Hindu nationalists have used the crisis in Afghanistan to stir up islamophobia, but their own fundamentalism is the real danger
Since the Taliban entered Kabul on 15 August, politicians from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindu nationalist ideologues have manipulated fears for the rights of women and minorities in Afghanistan in order to fan the flames of already rampant islamophobia in India.
It would be better, however, if the crisis in Afghanistan prompted some much needed soul searching in India. For the question must be asked: has life for women, religious minorities, and oppressed castes in India during the last seven years of BJP rule been staggeringly different than what is about to befall those in Afghanistan?
In the ‘new’ Afghanistan, it is alleged that the Taliban will implement laws that will relegate Shias, non-Muslims and women to second-class citizenship. Hindu nationalists have used this to draw favourable comparisons with India, suggesting that Indian Muslims should be glad to live where they do. Yet even a cursory glance at the laws brought in by India’s current government suggests that it is targeting Muslims by taking a wrecking ball to the country’s secular constitution.
Too many parallels
In Afghanistan, one focus of attention now is the Hazara minority, Shia Muslims who have long been persecuted and portrayed as alien by the Taliban. How is this any different from the way in which the BJP and its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), views Indian Muslims as outsiders?
When Indian Muslims ask for their constitutional rights as equal citizens of India, BJP politicians often tell them to “go to Pakistan,” as if to suggest that they do not belong in India. Indeed, the Indian government’s controversial amendment to citizenship law in December 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which provides a pathway to Indian citizenship for anyone but Muslims, is rooted in this belief.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave his maiden speech in parliament in 2014, he suggested that the BJP’s ascent marked the end of 1,200 years of servitude. This unusual periodisation of India’s history refers to the period of Muslim rule and is intended to suggest that there was something uniquely oppressive about Muslim-led conquest, obscuring the fact that the subcontinent’s northwest was always a route for invasions and migrations, going back to the arrival of Sanskrit-speaking Indo-Aryans in the second millennium B.C.
Similarly, The Taliban views Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic past as an age of ignorance and idolatry. This motivated its demolition of the sixth century Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. In much the same manner, zealots affiliated with the BJP demolished the 16th-century Babri Mosque in northern India in 1992, viewing it as emblematic of the period of ‘servitude’ that Modi later alluded to. At the time, this led to religious polarisation across India, which the BJP greatly benefited from.
In its earlier incarnation, the Taliban shocked the world in 2001 with plans to make Afghan Hindus and Sikhs wear yellow badges as a mark of identification. This had an uncomfortable echo in India at the height of the anti-CAA protests, when Modi said protestors could be identified by their clothes. This was an obvious ploy to split the protest movement by singling out Muslims, who could supposedly be identified by their unique dress.
The rhetorical singling-out of Muslims takes place against a background of physical violence. Muslims in India have been attacked for the slightest perceived transgressions – beaten for drinking water from a temple well, stabbed to death over an argument over seats in a train, and lynched on the mere suspicion of storing beef in their refrigerators.
Sitting cabinet ministers have since publicly garlanded the ringleaders of the lynch mobs. The communal frenzy whipped up by the BJP’s ministers in the wake of the anti-CAA protests were directly to blame for the anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi in February last year, in which the police were also found to have been complicit.
While concerns are being raised about the type of legal system the Taliban implement in Afghanistan, one must ask whether India’s own system is any less tyrannical to those unfortunate enough to be trapped in its crosshairs. What type of legal system denies an 86-year-old political prisoner with Parkinson’s disease a straw with which to drink water for over a month? What kind of state apparatus forcibly cremates the bodies of raped lower caste women and girls, then locks up and threatens their parents?
In echoes of Nazi Nuremberg laws, several BJP-ruled states have brought in so-called love jihad laws that criminalise marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women. Not only does this mark out Muslim men as a grave threat to Hindu (and by the BJP’s logic, the nation’s) integrity, it also infantilises Hindu women by snatching away their agency.
In its new incarnation, the Taliban has spoken of Afghan women in exceedingly paternalistic terms, saying that they will be ‘allowed’ to work so long as it is within the confines of Islamic law. As in the Indian case, this is motivated by the politics of misogyny and bigotry: RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has said that women’s primary duty is to be housewives and that if they fail to honor this “social contract,” they can be abandoned by their husbands.
Reports have emerged that the Taliban are carrying out door-to-door searches looking for journalists, and individuals affiliated with the previous government, NATO forces and NGOs. In India, Hindu extremists have circulated lists on social media of journalists and political activists critical of the government. Women journalists, in particular, have come in for particular attention, with many receiving death and rape threats. When journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh was assassinated by Hindu extremists in 2017, social media accounts followed by Modi openly celebrated her death.
Moreover, if the recent Pegasus revelations are anything to go by, the government does not need to compile lists and conduct door-to-door searches of its political opponents like the Taliban. With Pegasus, the regime can potentially hack its opponents’ smartphones as it sees fit. Indeed, forensic tests conducted by international labs on the devices of arrested activists have revealed that incriminating material was planted – it is not clear who by – on their laptops.
Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution, warned Indians in his seminal ‘Annihilation of Caste’ that constitutional morality was not a natural sentiment and that it had to be cultivated, adding that democracy in India was only the surface layer on top of a soil that was essentially undemocratic.
If the past seven years are anything to go by, it seems that Ambedkar’s analysis was prescient. The Taliban’s assumption of power in Kabul ought to hold up a mirror to Indian society. It ought to be a trigger for course correction. Yet it seems like just another opportunity for India’s rulers to propel the country further into an abyss from which it may never return.