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Article: For the BJP, the Muslim is not just the message, it is the only message

Siddharth Varadarajan

The Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat which first gave us Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has now delivered a cartoon of such depravity and venom that it simultaneously reminds us of Nazi propaganda against the Jews and the celebratory visuals of lynchings that racists in the southern United States used to send each other as postcards.

Posted on Twitter and Instagram but since deleted by the two social media platforms themselves, the party’s cartoon shows a group of Muslim men with nooses around their neck, swinging from a rope. ‘The truth alone shall triumph’, the cartoon says in Gujarati. The official emblem of the Indian state has been used (in violation of the law) for added effect.

The reference in the cartoon is to the 38 men sentenced to death by the trial court which heard the case against 77 persons accused of planting a series of deadly bombs in Ahmedabad in 2008. The explosions killed 56 people and injured 200 more. Eleven of the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment while 28 persons were acquitted.

The bombings were an atrocious crime against the people and there is no reason for anybody to show mercy towards the perpetrators. Of course, the state will appeal the acquittals while those convicted have the right to move the higher courts. And yet, it is worth asking what the BJP — which is in power in Gujarat and India — wishes to convey by publishing a cartoon of this kind.

Is the message merely the party’s tasteless way of appreciating the fact that justice has been done to a specific set of individuals? In all likelihood, this is the plea its leaders are likely to make. Or are the bearded Muslim men in skull caps shown hanging grotesquely a metaphor for something else? Could the BJP actually be signalling to its supporters that this is the fate Muslims as a whole will face in the future?

The question is relevant because of the centrality that Muslims as a group occupy in the ideology and propaganda of the BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. At election time, this focus is almost obsessive. The campaign speeches made in Uttar Pradesh especially – by Modi, Shah, UP chief minister Adityanath and other party functionaries ­­– are full of hostile references to Muslims, either explicit or implied. By marvellous happenstance, the verdict and sentencing in a case that dates back to 2008 has come in the middle of election. That is why it should be obvious that in the cartoon put out by the BJP, the Muslims are the message.

The reason their cartoon has evoked horror is because we have seen this sort of singular obsession with a targeted religious minority before and know where it leads.

“… [T]he Jew,” — Jeffrey Herf, a leading historian of Nazi propaganda, quotes Viktor Klemperer as observing — is in every respect the centre of the language of the Third Reich,” indeed of its whole view of the epoch.”

Klemperer was a scholar who lived in Germany throughout the Nazi era and kept a diary full of observations about the Nazis and their impact. Anti-Semitism for him, says Herf, “was not only a set of prejudices and hatreds but also an explanatory framework for historical events.” Turning next to a landmark 1969 essay by E.H. Gombrich, Herf notes how he wrote that

“Nazi propaganda had created a mythic world by ‘transforming the political universe into a conflict of persons and personifications’ in which a virtuous young Germany fought manfully against evil schemers, above all the Jews. The Jews were the cement for this myth, first in the political battles within Germany and then on the international plane. It was ‘this gigantic persecution mania, this paranoiac myth that [held] the various strands of German propaganda together. Gombrich concluded that what characterized Nazi propaganda was ‘less the lie than the imposition of a paranoiac pattern on world events’.”

For the RSS and BJP, the imposition of a paranoiac pattern on all events is a central facet of their political propaganda. For every threat, real and imaginary, the villain is the Muslim, the victim is Hindu. Non-Muslim opponents are assailed for the sin of ‘appeasing’ this villain. The bicycle used by the Ahmedabad bombers was turned by Modi into an accusation against the Samajwadi Party, whose election symbol is the bicycle. Why did they choose this symbol, he asked, suggesting that the support of Muslim voters which the SP counts on is contaminated by terror.

In 2019, Modi had famously declared that no Hindu can ever be a terrorist so we can be sure that there will never be a cartoon depicting BJP MP Sadhvi Pragya and her associates swinging from a noose. The crime they are charged with committing involved the use of a motorcycle rather than a bicycle and happened around the same time as the Ahmedabad blast. In fact, her trial has not even begun. But given that terrorism, in the BJP’s imagination, is purely the handiwork of Muslims, this is not seen as a problem.

Since terrorism has waned in recent years, the ‘paranoiac pattern’ is imposed elsewhere. In 2020, BJP leaders gave free rein to the vicious ‘Corona Jihad’ propaganda, which blamed Muslims for the pandemic. Then there is spit jihad, land jihad, love jihad, mafia, encroachers, rioters, infiltrators, termites.  Once the line is set from the top, the Hindutva ecosystem is quick to produce and circulate the necessary visuals.

‘Then and Now’ (left) and ‘Producer-Distributor’ (right), cartoons circulated by Hindutva groups in 2020. (Source: Lakshmi Murthy, ‘The Contagion of Hate in India’). Here the Muslim is not just spreading a disease but has allied with India’s external enemy, China.

C.J. Werleman and others have noted the parallels between the ‘corona jihad’ campaign and Nazi propaganda blaming Jews for typhus, but when we look at visual depictions, including the caricature of the Jew and the Muslim, the resemblance is even more striking – and chilling.

‘Protect yourself from Typhus, Avoid the Jews’: A Nazi propaganda poster from occupied Poland in 1941 blaming Jews for the spread of lice. ‘Go Corona Go’ (left), a cartoon circulated by Hindutva groups in 2020 showing the coronavirus riding on the shoulders of a Muslim man, being confronted by Narendra Modi and India. Source: US Holocaust Museum, performindia.com

What do these Hindutva propaganda visuals tell us, and why should we take urgent note instead of dismissing them as ‘fringe’? Because, as Herf tells us in his paraphrasing of the historian of fascism George L. Mosse, “the racism of bodily stereotypes and countertypes ‘was the catalyst which pushed German nationalism over the edge, from discrimination to mass extermination’.”

Of course, the Nazis had a much more developed notion of the ideal body and of the reviled countertype than the RSS-BJP does – Hindutva fascism draws on different historical and cultural streams than its European counterparts. Nevertheless, the somatic preoccupation with Muslims – their facial hair, their clothes, their diet, their modes of worship – marks them out as a group that should be reviled, feared and ultimately put in their place. To borrow a line from the racist lynching postcard from the United States,

‘The Muslim now, by eternal grace,

Must learn to stay in the Muslim’s place’

You can recognise them from their clothes, Modi had said of the people opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The BJP in Gujarat – a state Modi ruled for 13 years – now wants us to recognise them dangling at the end of a rope. Courtesy The Wire

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