Modi and the Politics of Culture

In his first 100 days…

1. Writers and Artists faced Policing, Censorship and threats of Violence.

As elaborated in Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Amartya Sen’s book “The Argumentative Indian”, India has a rich tradition of discussion and dissent, but in Modi’s India this tradition is under attack. Even in the brief three months since the BJP’s victory in May 2014, there have been disturbing instances of censorship of books and films that challenge Hindu majoritarian nationalism.

In June 2014, Journalist & Filmmaker Shubhradeep Chakravorty’s documentary film “En Dino Muzaffarnagar” which investigates the communal violence that shook the city of Muzaffarnagar (in the state of Uttar Pradesh) was refused clearance for screening by the Central Board of Film Certification. Chakravorty’s subsequent appeal to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal was also turned down. Mr. Chakravorty’s first film, “Godhra Tak: The Terror Trail” is an investigation of the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat against the Muslim community, and his other films also explore the politics of “Hindutva” or Hindu supremacy.

Also in June 2014, publisher Orient BlackSwan announced that it was suspending publication of several titles in response to a legal letter from the ‘Shiksha Bachao Andolan’ (“Committee to Save Education”), an organization founded by Dinanath Batra, a senior member of the RSS. Among the titles being set aside is Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969, by Indian academic and Rhodes Scholar Megha Kumar whose work looks at the incidence of sexual violence during three communal clashes in that city. In its letter to her, Orient BlackSwan said: “Quite apart from the legal proceedings, our concern is that our authors, our staff and the families of both, could be exposed to the risk of violence.”

In its capitulation, Orient BlackSwan was following the lead of another publisher, Penguin India, which, after a three-year legal challenge by Batra had voluntarily decided in April 2014 to withdraw copies of “The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago. Among other reasons, Penguin cited “duty to protect its employees against threats and harassment.” In the interim, Batra has been politically elevated by the Modi administration and he is now an authorized textbook author although his recently mandated texts are full of racist and misogynist content.

2. Assaults on Freedom of Religion intensified.

In August 2014, 72 Valmikis (a section of the Dalit community) who had in the past converted to Christianity underwent a so-called “re-conversion” to Hinduism in Aligarh in the state of Uttar Pradesh, under the auspices of the ‘Dharam Jagran Vivad” (Religious Awakening Forum). This was a “Ghar Vapassi” (literally, a “return home”) ceremony through which the Sangh Parivar intervenes to claim non-Hindu members of the Dalit and Adivasi communities as Hindus.

The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion, allowing for the free exercise of individual choice over matters of faith. However, “Freedom of Religion” laws enacted in several states presume that individuals are incapable of making their own informed decisions regarding matters of faith, and can only be manipulated or coerced into conversion. The language of the Gujarat anti-conversion law enacted in 2003 is telling in this respect. Conversion is viewed as an attempt “to make one person to renounce one religion and adopt another religion.”  These laws empower district administrations to oversee and regulate religious conversions, in order to prevent what are referred to as conversions by “fraud” or “force.” Effectively, these laws target Christian and Muslim communities and provide opportunities for both local officials and Hindu supremacist organizations to harass and intimidate them.

It is worth noting here that the Valmiki community lies at the bottom of India’s caste ladder and is traditionally confined to the occupation of manual scavenging. It is often to escape assignation into such conditions of utter degradation and poverty that many so-called “lower-caste” Hindus choose to convert into Christianity, Islam, etc.  Further, it is crucial to note that conversion laws, passed by a number of states, do not apply to such ‘Ghar Vapassi’ ceremonies.  The Sangh Parivar has a singular focus on curbing any conversions out of Hinduism, particularly by Dalits and Adivasis.  The argument, however, that Hinduism is somehow undermined by such conversions is absurd given the disparity in ideological, economic and political power between caste Hindus and Dalits or Adivasis professing non-Hindu faiths. What is being undermined is caste power, and that is the core of the Sangh’s anxieties over conversions. Unsurprisingly, and tellingly, the anti-conversion laws make conversion a more serious offense if the converts are Dalits, Adivasis, women or children. (For more on conversion of Christians see Minorities section of this report.)

In April 2013 BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu publicly announced his party’s intention to “bring an anti-conversion law to ban religious conversions in the country if it is voted to power in 2014 General Elections.”  Highlighting the primary motivation underlying his party’s anxiety over conversions, he went on to add: “…The country will be safe and sound only when Hindus are in a majority.” Modi, steeped in the same RSS ideology that inspires Naidu, is therefore highly likely to make an effort to fulfill this goal of Hindu majoritarian supremacy.

3. Projects of Revisionist History received State sanction.

One of the most damaging ways in which Hindu Nationalist groups seek to realize the “Hindu Rashtra” (literally, “Hindu Nation”) is through projects of Revisionist History.  The BJP’s frontal attack on history proceeds at two levels: changing grade-school textbooks, and secondly, by gaining control of India’s top research, educational and cultural institutions.

The Modi administration has already begun installing Hindutva ideologues into positions of power in academic spaces. One of the early appointments that alarmed many is that of Dr. Yellapragada Sudershan Rao as the head of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). Dr. Rao’s main research project is that of proving the historicity of texts of Indian epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, a project, it seems, that would involve a revisionist rewriting of Indian history as that centered on a Hindu identity.

Rao’s academic credentials have been described as “questionable” by Romila Thapar, India’s most respected historian. Thapar has pointed out that Rao has never been published in any peer-reviewed journal of history, and she has also commented on the “little visibility” of his research. What endears Rao to the BJP is the fact that he is president of the “Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana” (ABISY), an RSS organization that operates out of the RSS office in Delhi. Rao’s Hindu supremacist views are clearly expressed on his personal blog, including his praise for the Hindu caste system and his defence of Hindu supremacist demands to build a temple at the site of the Babri Masjid, destroyed in 1992 by mobs led by the RSS, BJP and VHP.

Modi’s reference to India’s “1200 years of slavery” during his address to the Indian parliament in June 2014 is significant in this context.  The British ruled India for 200 years; Modi’s reference to 1200 years therefore includes the 600 years or so when Muslim dynasties and kings ruled India (although Modi’s math doesn’t quite add up!). Such a reference positions Muslims as outsiders and violent intruders that need to be contained, even as it solidifies the status of citizens that are Hindus as naturally belonging to India.

Previously, in Gujarat…

 1. Rampant censorship

Censorship of art, film, etc. by the State as well as the targeting and policing of artists, writers and filmmakers by self-styled custodians of culture is nothing new to those familiar with Gujarat during the Modi years. Here are some examples:


2. Assaults on Freedom of Religion

During his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi enacted the controversial ‘Freedom of Religion Act, 2003’. The law was critiqued widely by national and international Human Rights groups, but what also prevented its enforcement was objections by the government’s own legal department.  Modi finally activated the law in 2007 ahead of the Gujarat assembly elections with an official statement that it was necessary to stop all religious conversions through inducements or threats in the “larger national interest”.

The existence of this law signaled a mainstreaming of Hindu nationalistic discourse, and the states of Himachal Pradesh (2006) and Rajasthan (2008) followed Gujarat with their own forms of the anti-conversion laws. A 1999 report by Human Rights Watch correlates BJP’s 1998  electoral victory in Gujarat with the violence against Adivasi Christians by the Bajrang Dal and the RSS. In fact, the report states that the attacks against Christians across the country had increased significantly since the BJP’s Central Government electoral victory.

 3. History on the run

Such political agendas have also characterized grade school education in Gujarat. For example, Gujarat under Modi never adopted the “National Curriculum Framework 2005” with the result that textbooks by the Gujarat Council of Educational Research and Training (GCERT) have only one paragraph on the 350 years of Mughal rule in India. On the other hand, the chapter meant for the study of Mughal rule almost entirely devotes itself to how Mahmud of Ghazni, an invader from Afghanistan, pillaged and looted Gujarat and India!

Social Science textbooks in Gujarat, prepared by the GCERT and the Gujarat State Board for School Textbooks, which were used for years during Modi’s tenure to teach 6-8 grades have been shown to be riddled with errors, such as, for example, the claim that Japan launched a nuclear attack on the United States in World War II!

In 2014, the GCERT added Mr. Dinanath Batra’s books to the curriculum. Mr. Batra’s books propose to ban the teaching of foreign languages in schools, and more dangerously, also suggest redrawing the map of India to include neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc., in line with the right-wing idea of an “Akhand Bharat” a historical fantasy of a greater India, unified by the practice of Hindu religion. Mr. Batra also offers more practical advice for the young students, including prescriptions about the celebration of Birthdays with cake & candles being bad because they are symbols of western culture, and about the continued appropriateness of the use of the word “Negro” to refer to African-Americans!


Read more…

1. Censorship

  1. Bajaj, Vikas, and Julie Bosman. “Gandhi Biography by Joseph Lelyveld Roils India.” The New York Times, March 31, 2011, sec. Books.
  2. “Ban on Jaswant Book Lifted – The New Indian Express.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  3. “Jaswant Singh Slammed Modi over Ban on His Book – Hindustan Times.” Http://  Accessed September 17, 2014.
  4. “Joseph Lelyveld Gandhi Book Controversy |” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  5. “Muzaffarnagar: Tales of Death and Despair in India’s Riot-Hit Town.” BBC News. Accessed September 17, 2014.
  6. Sen, Amartya. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. New York: Picador, 2006.
  7. “Shubha Mudgal Threatened in the US!” Mid-Day. Accessed September 17, 2014.
  8. “Writers and Historians Fear for India’s Free Speech as a Resurgent Hindu Nationalism Uses Law to Bring Publishers to Heel – News – Books – The Independent.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  9.  “Freedom of Speechlessness”. Accessed September 18, 2014.
  10. “Film-maker debunks VHP’s Godhra theory”. Accessed September 18, 2014.
  11. “Aamir’s Fanaa not to be screened in Gujarat”. Accessed September 18, 2014.

2. Freedom of Religion

  1. “Church Turned into ‘Temple’ after 72 Valmikis Reconvert to Hinduism.” The Times of India. Accessed September 17, 2014.
  2. “‘BJP Will Bring Law against Religious Conversions If Voted to Power’ – The Hindu.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  3. From Kandhamal to Karavali: The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar, March 2009.
  4. “Gujarat Orders Probe into Conversion of Dalits – Indian Express.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  5. Menon, Nivedita. “India First and the BJP Anti-Conversion Platform: Goldie Osuri.” Kafila. Accessed September 17, 2014.
  6. “Modi Decides to Reactivate Anti-Conversion Law – Indian Express.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  7. “In India, Showing Sectarian Pain to Eyes That Are Closed”.  Accessed September 17, 2014.
  8. “Anti-Christian Violence on the rise in India”.  Accessed September 17, 2014.

3. Revisionist History

  1. “1,200 Years of Servitude: PM Modi Offers Food for Thought – Firstpost.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  2. “Birthday Cakes Bad, ‘Undivided India’: Dinanath Batra’s Works Now in Guj Schools – Firstpost.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  3. “Coming Soon from Modi Sarkar: RSS Takeover of Top Research, Cultural Bodies – Firstpost.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  4. “It’s History, but Not as We Know It: Gujarat Schools Left Red-Faced as Textbooks Claim Japan ‘Launched a Nuclear Attack on US’ | Daily Mail Online.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  5. “Science Lesson from Gujarat: Stem Cells in Mahabharata, Cars in Veda | The Indian Express.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  6. “The Appointment of a Historian Whose Work Is Unfamiliar to Most Historians Shows Scant Regard for the Impressive Scholarship That Now Characterises the Study of Indian History and This Disregard May Stultify Future Academic Research : Guest Column – India Today.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  7. “These 10 Excerpts From Indian Textbooks Are Seriously Terrifying | Kractivism.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  8. “We Don’t Need This Education: Say No to Dina Nath Batra’s Books – Hindustan Times.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  9. Yellapragada, Sudershan Rao. “Y Sudershan Rao: ‘Ayodhya’ and History.” Accessed September 17, 2014.
  10. “A textbook case of howlers in Gujarat”.  Accessed September 17, 2014.