India is no exception to the pattern of far-right nationalism trending worldwide. Hindu nationalism has gained momentum in Indian politics and continues to sweep through the nation— resulting in a very different country for Indian USC students to return.
Hindu nationalism, or, specifically, Hindutva, is not a recent phenomenon. Popularized and adopted as an official ideology by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the largest Indian political party and the one that holds the majority of Parliamentary seats, Hindutva is an ideology that supports the supremacy of Hindu values and pure "Hindu-ness," which Hindu nationalists defend as a way to protect Indian national culture.
Khrish Sahani, a junior from Mumbai, recently became a member of the BJP's youth organization, due to inspiration by the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi.
"I decided this semester [that] I would get involved with politics in my home country," Sahani said. "Modi has brought about positive change, and got rid of corruption, which was India's weakest point, so that compelled me to join the BJ Party as my first move in Indian politics."
For Aliza Khan, an economics major who lives in Hyderabad and grew up in New Delhi, the opposite effect has happened; rather than finding her voice with the empowerment of the BJP, she has found her voice being silenced from political conversation due to her religion.
"The space for me to speak as a Muslim has diminished to the extent that if I am ever even mildly critical of anything, whether it is Modi's policy of demonetization or the actions of the Indian army or even like supporting a welfare program, anything I state is delegitimized based on the fact that I am Muslim."
I don’t hate Modi. I just don’t like his way of working and speaking and policy making and his Hindu nationalism and lot more other things..
— SaiShyam Appannagari (@MysticShyam) December 10, 2016
Though India is home to a plethora of religions, Hindutva excludes a significant number of Indian denizens. The religions of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism are all protected by the ideology, since these faiths are considered to be religions native to the Indian homeland. However, the religions of Islam and Christianity, despite being in the country for centuries, are still viewed as foreign religions.
India, by the constitution, is a secular state. However, its neighbor Pakistan is an Islamic state and was created as such when tensions of power ensued between Hindus and Muslims after India gained its independence from Britain. Wars and conflicts between India and Pakistan still exist today, as well as the paranoia and distrust that emerged.
To Khan, matters such as national allegiance, as well as distrust of Muslims, served as tensions even in activities such as sports.
"My Hindu friends would say: 'This Pakistani player is really cool, I like the way he bowls and I like the way he bats'. But as a Muslim, you can't say something as simple as that, otherwise you're labeled a 'traitor.'"
Oftentimes, when targeting Muslims in India, accusations of association with Pakistan occurs. "There's like a conspiracy attached to everything you say," Khan said. "I grew up hearing that Muslims deserve to be killed because they wave Pakistani flags during an India-Pakistan match, turning sports into a war. It's very natural in a sports game to like players or support a team that is not your national team."
For the ordinary citizens, however, the national divide has little impact on them. Yet with divisive rhetoric at large, sectarian divides have proven to be deadly.
In 2002, while Prime Minster Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, the Muslim minority of that state were blamed after a train coming from Ayodhya, a city with religious Hindu significance, was burned down while at a stop in Godhra. While the train was at a stop, a riot ensued between Hindus and Muslims on the train.
Reflecting on his coverage of the events, BBC correspondent Rehan Fazal recalls angry mobs of Hindus asking people for forms of identification to narrow down on Muslim passengers. Instead of preventing protests, Gujurati law enforcers were complicit in nearly all of the attacks against Muslims, with victims being told that officers had "no orders to protect [Muslims]."
"Modi wasn't allowed to travel to the U.S., which committed him as a charge for being involved with the Gujurat riots in 2002," Sahani said. "Though there is no formal proof, our entire country knows he did play a significant part of that rise. But since they elected him, I suppose the people have moved passed this."
Though Modi has not been officially charged with having any direct involvement with the Gujurat Riots, his support for fellow BJP politician and Hindu nationalist, Yogi Adityanath, during his bid, and later on victory, for Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, has caused concern.
Adityanath, a staunch Hindu, is known for his violent sexist, homophobic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
According to Sahani, Adityanath's policies are attempting to be aligned with Modi's form of nationalism.
"He definitely has introduced some harsh policies against Muslims on a small scale because his ideology is to follow the Modi nationalism that has surged throughout our country," said Sahani. "His goal for his state, Uttar Pradesh, is to follow the goal that Modi has set for the entire country."
However, Adityanath's anti-Muslim views are not just empty rhetoric. Adityanath has previously lead mass conversions of Christians to Hinduism and is creating an income disparity between Hindus and Muslims in his region.
According to Khan, most slaughterhouses are run by Muslims, since many upper-caste Hindus are prohibited from eating beef. As of recently, gangs of men, known as "Gau Rashka," have carried out violent campaigns against Muslims, resulting in beating, rape, and murder, for the purpose of shutting down slaughterhouses and depriving ordinary Muslim citizens of an income.
"Muslims, especially in Uttar Pradesh, are killed for carrying meat, which [Hindus] think is beef," Khan said. "These people, known as Cow Protectors, kill Muslims, not knowing or caring whether the meat they smell is beef or mutton. It deprives Muslims of a livelihood because the meat industry is predominantly run by Muslims and stigmatizes anything they do, dubbing it as anti-Hindu which, in turn, is considered anti-Indian."
Sahani believes that the BJP will do little to reprimand Adityanath but will not allow for tensions to escalate to the extent that it did in Gujarat in 2002.
"[Adityanath] has been Modi's right hand for a very long time, and Modi takes advice from him. Modi was definitely going to play down [Adityanath]'s actions from a political point of view, but is also going to make sure it doesn't cause too much harm to any Muslims or that it escalates to Gujarat because he can't have that tainted on his name," Sahani said. "But if it hadn't been for Modi, [Adityanath] wouldn't have been Chief Minister of UP today."
Khan graduates in the spring and is worried about returning to her country, particularly for her family amidst the "Love Jihad" campaign that targets young Muslim men.
"My cousin from Uttar Pradesh has come to the age in which he fits the build of a man. He is light-skinned and has a Muslim name, and in India there exists this fear of Muslim masculinity and the violence against young Muslim men is justified because they're stereotyped to be handsome and light-skinned and of conspiring to seduce and convert upper caste Hindu women," Khan said. "I really fear for my family and for the future of India."