Journalist | Writer | Analyst
6 May 2014
Bangladeshi refugee talk part of Narendra Modi’s dog-whistle politics
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto for the 2014 election says it “believes in India being one country, one people and one nation… India constitutes of all its’ people, irrespective of caste, creed, religion or sex.” Towards the end of the document, however, it reverses that formulation by asserting: “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.”
The choice of the word “Hindus” – the only time the word figures in the entire manifesto – is the BJP’s way of reminding us that while Indians may be “one people”, the Hindus among them are special. Like the Law of Return, that applies only to Jews despite Israel also having Muslim and Chirstian citizens, the India of the BJP’s dreams is a country where Hindus will be the first among notional equals.
While analysts have debated whether the manifesto is a ‘Modifesto’ or bears the imprint of Murli Manohar Joshi, who chaired the drafting committee, the reference to India as a “natural home” for Hindus is clearly the special contribution of Narendra Modi.
In speeches that he has made both before the manifesto was released on April 7 and after, Modi has made it a point to tell audiences in Assam and West Bengal that India must distinguish between Hindu and Muslim migrants, welcoming the former because of their ‘Indianness’ and deporting the latter. He returned to this theme in Bankura on May 4, distinguishing between Hindu Bangladeshis who come to India as refugees — “those who were India’s sons, who love India, who celebrate Durgashtami, and speak Bengali, they should be treated in exactly the same way as the sons of India” – and the others, whom he labeled “infiltrators”, who come here as part of “votebank politics” and steal jobs from Indians.
Apart from the sly assumption Modi makes that every Hindu migrant is a refugee while every Muslim one is an “infiltrator”, the easy, communal equation he draws between the observance of Hindu religious practices and Indian identity is a reminder of how central the idea of a ‘Hindu rashtra’ is to his own belief system and to the politics of the BJP.
Of course, to avoid falling foul of the ban on appealing to people on the basis of religion, Modi has been careful to use an elliptical, coded vocabulary involving “refugees”, “infiltration” and “votebanks”. These are words whose real meaning is well understood by his target audiences, especially in eastern India, but which also allow him to circumvent any action the Election Commission might take against him.
The same is true of the label ‘base of terrorists’ that Amit Shah used for Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh in order to accuse the Samajwadi Party of playing ‘votebank’ politics with Muslims.
In the United States, the use of code words by candidates peddling racial fears is known as ‘dog whistle politics’ – referencing the kind of ultra-sonic whistle that dogs can hear but not people. In a 2014 book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Ian Haney Lopez argues that “the impetus to speak in code reflects more than the concern that many voters do not embrace the target audience’s passions. Rather, the substance of the appeal runs counter to national values supporting equality and opposing racism. Those blowing a racial dog whistle know full well that they would be broadly condemned if understood as appealing for racial solidarity among whites.”
Modi knows that he would be condemned not just by the EC but by voters at large if he were to explicitly say that only Hindu religious observances were ‘Indian’ and that, by extension, India belonged first and foremost to Hindus while everyone else’s religious practices were somehow less Indian. The use of code words allows the polarizing message to reach those whose votes the BJP is mobilizing without explicitly sounding communal.
But in Bankura, he may just have gone too far. If a politician were to say that only persecuted persons from undivided India – Ahmadis, for example, or Christians — who offer namaz or pray in church can be a part of the country today and that everyone else is an “infiltrator”, he would be roundly condemned as communal and anti-national and all hell would break loose.
The irony is that the easiest way to help persecuted Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh who cross the border would be for India to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Signatories are obliged not to send refugees back to countries where they have a well-founded fear of persecution – the principle of non-refoulement. India need not proclaim itself a Hindu rashtra to be humane.
Modi may be free to discriminate between Bangladeshis if he likes but singling out Hindu observances as one of the markers for deciding who can be an Indian and who can’t is surely a red line he should not have crossed.