New Delhi is India’s capital city. It is also an Indian state with its own government. On February 8, 2020, the State of Delhi held elections. The main contestants were the Aam Admi (Common Man) Party (AAP), the state wing of Prime Minister Modi’s Bhartiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party (BJP) and the iconic Congress Party of India.

As millions of Delhiites went out to cast ballots, the election became a referendum on Prime Minister Modi’s polarizing policies at the national level. Modi’s BJP is backed by and heavily influenced by India’s leading Hindu Nationalist organizations; Shiv Sena (SS) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Some even argue the BJP is simply the political wing of these nationalist entities that are promoting and agitating for Hindutva. Proponents of Hindutva present it as a return to India’s natural state featuring Hinduism at its core while critics call it a hegemonic imposition of “Hindu-ness” on India’s cultural, social, religious and political systems.

Delhi became a battleground and a test of the BJP’s legislative initiatives like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CCA) and the National Citizen’s Register (NCR) which have been heavily criticized for being thinly veiled attempts to target Muslims as part of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda.

During the campaign, the incumbent AAP presented a platform for social development and unity while the BJP and its allies tried to nationalize the campaign by invoking rival Pakistan and the “Muslim threat” faced by India’s Hindu population. At public rallies, the BJP’s Kapil Mishra called AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal a traitor and added that traitors deserved a bullet. Others like Yogi Adityanath called Kejriwal a Pakistan sympathizer.

The BJP made a grand wager by turning Delhi’s election into a debate on nationalism and betting that Indians would ignore bread and butter economic issues in favour of an emotional pull towards their religious core. The strategy seemed to have worked in the 2019 national election which returned a massive BJP majority to office.

But in Delhi, the BJP’s big wager returned a resounding defeat as Kejriwal’s AAP picked up 62 of 70 seats to the BJP’s 8. While Delhiites soundly rejected the BJP’s call to nationalist arms, the campaign exposed a perilously polarized and divided India.

The BJP and its allies unleashed a divisive campaign that offered a Hindu India where minorities, including Christians and Muslims, were presented as threats to India’s greater aspirations. Its campaign rhetoric became so vitriolic that even senior BJP leaders like Manoj Tiwari later conceded that its defeat in Delhi could be attributed to divisive and communally charged speeches by some BJP leaders.

On the other side, the BJP was opposed by Delhiites led by students and citizens at places like Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMI) and in neighbourhoods like Shaheen Bagh. Student led protests at both universities were reminiscent of America’s student protests of the 1960’s.

As the plebiscite on Prime Minister Modi’s nationalist agenda played out in Delhi, secularist Indians came out to protest while incendiary comments by BJP leaders and surrogates appeared to bring violent BJP supporters into the mix.

JNU student protesters became victims of an attack by masked men while JMI students were shot at least twice by young men apparently responding to the call to shoot traitors. During the January 5 mob attack at the JNU campus, Khushbu Sharma, Akshay Shete and Kaifi Ansari survived while masked men injured thirty-nine of their fellow protestors, some seriously. They also watched campus police stand by and allow the attacks to occur. 

Sharma and Shete are high caste Hindus and the latter well familiar with the indoctrinating tactics of the RSS once having been a youth field worker for the RSS. Ansari is Muslim. All three consider the CAA and the NCR as inherently anti-Muslim. For Ansari, the CAA, the NCR and the Delhi campaign are isolating and alienating. As an Indian who happens to practice Islam, being told to “go back to Pakistan” is humiliating and deeply hurtful. In this environment, she admits to being made to feel “less Indian”. 

Sharma and Shete see the CAA and the NCR as only the beginning. Their protest is not only for fellow Indians like Ansari, but also for India’s secular soul. They believe if Hindutva prevails, religious minorities won’t be the only lesser Indians. Given the country’s multi-layered social structure, they fear it won’t be long before Hindutva will demand stratified rights based on caste differences even amongst Hindus.

As students like Ansari, Shete and Sharma protest to defend their rights, many of those whose rights are at risk, support the BJP’s vision of a Hindu India. Amongst the working class of Delhi, many from lower caste Hindu families, there is a strong belief that the BJP is working on their behalf. 

When asked about the pending Delhi election, the driver from one of Delhi’s posh hotels frequented by foreigners, responds “the BJP should win”. Asked if the AAP had done anything to help his family, he mentions the AAP introduced free education and healthcare for Delhiites. And then asked why he supported the BJP, he replies “someone has to deal with the desh drohis (enemies of the nation).” And that is the great Indian divide. While Ansari, Shete and Sharma fight for the driver’s place in a future India, the driver sees them as enemies of the nation. Which view prevails will dictate India’s future. And there are countless battles yet to come before that future reveals itself.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 4. 2020.

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