In November I had to cancel the teaching I was doing in Norwich to return to Calcutta to visit my mother, who is elderly and ailing. On the 8th, I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that this was the morning on which the results of the Bihar assembly elections were being declared. Maybe I took for granted that the BJP – which had made it clear that these elections were to be an endorsement of its record during its 18-month rule – would win as expected. But two things had happened to shake that certainty: the turnout, more than 56 per cent, was the highest in Bihar in 15 years; and a major news channel, CNN IBN, had released an exit poll predicting that the BJP would lose. The poll was discussed twice on air, but then – mysteriously – not mentioned again. There was a rumour that Mukesh Ambani, the Bombay industrialist who acquired CNN IBN three years ago, and is a major funder of the BJP, had personally made sure that it was quietly dropped. The company that produced the poll was a newcomer. Its principal achievement so far had been to predict, early this year, the outcome of the Delhi assembly elections, which the BJP unaccountably lost. All the other channels announced exit polls that either had the BJP winning outright, or suggested a close result.
Late in the morning the vegetable-seller who comes to our flat with his basket every day said: ‘BJP haar raha hain’ (‘The BJP is losing’). He is Bihari and Muslim, and had a reason for keeping track. But I didn’t rush to turn on the TV so it wasn’t until five o’clock, when a tabla player arrived to help my daughter with her vocal practice, that I heard it confirmed: ‘BJP heré gechhe’ (‘The BJP has lost’). Although the tabla player, like the vegetable-seller, is a Muslim, I don’t think that either of them is a staunch opponent of the BJP. Besides, the BJP has a few vociferous Muslim members, and intermittently makes half-hearted gestures of inclusiveness towards the Muslim vote-bank. But after Narendra Modi and his terrifying henchman Amit Shah’s divisive campaign, it perhaps wasn’t really surprising that all of us (none of us loyal to any particular political party) found ourselves celebrating the result along with countless others. In the event, the BJP and its allies won only 58 seats in the assembly, 37 fewer than in the last election. The ‘great alliance’ or mahagathbandhan – between the buffoonishly eloquent low-caste leader Lalu Yadav and the dynamic former chief minister Nitish Kumar – had won 178.
Nobody seemed able fully to explain this unexpected reversal. Some TV commentators attributed the BJP’s defeat to its neglect of economic realities. ‘Har har Modi’ had been the celebratory chant in Bihar, echoing, perhaps, the battle cry of the Maratha warriors who’d fought Muslim kings while invoking Shiva: ‘Har har Mahadev.’ Lately, however, it had become ‘Arhar Modi.’ ‘Arhar’ is a pulse used to make daal and its price has risen sharply. Others blamed Modi for abandoning development in favour of religion. Others decided that caste politics had, as they usually do in Bihar, decided the outcome. The result probably owed something to all of these factors. But the real euphoria felt by various, often apolitical people at the news originated, I think, in the sense that there is an urgent need for the BJP to be contained. India always had, and still has, a huge amount going for it; the reason I live here has to do with more than my mother’s health. For me, in many ways, India is the most exciting and stimulating country to be in. But the BJP, despite its plans for and adjustments to the economy, its avowed ambitions for its future, seems to be bad for whatever it is that makes this country so attractive. I don’t mean some cosy idea of multiculturalism and human togetherness. Opportunistic secularism may have run out of steam, but if the BJP thinks it knows what to replace it with, it’s mistaken. For the first time since Independence, India feels unliveable in, not just for minorities under assault but for large swathes of the population.
The BJP is a deeply polarising party. Since the 1970s Indian politics have been cynically conciliatory. The successful mahagathbandhan of the Bihar elections was a good example of this: a literal embrace between two politicians, Yadav and Kumar, who until recently couldn’t abide each other. In the 1980s political allegiances were so driven by opportunism that rules had to be introduced to curb mass party defections. The BJP itself has benefited from strategic and cynical alliances in its journey from minor player to ruling party. But political discussions in India today are far less smugly performative – disagreement being a sort of performance between rivals who might at any moment become friends – than they have been in the past, and more tense, because the BJP thrives (as does any right-wing group) on division. The BJP polarises not only Hindus and Muslims (and Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists): it polarises Hindus.
Many of us have forgotten, as one forgets superseded worldviews, what Hinduism meant even forty years ago. But even those of us who aren’t religious are often products of that amorphous older definition. Despite the disgraceful legacies and realities of Hindu society, such as the caste system, there was once an open-ended confusion about the matter of what constitutes it as a religion. Hinduism had no central book, it was reiterated; you could be a Hindu even if you were an atheist or had never stepped into a temple; you could absorb the stories of Hindu mythology without believing in them literally. This definition of Hinduism arose from an awareness in modern Hindus of the aspects privileged by other world religions, in response to which they seemed to have decided to make a case for Hinduism’s anomalousness, to turn the fact that it wasn’t a ‘proper’ religion into a kind of legitimacy. This looseness of definition has had its dangers, in that it allowed Hinduism to segue unquestioningly into its free-market, information technology incarnation in the 1990s. But it made for an oddly Indian interpretation of religion, in which it served as a sort of figurative language, a non-assertive truth, and there was a strange, occasional overlap, for the Indian, between everyday living and religious experience.
Anyone who was once exposed to even a residue of that ethos will feel alienated by the BJP’s project of salvaging Hinduism from its provisionality, and making it a ‘proper’ religion. It’s doing this through minatory edicts and actions, and by eliminating grey areas. ‘Intolerance’ is the Indian press’s term for this regime of threats and violence towards beef-eaters, writers, ‘foreigners’ and ‘foreign’ organisations (like Greenpeace), and minorities; though, as Arundhati Roy pointed out recently, ‘“intolerance” is the wrong word to use for the lynching, shooting, burning and mass murder of fellow human beings.’ The BJP insists on a form of Hinduism that is wholly new: it accords a deep respect to science and the verifiable, and is tone deaf to figurative language. Soon after it came to power, one BJP minister proclaimed that ancient Indians must have possessed the technology to build aeroplanes since the epics mention flying chariots. Modi then added that the elephant-headed god Ganesh was proof that plastic surgery existed in ancient India. Both remarks made people shake their heads and laugh, but all Modi was saying was that Hindu mythology as a domain of poetry, irreverence, humour and symbolism (‘Only an incredibly sophisticated culture could have produced a figure like Ganesh,’ Allen Ginsberg once said) made far less sense to him than the Renaissance and Enlightenment realism which, in a weirdly distorted form, has shaped the BJP as well as its secretive cultural-militant wing, the RSS.
The BJP’s violence towards Islam emanates from ignorance, but so does its violence towards Hinduism. It has ignored or glossed over Hinduism’s, and India’s, many anti-Brahminical, anti-absolutist spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and the bhakti movement. After coming to power, the BJP’s minister for external affairs, Sushma Swaraj, tried to get the Bhagavad Gita declared India’s ‘national book’. ‘Everyone should read two shlokas of Gita every day,’ she advised. ‘It is a scripture of 700 shlokas and it can be finished in a year. Read it again and continue this till the end. After reading it three to four times, you will discover a path to lead a life, the way I discovered.’ Despite her repeated readings, Swaraj seems not to have realised that a central part of the Gita is its wariness of mere scriptural observance, as it lays out its scepticism of its precursor text, the Vedas:
There are men who have no vision, and yet they speak many words. They follow the letter of the Vedas, and they say: ‘There is nothing but this.’ Their soul is warped with selfish desires, and their heaven is a selfish desire. They have prayers for pleasures and power, the reward of which is earthly rebirth. Those who love pleasure and power hear and follow their words: they have not the determination ever to be one with the One.
Perhaps the Gita should be made compulsory reading – not for the nation but for the BJP and its fringe groups. At the culmination of his triumphant visit to the UK last month, Modi, addressing David and a sari-clad Samantha Cameron and a 60,000-strong audience at Wembley Stadium, mentioned, in order to earn multicultural brownie points, one of the icons of the bhakti movement, Kabir, a Muslim weaver’s son, unmindful of Kabir’s distaste for bogus religiosity. Kabir’s latest translator, the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, has remarked that, if the people who claim to love Kabir actually listened to what he was saying, they’d find the experience discomfiting. But Modi is not listening.
I was in the UK when Modi arrived on his state visit, to be greeted by euphoric crowds. Here is a man who has different personae for different constituencies. On the UK trip, he was the corporate CEO, managerial, upbeat, holding out the promise of agreements and financial benefits. After the 2014 elections, he was a top manager too, but also the grand South Asian statesman, hugging the Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif after the swearing-in ceremony. In public, Modi is a great and perhaps calculating hugger, his extended arms conveying reassurance. During his Wembley speech, he made one direct reference to Islam: ‘Had Islam embraced Sufism, it would not have had to resort to the gun.’ (In one of the chilling coincidences that now seem to make up our world, gunmen in Paris were shooting down people out for the night at around the same time Modi said these words.) It was a stunning statement: the BJP has been busily suppressing Hindu pluralism – the legacy of the bhakti movement – just as Wahhabi Islam has suppressed heterodox forms such as Sufism. You could call the BJP’s project a kind of Wahhabi Hinduism: it is intent on defining a single power centre, where before there was none, and one interpretation, where before there were many. It took a few decades of funding and support from Saudi Arabia for Wahhabi Islam to become the minatory force it is today, and something similar could plausibly be achieved with Hinduism. At the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, women were recently denied entry unless they were wearing that ‘ancient’ Hindu apparel, the sari – a sign that the BJP’s influence might turn a secular form of dress into a religious one, like the hijab. The party has already appropriated the colour of renunciation, saffron, as a ubiquitous political signifier.
On 30 August the literary scholar M.M. Kalburgi was shot by two young men pretending to be students, after he had allegedly made offensive remarks about idol worship. Men like his killers are now in abundant supply in India. They manufacture abuse on social media against anyone faintly critical of Modi; they instruct those who disagree with them to migrate to Pakistan; they issue death threats; they kill.
Modi is a man who makes careful use of silence – another persona he can access at will. Though he is identified with speech-making, he’s silent on key issues. His silence is interpreted as a green light by those who commit violence in his name. When the soft-spoken, mumbling Prime Minister Manmohan Singh kept resolutely quiet about his Congress government’s rampant corruption, Modi’s deputy, Amit Shah, mocked him for being a mauni baba – a holy man who’s taken a vow of silence. Yet Modi has been practising being a mauni in a much more invidious way.
After Kalburgi’s murder a series of writers announced that they were returning awards they’d been given by the state, such as the Sahitya Akademi award – presented by the national academy for literature – which is conferred annually on 24 writers, one for each of India’s 24 major languages. The first to give back his prize was the Hindi novelist Uday Prakash. Prakash has impressively managed to escape or transgress, at every stage, the definitive and the constraining: the limitations of being born in an obscure village in Madhya Pradesh; the conservatism of much of the Hindi establishment (he studied and for a while taught Hindi literature); ideology (as a student, he joined the Community Party, was active, and then he gradually became – his word – ‘apolitical’). On TV to explain his reasons for returning the award, he said he wanted to defend the ‘ambivalence’ of literature. When I pressed him recently to spell out what this meant, he told me that he had had in mind Susan Sontag’s essay ‘Against Interpretation’, or the notion that, in his words, interpretation is a ‘power-tool’ and tends to make the writer culpable in ‘power-centric systems’: ‘Dissenting authors of every political or religious system,’ he said, ‘had to face a similar fate. Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Dabholkar, Kalburgi, Mandelstam and others.’
But ‘dissenting author’ is a tautology, or should be. The literary, in its resistance to interpretation, is a peculiar species of dissent. In 1873, in Literature and Dogma, Matthew Arnold – an avid student himself of the Gita – wrote that ‘the language of the Bible is fluid, passing and literary, not rigid, fixed and scientific.’ Gandhi unwittingly echoed him when he admitted that he read the Gita primarily as poetry. In 1861, Bengal’s first major modern poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, was working on a version of the Ramayana in which one of Lord Rama’s adversaries was to be the tragic protagonist. In a belligerent variation on Arnold’s theme he wrote to a friend: ‘I don’t care a pin’s head for Hinduism, I love the grand mythology of our ancestors. It is full of poetry.’ These were the beginnings of a modern definition of what constitutes sahitya, which, as with the English translation of the term, ‘literature’, hasn’t had an immutable meaning or even an immemorial presence in Indian culture. Hindu iconography and mythology, henceforth, would be the creative property of all – Hindus, Muslims, non-believers, atheists – who subscribed to this ‘ambivalent’, ‘fluid’ language, and not just of devotees. It is the BJP’s intent that all this be removed from the secular domain.
Prakash’s gesture led to several other writers following suit. In India – a country in which personal sacrifice is the norm, but where public sacrifice (unlike in the days of the freedom struggle) is almost unknown – these were unusual acts. I seriously considered joining them, though I’d never associated the Sahitya Akademi award I’d got for my fourth novel, A New World, with the state. It was a book that had been excoriated by Delhi’s reviewers for lacking big themes, an exciting story, and not being authentically Indian. So it was a surprise when three judges I admired – the English-language poet Jayanta Mahapatra, the Tamil fiction writer Ashokamitran and the Hindi scholar Alok Bhalla – gave it the prize in 2002. I associate it more with them than with the Akademi, and with my discovery that Indian literary responses could be more varied than those of Anglophone circles in Delhi. But this isn’t really why I’ve not returned the award. It’s because gestures can only do so much. I believe that the intimidation Indians face almost daily now, to do with free speech, can only be addressed in the long run by clarity about our constitutional guarantees. Perhaps the Indian constitution, unlike the American one, puts certain limits on free speech, but I can’t believe that those limits necessitated the pulping last year of all the copies in India of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History and yet protect the hate speech of various BJP ministers or far right parties like the Shiv Sena and the Mahanirman Sena. There is a fuzziness here which is of crucial advantage to the extreme right, or, indeed, any political party in power. As the novelist and ex-human rights lawyer Zia Haider Rahman said to me recently: ‘When you can’t say something, it’s always of use to the government.’
The erosion of free speech in India began long ago, under the Congress, with the banning of The Satanic Verses in 1988, an action, extraordinarily, still unchallenged in court. That the BJP won’t lift this ban, despite the fact that it never loses a chance to undermine Muslims, is a sign of its own investment in the culture and ethos of prohibition. The erosion I’m talking about isn’t only to do with religion and literature: its primary aim is the suppression of political dissent. You see this in West Bengal, which boasts, under the Trinamul Congress, an exemplary tolerance of minorities, though it’s fiercely punitive towards any form of free speech – cartoons, reports, questions at meetings – that it considers politically oppositional. Its precursor in Bengal, the Left Front, was hardly any better. After the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, then ruled by Modi (in which more than a thousand Muslims were killed), a tailor and daily wage-earner called Qutubuddin Ansari became so famous as a survivor – through a widely reproduced photograph of his tearful face, his palms joined in supplication – that he could no longer live in Ahmedabad. So, for a while, the Left Front provided him with ‘asylum’ in Calcutta, before he returned to Ahmedabad of his own volition. In 2007, the same Left Front government expelled the Bangladeshi writer, exile and critic of Islam Taslima Nasreen from Calcutta, where she lived, after she came under attack from orthodox Muslims.
Are state and central authorities in India actually constitutionally empowered to do what they are doing? If we don’t know the answer now, when will we?