Hindu Nationalists Are Using COVID-19 to Fuel a Humanitarian Disaster in India

Will the U.S. take notice before it’s too late?

“All people are not equal,” declared Subramanian Swamy, a member of parliament for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “There’s no such thing as equal rights. They are not in an equal category.” He was talking about Muslims.

The BJP’s project of Hindu supremacy is nothing new. Since coming to power in 2014, the party has pursued Islamophobic policies with zeal. Within the last twelve months, for example, the BJP has passed legislation designed to strip millions of Muslims of their citizenship. It has sanctioned mob violence against Muslims and their allies, leading to dozens of deaths earlier this year. The prestigious, DC-based Genocide Watch has issued two genocide alerts for India, making it the only country in the world with two such warnings.

But in the wake of the coronavirus’ spread, the oppression has grown worse. As the state looks to deflect blame for the virus’ spread away from its own haphazard response, it has scapegoated Muslims. In a recent monologue about the pandemic, widely watched television anchor Arnab Goswami fumed that Muslims “are dangerous people” who “have compromised us all.” He continued: “We were just winning when they did everything to defeat us.” Hashtags such as #CoronaJihad are trending on Indian social media.

There are many reasons to be concerned that this dangerous rhetoric could explode into even more violence. Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has authoritarian instincts. He has embarked on an increasingly successful campaign to control Indian media coverage and crush dissent, including an order that the press parrot his line on COVID-19. His newfound emergency powers and longstanding hatred of Muslims could cause a humanitarian disaster. Past pandemics have led to brutal oppression. Given that India already has a history of pogroms, there’s plenty of reason to think that the coronavirus could lead to widespread violence against Muslims.

In the past, the United States government has been willing to speak out against Modi’s anti-Islam policies. In 2005, the State Department barred Modi, then chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, from entering the United States after thousands of Muslims were killed in riots inside his state. But now, the U.S. is looking the other way. This willful ignorance was on full display in the U.S. State Department’s annual report on Human Rights Practices, delivered to Congress just last month. The report included 65 pages specifically devoted to India, a sign of the country’s growing geopolitical significance—and yet its authors completely failed to diagnose the dangerous rise of Hindu nationalism and religiously-motivated violence gripping the country.

While the report identified some of the serious human rights violations committed by the Indian government, it did little to probe what is driving them. The word “Hindutva,” the name of the increasingly prevalent, far-right Indian ideology of Hindu supremacy, is not mentioned even once in the report. Even more shockingly, the State Department report made no mention of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary force that caused a Washington Post writer to predict “the end is near for Gandhi’s India.”  This powerful organization, which traces its roots to European fascism, is the parent organization of the BJP. It controls most of the government ministers, the largest labor unions, and the largest student bodies, and even managed to change textbooks in India to reflect the ideology of Hindutva. Modi joined the group when he was eight years old.

In failing to criticize India’s leaders for embracing Hindutva, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department have sent a disturbing signal: they accept India’s rising violence and authoritarianism.

In the spread and aftermath of the coronavirus, it is more critical than ever that governments work together to stamp out religious, economic, or racial scapegoating—before we see renewed waves of ethnic cleansing and genocide take shape. But America can’t lead the world in this effort if it doesn’t even acknowledge, let alone confront, the injustices in the world’s largest democracy.

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Abdul Malik Mujahid 

Abdul Malik Mujahid is an internationally recognized expert on human rights and President of Justice For All, a U.S.-based NGO. He leads the Save Uighur, Burma Task Force, Free Kashmir, and the Faith Coalition to Stop Genocide campaigns.