Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: AFP

The Indian National Congress is guilty of having “tainted Hindus as terrorists.… Is there even one incident of terror by a Hindu? … Who tainted our 5,000 years of culture, who brought in the words ‘Hindu terror,’ who committed the sin of calling Hindus terrorists?” asked a passionate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a majority in the country’s Parliament in the general election this summer.

Modi was speaking at an election rally on Monday in Wardha, a town in Maharashtra state known for Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram. Gandhi, who advocated non-violence as a Congress leader, was assassinated in January 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu Brahmin who swore by the philosophy of the far-right organizations Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha. The RSS ideology lies at the heart of Modi’s five-year-old government.

“Can we forgive the Congress for its sin?” Modi demanded to know from the crowd, and taunted Rahul Gandhi – current president of the Congress party, and not a relative of the Mahatma – for choosing to contest the election from Wayanad, in addition to Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. Modi suggested that he chose Wayanad, in the southern state of Kerala, because Muslims and Christians form nearly half the electorate. Modi’s message: Congress is anti-Hindu, it doesn’t deserve your vote.

This election campaign has seen Modi talk little about development and acchhe din (good days) like he used to in 2014; his references abound with “Hindu-Muslim” and “India-Pakistan.” In Wardha, Modi waded into “alternative facts” or untruths – how was the Congress sinning when its most popular leader had fallen to a bigot’s bullets, so independent India’s first act of terror was by a Hindu? Modi wasn’t interested in truth, he was seeking to harvest the hate that has swept across India during the last five years – hate against Muslims and Christians, against intellectuals and writers, against truth and data, against anyone who challenges the majoritarianism professed by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Hate and its harvesting during this election are not limited to Modi. Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous state, with nearly 15% seats in the elected lower house of Parliament – set a new low in standards. At an election rally last weekend in Bisara village, Dadri, Adityanath, who prides himself on being far to the right of Modi, said, “Everyone knew what happened in Bisara … I can proudly say that after the BJP formed the [state] government in Uttar Pradesh, we immediately ordered the shutdown of all unauthorized slaughterhouses in the state.”

On the face of it, closing down illegal slaughterhouses should only be an administrative issue, but here it was Adityanath’s dog whistle for Hindus to remember the horrific lynching in Dadri and renew their hatred of Muslims who own or work in slaughterhouses. In 2015, Mohammed Akhlaq, 50, was dragged out of his house here on a September afternoon and lynched in front of his family, ostensibly for consuming beef and storing it in his refrigerator.

Seated in the front row and lustily cheering Adityanath’s words were 15 or 16 of the 18 young men accused of lynching Akhlaq; Vishal Singh Rana, one of the prime accused in the case, was seen in videos leading the group. Rana has been charged under Indian Penal Code Sections 302 (murder) and 307 (attempt to murder), among others, but he is out on bail, as are the others. The case is pending in the courts. BJP candidate Mahesh Sharma, a minister in Modi’s cabinet, had visited not the afflicted but the home of another accused, Ravin Sisodia, when the latter died a year after the lynching. Sisodia’s body had been draped in the Indian flag, an honor reserved for martyred soldiers.

“Modi has always operated on the agenda of divisiveness,” Dr Ram Puniyani, 73, former Indian Institutes of Technology professor and a noted peace activist, told Asia Times. “He tried to hide it last general election, then came out in the open with his ‘Shamshan-Kabrastan’ kind of remarks, and now it has reached its peak.

“I see desperation in him. What’s damaged in this process is the sense of fraternity which is in the very preamble of our constitution. I fear a part of it may already be irreversible by the time this election is over.”

Puniyani saw faces of hate on March 9 when three men knocked on the door of his modest apartment in Mumbai, introduced themselves as Crime Investigation Department (CID) officers, and made their way in. They told Puniyani that they had come to assess a passport application, but neither he nor his family had made any. Their civilian clothes and unwillingness to show their identity cards made them suspicious. They mumbled and made their way out. However, the episode may well have taken a life-threatening turn given the hate that comes the gentle professor’s way.

Modi’s divisive speeches and communally charged rhetoric ought to invoke the wrath of the Election Commission of India, but they don’t. Once an admired institution, the ECI now appears unwilling to take on campaigners who capitalize on hate even when they blatantly bend rules such as those against making communal references in election speeches. The ECI has been criticized for its inaction; the hate continues to fill the air as BJP leaders make their speeches and are amplified on social-media platforms.

Both Modi’s and Adityanath’s speeches came against the backdrop of a crime in Bhondsi, a village in Gurugram city (Gargaon), Haryana state, on March 21, the day of Holi festivities. A group of Hindu men objected to a game of cricket, attacked a Muslim family inside their house, thrashed the men with sticks, slapped and threatened the women, beat up children, and brandished a sword and pistol. As in the past, Modi did not condemn the violence against Muslims. His silence was eloquent.

“What is happening is that they legitimize, amplify and valorize hate in which the victims of hate are turned into villains and in this ’righteous’ battle the lynch mob is the hero,” observed Harsh Mander, a former bureaucrat who through Karwan-e-Mohabbat (a peace movement) activities has woven a campaign to visit and commiserate with each family singed by the far-right hatred. “There’s a sense of desolation among the victims, that they are being criminalized while haters are celebrated,” he told Asia Times.

Hate is not just the new normal, it is the dominant election plank of the BJP. Hate is the new electoral currency. The more Modi uses it, the more “normal” or prosaic it becomes. It emboldens a section of Indians to be unapologetic about their hatred for minorities – more for Muslims than Christians – unrepentant at being caught with hate in their words and hearts. Open bigotry is now celebrated. Modi is equated with India. And voting for Modi is pushed as an act of patriotism; conversely not voting for Modi is dubbed as “unpatriotic,” as the BJP’s Tejasvi Surya, a young candidate contesting the prestigious Bengaluru South seat, stated last week.

Bangalore is the city in which journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead outside her home in September 2017 for her anti-majoritarian, anti-RSS views. That hate crime shook many Indians but it was also celebrated by others. Hate was no longer shameful, to be hidden away and masked. Ideological hatred by the far right had earlier claimed the lives of rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar, Left leader Govind Pansare, and scholar Dr M M Kalaburgi. No one has been punished yet for these crimes. The investigation trail has gone back to far-right Hindu organizations such as Sanatan Sanstha, ideologically on the same plane as BJP.

The BJP does not see anything amiss. “It’s the Congress which has taken the issue to low levels using the term ‘Hindu terror.’ Modiji has rightly denounced it. He did not communalize,” said BJP’s Maharashtra spokesman Keshav Upadhyay. Modi’s schedule has 10-12 election meetings in Maharashtra and hundreds across the country in the next six weeks.

Modi would do well to see the documentary titled Vivek in Marathi and Reason in English. In it, award-winning documentary maker Anand Patwardhan has narrated through several gut-wrenching incidents showing how hate and demonization of the marginalized, including Muslims, have gathered steam in the last few years. But Modi will ignore it just as he must have dismissed the appeal by 210 writers on Monday.

The signatories, including Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Romila Thapar, Girish Karnad, Nayantara Sahgal, K Sachitanandan, and T M Krishna, called upon Indians to vote out the politics of hate and vote for “a diverse and equal India” in the forthcoming election. Issued in English, Hindi and eight regional languages, it does not specify the BJP but the references leave no doubt. Voting out hate politics is “the critical first step,” they said, to renew the promises made by the constitution.

Smruti Koppikar, independent journalist and editor based in Mumbai, has written on politics, urban affairs, politics, gender and the media for three decades. She tweets @smrutibombay

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