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It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world

  • Published at 10:56 pm November 24th, 2019
web-narendra modi
Photo: Reuters

BJP has successfully turned Muslims into the enemy

Why choose the title of a 1963 American comedy to headline this month’s column? At first glance, the plot of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World has nothing to do with what I am going to discuss.

And yet, in one essential sense, it drives home my point. Just like the movie hovered around the madcap pursuit of $350,000 in stolen cash by a diverse and colourful group of 11 strangers, the 193 nations of the world today are chasing security and material success without really achieving either. International and regional systems are in a quandary and hyper-nationalism across continents is wreaking havoc within institutions that were created to build an orderly world after WWII.

Terrorism is ... dead?

On international security, the more the world claims it has eradicated the menace of international Islamic terror, the bigger that challenge becomes. This past October the US security forces killed the dreaded ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. President Donald Trump assured everyone that the world would now be “a much safer place.” But we had received much the same American assurance just eight years ago, when the United States had eliminated Osama bin Laden and dismantled Al-Qaeda. ISIS, however, emerged from the ashes of Al-Qaeda almost immediately. Perhaps it is time to replace that old saying, “the king is dead, long live the king” with “terrorism is dead, long live terrorism.”

The world has learnt to treat the symptoms of terrorism but is unable to address the disease itself. The days of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds are probably gone. One does not need to delve into the intricacies of how US military-industrial interests have dictated American policy in West Asia to recognize that the invasion of Iraq was grossly unethical. On totally unfounded (if not engineered) assumptions that Saddam Hussein had amassed stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Iraq, and in the process the entire region, was devastated beyond recognition. It is all fine that bin-Laden and al-Baghdadi have been eliminated but has the world system done anything to penalize the original sinners?

At some point in the 1950s, the regional security champions considered it prudent to decentralize the job of international security in order to make it more efficacious. Western Europe pioneered the idea by establishing the European Common Market (ECM) in 1957. In due course, the ECM grew into the European Union (EU), the Euro Zone, and the Schengen Treaty. Soon, the EU contagion spread to other continents. But under its own weight, the experiment is facing virtual collapse today. Take the case of India.

After getting disillusioned with SAARC, it started romancing ASEAN with such policy pronouncements as “Look East”, “Act East” and “Act Indo-Pacific.” But when the crunch came to sign the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) it backtracked on the grounds that it did not have enough competitiveness in specific trade items to take on challenges emanating from China, Australia, or New Zealand. Was this reality unknown all these years that one would have to reach the signing stage to back out? 

This is true not only of India but almost all nations. Some time ago, I did a rough calculation to see how many countries were members of how many groups. When I totaled the memberships, it was roughly 400, but the total number of nations in the world was only 192, implying that many countries were members of multiple organizations. 

Here is a list of some such organizations: Agadir, African Union, Arab League, ASEAN, ASEAN Regional Forum, BASIC, BIMSTEC, BRICS, CACM, CC, GCC, CEFTA, CEFTA, CIS, ECOWAS, EU, EurAsEC, EFTA, G-8, G-20, IBSA, NAFTA (now defunct), RCEP, SAARC, SCO, and UNASUR. International trading arrangements are a grand hotchpotch now. And although the World Trade Organization (WTO) determines the broad contours of global trade, there are well over 400 Regional Trade Agreements (RTA) that complicate its operations.

National leaders crisscross the globe, busily attending meetings for one or another of these organizations. They use the resultant publicity in print and electronic media back home to sidetrack people’s attention from day-to-day domestic problems. Prime Minister Modi’s frequent foreign visits also provide ample fodder to cartoonists and stand-up comics. One such stand-up quip goes: “Our multinational prime minister visited India yesterday on a seven-day official trip.” 

The underlying story behind this mushrooming of regional organizations is that there is an acute desperation on the part of most nations to do something quickly to arrest the growing popular disenchantment with an existing growth model that is weighted heavily in favour of an increasingly small section of people. According to recent studies, the richest 1% of Indians own 58.4% of the country’s wealth, while the richest 10% own as much 80.7%. 

Given the noise level of democratic politics, politicians across the board rely on two ways to contain these frustrations. One, by putting the blame on international factors; and two, by diverting people’s attention using divisive and majoritarian issues such as religion and culture.

Appealing to base human instincts to divide and rule is a well-tested political strategy. Even developed Christian countries have not been able to fully escape the religion trap. But since their democracies typically have deeper historical roots, this problem has yet to become unmanageable. 

The Islamic world, however, has become a prime victim, as is evident from the unprecedented growth of Islamic fundamentalism in a large number of Muslim countries. That it would eventually degenerate into terrorism is historical wisdom and already the case in many places. As a result, the misdeeds of tiny groups of Islamist terrorists are making Muslims at large suffer from a sense of siege. 

Today, Muslims as a community are despised across the globe; yet, few care to note that the victims of Islamist terror are mostly Muslims. Strangely, however, the most callous about this phenomenon are the so-called leaders of the Muslim world, particularly those who can matter the most as they are sitting on huge reserves of oil and gas, something which the international economy is critically dependent upon. 

Leave alone doing anything effective to stem the rot, they are indirectly promoting the phenomenon by fanning fundamentalism at the mass level. Many of them are socially and politically oppressive and provide no space for democratic freedoms. Any free sentiment is muzzled in the bud. The brutal killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi secret police is an open secret.  

Hindutva trumps the law

The latest entrant to the game of religious politics is Hindu-majority India, which has started displaying symptoms of Hindu militancy heretofore unheard of. Ever since Hindutva (political Hinduism) has been ascendant in India politics, and particularly after the BJP came to power in 2014, Hinduism has lost its philosophical and spiritual moorings and become perverse and jingoistic. 

Since any jingoism has to have an enemy for binary reasons, Muslims have become their bête noire. In the beginning, Christians were also targets, but for tactical reasons the focus is now entirely on Muslims. Anti-Christian visibility is fraught with risk: America is Christian and its three-million plus prosperous Indian American community has a huge stake in maintaining good Indo-US relations. 

The Hindutva madness is reflected both in the BJP’s politics and in its cultural statements. Muslims constitute about 15% of India’s population, but they are increasingly becoming political non-entities. In 1980, when the BJP was launched (earlier it was Bharatiya Jana Sangh), there were 49 Muslim Members of Parliament (MPs). The two BJP MPs in that parliament were both Hindu. 

Today, when the party has an absolute majority in parliament with 303 seats out of 545, Muslim MPs number only 27; not one belongs to the BJP. In the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), historically the hub of Muslim politics, the political face of Muslims is now pathetic. Yogi (a Hindu saint who has renounced all mundane allurements) Adityanath (whose real name is Ajay Singh Bisht), known for his fire-eating anti-Muslim statements during the election campaign, is now UP’s chief minister. 

Prior to the election, criminal charges were framed against him for making those statements as they had violated not only the election code but also certain provisions of the Indian constitution. Upon becoming chief minister, Bisht summarily closed all those cases. The underlying political message is clear: Hindutva fanaticism trumps the law.

In the cultural realm, particularly in the way in which the cow is being venerated or in the way Hindu mythology is being glorified beyond proportion, Hinduism, now increasingly indistinguishable from Hindutva, resembles a tribal, animistic religion. The cow is a traditionally revered animal among Hindus but of late this reverence has degenerated into a frenzy. 

In the process, the Indian cow (yes, not foreign cow) is having a gala time. She can, according to her sweet will, jaywalk on city streets, become a traffic hazard on national highways, and rampage through standing crops. If a cow gets killed in a traffic accident, the driver has more to be worried about than if he had run over a pedestrian. In the latter case, he would be taken to court; in the former, he may receive fatal mob justice on the street itself. 

And so, in the digitally modern and five-trillion-dollar-economy-aspiring India, cow dung and cow urine have become the country’s new supercomputer chips. According to many BJP leaders and party supporters, an Indian cow’s excreta will cure cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. A touch of her body will control blood pressure. The latest in this litany of nonsense is that her milk contains gold, which is why it is yellowish in colour. 

One of the BJP loudmouths went overboard on TV to even claim that cow dung is as valuable as diamonds. I now wait for the day when Indian banks will start offering loans against mortgaged cow milk or cow excreta. A hilarious footnote to this cow story is its anti-climax in Kashmir. 

By abrogating Article 370, the Indian state has legitimized beef eating in this Muslim-majority state. Under the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, which has bifurcated the state into two Union Territories, the Indian government has repealed 153 state laws. Among those repealed laws is the 157-year old Ranbir-Penal-Code-dictated beef ban.

Hindutva fanaticism is playing havoc with India’s scientific temper, one of Pandit Nehru’s most cherished values. Today, it is trumpeted ad nauseam that primitive Hindus had plastic surgery, internet, test-tube babies, missiles, aircrafts, aerodromes, pen-drives, remote sensing, and much else! It seems that had there been Nobel prizes in ancient times 90% of them would have gone to the Hindus. 

No less important a person than India’s education minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal, has announced that it is astrology, and not science, which should be given more importance in school and university curricula. A few years ago, Chicago Professor Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History was attacked by the Hindu right in America, who insisted that it defamed the followers of the faith. Her Indian publisher was forced to withdraw the book from circulation in India.

The Hindutva hoopla has now reached another realm, putting a religious stamp on two languages. Thus, Sanskrit is now the monopoly of Hindus, and Urdu is a Muslim language. Recently, when a Muslim scholar was appointed an Assistant Professor of Sanskrit in Banaras Hindu University (BHU), his colleagues (and many students) protested vehemently, as if knowledge of Sanskrit is the birth right of Hindus (read: Brahmins, in most cases) alone. 

But the hypocrisy of the Brahmin community is such that when the Mughals were in power, they helped Dara Shikoh translate the 52 Upanishads. During British rule, when some Europeans developed an interest in Indology, the Sanskrit-knowing Brahmins did not mind teaching them. They conveniently redefined mlechchha (untouchable, which included Christians in the contemporary sense) in violation of the injunction of the Skanda Puran that had ordained that if a Brahmin taught Sanskrit to a mlechchha, the teacher would be excommunicated. After all, their pupils belonged to the ruling class.

The mirror image of Sanskrit is Urdu, about which the Hindu right’s central narrative is straightforward and wrong: It is an alien language identifiable only with Muslims who are outsiders.

Any student of the history of Urdu language knows that it has evolved from Hindi. This thesis was authoritatively argued by Pakistani scholar Tariq Rahman in his 2011 book From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History

Besides, Urdu is designated as one of the 22 Indian languages in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Yet, Panjab University, in a wisdom all its own, recently designated it a foreign language. It is possible that it was done inadvertently but given the anti-Muslim/anti-Urdu hysteria that has gripped North India, such accidents have greater propensity of occurrence. (Parenthetically, let both Hindi enthusiasts and Urdu baiters note that the greatest Mughal emperor, Akbar, spoke Bhojpuri.)

Postscript

Against the background of the beef ban lunacy in India, which has caused several cases of lynching over alleged eating, possessing, or trading in beef, it is amusing to note that one of the best breeds of beef-producing cow in America is called “Brahman.” The Brahman’s origin is traced to the mid-19th century, when four Indian breeds, namely, Gujarat, Gir, Ongole (now in Pakistan), and Krishna Valley, were crossbred with certain American varieties. 

In 1924, the American Brahman Breeders Association (ABBA) was registered to promote the interests of this beef packing industry. ABBA is now headquartered in Houston, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a great anti-beef crusader, had his grand “Howdy, Modi” extravaganza this past September. 

Partha S Ghosh is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Formerly, he was ICSSR National Fellow, and Professor of South Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]

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