinated by a person of the Hindu right, and we've reached a place 75 years after independence, when people of that same ideological bent, and the same organisation, are holding the highest ideological positions.

Latifi:

So, how did it change? 

Mander: 

It changed over the years. And that's exactly where I think we've lost our way. The RSS and their vision, I passionately disagree with it, both for India and for humankind. But, they've been very dedicated. And they fought, they were in the margins after Gandhi was assassinated. They went into the darkest shadows of the country, but over the years, they have emerged, and they’ve worked with dedication. On the other hand, the political parties - the Congress to start with - which were carrying this alternative idea of India, along the way, have compromised in fundamental ways. And as a society, I don't think we have nurtured the values that we believe in. We, in a sense, have abdicated and created a space where it was possible for the Hindu right to rise. And I think my guess is that it is probably linked with the neoliberal economic model, which has created a world where huge amounts of wealth are accumulating in stunningly small numbers of hands. But the big promise of neoliberalism was that it would create jobs for the median, it has not. And so we’re having millions of young people entering the workforce with little hope for their futures. That is probably the fuel which is enabling populist leaders to arise in different parts of the world. 

Latifi:

Although Modi tries to take credit for advancing the Indian economy, right? 

Mander:

That is a myth that the West has allowed him to nurture. India's economy was growing much better before Modi came. We're seeing really much more the growth of a kind of oligarchic economic growth, where an incredibly small number of people are accumulating unbelievable levels of wealth. So, we're looking at an economic model where enormous wealth is being created, but decent work opportunities have declined. And, also we are having a state which has completely privatised healthcare, education, public education is in shambles. So, it is not a model, I mean, I don't know why countries in the Global North choose to look the other way. 

Latifi:

But, do you think that the outside world really comprehends the danger that Modi poses? And would his rhetoric and potential harm be getting more attention if it wasn't aimed mostly at Muslims?

Mander: 

I think the Western world is choosing to look away. I've been invited to speak in the European Parliament, in the German parliament, in the British Foreign Office, and so on. And behind the scenes, people say they understand what is happening, but it is true, partly that the targets are Muslim, and they don't care. Partly, they feel that their interest in, and having a geopolitical and strategic alternative to China, so overwhelms everything else. 

Latifi: 

And China's another country that's persecuting Muslims?

Mander: 

Yes, absolutely. But also that India's rich and middle class of 200-300 million people is hugely acquisitive. It's probably a larger market than all of Europe already. So, that is sort of compensating in their eyes. For everything else that Modi's doing, it doesn't matter. And, once again, it's really an example of not learning from history. You know, if you look back at the Nazi years, as the project against the Jews was building up in Germany, the allied countries chose to look away, until such time as it became too late, and maybe millions of lives could have been saved if they had not looked away. You know, when Mr. Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, under whose watch, a huge massacre of Muslims happened in 2002. Globally, Mr. Modi became a pariah. For almost a decade, he was not given visas in Europe and North America. The only country that welcomed him, even at that time, as an honoured guest, was Israel. And that was a time when textbooks in Gujarat actually spoke about Hitler as a great nationalist leader, and was silent about the Holocaust. These textbooks were sent to the Embassy of Israel. And still, Mr. Modi was the great hero at a time when he was a global pariah. 

Latifi: 

After a pogrom.

Mander: 

After a pogrom. I’d just like to underline the enormity of this danger of looking away. Mr. Modi is dangerous not simply for himself. There are many autocrats like him around the world. But those autocrats are wanting to hold on to power for themselves. Mr. Modi wants to hold on to power for himself, as part of this 100-year-old ideological project, which is deeply deeply influenced by Hitler.

Latifi:

You were saying earlier that India is currently facing mass inequity, but it's still the fifth largest economy in the world, and at the same time, it ranks at the bottom of the Global Hunger Index. How could another Modi term affect the humanitarian situation in India, especially for poorer non-Hindus?

Mander:

Another Modi term I think would put us back, in many ways, at least for a generation. Firstly, of course, for Muslims, it would be disastrous. But I think that there is a much more generalised climate of massive inequality. We are now more unequal than we were under British times, under colonial times. What happens to the informal working poor, which is the large mass of the Indian people? Hunger, lack of any access to decent work opportunity, absence of any kind of social provision, healthcare and education of quality. So, I'm not at all being alarmist, but I think that another term for Modi would push India into a place of massive inequality, of hate and fear, as a central defining feature of public life.

Latifi:

You were talking about the inequality, but we've also seen that in 2022, the BJP stripped nearly 6,000 NGOs of their permits that are required to accept foreign funding, and that had a major effect on the aid sector. I think it even included Oxfam and an organisation founded by Mother Teresa. What does this mean for people who are being persecuted either for not being Hindu, or even Hindus, you know, who don't have access to simple basics that these sorts of NGOs are supposed to help them with? What kind of an impact can this really have on a society that you say is becoming even less equal than it was under British rule?

Mander:

So Ali, I talked about this 100-year project of the Hindu right. Now, where is the opposition to this coming going to come from potentially? They have managed to profoundly weaken the political opposition by using all kinds of fear and intimidation. Parliament has been reduced almost to a non-entity. The judiciary is not - and we were very proud of the independence of our judiciary - it has not stood consistently with India's minorities and with India's dissenters, many of whom are spending five years in jail without any trial. India's liberal arts universe has been substantially demolished in these 10 years. India's media - again, of which we were very proud - almost substantially is now corporate-owned, and has acted as cheerleaders, both of the government, but even more dangerously, of the hate project against Muslims.

Latifi:

Do you feel comfortable going on those media outlets now?

Mander:

I have stopped going. Public debates on those media channels are pointless. Where I used to write my regular columns, have one by one stopped publishing them. So, now I just have a few dissenting media, media portals where I write for. They’re shutting down every space of dissent. So, when all of those frontiers have been nearly defeated, or tamed, that leaves citizens, citizen groups, people's organisations, individual people. I think these attacks on the licences of - you said 5,000, now it's about 20,000 licences - have been cancelled. My organisation, for instance, it wasn't very large by choice. So, shutting down our funding, even by Indian funders, was not difficult. You know, I have now, every single federal agency is charging me with a range of crimes which are so grave: terror, of money laundering, you know, the most amazing kinds of charges for which I could spend this life and, you know, if as a Hindu, I believe in the next life, then even the next life, I could spend in prison. And these charges are so incredible, and it's transparent to everybody that they are incredible, but through processes of interrogation, all kinds of intimidation, consequences, life becomes very hard. I'm just sort of stubbornly continuing saying, ‘Whatever you do, you won't shut down my conscience, or my voice.’ But now it's largely individuals sort of sending some money in. We're helping people who've been lynched. You know, it's become, just doing work of this kind, it’s really for love, for a society based on love and acceptance of our diversities, for standing by really our constitution. That has become now like a big crime. And so, we must understand that these attacks are really intended to silence that last frontier of resistance against the Hindutva project, and in that, they've had substantial success. But one more thing Ali, if your listeners are thinking that the majority of Indians are behind Modi, it's not true. In 2019, Mr. Modi got about 38 percent of the vote share. In the earlier election, 2014, he got 33% of the vote share. And ironically, Hitler got elected in 1933 with 33 percent of the vote share. And Hitler would not have got elected, if the left and the centre parties had come together. Modi would not have come to power if the political opposition had managed to come together. So, even today, there’s a growing radicalization of the majority community, but I still believe that the majority of Indians are still Gandhi’s Indians and not Modi’s Indians. 

Latifi:

You brought up the election, and how he's not winning by these overwhelming majorities. But, you've also noted that every political party - at least in this election - they've put up fewer Muslim candidates than, you know, ever in the past. Does that indicate something to you?

Mander: 

It absolutely does. We have had the fewest who are of Muslim identity. If Muslims were represented according to their population, we should have had at least 75 Muslim MPs. The last Parliament had about 25. The BJP was proud of the fact that it did not have a single Muslim MP, or a member of a legislative assembly across the country. And we're talking about 200 million people being disenfranchised, effectively unrepresented. But when, even the secular parties, by doing this, I think they're, in a sense, to my mind, insulting the Hindu voter, by suggesting that the Hindu voter has got so radicalised that he or she is only going to vote on the basis of this identity…

Latifi: 

Religion.

Mander: 

And the basis of their religion. Because if people were voting for jobs, for better management of the economy, for control of inflation, for good healthcare and education, for food and nutrition, they could not vote for the BJP. If they're voting today for Modi, they’re voting primarily, overwhelmingly, because he’s terrorised India’s Muslims as the so-called ‘Enemy Within’. And if people buy it, it is really dangerous because Muslims, for one thing, our 200 million people are an extremely diverse community. They're also among the least radicalised people in the world, because given all that has happened to them, the percentage of Indian Muslims who got radicalised is a tiny fraction of a fraction. They still overwhelmingly believe in India's secular constitution. And therefore this kind of demonisation is a tragedy beyond description, actually for me.

Latifi: 

You yourself are not a Muslim. But, you're taking on these issues at a huge risk to yourself. And you're calling yourself a peace worker, you're talking about love and peace and all of these things. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you, why it's so important?

Mander:

You know, just talking about myself in my own personal history, my parents were from a place near Rawalpindi, from which they were displaced. My extended family was displaced, amidst great violence in 1947. And so, when I've been fighting these battles - I quit my position in the Indian Administrative Service in protest against the Gujarat massacre in 2002 - a significant number of my own extended family is furious with me. And what they tell me is that: ‘Harsh we are ashamed of you. Because after all that we suffered at the hands of Muslims during partition, you've gone and taken the wrong side.’ And my answer to them is that, after all that we suffered in partition, who better than us can understand what it means to be targeted because of your religion and identity, with hate, and with violence, and with fear? And therefore, I am on the right side. It is you who have gone on to the wrong side. The only way the world has a future is if we learn to live with respect with people who are different from us. If we are going to choose the leaders, make political and social choices, teaching us to be indifferent to injustice to people who are poor, which are indifferent to what happens to the planet. And we are supportive of projects of fear and hate against minorities of any kind. What kind of world are we going to leave to our children? You know, Noam Chomsky, somewhere spoke about his definition of a good society was one where we take care of each other. And I really love that phrase. I mean, we just have to build a society and a world where we take care of each other. It will determine our future. We talk a lot about climate, as determining our future, I feel that how we deal with people who are different from us, is also going to determine the future of our country, and the world. And so the importance of learning to live together with respect and love is critical for me, and for that I am prepared to go to prison. I'm prepared to do anything to fight for us to learn to live together with respect and peace and love.

Latifi:

Harsh Mander. Thank you so much for being with us. And for everything you've said.

Mander:

Thank you so much.

Latifi: 

Harsh Mander is a writer, peace worker, and the chairperson of the Center for Equity Studies in New Delhi. 

 

Please visit TheNewHumanitarian.org for ongoing reporting on humanitarian work in crisis zones across the world. 

 

And what are people afraid to talk about in today’s crises? What needs to be discussed openly? Let us know: send an email to: [email protected]. Subscribe to The New Humanitarian on your podcast app for more episodes of What’s Unsaid – our new podcast about open secrets and uncomfortable truths. Hosted by Obi Anyadike, and me.

 

This episode is produced and edited by Freddie Boswell, sound engineering by Mark Nieto, with original music by Whitney Patterson, and hosted by me – Ali Latifi. Thanks for listening!

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