File photo: PTI
File photo: PTI

Opinion | The moral abyss that jingoism will end up pushing India into

The past five years have normalized hatred. Indian voters must stop this lurch towards extremism

As India’s Lok Sabha elections enter the next phase, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have appropriated patriotism and nationalism. They assert that they alone can keep India strong and united; they argue that their opponent, the Congress, is a party not to be trusted with defending the nation.

Referring to self-professed patriots, in 1774, Samuel Johnson had said that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel. In 1871, when an American senator called Matthew Carpenter said, “My country right or wrong", another senator, Carl Schurz responded: “‘My country, right or wrong’; if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right." Thirty years later, G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay, The Defendant, where he described that phrase as “a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying ‘my mother, drunk or sober’".

Jingoism is cringeworthy and banal. One Telangana BJP legislator, Raja Singh, sang a song extolling the Indian Army on Ram Navami, unaware that whoever gave him the tune and lyrics had lifted both from a Pakistani armed forces’ song. Raja Singh doubled down, claiming that Pakistanis had stolen his song. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath has been denied the oxygen of publicity for 72 hours by the Election Commission because he has violated the model code of conduct. He had referred to the Indian Army as “Modi’s sena (army)", even claiming that “they", meaning BJP’s rivals, are the army of “Ali" (hence Muslim), whereas “we", meaning the BJP, are the army of “Bajrang Bali", another name for Hanuman. That’s divisive politics.

The BJP used to describe people who in its opinion divided the nation as “the tukde tukde gang", or the folks who are breaking up the country. The BJP used the phrase for left-leaning students at campuses like the Jawaharlal Nehru University, even though there was no evidence that students had raised such slogans. Besides, surely India’s integrity is not so fragile that hoarse slogans shouted by youngsters would shatter it.

The irony in calling the Congress (or other BJP opponents) “anti-national" is that politicians of the Congress (and others too) had actually gone to jail fighting for India’s freedom from the British. Leaders of the BJP’s ideological predecessors did precious little during the freedom movement. Some, like a few Communists, even cooperated with the British.

Now consider who is really dividing people: Speaking at an election rally, Maneka Gandhi warned Muslim voters that only those who vote for her would get priority for work. It is charming to think that she has jobs to give, and it is good to see a politician being so candid about her prejudices.

The rot of spreading divisiveness goes further up the party’s hierarchy. The BJP’s president Amit Shah, speaking at another rally, said that his party would grant citizenship to migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh who are Hindus, Jains or Buddhists, implying that others would not. India is not a party to the Refugee Convention, but has historically abided by its principles—in particular, the idea of non-refoulement (that is, not turning back any refugee who has well-founded fear of being persecuted). India has been generous to Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Afghans and people from Myanmar, among other places. India has the right to frame laws to decide who to admit and who to turn back.

But Shah’s remarks introduce a religious test, which goes against the spirit of the refugee convention and the norms of a civilized country. India’s aggressive plans to send back Rohingyas to Myanmar is part of that pattern; the threat to use the national register of citizens across India, too, is part of that pattern. The number of Rohingyas in India is small. They have come because they have experienced crimes against humanity in Myanmar. The Bangladeshis have come to India because they find better opportunities and they often take up jobs that others are not willing to do. For Shah, they are “infiltrators" and “termites" who should be denied space in India.

Termites are from the same family as cockroaches—and 25 years ago, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda referred to Tutsis as cockroaches to be exterminated. Hutus did just that; setting in motion the Rwandan genocide that shocked the world’s conscience. In 2015, when British tabloid columnist Katie Hopkins referred to migrants as “cockroaches", the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights blew the whistle, describing her remarks as similar to Nazi propaganda. The Rwandan example sensitized the world that language that dehumanizes a group, and refers to them as insects to be exterminated, can lead to extreme violence.

The past five years appear to have normalized hate in India. Stories of lynching, force-feeding pork to a Muslim, as had happened in Assam last week, don’t shock Indians much. It seems it is all right to say the outrageous, to flash bigotry, to ridicule people of specific faiths, to remind them of their second-class status, and to display an arrogant swagger that the nation’s leadership won’t condemn.

It is for voters to end India’s lurch towards a moral abyss.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns