Rhinos or Bangladeshis? The Paranoid Style of the Hindu Right
My Historian colleagues assure me that conspiracy theories run high around the time of revolutions. Going by the feverish profusion of conspiracy theories in India currently, they must also exponentially multiply just before national elections. Another day I will write of the comical and, probably, more-or-less harmless ones. Right now I want to focus on just one, which appears ludicrous but is, I believe, revelatory of the peculiar and inexpressibly-dangerous style of paranoid politics practiced by the Hindu Right in India. This brand-new conspiracy theory has been articulated just today by the Prime Ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi is currently campaigning in the north-eastern state of Assam, which is located close to the border with Bangladesh. Before I get to his admittedly creative conspiracy theory, three factoids are in order.
- This region of India has witnessed many episodes of violence between those identified as ‘Assamese’ and those as ‘Bangladeshi’ with the latter category encompassing in practice any Bengali Muslim. These conflicts have assumed markedly ethnic and communal overtones as was evident in the infamous Nellie massacre of 1983. In popular perceptions, Assam continues to host a large number of ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi migrants though in reality it is hard to ascertain the so-called illegality of this group as there are a large number of Bengali-speaking Muslims in this region who are, to use statist language, legally Indian. It remains impossible to realistically ascertain the number of Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam and/or India for a variety of complicated reasons related to the violent history of the creation of states and their associated borders on the sub-continent and the practices through which enumeration and identification work in South Asia. The figures that are trotted out and which go into the millions are widely believed to be overstated.
- To entirely change the story – or so one would assume – the rhino is the state animal of Assam. 95% of the world’s one-horned rhinos are to be found in Assam. Rhino tourism generates revenue for the state, rhino poaching is frowned upon, and there is a generalised belief – much like the one related to large numbers of ‘illegal’ Bangladeshis – that ‘the Assamese’ feel possessively proud of the rhino.
- The ruling party in the Assam state legislature or the party currently in power and forming the government is the Congress party, which is the BJP’s arch-rival.
At an election rally in Assam today, this is what Modi is quoted as having said:
“Aren’t rhinos the pride of Assam? These days there is a conspiracy to kill it. I am making the allegation very seriously. People sitting in the government…to save Bangladeshis… they are doing this conspiracy to kill rhinos so that the area becomes empty and Bangladeshis can be settled there.”
If the conspiracy theory is not appallingly clear, this is what Modi is spelling out: The Congress party is killing rhinos so that a. Assam is emptied of its symbol of pride; b. land will become available; and c. this land will be henceforth occupied by Bengali-speaking Muslims. In sum, instead of cherishing and protecting those handsome one-horned rhinos (like I will do if you elect me to power) the Congress party is conspiring to smuggle more Muslims into our land (what I will certainly not allow for). The Congress is often accused by the BJP of ‘appeasing’ the Muslim minority in India as this community, it is believed, has historically formed a reliable vote-bank for the Congress. Modi is – just in case his propaganda machine has worked its magic on the (few) readers of this blog and are thus in need of reminding – notorious for presiding over the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. The only way this right-wing Hindu nationalist can speak of Muslims is, it would appear, through animal metaphors or animal-related conspiracies. In 2013 when he was asked about what he feels about the 2002 violence that led to the death, in official accounts, of 794 Muslims and 254 Hindus, this is what he had to say:
“If someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”
Then Modi compared Muslims to puppies but it is worth noting that the precise phrase he used in the Hindi language (kutta ka bacha or the child of a dog) carries much more insulting overtones than the cuteness associated with puppies because kutta (dog) is often used as a term of abuse in Hindi. Today, Modi talks about the decimation of rhinos and their supplanting with Muslims. He then goes on to warn those who are undertaking these heinous and related crimes – killing rhinos and letting more Muslims into the country – in a brazenly threatening manner: “Those who are conspiring to finish off rhinos, they should listen to this carefully. After May 16, they will be taken to task one by one (chun chun ke hisab liya jayega).”
May 16 is the day the election results will be announced in India and the day Modi hopes he will be crowned Prime Minster. A very small section of society in India still retains the memory of what happened in 2002; has read the history and is aware of the politics of the Hindu Right; is noting the forms of censorship, bullying, violence, and brute-capitalism that Modi stands for. The rhino vs. Bangladeshi conspiracy theory spun out by Modi today clearly demonstrates, yet again, his virulent hatred for Muslims, xenophobia, and paranoid imagination. What I find most disturbing is the nonchalance with which a Prime Ministerial candidate is able to publicly voice such a conspiracy theory, which has not even a shred of a basis in reality. Rhinos live in protected wildlife sanctuaries in which most humans – yes, even Bangladeshi migrants not carrying the correct documents – would never want to/cannot occupy and, in any case, Assam and India are big enough for people to disappear into without needing to bump off the not-so-easily-bumpable rhinos. A glimmer of compassion for the sorry plight of Bangladeshis and/or Muslims in Assam today or even lip-service to the secularism enshrined in the Indian constitution is, obviously, expecting too much of Modi and his ilk. I am increasingly fascinated by the forms, styles, and substance of conspiracy theories because of their capacity to illuminate social worlds; to magnify belief systems and ideological projects. When thus studied, the Rhino vs. Bangladeshi conspiracy theory is spine-chillingly ominous.