In February two gunmen shot the veteran left-wing activist Govind Pansare, 81, and his wife, Uma Pansare, 78, during their daily morning walk, not far from their home in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Uma Pansare is slowly recovering from her injuries, but Govind Pansare died soon after the attack. In 2013 another well-known secular activist, Narendra Dabholkar, was assassinated in the same manner. Dabholkar and Govind Pansare had been speaking out against the rising tide of Hindu fundamentalist tendencies in India.
Maharashtra is no stranger to progressive activism. It has been home to some of the strongest anti-caste social movements in South Asia. The city of Kolhapur, where Govind Pansare was murdered, was a princely state a little over a century ago, led by social reformer Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, who enacted one of the world’s earliest affirmative-action policies to benefit those from lower castes. This is the Maharashtra I was proud to grow up in. But in recent years, outspoken activists such as Dabholkar and Pansare had received threats from religious-right groups that believe in Hindutva, the chauvinistic ideology that India is a solely Hindu homeland.
Last month it hit even closer to home. Threatening letters arrived at my family’s residence one month after Pansare’s shooting, warning my father “not to follow Pansare’s path” and to stop working for the rights of Muslims and caste-oppressed Dalits, who are traditionally regarded in Hinduism as “untouchables” (and many of whom have converted to Buddhism, Christianity and Islam to try to escape caste hierarchy). These are scary times for my family and friends — and for democratic space across India.
Being threatened for our commitment to social justice is not new to my family. My grandfather Babuji Patankar was assassinated in 1952. He and my grandmother Indumati Patankar were freedom fighters against British colonial rule and leaders in the parallel government, or prati sarkar, that emerged in the 1940s in the Satara district of Maharashtra. With its own decision-making centers and people’s courts, all elected by villagers, it was a unique project. Hundreds of underground activists in the region joined. They had a vision for an independent India that was democratic and secular, which meant empowering the caste-oppressed, religious minorities and the toiling poor. It was for this vision that my grandparents continued their efforts even after independence from the British Empire in 1947. And it was this vision that aroused the bitterness of elite and conservative quarters of society and led to the assassination of my grandfather.In turn, my father, Bharat Patankar, with compatriots of his generation, has dedicated the past 40 years to building a more just society — organizing textile workers, farmers and women to campaign for water and land rights and protesting caste oppression. My mother, Gail Omvedt, is a scholar and an activist who for decades has written about and fought alongside Dalit activists. These mass social movements seek a democratic, inclusive India. It’s a vision that couldn’t be more different from the exclusionary agenda promoted by the far-right extremists who have been emboldened by the ascendance last year of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Modi has deep roots in the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose founders openly admired Mussolini and Hitler. Modi has remained silent about the recent spate of assassinations, attacks and threats from an umbrella of far-right forces, including Sanatana Prabhat, Bajrang Dal, Abhinav Bharat and other paramilitary groups implicated in organized massacres or terrorist bombings. Attacks against Christians and Muslims have increased. Violence against Dalits and women is also on the rise, stoked by a political culture of cruel disregard for the marginalized. This alarming current of far-right fundamentalism has crept into India’s cultural and political spheres more quickly and dangerously than even its critics had feared.
The threats have pervaded the world of letters too. Just months before Modi was elected, the publisher Penguin censored “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” a book by University of Chicago scholar Wendy Doniger, in India after protests and legal challenges from the religious right. Earlier this year, acclaimed novelist Perumal Murugan was forced to publicly renounce writing, after a concerted campaign against him in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Each in their own way, Doniger and Murugan were irreverent about caste hierarchy and sexual conservatism and were censored accordingly.
Also in recent months, RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, another Hindu nationalist organization, have waged a gharwapsi, or homecoming campaign, to “reconvert” all non-Hindus to Hinduism. Claiming that India is in essence a Hindu nation, they have employed intimidation tactics to coercively convert thousands of Christians and Muslims. Right-wing parliamentarians are (somewhat contradictorily) pushing an anti-conversion bill that would prevent Hindus from exercising their right to convert.
In March the BJP-led Maharashtra government banned the sale of beef, passing a so-called animal preservation bill championed by the same network of Hindutva organizations. The legislation targets Dalit, indigenous Adivasi, Christian and Muslim communities for whom beef is a dietary staple. Beef traders in Maharashtra, who largely come from these communities, are facing attacks by fundamentalist vigilantes for transporting cattle.
During his recent visit to India, President Barack Obama remarked, “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith.” He later highlighted that India is witnessing “acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji.” These religious-right forces have been glorifying Nathuram Godse, Mohandas Gandhi’s killer and an RSS member, and even plan to build a temple in Godse’s name. If allowed to go unchallenged, this hateful ideology — manifested in assassinations, the desecration of churches and the intimidation of secular activists and minorities — will shatter the dream of a free, pluralistic and democratic India. Modi’s BJP won the national government in 2014 with 31 percent of the vote. It is the task of the two-thirds of Indians who voted against the BJP, and the responsibility of the international community, to support the journalists, social movements and ordinary people who are being threatened for their beliefs and commitment to social justice.
Modi’s silence in the face of this religious-right onslaught is deafening. Instead of reining in this fascistic fundamentalism, he has gutted social welfare programs, expanding poisonous coal exploitation and greenlit corporate-crony land grabs of enormous proportions. These policies will only swell the ranks of the displaced and disenfranchised. Instead of encouraging Modi’s distracting agendas, such as International Yoga Day, the international community must speak resolutely against growing fundamentalism before India’s minorities — and the majority too — are made to pay a tragically steep price.