Log kya kahenge?”
If you’re Indian, chances are that you’ve heard the phrase before. “What will people say?”
This was one of the first reactions I received when I published an open letter asking the Congress of the United States to condemn the Modi government’s treatment of Indian Muslims, now signed by a South Asian student organizations of every single Ivy League university. A liberal, Indian friend studying at Oxford immediately Facebook messaged me in concern: “as someone having friends and family members that are pro-Hindutva … let me tell you that this is only likely to get you more enemies than friends.” Basically, log kya kahenge?
It’s a good question. Events like the “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston, which drew over 50,000 people, prove that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is immensely popular with many Indians in the diaspora. Most Indians abroad have at least a few friends or family members that enthusiastically praise the Modi government. And up until now, even for those of us that see the naked bigotry and Islamophobia of the BJP, it has often been more comfortable to stay silent than to dive into heated arguments with our loved ones. In the past I’ve certainly been guilty of trying to politely change the conversation.
However, if there was ever a time to speak, if there was ever a time to rage, it is now. As the Modi government divides India into Muslims and non-Muslims, Indians across the world may be witnessing the final days of our homeland’s secular democracy. When the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) indiscriminately protects the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Sikhs, and Christians disenfranchised by the National Registry of Citizens (NRC), the only Indians suddenly left without citizenship will be Muslims. In a country with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, the only people who will be sent to fill the massive detention camps – currently being built in Assam at the size of seven football fields– will be India’s Muslims.
After the four-month long ongoing lockdown and communications blackout of majority-Muslim Kashmir, this is only the latest masterstroke in the BJP’s insidious Hindutva agenda. Hindutva is not Hinduism. It is an alt-right, revisionist brand of Hindu nationalism that aims to establish a Hindu rashtra (nation) and promotes violent and exclusionary attitudes toward Muslims. The BJP’s parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is a Hindu extremist group that has drawn inspiration from fascism and German nazism since its founding in 1925. The RSS’s toxic bigotry is now being used to determine what it means to be Indian.
Before it is too late, it is imperative for the United States and the United Nations to take action against the Modi government's unconstitutional and undemocratic treatment of Muslims. The open letter, signed by student organizations at over 12 American universities, calls for “targeted sanctions on Modi government officials until the CAA and NRC are repealed.” The crimes of the BJP, a party that preys on the insecurities of impoverished Indians, are not the crimes of average Indians. That is why the letter calls for targeted sanctions instead of comprehensive sanctions on the entire economy. Targeted sanctions, taking the form of asset freezes on specific individuals, avoid broader economic consequences for common Indians and the country. Skeptics have pointed out that the United States has misused economic power in the past in order to manipulate or influence the domestic policies of other countries. That may be true; however, this is a case when humanitarian intervention takes precedence over a fascist administration’s sovereignty.
The Modi government has maintained an unwavering hold on power even after its most controversial moves, whether it be abrogating Article 370 on Kashmir’s special status or crippling the Indian economy with demonetization. After getting away with nearly anything, it seems like one of the few things Narendra Modi still cares about is India’s international position and reputation. The United States’ rebuff may be the last thing needed to tip the scales in favor of India’s brave protesters. If the United States really purports to protect values of democracy and equality, it cannot stand on the sidelines of this fight between freedom and fascism.
It’s true that it is very easy to sit on the other side of the world and condemn Modi and the BJP’s hatred. The people on the frontlines of the protests, risking their lives to sustain civil disobedience in India, are the ones with the real courage. Still, every single one of us, all over the world and particularly those with the protection of being Hindu and upper-class, have an obligation to do what we can to stand in the way of the Hindutva agenda. As someone born in India and raised in a Hindu family, I refuse to let the BJP institutionalize religious discrimination in my name. This small act of speaking out against Modi’s government in order to protect India’s democracy is the most patriotic thing I’ve ever had the privilege of doing.
Still I am asked, log kya kahenge? Today, I have a different question. Aap kya kahenge?
What will you say?
When people ask you how you felt when Amit Shah, Modi’s home minister and the BJP’s president, called Muslims “termites,” aap kya kahenge?
When your kids ask you what you said when the BJP effectively established a religious test for Indian citizenship, aap kya kahenge?
When future generations ask you what you did when student protesters were beaten and shot to death, including an 8 year-old-child, aap kya kahenge?
When history asks you what you did when Muslim families that had lived in India for generations were suddenly made stateless prisoners of detention camps, aap kya kahenge?
One day, people will ask you whether you fought against the establishment of a fascist Hindu rashtra. Aap kya kahenge?
What will you say?
Shreeya Singh is a junior at Yale University pursuing a B.A. in South Asian history. She was born in India and lives in Florida with her family. Shreeya is the co-Political Chair of the Yale South Asian Society, and plans to go to law school after graduating.