India’s street power—not that different from the street power on display in Pakistan, apart from being primarily pro-government—is tough on non-Hindus these days, as reports of Indian Muslims killed and maimed on charges of cow-slaughter continue to mount. This week, Hindu extremists expanded their scope and set their sights on schoolchildren whose sole crime was being born in Pakistan. The Shiv Sena, which has often been allied with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, forced a class of Pakistani schoolchildren visiting India on a cultural exchange program to return home. This isn’t the first time. India has gradually banned most bilateral artistic exchanges with Pakistan since Modi came into power. This is often called the “Modi wave” in India.
Like Pakistan, India’s extremism is based on religion and marks a crossroads for the country’s secular march into the future. Unlike Pakistan, however, India’s backpedaling from secularism follows an economic boom that has exhibited the highest growth rate in the world. But what was dreamed about India by Tagore, Ambedkar, Gandhi and Nehru, and then enshrined in the Constitution of India, is tilting into the fundamentalist inferno of Hindutva championed by the ruling BJP. Is India joining the Islamic world, where dreams of enlightenment are being crushed by the juggernaut of internecine jihad? The only real difference is that Hindutva kills non-Hindus, while Muslims outside India usually target their fellow-Muslims.
Some writers have compared the breakdown of the utopia of secular India to the destruction of Kemalist Turkey under its current Islamist leader, President Recep Erdogan. Islam was divorced from state affairs in the decaying Ottoman caliphate after it adopted the political culture of a rising Europe. Muslim leaders like Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, aspired to the Turkish model of governance but couldn’t sustain their projects for long. In the rest of the Middle East, the secularizing regimes of Muhammad Ali and Gemal Nasser in Egypt and the Pahlavi kings in Iran were rolled back by movements that indulged in violence against their own citizens and are now seen as terrorists by many. Is the “Modi wave” in India the final victory of religious extremism over the ideal with which India started its journey?