After the partition of Pakistan from India as a separate homeland for Muslims in 1947, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, presented a vision of his republic: a secular country defined by multiplicity, existing beyond tribal loyalties.
Ideas need forms, and the promise of an inclusive India took shape in architecture. In 1950, Nehru invited Le Corbusier to design a new capital city for the state of Punjab: a concrete brutalist utopia called Chandigarh. The resulting buildings intentionally diverged from local traditions and structures, presenting a futurist alternative to the traumas of the recent religious violence.
In recent years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have systematically dismantled Nehru’s vision for India. Last week, India’s Parliament passed a new bill that enshrines into law a religiously inflected definition of who belongs in India.
As a new generation takes to the streets to protest discrimination against Muslims, both immigrants and citizens, I feel hope for the India I grew up admiring. The lines of 1947 once galvanised what has become one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear fault lines; the subcontinent, with its inherent multiplicity, cannot bear that cost once again
The Citizenship Amendment Bill provides a path to citizenship for migrants who are Hindus, Christians, Jains, Parsees and Buddhists, but the bill excludes Muslims. The sectarianism of the law sent shock waves through the country’s secular political class.
In the past few days, across the country, demonstrators have clashed with police. Both Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh have shut down, as protesting students confront a brutal police crackdown.
The law is more than just the latest in explicitly Hindu nationalist and Islamophobic policies. In a country that is home to the largest Muslim population outside of Muslim-majority countries, the bill extends an ideological project that breaks the very promise of India.
A banquet of possibilities
From afar, India always seemed to be a symphonic banquet of possibilities, in contrast with the monochromatic vision of Pakistan’s religious leaders. Despite Modi’s election in 2014, and a culture of media censorship, trolling and mob violence that has made life increasingly volatile for minorities, my Indian friends assured me that the rise of the Hindu nationalist right was a passing storm.
So, four years ago, I set out to meet the country that Indian Muslims had chosen, and I moved to New Delhi. As the lynchings of Muslims began in 2015, under Modi’s first term in office, it struck me how the prime minister always remained eerily quiet in response to the violence. As long as the mob remained on the streets, the government could maintain the impression that it did not bear culpability for these supposedly isolated incidents.
Since Modi’s landslide reelection in May, however, the BJP has a mandate to fulfil its promise of a Hindu nation, an ideological project that dates back a century. The BJP has delivered: In August, for example, the Parliament imposed direct control on the Muslim-majority province of Kashmir, imprisoning elected officials, blocking journalists access and halting citizens’ communications in what has become the longest internet shutdown in the history of a democracy.
BJP leaders, in addition to marginalising religious minorities, are erasing Nehru’s secular vision. They have crafted an alternative national narrative that recasts the country’s Hindu majority as victims. In the words of historian Sunil Khilnani, they have “weaponized history,” rewriting a period of composite Muslim dynasties such as the Mughals, who built the Taj Mahal and governed with multicultural courts, as a time of conquest by outsiders.
Use of Xenophobic language
The BJP’s leaders consistently use xenophobic language in political rallies and speeches and have erected new statuary to Hindu nationalism’s modern and mythical icons. Bollywood, too, has shifted into a new mode of nationalist bombast, churning out epic films about attacking Pakistan, Islamic kingdoms invading Hindu ones, and stories of terrorist radicalisation that play on the trope of the suspect Muslim.
As the economy continues to falter, reports of sectarian lynchings and attacks, and the censorship of Muslim voices, have only grown. Now, the narrative of Hindu victimhood and Muslim enemies of the state is being legislated into permanent political forms.
After the citizenship bill passed, one of the country’s Muslim lawmakers, Asaduddin Owaisi, ripped apart a copy of its text on the floor of the Parliament, following in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, who once ripped apart his national register card in South Africa. Owaisi said, “This bill has been brought so that one more partition can be done.”
Dangerous fault lines
The Hindu right’s platform is turning the argument for partition — the need for a Muslim homeland — into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Today, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh has become a global design mecca and an Instagrammer’s dream — merely the shell of the multicultural spirit it was meant to embody.
But even as Nehruvian buildings become faded relics, the choice between his ideal of an inclusive India and the fantasies propagated by today’s Hindu right presents a live and urgent crisis. The passionate demonstrations this week are proof that the promise still holds power.
As a new generation takes to the streets to protest discrimination against Muslims, both immigrants and citizens, I feel hope for the India I grew up admiring. The lines of 1947 once galvanised what has become one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear fault lines; the subcontinent, with its inherent multiplicity, cannot bear that cost once again.
— Washington Post
Bilal Qureshi is a noted culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Newsweek