Hindu Nationalism: On the Path Toward Reincarnating the Rwandan Genocide?
“Jai Shri Ram,” or “Hail Lord Ram” in English, has been transformed from an innocent, religious chant to a phrase associated with one of the world’s most active nationalist movements. Riots in the British city of Leicester in mid-September between Hindu and Muslim communities are just the tip of the iceberg of a movement that has become transnational.
Eighty percent of the Indian population is Hindu, making Hinduism the most widely practiced religion in India. Hindu nationalism is a political movement that believes that the national identity and state policies of India should be influenced by Hindu beliefs and cultural traditions. The movement began in the 20th century as a way to combat the influence of foreigners and British colonial powers and unite all Indians under the common dream of an independent India. The term “foreigners” referred to all non-Hindu citizens, including Muslims. This anti-Muslim sentiment, partly instigated by the British Raj, has dangerously manifested into the core of the Hindu nationalist movement.
Secularism is enshrined in the Indian constitution to reflect the country’s religious diversity. But that has not stopped the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), one of India’s two major political parties and the party of the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, from pushing the “Hindutva” or “Hindu-ness” of India’s agenda. Modi’s election and re-election in 2014 and 2019, respectively, has escalated Hindu nationalism to new heights. The introduction of a new citizenship bill that grants citizenship to religious minorities facing persecution in neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan effectively excludes Muslims. The bill makes Indian citizenship more accessible to Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, and Parsis from the neighboring countries by decreasing their required time of Indian residence from 11 to six years. This rule effectively excludes Muslims, such as Rohingya and Ahmadi Muslims, who are persecuted in Bangladesh and Pakistan, respectively. The bill blatantly divides the persecuted groups into Muslim and non-Muslim and goes against the secular principles of India by discriminating based on faith.
These discriminatory ideas have stretched beyond government policies. India has also seen a recent surge in a genre of music known as “saffron pop,” named after saffron or kesari—the color of Hinduism. This music, which seeks to incite violence against Muslims and Muslim institutions within India, has deepened the rift between two of the largest religions in the country and increased the rate of hate crimes perpetrated by both groups against one another.
The elements of the Hindu nationalist movement present throughout India today, though not yet reaching to their level, are reminiscent of the circumstances surrounding the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. Rwanda was plagued by a genocide campaign launched against the Tutsi minority group and its sympathizers by the Hutu majority in 1994. During the genocidal period, 800,000 Rwandans, the majority of whom were Tutsis, were slaughtered within 100 days. Although the Rwandan genocide was perpetrated by one Rwandan ethnic group against the other, the roots of the issue can be traced back to Rwanda’s history during its colonial era.
After World War I, the Belgian government was granted authority over two former German colonies—one of which was Rwanda. The Belgian government, ignoring Rwandan culture, history, and traditions, decided to restructure Rwandan society according to Belgian standards, which were driven by anthropometry—the study of human body proportions. The Belgians favored the Tutsi minority, which made up 14 percent of the Rwandan population, based largely on their facial attributes. The Belgians also reformed the social fabric of the country by removing the social categories Rwandans respected and replacing them with a system that emphasized ethnicity by implementing identity cards with ethnic distinctions. Tutsis were then used as colonial pawns by Belgians to assign forced labor to Hutus, and the Tutsis, in turn, were rewarded with significant social and political power and increased access to education for their children.
The blatant discrimination experienced by the Hutu community fueled their resentment against the Tutsis. During the 1959 revolution, the Hutus rebelled not against the colonial power, but against the Tutsis. However, this revolt against Tutsis was supported by Belgians and eventually resulted in Rwanda’s 1962 independence and a mass exodus of Tutsis from Rwanda to neighboring Uganda. The scars of the oppression from the colonial era never healed, and when war erupted on the border shared by Rwanda and Uganda in 1990, the escalation to the genocide was fast.
The legacy of colonialism is just as evident in the Hindutva movement as it was during the Rwandan genocide. Instead of ethnicity, religion was the chosen weapon of the British to implement their infamous “divide and rule” principle. During the Revolt of 1857, which is also known as the “Sepoy Mutiny,” Hindu and Muslim sepoys (Indian soldiers serving under British rule) revolted against the British Raj due to the introduction of a new rifle rumored to use cartridges greased with pig and cow fat. The use of these animal products violated the religious practices of Muslims and Hindus, respectively. The revolt broke out in May of 1857 when sepoys freed 85 of their fellow soldiers who were jailed for refusing to use the rifle cartridges.
Although both groups were rebelling for different purposes—the sepoys were Hindu and fighting for independence, whereas the Muslim rebels were fighting with a religious purpose—they were fighting together. The mutiny escalated to the point where the British felt threatened, and the collaboration of the two religious groups significantly jeopardized their stronghold on India. The Revolt of 1857 made it necessary for the British to engage in “divide and rule” when it came to Hindus and Muslims to prevent a rise of a unified movement that had the ability to overthrow the foreign power. The British responded by creating policies that enforced the differences between the Hindu and Muslim communities and emphasizing their distinct identities, which promoted the idea of “otherness.” Hindus, being the majority, held most of the power in Indian government and politics.
During World War II, the British declared war against Germany on India’s behalf without their consent. As a response, the elected Hindu officials resigned from their positions in protest and were jailed. The British simply replaced the empty positions with members of the Muslim League, who had historically struggled to garner enough support from their electorate to be able to have political influence. The British encouraged the Muslim League to take advantage of the opportunity to influence Indian politics while their competitors were incarcerated, yet again promoting division between the groups.
As the impending independence drew closer, it became evident that the British “divide and rule” objective was achieved. The stark division between Hindus and Muslims made it impossible for a united India to survive without the British. The British were successful in strengthening the Muslim League to the point where Indian Muslims demanded a separate territory after independence. A partition of the Muslim and Hindu majority seemed a steady and undemanding solution for the British that would ensure their swift exit from the subcontinent.
British lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had never visited India during the 90 years it was a British colony, uneducated on India’s history, culture, and traditions—similar to the Belgians in Rwanda—was designated to divide the subcontinent. Radcliffe produced a new map of the Indian subcontinent in under five weeks and left the country behind in the inferno of the partition without looking back. The conflict caused by The Partition of 1947, which divided India, Pakistan, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) along religious lines, resulted in one million people dying and 15 million people being displaced. The Partition is known as one of the largest and most violent mass migration events in history, and its aftershocks are still felt today in the form of constant religious violence within the countries and cross-border battles over disputed territories.
The violence and tensions between Hindus and Muslims today are owed to British colonialism, just as the Rwandan Genocide was the direct result of Belgian colonial policies. However, media – specifically music – has been a major contributing factor to the violence in both situations. In Rwanda, The Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), founded by Felicien Kabuga, a wealthy Rwandan businessman, in 1993, served as a strategic weapon to incite genocide against Tutsis. During the genocide, the network broadcasted anti-Tutsi propaganda, revealed Tutsi hiding sites, and listed the names of Tutsis to be targeted. The network also broadcasted hate-filled songs that encouraged the brutal murder of Tutsis, who were labeled as cockroaches or snakes. These songs were often described as “the music the Hutus could dance to as they killed.” The songs inspired neighbors, youth, and priests to participate in the campaign against Tutsis. The radio and the songs of death were major reasons why almost a million people were killed in 100 days. The radio continues to haunt the survivors of the Rwandan genocide because it served as the deadliest weapon of the massacre and shaped the inconceivable event the Rwandans and the world remember today.
In Modi’s India, YouTube videos and live performers are disseminating violent music instead of the radio. Hindu nationalist songs that are mixed with Bollywood dance tracks are gaining popularity across the country. The songs encourage the slaughter and forced conversions of Muslims and people who do not believe in the Hindutva cause. The songs are often played loudly to intimidate Muslims- who ironically make up 14 percent of the population like the Tutsis in Rwanda- and contain the chant “Jai Shri Ram,” which has become synonymous with nationalist violence. Mobs of Hindu nationalists have often attacked Muslim communities who do not chant “Jai Shri Ram” or support the Hindutva cause.
“Popstars” such as Laxmi Dubey, Sandeep Chaturvedi, and Sanjay Faizabadi are at the forefront of producing and performing these songs, which they describe as devotional and patriotic. Singers such as Dubey are often hired by Modi’s party, the BJP, to put on performances for entertainment or to campaign for elections.
These violent songs were first produced by nationalists as cassettes in the 1990s to the tune of Bollywood music to attract the youth to join the Hindutva cause, an objective that still holds true today. A majority of the 50 million viewers of Dubey’s songs on YouTube are Indian youth. Some lyrics call for the extermination of “those who do not chant Jai Shri Ram” or advocate to “fight against ungodly religions.” Others are more direct and graphic in nature, such as a song by Faizabadi with lyrics that loosely translate to “I will come to Pakistan and play marbles with your eyes,” followed by a declaration of a campaign of sexual violence.
The songs have already directly contributed to violence, as Hindu nationalist mobs have entered majority Muslim communities while blasting songs like Dubey’s and chanting “Jai Shri Ram” in order to instigate violence. The songs are actively enjoyed in tandem with violence against Muslims, similarly to how songs were used during the Rwandan genocide. The songs are often played outside of Mosques and during prayers to provoke Muslims. The music has increasingly started to be used at Hindu festival celebrations instead of solely at isolated events of violence, which has started to blur the line between Hinduism as a religion and its use by nationalists to attain India’s “Hindutva.”
The resemblance between the history of and the circumstances surrounding the Rwandan genocide and the Hindu nationalist movement is unsettling. The colonial treatment of the two countries, the deep tensions between two communities caused by foreign powers, and the use of media to incite violence are similarities not to be taken lightly, especially considering the atrocities that eventually occurred in Rwanda.
With the Modi government and BJP’s support, India is trending towards a dangerous and bloody future of becoming the reincarnation of the Rwandan genocide. The fate of millions of Muslims in India is uncertain, as Hindu nationalist and anti-Muslim sentiment continue to rise in the country. The position of Prime Minister in India has no term limits. Even if Modi loses re-election in 2024, the Hindu nationalist movement has rapidly become too powerful to disband and will continue to wreak havoc based on religious lines. The Indian government and the global community must again remember the Rwandan genocide and its consequences to ensure that YouTube does not become the next RTLM.
Image Courtesy of Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID