BJP supporters with cut outs and masks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his election campaign rally in support of the BJP candidate for West Bengal Assembly in Howrah, India on April 06, 2021. (Debajyoti Chakraborty / NurPhoto via Getty Images)
By Sunita Viswanath

“Where are the moderate Hindus?”

Yesterday, a friend stopped me in my tracks with this question.

Ever since 9/11, many of us have heard the question “Where are the moderate Muslims?” I’m an activist who has spent much of her career working on women’s rights in Afghanistan, and my colleagues and I have been confronted with this deeply problematic question on a regular basis.

As a Hindu, though, working on human rights in India, this question has never before been asked of me about my own coreligionists.

But now the world is witnessing the carnage of India’s second Covid-19 wave. A third of last week’s Covid deaths in the world were in India—the daily average over last week was 4,000—and this is probably a vast undercount. This calamity did not unfold overnight, and it did not happen innocently.

This is the latest and most horrific of the many fires burning in India since 2014, when Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi was elected as prime minister. India’s Covid-19 crisis is only the latest calamity under a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government that puts hateful ideology and religious extremism in the driver’s seat, over and above science and ethics.

For the last decade, I have worked to alert the world and my own Hindu community to the dangers of another deadly virus: the ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, which guides India’s government under Modi’s rule.

In contrast to Hindu religious traditions, many of which date back thousands of years, Hindutva is a century-old far-right political ideology, whose founders were directly inspired by Hitler’s Nazism and Italian Fascism. In a country in which a fifth of the population is not Hindu, advocates of this ideology seek to transform India into a Hindu nation (rashtra), where Muslims, Christians and other non-Hindus will be relegated to second-class status. It is this ideology that has led India into its current Covid-19 nightmare.

The catastrophic scale of India’s Covid crisis was entirely avoidable. Even though Modi’s government reportedly received information about a possible second wave in March, Modi and his party leaders have been organizing super-spreader events from election rallies to Hindu religious festivals attended by millions.

Take the Kumbh Mela—a Hindu festival famous for hosting the largest gathering of people on Earth. It should have been a no-brainer for the Indian government to defer this festival during a pandemic: In fact, the Kumbh Mela was originally scheduled for next year, in April 2022. Instead, the Modi government held the festival a year early in spite of the grave risks, to bolster its claim of protecting “Hindu interests” and improve its chances of winning state elections.

Over 4 million devotees gathered on the three main days of the festival, and the Indian media now reports that the vast majority of devotees who attended have contracted the virus. Rather than protecting Hindus, the Modi government is responsible for killing them.

The ideological virus of Hindutva has become deeply rooted in Hindu religious, social, educational, and political spaces, both in India and among the Indian diaspora. When Hindu Indians do speak out against the government, they are more likely to do so while identifying as secular, as an Indian, or simply as a human being.

But India is at a crisis point now—and if Hindu Indians do not speak up as Hindus against Hindu nationalism now, I fear we may not have anything left to fight for.

Mobs have lynched hundreds of Muslims and Dalits accused of eating or even storing beef; atrocities against Dalits, especially women, have skyrocketed; thousands of journalists, intellectuals, and activists who expressed any form of dissent have been arrested, and several prominent intellectuals have been shot dead; the mainstream media and judiciary have aligned with the government; and Hindu nationalist leaders have brazenly declared that India is now a Hindu nation. If none of that has convinced the world that democracy and human rights in India have been decimated by the virus of Hindutva, India’s current Covid-19 crisis must.

My social media stream now brings me endless stories of deaths caused by the lack of a hospital bed or oxygen, and cremation grounds unable to keep up with the body count. India’s capital, Delhi, is an open-air crematorium, and photographs of mass funeral pyres are circulating all over the world. The government’s response has been to ban pictures of cremations, and Twitter has been forced to remove criticisms of the government.

A democratic government concerned with its citizens’ well-being ought to have prepared for a possible second wave by securing enough oxygen and hospital beds in cities and villages nationwide, and conducting a more swift, comprehensive, public, and free vaccine rollout. It could have listened to its epidemiologists and scientists instead of looking the other way as BJP politicians promoted cow urine as a cure for Covid.

When Greta Thunberg and Rihanna brought attention to the ongoing farmer protest in India, India’s defense minister said it was an “internal matter” and non-Indians should not interfere. But in an interconnected world, the assault on one nation’s democracy is never just an internal matter—and this is never more true than during a pandemic.

Just as we in the United States removed Trump from power, and pulled the nation back from a dangerous trajectory of white supremacy, India and every nation in the world must guard against extremist authoritarian rule.

Indians are circulating petitions calling for Modi’s resignation. We must not only remove Modi, but we must also never again let Hindutva occupy a seat of power in the world’s largest secular democracy. As a Hindu and an Indian American, I now ask my friend’s question: “Where are the moderate Hindus?”

With the outpouring of help from overseas, India will sooner or later bring the Covid virus under control and get most of its people vaccinated—even as we lose many more thousands of precious lives that could have been saved. But there are no magic vaccines for the deadly virus of Hindutva. Now is the time for every Hindu that cares about democracy and pluralism to stand up and be counted—not merely as “moderate” Hindus but as Hindus who choose love over hate, who oppose Hindutva as a weaponization of our faith, and who will work to return India to the secular democractic values of its founders.

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