In India, Modi’s Policies Have Lit a Fuse

Many Indians believed it was only a matter of time before Hindu nationalism provoked the kind of bloodshed that exploded in New Delhi.

A shop owner on Sunday looking at the remains of his shop after it was destroyed by riots in northeast New Delhi. Credit...Atul Loke for The New York Times

The New York Times

NEW DELHI — This past week, as neighborhoods in India’s capital burned and religiously driven bloodletting consumed more than 40 lives, most of them Muslim, India’s government was quick to say that the violence was spontaneous.

But as reality has settled in, critics say the killings were neither spontaneous nor without warning: They were inevitable.

Step by step, they argue, policies enacted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi have entrenched impunity, captured institutions and fanned religious hatred — methodically building a dangerous Hindu-nationalist ecosystem. It was only a matter of time till something blew up.

“Supporters of the government feel enabled to commit all kinds of crimes, because they feel they have political protection,’’ said Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Modi and his party, she said, “have allowed a culture of hate and bigotry to prevail.’’

Neighborhoods in the capital that for generations had been integrated between Hindus, who make up the vast majority of India’s population, and Muslims, who compose less than 15 percent, are tearing apart along religious lines.

Many Muslims are now leaving, hoisting their unburned things on their heads and trudging away from streets that still smell of smoke.

Families displaced by the violence and arson in New Delhi took shelter in a different neighborhood on Sunday. Credit...Atul Loke for The New York Times

The question before the nation is whether the bloodshed will change the direction of Mr. Modi — who first ran for prime minister in 2014 under the slogan “Together for all, development for all.” In that campaign, Mr. Modi presented himself as a strong nationalist leader and economic reformer, playing down his Bharatiya Janata Party’s history of Hindu-nationalist aims and vilification of Muslims.

Some doubt clung to him personally as well. Despite his having been cleared by a court, accusations remained that he was complicit in the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, when he was the state’s chief minister.

But many moderate Indians were so sick of the corruption of previous governments, led by the rival Congress party, that they voted Mr. Modi in, hoping that he had changed. And in public, Mr. Modi’s language was mostly free of the Hindu nationalist rhetoric that would have set off more worry.

Then things started changing.

Lynch mobs who said they were protecting cows, a holy animal in Hinduism, popped up across the landscape. They have gone on to kill scores of people, mostly Muslims and lower-caste Dalits.

Mr. Modi tapped Hindu extremists for top government posts, including Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, who has called Muslims a “crop of two-legged animals” and promised to wage a “religious war.”

Mr. Modi placed other Hindu nationalist allies at the heads of important universities and cultural institutions. Place names were changed — so, too, were textbooks — to de-emphasize Muslims’ contribution to India and play up Hindu teachings. Many Muslim Indians, who make up one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, at 200 million, said they had never felt so marginalized.

And impunity flourished. Members of mobs who had been filmed in broad daylight beating the life out of someone went unpunished, or, if they were caught, they were often hailed by party leaders as heroes.

That violence did not appear to hurt Mr. Modi with his most ardent supporters in a country that is 80 percent Hindu. And he was given a boost before elections last year by a wave of nationalist sentiment over clashes between India and Pakistan.

He and his party won resoundingly, and the pace of his Hindu nationalist policies accelerated.

In August, the Modi administration unilaterally scrapped the statehood of what had been India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, and locked up virtually its entire political class.

In November, his party celebrated the win of a flash point legal case in which the Supreme Court ruled that Hindu nationalists could build a temple over the ruins of a centuries-old mosque that had been razed by a Hindu mob.

But the move that really put India on edge, and cleaved it even more deeply between Hindus and Muslims, came in December when Mr. Modi’s government passed a new citizenship law that paves a special path to Indian citizenship for migrants of nearly every prominent South Asian faith, bar one: Islam.

Protests flared, and Muslims weren’t the only ones marching. Many progressive Indians saw this as Mr. Modi’s most blatantly anti-Muslim initiative yet and a grave threat to India’s founding as a secular and inclusive nation.