BJP’s Tightrope Walk on Communalism amid Covid Pandemic

Even as the BJP feels relieved that the protests against the citizenship law ended after the onset of the coronavirus menace, the party continues to perform a delicate balancing act between its innate communalism and opportunistic assertions of being secular. But the claims are apparently of diminishing utility.

Only a few days after Union minister for minority affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi proclaimed that India is “heaven” for Muslims, an American outfit, the US commission on international religious freedom, wanted India to be put on a black list in the company of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia because of “increasing assault” on religious minorities. Naqvi’s observation had followed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)’s charge of growing Islamophobia in India.

An evidence of this phobia was evident from a BJP legislator’s advice to the people in Uttar Pradesh not to buy vegetables from Muslims. Although the party chief, J P Nadda, has pulled up the MLA, the comments showed how ingrained the anti-Muslim bias is in the party. The prejudice can also be seen in the presentations of the anchors of the pro-BJP television channels, who eagerly seized the opportunity of lambasting Muslims in the aftermath of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in a New Delhi mosque which was held in defiance of the lockdown rules.

According to the anchors, this instance of “corana jehad” fell in the category of a conspiracy. As is known, the RSS/BJP has always believed in the treacherous game plan of the Muslims to breed exponentially – “hum panch, hamare pachis”, as Narendra Modi once said.

Although India has rejected the US panel’s accusation, it has taken the OIC’s charge more seriously with external affairs minister S Jaishankar reaching out to his counterparts in the Gulf countries to echo Naqvi’s view. However, for the BJP, this tightrope act between calming fears abroad and restraining anti-minority hotheads at home cannot be an easy task.

Nor can it continue if elections – whether at the state or the national level – draw near. As was witnessed during the run-up to the Delhi assembly elections, the BJP had no qualms about giving full vent to its communal venom because of the fear that it was on a losing wicket. As a result, a party stalwart compared the contest to one between India and Pakistan with its political opponents representing the latter while an Member of Parliament issued a warning that the anti-citizenship law agitators would rape and kill Hindu women.

The corona outbreak has brought about a lowering of the communal temperature (outside the right-wing TV channels), but there is unlikely to have been a genuine change of heart in the BJP. As always, its leaders and followers continue to keep faith in the saffron scripture which holds the Muslims responsible for all of the country’s ills, starting from their invasion in the Middle Ages to the destruction of temples and finally to India’s partition in 1947. The Hindutva camp also believes that the support provided to the Muslims by the Congress and other “secular” parties has emboldened them.

It is to disabuse the Muslims of their belief that they can call the shots that the BJP took advantage of its parliamentary majority to ram through a key item on its Hindutva agenda — the gutting of Article 370 of the Constitution granting a special status to Kashmir. The BJP also decided to mould the citizenship laws in its own communal image by defining residency requirements on non-Muslim lines and drafting laws to ferret out the illegal Muslim immigrants even if the process of identifying them casts aspersions on all the Muslims – legal and illegal.

However, the million-dollar question is how will the BJP take up the interrupted task of implementing its pet projects relating to the citizenship issue once the threat from coronavirus is effectively checked. No less crucial is the question about the opponents of the government’s citizenship initiatives being able to revive their movement against them which had earlier attracted worldwide attention. For the BJP, a careful calculation will be needed to assess to what extent the present annoyance in the Gulf countries over the alleged Islamophobia in India will be exacerbated by a return to the party’s Muslim-baiting.

Yet, it is not feasible for the BJP to persist for long with its present tactical exercises in moderation since stoking the embers of communalism in the party’s support base is a key electoral card. This compulsion may be the reason why, as Congress MP Shashi Tharoor has said, the BJP has been “too slow” to condemn the bigotry of its followers.

(By arrangement with IPA)

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