In today’s India, secular liberals face a challenge: how to stay alive.
In August, 77-year-old scholar M. M. Kalburgi, an outspoken critic of Hindu idol worship, was gunned down on his own doorstep. In February, the communist leader Govind Pansare was killed near Mumbai. And in 2013, the activist Narendra Dabholkar was murdered for campaigning against religious superstitions.
These killings should be seen as the canary in the coal mine: Secular voices are being censored and others will follow.
While there have always been episodic attacks on free speech in India, this time feels different. The harassment is front-page news, but the government refuses to acknowledge it. Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence is being interpreted by many people as tacit approval, given that the attacks have gained momentum since he took office in 2014 and are linked to Hindutva groups whose far-right ideology he shares.
Earlier this month, a leader of the Sri Ram Sene, a Hindu extremist group with a history of violence including raiding pubs and beating women they find inside, ratcheted up the tensions. He warned that writers who insulted Hindu gods were in danger of having their tongues sliced off. For those who don’t support the ultimate goal of these extremists — a Hindu nation — Mr. Modi’s silence is ominous.
This is a turning point for India, a country that has taken pride in being a liberal democracy and that often adopts a high-minded tone when neighbors fall short of the same standards.
When the liberal Pakistani politician Salman Taseer was assassinated in 2011, the Indian journalist M. J. Akbar, now the national spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., chided, “If Salman Taseer had been an Indian Muslim, he would still have been alive.” In the run-up to the 2014 general elections in Bangladesh, India expressed concern over the future of the country’s democratic institutions.
We should be worrying instead about what’s happening in India, and recognize that it could go the way of the very neighbors it criticizes. As Nikhil Wagle, a prominent liberal journalist based in Mumbai, told me, “Without secularism, India is a Hindu Pakistan.”
The murders in India share striking similarities with the killings of four Bangladeshi bloggers this year. But while there was a global outcry over what happened in Bangladesh, India is hiding behind its patina of legitimacy granted by being the world’s largest democracy.
Like the murdered bloggers, the Indian victims held liberal views but were not famous or powerful. Mr. Kalburgi had publicly expressed skepticism toward idol worship in Hinduism, but he didn’t pose a threat to anyone.
While the authorities are pursuing the culprits on a case-by-case basis, the overarching attack on free speech has not been addressed. The threats and killings have created an atmosphere of self-censorship and fear.
Some of the killers are still on the loose, and while in one hand they wield a gun, in the other they wave a list. On Sept. 20, Mr. Wagle, the journalist, learned from a source that intercepted phone calls had revealed that members of yet another right-wing Hindu group, Sanatan Sanstha, had marked him as their next victim. The extremists who celebrated the August murder of Mr. Kalburgi were more direct: They used Twitter to warn K. S. Bhagwan, a retired university professor who is critical of the Hindu caste system, that he would be next.
The goal of transforming India from a secular state to a Hindu nation, which seems to be behind the murders, is abetted not just by the silence of politicians, but also by the Hindu nationalist policies of the ruling B.J.P.
Over the past few months, the government has purged secular voices from high-profile institutions including the National Book Trust and the independent board of Nalanda University. The government is not replacing mediocre individuals: The chancellor of Nalanda was the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. It is replacing luminaries with people whose greatest qualification is faith in Hindutva ideology. The new appointees are rejecting scientific thought in favor of religious ideas that have no place in secular institutions.
One of the government’s chief targets is the legacy of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who laid the foundation for a secular nation. Last month, having nudged out the director of the Nehru Museum and Library in New Delhi, the government announced plans to rename the museum and change its focus to highlight the achievements of Mr. Modi. This is akin to repurposing the Washington Monument as an Obama museum.
In addition to erasing the contributions of long-dead liberals, B.J.P. leaders are busy promoting violent Hindu nationalists. Sakshi Maharaj, a B.J.P. member of Parliament, described Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, as a “patriot.” Although Mr. Maharaj later retracted his statement, his opinion is shared by many of his party colleagues. Gandhi’s assassin was a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an armed Hindu group, with which Mr. Modi has been associated since he was 8 years old.
THE B.J.P.’s efforts to reshape institutions that embody secular values — values they dismiss as “Western” — was certainly anticipated. It came as no surprise when the culture and tourism minister, Mahesh Sharma, recently promised to “cleanse every area of public discourse that had been westernized.” Mr. Sharma is well aware of the connotations of the word he used.
It’s also not surprising that Hindu fundamentalists would feel empowered in the shadow of a Hindu nationalist government. Still, few expected that freedom of speech would become a contestable commodity and that some who exercised it would lose their lives.
The realization has made for decisions that were once unthinkable.
Last December, the acclaimed author Perumal Murugan informed the police that he’d received threats from Hindu groups angered by a novel he wrote in 2010. Extremists staged burnings of his book and demanded a public apology from him. The police suggested he go into exile. Realizing he was on his own, in January Mr. Murugan announced the withdrawal of his entire literary canon. On Facebook, he swore to give up writing, in essence apologizing for his life’s work out of fear for his family’s safety.
It’s hard to accept what is happening in India. It is easier to ignore or dismiss the attacks and the threats as a liberal persecution complex or a phase that will last only as long as the B.J.P. is in power. But the country is undergoing a tectonic shift that will have long-term repercussions.
The attacks in India should not be seen as a problem limited to secular writers or liberal thinkers. They should be recognized as an attack on the heart of what constitutes a democracy — and that concerns everyone who values the idea of India as it was conceived and as it is beloved, rather than an India imagined through the eyes of religious zealots. Indians must protest these attacks and demand accountability from people in power. We must call for all voices to be protected, before we lose our own.
Sonia Faleiro is the author of “Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars” and a co-founder of the writers’ cooperative Deca.