Indian ministers blasted for supporting Hindu activists
Controversial actions seen as sign of BJP’s desire to build support in lead-up to elections
Two federal ministers from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have courted controversy after supporting Hindu right-wing activists either convicted or accused of perpetrating violence.
Mr Jayant Sinha, the Union Minister of State for Civil Aviation, was last week photographed garlanding and honouring eight men in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. The men had just been released on bail after they were convicted by a fast-track court of lynching a Muslim in a cow vigilantism case in June last year.
A day later, Mr Giriraj Singh, the Union Minister of State for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, visited a district jail in the adjacent state of Bihar and commiserated with individuals arrested in connection with communal violence during Ramanavami, a Hindu festival, last year.
Many have interpreted the ministers’ actions as a sign of the BJP’s desire to consolidate support from Hindu voters in the lead-up to the general elections scheduled for next year. The states of Bihar and Jharkhand together account for 54 of the 545 seats in the Lower House of the Indian Parliament. The ministers have also been criticised for lending further strength to a “larger climate of impunity” that has encouraged Hindu activists to violently target members of marginalised groups.
IndiaSpend, a data-driven journalism website, recorded 66 cases of cow vigilantism, resulting in 26 deaths, between July 2009 and 2017. Of these, 64 were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014, and 35 took place in states governed by the BJP.
The police have often been either inept or come across as reluctant to crack down on vigilantes claiming to be protecting cattle.
Mr Modi has criticised these attacks and tweeted in July last year that state governments should take “strict action” against those responsible. The Indian Constitution gives responsibility for maintaining law and order to state governments.
Mr Abhay Kumar Dubey, a professor at New Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said the BJP’s ideology of Hindutva, which emphasises Hindu supremacy over other communities, “militates against constitutional principles and the government’s claims of development and good governance”. “It is Hindutva that is forcing the hands of these people to go against the constitutional principles,” he added.
While Mr Dubey is not worried about the actions of Mr Singh, who has a track record of similar provocative actions and comments, he said he is “really worried” about the implications of someone like Mr Sinha, who has been educated at the “best of universities”, doing likewise. Mr Sinha is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University. Prior to entering politics, he worked for McKinsey & Company and the Omidyar Network.
“It is worrisome that even those who are not steeped in this ideology can be seen following it. Therefore, we can safely conclude that the BJP is somehow angling for Hindu mobilisation against minorities for the 2019 elections,” he said.
The opposition has lashed out at both the ministers, calling for their expulsion from the Cabinet. Congress president Rahul Gandhi has even supported an online petition that calls on Harvard University to “withdraw” Mr Sinha’s alumni status. His father, Yashwant Sinha, a former senior BJP leader who quit the party in April this year, has said he does not approve of his son’s actions.
The minister has, however, defended his actions in a series of tweets. Mr Sinha claimed he was “honouring the due process of law” and that those guilty will be punished. “I have repeatedly expressed my misgivings about the fast-track court’s judgment sentencing each accused to life imprisonment. I am pleased that the honourable high court will hear the matter as a statutory court of appeal to test the correctness of the fast-track court order,” he added.
Mr Singh, the other minister, has questioned if “suppressing Hindus is secularism”, and said he felt “helpless” for not being able to help those arrested and their families.