Rana Ayyub is an Indian journalist and the author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-up.
Last week, as results started trickling in from India’s election, I was in Stockholm, delivering a keynote speech on the power of journalism in India. I was speaking to a crowd of 400 Swedish journalists and academics about Indian democracy, its secular character and the importance of investigative journalism under a strongman such as Narendra Modi, when my phone started to beep.
It was a text from my brother: “Modi has won with a massive majority.”
My thoughts drifted as I gazed at the audience, wondering if my words – or career as a journalist in India – had any significance. As an investigative reporter, covering the politics of Mr. Modi for more than a decade, I have had a front-row seat watching him dehumanize India’s Muslim population.
In 2002, roughly 1,000 Muslims were butchered in the Hindu-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat, which was under Mr. Modi’s leadership.
As a 19-year-old relief worker at the time, I spent days in the relief camps after the riots, watching women who had been traumatized by rape, children who had witnessed the death of their family members. Each relief camp was representative of the hate that had been peddled by leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party leading to the carnage. In one of his speeches, Mr. Modi spoke about dismantling the relief camps: “Should we run relief camps, open child-producing centres?” The question was a direct reference to Muslim women and children who were affected by the anti-Muslim riots.
In a verdict in one of the riot cases, the Supreme Court of India called the Modi government “modern-day Neros” who “looked the other way as innocent children and women were butchered.” The United States later refused a visa to Mr. Modi after human-rights organizations protested his entry into the country because of his anti-Muslim track record during the riots.
In 2005, I covered the involvement of Amit Shah, the first serving Home Minister of State of Gujarat, in connection to the deaths of two Muslims: Mr. Shah was initially charged with murder and later acquitted.
He has now been reinstated as the president of the ruling party and is now the second-most powerful man in India, after Mr. Modi. In the run-up to the 2019 general election, he not-so-subtly insulted one specific group of migrants – Muslims. In a campaign rally, Mr. Shah said, “the BJP would find these termites and throw them out,” adding that citizenship would, however, be granted to every Hindu and Buddhist refugee. That, of course, leaves just one group to fall into the “termite” category.
But this country’s Muslims have always been acutely aware of how Mr. Modi feels about them.
In 2010, I went undercover to expose complicity of the state in the violence against Muslims. I posed as a Hindu nationalist from the United States, as an American filmmaker seeking to glorify Mr. Modi for an American audience. In a span of eight months I met some of the top bureaucrats, officials who worked under Mr. Modi in 2002. They confessed his complicity in the Gujarat riots; one bragged to me that Mr. Modi let the violence worsen, so it would help him in his re-election.
The last person I met, disguised as Maithili Tyagi (my undercover name) was Narendra Modi. I praised his international image in United States; he blushed. He directed my attention to a copy of a book on Barack Obama and said, “Maithili, one day I want to be like him.” Of course, his political career has proven otherwise.
In 2014, Mr. Modi was voted in as the 14th Prime Minister of India, a campaign he fought the basis of Sabka saath Sabka Vikaas (inclusive leadership for all). Skeptics who had observed his political career were not convinced; Mr. Modi did not disappoint. In the five years of Modi rule, India has turned into a nightmare for Muslims, with routine lynchings for alleged consumption of beef; Mr. Modi’s cabinet minister, Jayant Sinha, has been criticized for garlanding a group of men who had been convicted of murdering a Muslim man.
Further, in the run-up to the elections, Mr. Modi’s party fielded Pragya Thakur, a priestess who has been charged with plotting a bomb attack in a Muslim-dominated area, a bombing that took 10 lives. Recently, she won a parliamentary seat, and will enter the Indian government after a campaign focused on anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The events of the past five years have made Indians fear for the secular character of our republic: a leader with absolute majority, drunk on power and reckless disregard of institutions, with dreams of being a right-wing mascot a generation that is swaying to his majoritarian utopia.
Indians pride themselves on being a diverse country of 1.3 billion, with a culture that has refused nationalist influence, despite attempts by various right wing ideologies. The world’s largest democracy has remained resilient to authoritarian regimes, and yet retained its essential syncretic character envisaged by the founding fathers of independent India.
The Modi regime could choose to restore the cracks it has caused, if the Prime Minister would reveal a moral compass that aims to unite. If he continues to revel in this majoritarian and hyper-nationalist malaise that afflicted his previous term, the wound will fester and the cracks could be well beyond repair.